Xenophobia: South Africans loot more shops, 300 Nigerians register for evacuation

South African police said on Friday that they were on high alert monitoring the violence that erupted earlier in the week in some parts of the country leading to the death of foreigners and destruction of their property.

The Force also said that some persons who had been looting shops since Sunday had continued till date. It added that it had arrested more suspects who had been looting shops in the Gauteng Province. Police spokesperson, Brigadier Mathapelo Peters, said 74 persons were arrested in Katlehong on Thursday, bringing the total number of arrests since the violence erupted in Johannesburg to 497.

She said the situation in Katlehong and other areas in the province remained calm as the number of incidents continued to decline. Peters said 11 people were killed during this period but that only seven had been directly linked to the incidents of violence. She noted that the police would continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding each death.

Gauteng Provincial Commissioner, Lt.-Gen. Elias Mawela, therefore, called on the people to respect the law, while warning them to stop spreading fake news in the social media. Mawela added, “We must work together to make sure that no one gets to undermine the authority of the State and together condemn the violence and criminality, towards ensuring the safety of everyone in the province.”

Meanwhile, more than 300 Nigerians have registered for evacuation from South Africa following the approval given by the Federal Government that those interested in leaving the former apartheid country should indicate interest and be airlifted home free. The offer followed the xenophobic attacks on Nigerians living in the country. Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ferdinand Nwonye, told one of our correspondents on Friday that over 300 Nigerians had registered for the exercise, adding that the time and date of departure would be disclosed later.

The Chairman of Air Peace, Chief Allen Onyema, on Wednesday provided aircraft to evacuate Nigerians wishing to return home on account of the xenophobic attacks. Nwonye had said in a statement, “The ministry wishes to inform the general public that following the recent unfortunate xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals, including Nigerians in South Africa, the proprietor of Air Peace Airlines, Chief Allen Onyema, has volunteered to send a plane from September 6 to evacuate Nigerians who wish to return to Nigeria free of charge. “The general public is hereby advised to inform their relatives in South Africa to take advantage of this laudable gesture.”

Over the years, Nigerians had come under a series of attacks by South Africans with many killed. In the latest incident, which started on Sunday morning, no fewer than three persons had died and over 50 shops and businesses belonging to Nigerians and other nationals destroyed by South Africans.

The latest incident, coupled with the several others in the past, did not only lead to reprisals on South African businesses in Nigeria between Tuesday and Thursday, it had also triggered a major diplomatic row between Nigeria and South Africa. This led to Nigeria pulling out of the World Economic Summit holding in Cape Town and plans to recall the High Commissioner, Kabiru Bala, while President Muhammadu Buhari had sent a special envoy to South Africa.

The special envoy, Ahmed Abubakar, who is the Director-General of the National Intelligence Agency, was said to have arrived in the OR Tambo Airport on Thursday evening and was scheduled to meet with President Cyril Ramophosa in Pretoria on Friday to express Nigeria’s displeasure at the treatment meted out to Nigerians to the host President during the meeting. Meanwhile, in its bid to ensure the safety of Nigerians, the Foreign Affairs Ministry advised interested Nigerians to liaise with the High Commission of Nigeria in Pretoria and the Consulate-General of Nigeria in Johannesburg for further arrangements.

Nwonye stated, “They are collating the names and as at the last one hour (3.50pm), they have registered like 300 persons and the meeting of the special envoy is ongoing, the high commissioner is there with him.”

Evacuation’s plan faces major setback

Meanwhile, the planned evacuation faced a setback on Friday as the majority of Nigerians interested in coming back home were said to have expired passports. The Chairman of Air Peace, Onyema, said in a statement in Lagos that the airline had already placed its Boeing 777 aircraft on standby and was only awaiting the go-ahead from the government but that most of the potential returnees had yet to renew their documents.

He said, “The Air Peace flight to South Africa will take off from the Lagos Airport and also return to Lagos. As earlier stated, the take-off could be September 9 or 10. “This is because the Nigerians in South Africa have to obtain travel certificates because many of them do not have travel documents and their passports have expired.” But speaking on the provision of travel documents for those who did not have, Nwonye explained that the Nigerian High Commission would see to it.

Earlier, a member of the flight coordinating committee, comprising Nigerians living in South Africa, Mrs Ify Ezeano,  told Saturday PUNCH that many of the intending returnees were on their way to the Johannesburg from different parts of the country for the evacuation. Ezeano said Nigerians wishing to return to Nigeria lamented that they felt unsafe and would rather leave the country, coupled with their accommodation challenges. She said, “Some of them are already on their way to Johannesburg. People are disturbed and distressed. We have over 300 on the list but many others are still registering at the consulate.” Ezeano said a lot of Nigerians living in Western Cape, East London, Kwazulu natal and Cape Town had been calling to register, noting that some planned to come to the consulate in Jo’burg on Monday.

‘We’re not sure one flight would be enough’: She stated, “A lot of people are showing interest and I’m not sure one flight would be able to convey all the people. Right now, I am at the consulate and we are trying to collate the list. People really want to leave to secure their lives.

“The challenges they are facing include accommodation. There is a woman coming from Port Elizabeth; she has been crying over accommodation issues.” Also, Igwe Obinna Nwanaji of Mpumalanga Province informed one of our correspondents on the telephone that a single flight might not be adequate to evacuate those willing to return, adding that about 30 persons registered with him for the free flight.

He stated, “Some people are actually saying they won’t leave until the government gives them something, but a lot of people are willing to come back, it’s just that some of them said they were coming from far locations and driving to Johannesburg may take like seven to eight hours.”

Why we won’t leave – others

Meanwhile, some Nigerians in South Africa have said they won’t take Federal Government’s offer to return home despite the threat to their lives and attacks on their businesses. The Nigerians, mostly traders, club owners and entrepreneurs, who spoke to Saturday PUNCH on the telephone from Johannesburg on Friday, said although they had suffered huge material losses due to the attacks, they would prefer to stay back in the country to rebuild their ruined businesses.

Some also said they might relocate their wives and children to Nigeria while they stay back to work in their host country. A trader, Lucky Ogbonna, who said he had three outlets in Johannesburg, told one of our correspondents that he lost over N100m worth of goods to the attack while accusing South African police of doing nothing to stop the attacks.

Ogbonna said, “I suffered a huge loss. We suffered the biggest loss during this last incident. I’m a trader and my three outlets were completely looted and vandalised. It is a great loss, my brother. “I have gone to the police to make a report and they have compiled the complaints but that is the only thing they know how to do – to compile losses. What they do with their compilation is what I don’t know.

Asked if he would take Federal Government’s offer to go back to Nigeria, he said, “Relocation is not on my mind now but I can send my wife and kids back to Nigeria. I will prefer to stay and see how I can start all over again. “I have thought about moving out of this country (South Africa) before now but now I will send my family to Nigeria and see what I can do after that. I may sell the business to those who will be ready to rebuild it.  Another option is that I can rebuild the business and sell it after that. My immediate plan is to relocate my family.” Ogbonna said he escaped being killed by letting go of what he laboured so hard to build. He added, “I called the police but none of them answered, others also called them but no response. I believe it is a criminal conspiracy. The police did not want to stop the attackers. I know that South African police could stop them if they wanted to but they did nothing.

“After all, we saw what the police did in Nigeria to those who wanted to attack Shoprite and MTN outlets.’’

He, therefore, appealed to the Nigerian government to force the South African government to pay compensation to all of them who suffered losses, saying he might seek legal advice on the issue. “I will mobilise other victims and if possible we can institute a joint suit or do it severally but their government must be forced to pay compensation,” he added.

Another victim, Alfred Okechukwu, who owns a business outfit in South Africa, said his loss would be around N9m. Narrating his ordeal on the telephone, Okechukwu said he had just stocked his clubhouse with a variety of drinks but regretted that everything was burnt down by South African youths. He also said that he escaped the attack by a whisker. He added, “I escaped being attacked because I got information that they were coming to attack us and so I ran to the club to shut it but before I got there they had set it ablaze so I ran back. I don’t sell drugs. I even employed South Africans who work in my club.

“I can relocate to Nigeria but I just came back to South Africa from Nigeria about two months ago. I went to bury my dad. I just stocked the club with everything I had because this is summer and sales are expected to pick, but they came and burnt down everything. “I have lost everything that I worked for here. If I come back to Nigeria what will I be doing? Will I become a bus conductor or which work will I come back to do without money?”

He, however, said if the Federal Government would help the returnees to settle down, he would consider relocating to Nigeria. “But if I leave here for Lagos, I don’t even have transport fare from the airport to Benin where my family members are,” he added. “If our government can insist that South Africa should pay us compensation, I will be happy. “I left Nigeria about eight years ago and if I return empty-handed won’t the shame kill me? I will be part of any lawsuit or anything that can make these people pay us back. I need money to start my life afresh.”

Also, a motor spare parts dealer, Samson Onyema, said he was not ready to abandon his trade in South Africa to return home despite the attack. Onyema said, “My business was burnt down completely, but I will not want to return to Nigeria because of this attack. I sell motor spare parts and I don’t want to stop my business here.”

Another Nigerian, who runs a salon in South Africa, Mr Elisha Mbah, said he might not consider coming back home given the situation of things in Nigeria. He said even though he had lost his goods, he would still prefer to stay in South Africa to try again. When asked if he would return, he said, “Not really and not now. The state of things in Nigeria will not encourage that. In everything that has happened, you can still map out some other ways to be able to survive here than for me to go back to Nigeria where I would have to start afresh.”

He, however, said he could only consider coming back to Nigeria if there was an assurance of job and assistance in settling down.

He added, “I have children here. Where do I start from? If I must go back home, they would give me a job and help me to resettle. I mean there must be something they would do for me to start life with.”

Asked if he lost anything to the attack, he said, “We lost everything. They set the shop ablaze and everything went up in flames. The value of what I lost would be between R200,000 (about N4.9m) and R250,000 (about N6.1m). Another Nigerian in South Africa, Mr Emma Adeani, who sounded too distressed to talk, told one of our correspondents that he wasn’t considering returning home at the moment because he had things doing in his host country.

He said, “I have things I’m doing here, just that they vandalised my things. I’m not against going back, but there is something I’m doing here and that was why I came here in the first place. As I’m talking to you, I’m still busy compiling the cost of my loss.” Another Nigerian victim of the attacks who is confined to a wheelchair, Mojeed Kuku, said he and his family would have South Africa but for the situation back home. “We would have returned to Nigeria but for our country that is not okay; we lack a lot of facilities. I cannot return now; we cannot go empty-handed. All my sons are schooling here. Maybe when they finish schooling, I can return home. Where am I going to start from if I return to Nigeria?” he asked.

‘Police protect S’Africans during xenophobic attacks’ Meanwhile, a Nigerian resident in Johannesburg, Frank Igiake, claimed their attackers were usually protected by the police. Igiake, an auto mechanic, who resides in Johannesburg, said he would relocate to Nigeria after selling off his property.

He said, “This xenophobic attack is telling on us and we do not know what step they would take next. I’m ready to return but I must first sell my house. I have a house in Johannesburg and a business, so, it will not be an immediate return. “During the recent attack, in my workshop, the attackers burnt two vehicles and we had to run to save our lives. We went somewhere and watched them destroying our property.

“The police were there but they did not stop them. The police would even prevent us from stopping them. If you attempt to fight them you might lose your life in the process. “If you kill any of them the police will arrest you that you have killed a citizen.’’ We’ll fund xenophobic victims’ suit against S’Africa –Reps

In response to the losses incurred by Nigerians, the House of Representatives has said it will approve funds for victims of the attacks who wish to take legal action against the country. It also said it was considering compensation for those affected by the attacks. The Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, said these while addressing journalists at a ‘world press conference’ held in Abuja on Friday.

He was accompanied by some principal officers of the Lower chamber, including the Deputy Speaker, Idris Wase; Majority Leader, Alhassan Ado-Doguwa; Deputy Leader, Peter Akpatason; Deputy Chief Whip, Nkeiruka Onyejeocha; and Chairman, House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Buba Yakub. The Speaker warned South Africa against labelling Nigerians in their country as criminals, asking it not to add insult to Nigeria’s grief.

He also noted that for South Africa not to be seen as encouraging and justifying the xenophobic attacks by its citizens, the government should openly dismiss the narrative that the attacks were provoked by the alleged criminal activities of Nigerians in the country. While commending the actions so far taken by the Federal Government, he said the President should direct the Ministry of Health to assist the bereaved families in expediting the return of their loved ones who had lost their lives in the unfortunate events. Punch

Pix: President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria and Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa