Xenophobia puts strain on SA-Nigeria relations
Outside MTN’s main office in Abuja, there are yellow banners strung across the security gates. “We Stand Against Xenophobia #Africa Unite,” the banners say in bright gold and reds that match the gateposts and the building behind. Just a few days ago, this same office saw a peaceful protest as a group of Abujans expressed their fears over the recent attacks against Nigerians – and nationals of other countries – in South Africa.
Alongside this protest has been a more fractious pushback online, especially on Twitter. I have been asked to boycott Shoprite, MTN and DStv; my timeline has been f ull of deeply disturbing pictures of bloodied and broken bodies and subsequent rows over the photos’ origins; my online correspondents’ tone has been more cautious and more sensitive than usual.
Conversations about immigration, nationality and ethnicity that might have been cordial a few weeks ago are suddenly had as if we’re all creeping around the edge of a very thinly iced lake, none of us quite daring to skate across and meet in the middle.
As for the suggested boycotts, the heart may see where these requests come from, but the head must understand that these companies and their employees aren’t i nciting and endorsing t he xenophobic attacks. Boycotting a South African brand that employs Nigerians in Nigeria hurts Nigerians in Nigeria more than it hurts those attacking Nigerians in SA. I also have to confess that even if I did see reason to protest against these companies, my life and work are heavily reliant on Shoprite, MTN and DStv, as are the lives of many people here. Whether engaging in the Twitter discussions or not, there has been a definite shift in sentiment. I went for a meeting this week with a friend who works in corporate communications in Lagos and who often travels to Johannesburg to see clients whose accounts she handles.
How did she feel at the moment, I asked; would she happily travel to Joburg with everything that’s been happening? No, she answered. She wouldn’t feel comfortable travelling alone with the threat of violence against Nigerians; she’s not even sure she’d want to go in a group. She loves SA, she loves doing business there, but the risk at the moment has tipped the balance. She’ll make calls and video conference instead.
Her feelings are echoed across my acquaintance, regardless of sector or standing; no lack of affection for the majority, but too much fear of the minority to risk the journey. The Nigerian government’s decision to recall its Acting High Commissioner to SA has further ratcheted up the tension between the two countries.
A sit uation where t he business community in Africa’s largest economy feels wary of travelling to the continent’s second-biggest economy for work is a situation that entrenches division rather than collaboration. It’s a situation that makes it that much harder for these major engines of Africa to unite and a situation where no one wins, other than xenophobes.
Street vendors sell MTN airtime and products in Agbowo, a part of Ibadan, Nigeria.