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African Xenophobia: A Diagnosis

November 5, 2019

James N. Kariuki*

South Africa did not invent xenophobia in Africa. On large scale, that dubious tradition was initiated by Nigeria in 1983 when the Giant of Africa expelled two million ‘undocumented immigrants’ mostly from Ghana.

That Afro-phobic expulsion was extra-poignant to the extent that it was official, undertaken in the name of the state. On January 17th1983 President Shehu Shagari’s made a public announcement that all ‘foreigners without proper papers’ had to depart from Nigeria forthwith or face arrests. A quarter of a Century later, Nigerian nationals in faraway South Africa would   complain bitterly of being ‘targeted’ in brutal xenophobic attacks. Had the Nigerian chickens come home to roost?

Nigeria’s Economic Cycles

Nigeria’s xenophobia was prompted by swings between economic success and economic stress. In 1956, the country struck oil. By the 1970s it blossomed to its golden decade, skyrocketed by high worldwide oil prices. Almost suddenly, Nigeria became destination of choice for citizens of its poor neighbors.

Unfortunately for Nigeria its economy faltered in the early 1980s. A combination of declining demand for oil due to a recession in the West, and increased oil production elsewhere, undercut oil prices substantially. Due to the collapsing oil market, the source of Nigeria’s economic bonanza, its rise to economic prosperity halted.

A faltering economy, a sizeable non-Nigerian presence in the country and the approaching 1983 general elections, which were laced with anti-immigrant undertones, converged upon Shagari, pushing him to the infamous executive order of 1983.  In contrast, South Africa’s xenophobia invariably arises ex-officially and from the indigenous masses. 

Remarkably, harsh as it was, the Nigeria’s exodus was largely free of hateful and incriminating xenophobic criminality. Yet, the event caused horrendous suffering. To this day, the bag that the ‘illegal immigrants’ used to haul away their belongings, the ‘Ghana Must Go’, is permanently etched in the mind as an indelible reminder of human tragedies in Africa.

South African Xenophobia

The demise of apartheid was largely derived from the black armed struggle in the quest to make the country ungovernable. But the 1976 Soweto Uprising also inserted its unique input. The unarmed children of Soweto stared at the apartheid monster in the eye with an unequivocal old American-inspired challenge: ‘give me liberty or give me death.’ After that, obliterating the demonic apartheid became an all black people’s obsession. 

Even in prison, Nelson Mandela was the anti-apartheid’s uncontested torch-bearer; its ultimate anti-thesis. Yet there were reticent critics who were convinced that, in negotiating apartheid away, Mandela underestimated the primacy of ‘economic kingdom’, especially regarding land. The diehard among these was his wife, Winnie Mandela, whose views were willingly bequeathed to the political firebrand, Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Party. In name and inference, Malema’s party was remarkably reminiscent of Oginga Odinga’s famous book, Not Yet Uhuru. 

Mandela is said to have been a widely-read prisoner and was probably captured by Kwame Nkrumah’s famous dictum, “Seek ye the political kingdom first and the rest shall be added unto you.” In negotiating apartheid’s demise he overestimated the primacy of political kingdom at the expense of economic kingdom, allowing the latter to remain safely in white man’s domain. Was Mandela mindset compromised by his inner-most commitment to racial reconciliation and peace for the motherland and honoring Nkrumah’s popular anti-colonial slogan of political primacy?

Whatever the case, Mandela did not foresee that by 2019, the World Bank would rank South Africa as the most unequal society in the world. Yet, other than shallow trappings of power, political kingdom had delivered little for his fellow blacks. Professor Ali Mazrui would later lament that in the 1994 settlement, “…the white man said to the Blacks ‘You can take the crown and we’ll keep the jewels.’” Did Mandela’s economic concession become democratic South Africa’s original sin?

Shattered and battered, victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa return home in Ngeria.Photo credit CNN
Shattered and battered, victims of xenophobic attacks in South Africa return home in Ngeria.Photo credit CNN

Meeting Basic Needs

Lack of jobs and services for the poor has consistently bedeviled post-apartheid South Africa since xenophobic violence started to erupt in 2008. And, to emphasize the point, these Afro-phobic attacks have invariably erupted in the poor neighborhoods.  

The perpetrators of the attacks are mostly the so-called ‘born frees’, the post-apartheid generation. They are young and willing to earn honest living, but there are no jobs to be had; South Africa’s youth unemployment rate is at 31 percent.  Yet, the impoverished ‘born frees’ see foreign intruders owning running corner stores in their own neighborhoods.

The tormented ‘locals’ resent the non-South Africans owning retail stores in their neighborhoods. They are seen as neither neighbors nor comrades; they are intruders. They are reachable and vulnerable targets in the path of least resistance. Venomous political inciters take advantage of the situation; the non-South Africans are subjected to indiscriminate attacks and looting. What starts off as domestic protests for jobs and service delivery transform into xenophobic attacks. The ensuing mayhems are officially categorized as criminality; but nobody is prosecuted.

Conclusion Against this background, what binds the Nigerian and South African versions of xenophobia?We need not be flag-waving Marxist ideologues to realize that economic determinism plays a critical role in fuelling xenophobia in Africa.  After all, if you toss a few bones to a bunch of hungry dogs, fights are inevitable.

* *James N. Kariuki is a Kenyan Professor of International Relations (Emeritus).  He comments on public issues in various international publications.He runs the blog Global Africa

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