"The face-off with South Africa offers Nigeria an opportunity for sober reflection and self-evaluation. No country with a troubled domestic politics and wobbly economy is respected internationally. For decades, Nigeria has been touted as Africa’s “sleeping giant”, the country with the greatest potential to become a major economic and political power. Globally, Nigeria is reputed to have made the second highest contribution to peacekeeping forces abroad."
Nigeria-South Africa diplomatic row
With South Africa tendering an unreserved apology, it is expected that the sour relations between Nigeria and the former apartheid enclave will normalise in no time. But what is unlikely to be forgotten in a hurry is the deep-seated feeling of resentment engendered on both sides by the recent diplomatic face-off between two of Africa’s economic giants.
The obvious lesson learnt by the Nigerian authorities during the encounter was that what, in some cases, diplomatic niceties fail to resolve, could be achieved through strong-arm tactics. After a series of stumbles, Nigeria was able to obtain an unreserved apology from the tough-talking South African government.
The catalyst of the face-off was the deportation of 125 South Africa-bound Nigerian travellers at the Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg for allegedly attempting to enter the country without valid yellow fever vaccination papers. Nigeria reacted by turning back more than 130 South Africans at the point of entry to the country. It is true that Nigeria, like many other sub-Saharan African countries, falls within what is usually categorised as the Yellow Fever Belt.
But the acute viral haemorrhagic disease, transmitted by infected mosquitoes, has not been recorded in the country in the last 14 years, according to the World Health Organisation. Yet, even when many countries in the world no longer require evidence of yellow fever vaccination for visitors from this so-called endemic zone, South Africa still insists on such evidence. It is also the practice that those who cannot provide convincing evidence of vaccination are usually quarantined and vaccinated, at the visitors’ expense, before they are allowed into the country.
It is no longer a secret that decent Nigerians are usually treated with disdain in many countries around the world because of the poor image the country has acquired due to the activities of a few dubious characters. Many Nigerians are routinely thrown into jail for offences they may not even have committed and the mere identification of a visitor as a Nigerian in some countries attracts extra attention by the security agents. South Africa, in particular, has seized on this to humiliate Nigerians at the slightest opportunity.
Nigeria’s renowned playwright and Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, was once denied entry into the country in 1995, despite visiting as a guest speaker at Nelson Mandela’s birthday. Similarly, Kema Chikwe, as Aviation Minister, needed the intervention of some top South African Government officials to save her from the hands of the immigration officials.
Much of South Africa’s bellicose attitude towards Nigeria has been attributed to xenophobia, which, some years ago, sparked a riot, leading to the death of 62 Africans, including Nigerians. But many are still of the opinion that Nigerians should not be victims of xenophobic sentiments by South Africans given the role the former played in liberating South Africa from the stranglehold of apartheid. In the heyday of the struggle for liberation, Nigeria was designated a frontline state because of the country’s diplomatic and financial commitments to the cause of a free South Africa. Many South Africans enjoyed Nigerian government scholarships for their academic pursuits in our universities, aside from the substantial financial support that went to the African National Congress, the main political party confronting the apartheid government. Besides, South Africa has thriving investments in Nigeria that churn out hundreds of billions of naira in profits annually.
But there is a limit to moralising in world politics. Realism in international relations is hinged on national strength especially economic power. Nigeria presents the image of a declining power, aptly captured by Samuel P. Huntington, the celebrated American political scientist, as “a nation winding down economically, living beyond its means, losing its competitive edge to more dynamic peoples, sagging under the burdens of an empire, and suffering from a variety of intensifying social, economic and political ills.”
The erosion of Nigeria’s position in Africa and globally has been accelerated by a lethal cocktail of inept leadership, corruption and sectarian violence. It is estimated that over $500 billion of Nigeria’s resources has been stolen and taken abroad over the past 50 years. Recently, a former Nigerian state governor, James Ibori, admitted to stealing and laundering over $250 million. And there are still many Iboris in the country that have yet to be uncovered.
The result has been high level of unemployment among the country’s youths, fuelling the urge for young Nigerians to flee the country in droves in search of greener pastures. Some still at home have taken to crime such as armed robbery, internet scam and kidnapping. Nigeria, according to the WHO, has the second highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. The country occupies the lowest rung in the human development index. As at February, 500 Nigerians were in jails across India and another 1,000 in China’s prisons. During the visit of the United Kingdom’s Minister of Immigration, Damian Green, to Nigeria last year, it was disclosed that there were about 6, 0000 Nigerians incarcerated in various prison facilities in the UK, but there was no record of any UK prisoner in any Nigerian prison.
What is to be done? The face-off with South Africa offers Nigeria an opportunity for sober reflection and self-evaluation. No country with a troubled domestic politics and wobbly economy is respected internationally. For decades, Nigeria has been touted as Africa’s “sleeping giant”, the country with the greatest potential to become a major economic and political power. Globally, Nigeria is reputed to have made the second highest contribution to peacekeeping forces abroad.
Yet, the country has failed to get it right in terms of nation building. Until the country, the eighth largest oil producer in the world, rebuilds its economy and starts discharging its responsibilities to its citizens, the best it can do is to sigh and bark whenever its citizens are treated with scorn in foreign countries.
- Editorial commentary in Punch, 14 March 2012.