The gloves have come off in an unseemly diplomatic row between South Africa and Nigeria. The sorry saga began when South African officials at OR Tambo International Airport deported 125 Nigerians last Friday because their yellow fever vaccination certificates were believed to have been faked. The Nigerian government feels slighted and instead of sulking in the corner, they are retaliating by doing some deportation work of their own. By KHADIJA PATEL.
Nigerian authorities at Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Nigeria have deported at least 84 South Africans citing similar complaints about their vaccination cards. On Tuesday Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister, Olugbenga Ashiru, a former High Commissioner to South Africa, said in an address to the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs that the South Africans were deported for “irregular travel documents”. He warned that the deportations were just the beginning of yet further retaliatory action. The wrath of the Nigerian government is now set to turn on South African businesses operating in the West African country. Ashiru warned South African firms who brought inexperienced South African graduates to work in their businesses in Nigeria of sanctions should they continue to rob better-qualified Nigerians of job opportunities.
In response, the spokesman for the department of home affairs, Ronnie Mamoepa, insisted the matter was not an immigration issue but rather a public health issue. And while the South African department of health has so far remained mum on the deportation of the Nigerians, the Nigerian minister of health, Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu, is reported to have said Nigeria was not prone to Yellow Fever and therefore, did not warrant the deportation.
The World Health Organisation classifies Nigeria is as one of the 44 countries at a risk of exposure to the yellow fever virus. Chukwu however pointed out that the last confirmed case of yellow fever in Nigeria was recorded 1995. He insists Nigeria is not at risk of a Yellow Fever outbreak. According to him, the Port Health Services of the Nigerian health ministry issues Yellow Fever cards and vaccines at all Nigerian international airports, land borders and sea ports in the country. The vaccine is said to be given free, but a nominal fee is charged for issuing the card itself. Chukwu insists that none of the deported Nigerians were in fact in possession of fake yellow fever cards as alleged by South African authorities. Flouting widespread reports of counterfeit Yellow Fever cards for sale at Nigeria’s airports at a cheaper price than the real thing, Chukwu said no country, individual or group had lodged any complaint to his office about counterfeit Nigerian Yellow Fever cards. Exemplifying the severity of Nigerian anger towards South Africa, Chukwu called on South Africa to “stop politicising health issues”.
The harshest criticism of South Africa, however, was from the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Diaspora Affairs, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, who described the deportations as a “continuous unwarranted hostilities against Nigerians by the South Africa government’’. She has also made pretty shocking allegations against authorities at OR Tambo International for the conditions in which the deported passengers were held for the 24 hours before they were finally bundled off back to Nigeria. She alleges the Nigerians were held without water and food in “inhumane conditions”. While many South Africans struggle to understand the severity of the anger aroused among the Nigerians, Nigerian authorities feel particularly slighted for their citizens to have been treated in such a way by fellow Africans. Dabiri-Erewa reminded the South African government that Nigerians, including women and children, joined in the fight against apartheid, adding that it was an unfair and un-African way to repay Nigerians.
Tolu Ogunlesi, a Nigerian columnist with the Huffington Post, says the Nigerian news media and social media channels have reacted strongly, albeit ambivalently to the story of the deportation. “From the reactions I have encountered, most people think the Nigerian response – retaliation – is justified. A few disagree, insisting that Nigerians should focus on and acknowledge their own failings, the sort which allow a planeload of persons to enter South Africa with questionable vaccination certificates,” he told Daily Maverick.
Ordinarily, issues of deportation and the nagging questions of human rights posed are answered by immigration officials. This time however, the ramifications are far reaching. The Nigerian foreign minister has requested the South African government to apologise and pay compensation to the affected travellers and also to Arik Air, the airline carrier that brought the Nigerians to Johannesburg. South Africa’s ambassador to Nigeria was summoned by the Nigerian government on Monday, but he has failed to placate the Nigerians. The effects on South African business in Nigeria could be especially damaging. Already reports suggest the Arise Magazine Fashion Week, taking place in Lagos this week, has been disrupted because South African designers meant to travel to Nigeria have been caught up in the tit-for-tat standoff between the two countries.
Ogunlesi believes however that it is commercial hegemony that South Africa wields over Nigeria that has made Nigerians particularly sensitive to South African dominance. “Those (Nigerians) who are aware of the economic domination of Nigeria by South Africa, this latest behaviour from the South African authorities smacks of arrogance,” he says. “Nigerians are used to two things – First: hearing stories of Nigerians misbehaving abroad, and two, being mistreated by foreign authorities (often linked to the first). But it's a bit harder to accept when we hear that it’s South Africa.”
He points out that South African business has thrived in Nigeria, creating certain expectations of the relationship between the two countries, but adds that the South African High Commission in Lagos was known to be especially corrupt in doling out visas to Nigerians. Deporting Nigerians for forging some vaccination certificates when our own visa processes in the country has been dogged by corruption is then rich. “Some of South Africa's most profitable businesses have large chunks of their business in Nigeria – MTN and DStv to mention just two. Shoprite recently opened its third store. We spend billions of dollars annually shooting music videos and TV commercials in South Africa. So to hear that two planes of Nigerians were sent back home, in such a humiliating manner, would automatically inspire anger in any Nigerian who knows how corrupt and inefficient the South African High Commission in Lagos used to be – until the South Africans handed visa applications over to a consultant,” he says.
South Africa’s department of international relations and cooperation has been reticent on the matter so far, but sources within the ministry indicate that Dirco has begun mobilising to manage the fallout. Minister Maite Nkonae-Mashabane spoke to her counterpart Minister Ashiru over the telephone on Wednesday evening, but it remains unclear if she has successfully convinced her counterpart of South Africa’s regret in the handling of the deportation. South Africa will certainly be apologetic – any other reaction would be tantamount to declaring war with Nigeria, if not in physical arms then certainly in international relations. President Zuma is also expected to appoint a special envoy to Nigeria charged with the responsibility to smoothen over any ruffled feathers.
It is Nigeria, after all, the continent’s (other) superpower.
The Nigerian government has reacted angrily at what it perceives to be a demeaning and xenophobic provocation against the Nigerian government. The Nigerian foreign minister is reported to have warned, "South African immigration authorities or officials do not have a monopoly of deporting travellers." South Africa is of course reputed for its deportation practices. Researchers claim we’ve deported more than 2.5-million people in the past 20 years. In an ordinary week, we deport an average of 350 people. In the last 10 years, our immigration policy has been seeded by the belief that foreigners, like Nigerians, are a direct threat to our future economic wellbeing. Nigerians are synonymous with crime in South Africa. And then there is the perception that South Africans are competing with millions of illegal immigrants for scarce resources, motivating immigration and indeed health authorities to control the arrival of African travellers in South Africa more strictly.
While the row between Nigeria and South Africa is particularly interesting for the diplomatic posturing it warrants, it also casts fresh light on the need for a rethink of intra-African movement. Economic policies like the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) encourages the mobility of goods, capital and communication, but this generosity does not extend to the movement of people, especially migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers.
The deportation of the Nigerians proves that South Africa is no different to European states which continuously fret over fresh arrivals of immigrants. This then is South Africa, where migration is still guided by a call for increased control to keep unwanted foreigners out. DM
- Nigerians angry with a country they helped liberate in The Nation.
- Nigeria accuses SA of xenophobia on IOL.
- Deportation row grows in Nigeria, South Africa on The Associated Press.
Photo: All the President's men – Jacob Zuma and Goodluck Jonathan.