Monday, June 09, 2008

Fire in Soweto: A View From Nigeria on the Anti-Immigrant Violence in South Africa

Fire in Soweto, Killing Nigerians

Vanguard (Lagos)
9 June 2008
By Ochereome Nnanna

A Colleague of mine here in Vanguard, Hector Igbikiowubo, is a strong believer that there is something intrinsically wrong in the psyche of the Black Man which makes him incapable of applying his mental abilities in the progressive ways that other races of the world are accustomed to.

He is not the inventor of this notion, but he has been a major evangelist of it. I don't accept this theory, and this has pitted me in endless debates with this young Okrika-born oil man.

I know, for instance, that despite her current state of economic and political backwardness, Nigeria used to be among the best in almost every aspect of human endeavour within the comity of newly independent or post-colonial states.

We have often lamented bad leadership as the cause of the retardation of this country. But we need to be reminded that between 1952 and 1966, the three former regions of this country were so excellently led that other newly-independent states, especially in South East Asia, started coming here to borrow ideas.

In fact, there was a time Indians flocked in their millions to Nigeria in search of employment, which they got and repatriated funds to their home country.

Apart from that, Nigeria is the home of African nationalism or Pan-Africanism. Our founding fathers, such as Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and to a lesser extent, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, helped to inspire a lot of other Africans to strive for the independence of their countries. Some of these included Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and the leaders of the decolonisation movements in Southern Africa, such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Nelson Mandela of South Africa.

The idea of African Nationalism was not born in Nigeria but it has been nursed and groomed here so intensively that the very idea of Africa as one people is in the blood of Nigerians. As a child in the 1960's I saw it all around me.

My grand mother was a devout adherent of the African National Church (the Godian Religion founded by Rev. K. O. K. Onyioha).

This religion was rooted on African culture and values and pandered to African belief systems rather than those of Christianity or Islam. Nnamdi Azikiwe was to the Godians what Jesus Christ is to the Christians and what Prophet Mohammed was to the Moslems; their reason being that "Zik" was Africa's own liberator from the White colonial masters.

And as I grew up into my teens, the African consciousness was drummed into me everywhere I went. Every other Nigerian musician including especially Fela Anikulapo Kuti and Oziddi King, Sonny Okosuns sang rhapsodically about African freedom.

Of all these artistes, Okosuns was the most outstanding. He declared "holy war" on the Apartheid regime in South Africa and lamented over "fire in Soweto, burning all my people". Every reggae musician sang for freedom of Nelson Mandela and South Africa, which remained under the grip of internal colonialists, the Whites who ruled under Apartheid law. It was such a pervasive fad that when Mandela was eventually released from jail in 1991, a cartoonist pictured two dreadlocked reggae musicians in which one of them asked: "now that Mandela has been released from jail what shall we sing about?"

EVEN though the quality of leadership had dropped dramatically under the military, the notion of Africa as the centre piece of Nigeria's foreign policy continued to wax stronger especially in the 1970's and 1980's and remains so till date.

Nigeria assumed the status of a "frontline state" in the southern African decolonisation struggle even though she is thousands of kilometres from that part of Africa. We spent billions of dollars to contribute to the struggle.

We denied ourselves many things in leading boycotts and isolation of the Apartheid regime. We opened our doors to the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan African Congress (PAC) among the other groups ranged against the Apartheid regime.

When Mandela was eventually freed, he made a historic visit to Nigeria with his then wife, Winnie, to show his gratitude. Again, we threw our doors open to South Africa businesses and allowed them to gorge fat on our enormous bread basket.

You name them - DSTV, MTN - etc. But unfortunately, for every good turn Nigeria has extended to South Africa we have gotten nothing but bitter rewards.

DSTV's charges are over the roof and MTN is manly interested in maintaining its market leadership and jumbo profits in this country, rather than quality services.

The South Africans have not reciprocated our goodwill even on the economic front. For more than ten years we have signed series of protocols with South Africa, which have gone without being implemented. This has made it difficult for Nigerian businesses to thrive in South Africa the same way that South Africa businesses have done in Nigeria.

It was not until the recent state visit of our President, Umar Yar' Adua in the wake of the xenophobic attacks on immigrants (including Nigerians) by South African hoodlums, that Dr. Thabo Mbeki (the South African President who was among those that took shelter in Nigeria during the Apartheid regime) promised to start implementing the agreements.

South African ingratitude and hostility to Nigerians visiting their country had manifested in many ways for a long time.

Does it not occur to the South African government that if Nigerian businesses thrive in their country it is their citizens that will benefit from the job creation that will ensue from it? The xenophobic attacks were simply the latest climax.

For years, we have had reports of South Africa thieves specifically targeting Nigerian travellers in their country. South African cops are fond of making illegal extra bucks from Nigerians trying to make a living in their country.

When Sonny Okosuns sang "fire in Soweto, burning all my people", hardly did he imagine that one day in a free South Africa, his people, Nigerians, would come under attack by black South Africans! This brings us back to our opening matter of whether something is wrong somewhere with the Black Man.

The attitude the South Africans are exhibiting was noticed among the Liberians and Sierra Leonians. Shortly after the civil wars in those countries, Nigerians became victims of amputations and killings despite the military and financial sacrifices of our government and people to restore peace in those countries.

CERTAINLY, other African countries have shown Nigeria a lot of ingratitude for our efforts to help them out of their problems. Perhaps the major problem with the black person is his short memory and lack of value for the right things.

South Africans should never be the ones associated with hostile attitude to Nigerians. We are their liberators. Nigeria is the home where all Africans run to when they are whipped by outsiders. We are the heart of Africa.

We hold the future of Africa, just as we occupy the centerpiece of her today and recent past. South Africans should be coming on pilgrimage to Nigeria.

South Africa should have invited the likes of Sonny Okosuns to give him their national award for mobilising Africans to support their struggle against Apartheid. South African leaders and people have shown to Nigeria that they are ingrates.

Meanwhile, let me urge Nigerians in South Africa to remain united and law-abiding. They can form vigilante groups and defend themselves just as non-indigenes have learned to survive against the hostility of Islamic extremists in Kano.

May I also advise the government and people of South Africa that a person who lives in a glass house does not throw stones. We in Nigeria also have the capacity extract reprisals against South African interests which are within easy reach.

As we say in Igbo, "let no one play with the tiger's tail, whether it is dead or alive"!

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