Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyema saturday said only a few Nigerians were affected by the racist attacks on foreigners, especially Africans, in South Africa, which is becoming a frequent occurrence in the former apartheid country. Onyema, who spoke in Abuja when he appeared on Arise TV, a sister company to THISDAY, said the vast majority of Nigerians in South Africa were living in peace and doing well in the country. His comments were a surprise to all who expected a more proactive response to the incessant xenophobic attacks by South Africans that have often targeted Nigerians.
Onyema identified communication gap between Nigerians living in South Africa and that country’s authorities as a major damper on cordial relations, saying a joint body by the two countries is being formed to address the problem.
But Senate President Bukola Saraki described the attacks as indicating a lack of appreciation of the benefits of integration by Africans. Saraki said cooperation was the answer to the continent’s numerous development challenges. He made the remarks yesterday in his keynote address at the Crans Montana Forum of Africa and South-South Cooperation for Africa’s Development in Dakhla, Morocco.
A statement by Saraki’s special assistant on public affairs, Mr. Mohammed Isa, quoted the senate president as saying that the “contagious nature of poverty shows that the challenges on the continent must be viewed from a regional perspective.
“The challenge of cross-border crimes, the smuggling of small arms and light weapons across our borders; or even the wave of terrorist activities, provide another compelling reason why effective cooperation and partnership is almost a matter of life and death.”
Onyema said on the television programme, “The South African government condemned everything that’s gone on and they felt very bad about it because they themselves acknowledged the role that Nigeria played in the dark days of apartheid and so feel very ashamed about what happened.”
He said the reports about Nigerian casualties or victims of xenophobia in South Africa were often exaggerated.
“Well, figures are always not correct but, you know, the reality is a tiny minority of Nigerians have been actually affected. The vast, large numbers of Nigerians in South Africa are living in peace, doing extremely well, contributing well to the country. When you quote a figure of 20 and then you also say about 800, 000 living there, it’s not true in anyway,” Onyema stated. He said, however, “It’s not any consolation even if it’s one person that is killed, it’s relatively not small.”
The minister said the federal government had decided to send a delegation to South Africa because of the frequency of the attacks. According to him, “We really wanted to have a concrete mechanism in place. Obviously, there have been a lot of talk and nothing has changed. We had met with the Nigerian community over there, there is a Nigerian Union of South Africa and we met with their leadership. We went through all the issues and all the challenges faced by Nigerians in South Africa.
“Something that struck me was that there was a communication gap, the Nigerian community does not have access to the higher echelons, indeed, to the South African government or authorities to be able to communicate their grievances, to provide warning and to engage with them. So, I thought that this was the missing link that could have solution to the problems. And we proposed to the South Africa government and they accepted thankfully.”
Onyema stated that the government of South Africa favoured the formation of a body comprising the South African police and representatives of Nigerians in that country. He said the general feeling among Nigerians in South Africa was that the country’s police were more likely to be complacent about the attacks or even encouraged them.
“So, there is a trust deficit there,” the foreign affairs minister stated, stressing, “This unit we are building, we have the South African police represented there, the South African home affairs ministry, which has political oversight over the police, the Ministry of Foreign affairs. Then, on the Nigerian side, sitting on the same table, the Nigerian High Commission, the Nigerian Consulate and the Nigerian Union and some South Africans.
“This will be a mechanism or forum in which they could speak to each other directly and so if there were signs of imminent attacks or whatsoever, it could be addressed.
“Another thing that they sort of expressed concern about was that they themselves as Nigerians heard information about the criminal elements among the Nigerian community. But if they communicate this to the police, very often the information got to the criminals. So, this is also a forum we felt they could communicate concerns, information and intelligence gathered from Nigerians.”
Though, Onyema “acknowledged, as reported, that a small minority of Nigerians in South Africa are engaged in inexcusable criminal behaviour, drug trafficking, prostitution, human trafficking, and fraud,” he said, “But the point we wanted to make was that these should be dealt under the criminal laws of South Africa and should not lead to such widespread xenophobic attacks; and also to remind the authorities that the vast majority of Nigerians are law-abiding citizens contributing to the South Africa society and the South African economy.”
On Brexit, Onyema said it was for the British, “As far as Nigeria is concerned, in all honesty, I’m not sure that it’s going to make any difference for the country.”