By EZUGWU OBINNA
Few days ago, both the social and mainstream media were awash with the news that Nigeria has recalled her High Commissioner to South Africa Mr. Martin Cobham and the Deputy High Commissioner,UcheAjulu-Okeke over the spate of xenophobic attacks on Nigerians and other African nationals in the country, a decision that sparked yet another diplomatic row between the two biggest economies on the continent.
Although Nigeria’s Minister of Statefor Foreign AffairsMusiliuObanikoro later took to his twitter handle to dismiss the claims, insisting that the ministry only invited the Commissioner for consultation, it did little to prevent the wake of reactions that trailed the news.
Nonetheless, reports later emerged that the Federal Government has suspended the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign, Ambassador Danjuma Sheni, over the unauthorized recall of the Nigerian High Commissioner to South Africa which suggests that contrary to Obanikoro’s claims, the diplomats were actually recalled but not on the order of the presidency.
The clarification nonetheless come at a time when the decision had triggered a backlash from South African officials and had effectively put Nigeria and South Africa on a part to yet another diplomatic row; what has become a regular occurrence.
On Sunday, South African Head of Diplomacy, ClaysonMonyela, responded in the most uncomplimentary way and covertly took a swipe at Nigeria reminding it of its own problems which indeed highlighted the not so smooth relations between the two countries.
“We are not sure which actions or behaviour of the South African Government the Nigerian Government is protesting. It is only Nigeria that has taken this unfortunate and regrettable step” Monyela reportedly said.
“We shall also continue to support and not blame the Nigerian Government as it battles to deal with Boko Haram that continues to kill many innocent civilians. We hope that the more than 200 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram will someday be reunited with their families.”
It was bad enough to remind Nigeria of its failings in the battle against terrorism in such a mocking tone, but Monyela did not stop there, there was also the death of 84 South African worshipers in the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN) building collapse and he was quick to remind Nigeria that his country has not forgotten
“The. South African authority said despite the recall, the country remained committed to a strong bond of friendship and bilateral relations with Nigeria despite the death of 84 South Africans at a collapsed guest house of Synagogue Church of All Nations on September 12, 2014.”
Although one may argue that it was an accident and not deliberate attack as witnessed in the Rainbow Nation, the fact for them remains that their countrymen died in Nigeria and in their view, the Nigerian authorities offered little assistance to them in their effort to repatriate the victims’ remains.
But even the SCOAN tragedy came hot on the heels of yet another diplomatic row between the two countries. On September 5, barley a week before the incident, South Africa seized Nigeria’s $ 9.3 million, allegedly meant for illegal purchase of arms for Nigeria’s war on Boko Haram at Lanseria Airport in Johannesburg.
It was a development that triggered reactions within the country with the All Progressive Congress (APC) finding another huge reason to launch a scathing media war on President Goodluck Jonathan. Not even the common knowledge that United States blocked Nigeria from buying weapons legally in the heat of its terrorism war could make the APC and its teeming supporters see reason with the Jonathan. It was another reason to call him names.
The Nigerian government certainly didn’t find it cool with South Africa and although the country did not take any drastic retaliatory measures, its refusal“against a South Africa-inspiredrapid response force to combat Boko Haram but instead hired ex-Apartheid soldiersas mercenaries,” must have sent a signal to them that Nigeria was not pleased with the seizure.
There was also, of course, the huge controversy over South Africa’s deportation of 125 Nigerians in March 2012 over suspicions that their yellow fever certificates were not authentic.The action expectedlyturned into a diplomatic war with Nigeria refusing South Africans entry into the country in retaliation.
“What you see playing out is what we call xenophobia by South Africans against all Africans – not just Nigerians,” the then Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister, OlugbengaAshiru was quoted as saying.
Consequently, a Nigerian carrier, Arik Air, suspended flights to South Africa.But the rift ended when South Africa offered an apology over her actions”We wish to humbly apologize to them, and we have. We are apologizing because we deported a number of people who should not have been deported,”South Africa’s Deputy Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ibrahim said.
He further blamed airport authorities for the deportations and promised that such would not happen again.
But the laying to rest of that incident did not quell diplomatic tensions between the two countries and it was once again on display at theAfrican Union (AU) 2012 election in Addis-Ababa Ethiopia where President Jacob Zuma’s former wife, DrNkosazanaDlamini-Zuma emerged chairman of the continental body over the incumbent Jean Ping, from Gabon who was obviously backed by Nigeria. Again there was another reason to split hairs when both countries took opposite sides during the political crisis in Ivory Coast under Laurent Gbagbo.
The heightening diplomatic tension between the two countries must have been unanticipated in the 80’s and early 90’s when South Africa was battling apartheid and Nigeria had stood solidly behind rendering whatever help she could to liberate fellow African brothers from the oppressive white government. It was not therefore surprising that opinion leaders have continued to remind South Africans in the wake of the recent xenophobic attacks that Nigeria as well as other Africans helped a great deal in bringing them to where they are today.
But of course that matters little to South Africans in this era of economic warfare. And in fact, it was not long after the fall of apartheid when this continuing diplomatic rift began to unfold.
In 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected first black president of South Africa, thus marking the end of apartheid, the country’s businesses sought for professionals from other countries to immigrate and a large number of Nigerians went. Such that there became quite a large population of Nigerians in South Africa and soon some began to engage in criminal activities which ended much of the country’s goodwill towards Nigeria.
Relationship between the two countries further took a tumble during the General SaniAbacha regime. In June 1994Abacha arrested and sentenced for execution 40 political figures in the country including former president OlusegunObasanjoas well as Chief MoshoodAbiola who won the 1993 annulled election. Mandelasent Archbishop Desmond Tutu and then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki on successive missions to Nigeria to lobby for the release of Obasanjo, Abiola and the Ogoni nine, but that was not well received by Abacha.
Although the Head of State made Mandela believe that there would be a stay in execution, he went ahead in November 1995 to execute the Ogoni nine including Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and popular Ogoni activist. After which Mandela publicly criticized General Abacha for human rights abuses and personally pushed for a two-year suspension of Nigeria’s membership in the Commonwealth of Nations. It was the beginning of a new dawn in the relationship between the two countries. And what followed was unendingrivalry over who should play the big role on the continent as is being highlighted in recent developments.
But while this rift may very likely continue, and President Zuma doesn’t seem to be pleased with the criticisms his country is getting from Nigeria and other countries which has prompted him to question why those being attacked came to South Africa in the first place, one truth both countries should never lose sight of the fact that they need each other.
While South Africans may continue to grumble about Nigerians and indeed other African nationals taking their jobs, they must not fail to recognize the fact that South African businesses have taken the continent by storm and it must give them a cause for caution that MTN and Multichoice offices in Nigeria became protest venues in the heat of the attacks in South Africa.