Hon. Nnena Elendu-Ukeje is the Chairperson, House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. The lawmaker, who represents Bende Federal Constituency in Abia State in the Green Chamber, speaks with Victor Oluwasegun on the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa and the implication for the relations between Nigeria and South Africa. Excerpts
THIS is the second xenophobic attack on Nigerians in South Africa; in your opinion, what should be done? In the recent past, the last very notorious xenophobic attack was in 2015, where of course they targeted citizens from Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and Asians as well. And the excuse then was that there were no jobs that foreigners were taking over their jobs.
Now, it is important to point out that 10 lives were lost, no Nigerian life was lost. Based on our interaction with the ministry at the time it was said that goods worth 84 million naira were lost during the crisis to Nigerians. And of course, the claim was forwarded to the South African Government, the South African Government brought it up again at the Bi-National Commission thing and claimed recompense is being worked out for the Nigerian businesses that had been lost. Now, this time around its about property tax for foreigners and so on and so forth. But I also think it is important to point out that what happened in 2015 was by violent minority, because we also had peace rallies by generality of South Africans decrying xenophobic attacks by violent minority. Now, it has come up again. It speaks of South African xenophobia tendencies; South Africans are notorious for their xenophobic tendencies and any excuse to do that.
At the time there were conversations about bringing it before the AU, to have conservations that you can’t lead an African Union and clearly despise Africans. Those conversations were ongoing. But it was resolved that President Jacob Zuma called out the forces, they quelled the attack of foreigners; there was a promise that they were going to be quickly brought to book, etcetera. But now let’s fast forward two years. I think what has created more hysteria are the reports from government quarters where the Special Adviser to the President has said there has been 169 deaths unsubstantiated, because by my records, there is no such thing.
Now the issue is, it is not institutionalized, because it’s not the South African Government that is attacking Nigerians; it’s a violent minority. In treating this violent minority, we will have to rely on their institutions in bringing these people to book.
Now, what can the Nigerian Government do in engaging with the South Africans?
By constitutional provisions, we will deal with the issue through dialogue, through conciliations to reconciliations to having conversations. I believe the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has invited the ambassador; they’ve spoken to him and he’s given his unreserved apology. And I believe because of the anger, they’re inviting him again today (Thursday) to have another conversation with him. Now, we’re a little handicapped because we recognise that we don’t have an ambassador in South Africa. But it does not mean that we don’t have people in the mission in South Africa. But, I know that they’re inviting him today and we’re going to be asking as a country that the perpetrators of this crime be brought to book. We’re also going to be collating the loss again to Nigeria citizens. And that was why the House of Representatives decided – and why I supported the motion -that when conventional means of diplomacy fails, other unconventional means of diplomacy must be deployed. And one of them is legislative diplomacy, where we will be engaging with members of the South African Parliament, to intimate them on what it does to their country, how they’re viewed as another country, as the two pivots upon which Africa stands – South Africa and Nigeria – we think it’s important that South Africa in maintaining that quasi- leadership position, must also be seen to be leaders in the continent.
Of course, the Nigerian position is that we act as Big Brother, which is not something that is admired or agreed to by a vast majority of Nigerians, but Nigerians do not ever attack non- Nigerians. Quite contrary, Nigerians are seen to protect other Africans, to protect their democracies, protect their country, protect their ways of life and we think it’s time to tell the South Africans that that is the way leadership is run.
Now, through diplomatic means, which is what the ministry is already doing, they’re speaking to them, they’re having a conversation, we’re speaking about recompense and reminding them of the treaty of hospitality and the fact that the citizens of any country that resides within South Africa are their core responsibility. We’re reminding the government, but we’re hoping that the parliament can speak to the citizens because right now, it’s not about the government, it’s not the government that is carrying it out, it’s the citizens, and we’re hoping that with this alternative means of diplomacy, that the message from Nigeria will carry.
There seem to be insinuations that if this happens again, Nigerians will retaliate. Is this the way to go?
I do not think that is the way to go. It’s not in the character of Nigerians to be violent for no reason. And I’m saying we have large Nigerian communities in South Africa; you can reciprocate when your numbers are the same. People are saying burn down South African businesses and I make the point to most people that the Proteas are actually Nigerian businesses owned by Nigeria’s and run by Nigerians. For the benefit of Nigeria, Proteas Hotel has Nigerian facilitators. So, to burn down a Protea in Nigeria, you are burning down a Nigerian business. I mean most of these companies are Nigerian companies that just have management and are franchised out to South African brands. Shoprite is run by Nigerians, the Nigerian Government owns Shoprite in every state. It’s Nigerian money, it’s just Shoprite management. So, are we going to burn down our businesses? I just think we need to wait. I understand the knee-jerk reaction, but like I said, it’s in reaction to the unsubstantiated reports. Because until we had the investigation, until we spoke to the ministry, we did not know that no Nigerian life was lost in 2015.
What is happening is wrong but even in reacting, we should as government officials be circumspect in the kind of information we give out there because of reaction to that information. Of course we’re going to have those conversations but let us also recognize that we also have jurisdictional challenges. That what we can do in a Nigeria situation within the confines of our country is totally different from what we can do in another person’s country. We can ask, there can be moral suasion; we can put subtle pressures; we can take it to the international organisations where we all belong to and try to push an agenda that speaks to that issue. We can lobby other countries to get stringent international sanctions for xenophobia at the AU level or through ECOWAS or SADC
We are putting moral suasion, but we’re going to look for other international means to deal with the issue. My suggestion and I said it in 2015 that it should be brought before the African Union.
But the Minister said on television that we haven’t reached the level of the AU, that it is being handled on Bi- national level. Do you think it has reached that level?
We don’t have another AU meeting until I think April or so. I’m hoping it does get to that stage. Whether it gets to that level or not, the problem is that xenophobic attacks in South Africa is becoming a recurring decimal and I think we must start to make the arrangements to have the conversation about South Africa’s treatment of other nationals.
Are you satisfied with what the Federal Government has done through the intervention of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the issue so far?
I recognize that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is doing the best they can do, it has summoned the South African ambassador to convey in very strongly worded terms Nigeria’s displeasure at the continued attack on Nigerians. I think they have done the best they can.
What has the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House done on this issue so far?
We’ve engaged. We’ve spoken and they’ve given us information we require, and we’re waiting for their outcomes. We know they’re trying to collate the amount of money…to put value to what has been lost, investigate what it is and we’re waiting for the outcome with the minister. So, I think for us to react will be based on what the outcomes with the ambassador is. But we have to wait for them to walk that road, and then get back to the committee.
Do you think the proposed delegation of the House of Representatives to South Africa will achieve much?
I think the House delegation is alternative diplomacy and like I said initially, that when conventional means of diplomacy don’t work, legislative diplomacy is an acceptable means of diplomacy wherein you engage with the people and take a direct message from your people to their parliament with the hope that they would transmit to their people.