Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Picture: REUTERS/AFOLABI SOTUNDE
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Picture: REUTERS/AFOLABI SOTUNDE

Already frail diplomatic relations between the SA and Nigerian governments were further strained following days of looting and attacks on foreign nationals and their businesses in Gauteng this week.

The allegedly co-ordinated attacks have seen residents going on the rampage, looting foreign-owned businesses in Tembisa, Alexandra, Hillbrow, Cleveland, Jeppestown, and the Johannesburg CBD since Sunday. 

The violence continued on Tuesday, spreading to other areas including Germiston on the East Rand. Videos posted on social media showed people pelting those described as “Nigerians” with stones and hounding them out of their hiding places as they pleaded for mercy.

Another showed a group of Nigerians who had retreated to a bushy and rocky area, saying they had to run for their lives after being targeted and attacked by residents of Soshanguve outside Pretoria.

Last week, riots broke out in the Pretoria CBD which resulted in a number of foreign-owned shops being looted and torched. This was after a taxi driver was shot dead, allegedly by a Nigerian national the driver had apparently witnessed dealing drugs. The attacks resulted in the escalation of tension between SA and Nigeria with the latter stating publicly that it will retaliate.

The Nigerian government is concerned that SA law enforcement agencies are not dealing with attacks on its nationals. Tension between the two countries has, in the past, resulted in Nigerians calling for South Africans in Nigeria to leave their country.

Nigerian former minister of culture and tourism, and of aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode, tweeted that SA treated Nigerians like ‘filth and kill them for sport’

Another event that heightened tensions between the two countries was the death of 67 South Africans during the collapse of the Synagogue Church of all Nations building in Nigeria in 2014. The SA government was reportedly not happy with having to struggle to get answers about the tragedy and that the Nigerian government did not issue any condolences to the SA government nor to the families of those who perished.

In 2015, Nigerian officials fined SA mobile operator MTN $5.2bn for failing to disconnect subscribers with unregistered SIM cards. 

On Monday, the Nigerian government tweeted: “The continuing attacks on Nigerian nationals and businesses in SA are unacceptable. Enough is enough. Nigeria will take definitive measures to ensure safety and protection of her citizens.”

It said that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari met with President Cyril Ramaphosa on the sidelines of the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development in Japan last week “to discuss this”.

“Further discussions [are] scheduled for October 2019 during president Buhari’s official visit to SA. In the meantime Nigeria will take further steps to ensure safety of citizens in SA,” the tweet said.

However, Nigerian foreign affairs minister Geoffrey Onyeama was less cryptic about what needed to be done about the matter: “Received sickening and depressing  news of continued burning and looting of Nigerian shops and  premises in SA by mindless criminals with ineffective police protection. Enough is enough. We will take definitive measures”.

Nigerian former minister of culture and tourism, and of aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode, tweeted that SA treated Nigerians like “filth and kill them for sport”. “We must hit them with all we have got, including sanctions on SA companies. They deserve to be taught a lesson and given a bloody nose.” 

In a media release on Tuesday, MTN said: “We strongly condemn prejudice and xenophobia and we reiterate our unequivocal condemnation of any and all violence. As a leading pan-African telecommunications company with operations in 21 countries, MTN believes in the potential of an Africa whose nations pursue deeper trade, integration and co-operation. 

“We actively encourage the dialogue necessary to maintain peace and sustain strong relationships and urge all our customers and stakeholders to support and defend the principles of human rights, diversity and inclusion and an integrated collaborative Africa.”

The SA-Nigeria Business Chamber condemned the attacks on foreign-owned business and others, saying “the hostilities have implications beyond SA's borders and put an enormous strain on SA’s relations with other African nations”.

The chamber said the relationship between SA and Nigeria was an “important and strategic one for both countries”.

“Their nationals and businesses employ thousands of people in both countries. Trade and investment between the two nations is significant. There is much at stake and engagement at all levels is required to ensure that these important bilateral ties are not compromised.

“SA’s leaders need to urgently and decisively address the issues that underpin these sporadic but damaging outbursts of violence against foreign nationals,” the chamber said.

“It is important that government demonstrate its commitment to applying the rule of law and maintaining cordial continental relationships.”

SA government spokesperson Phumla Williams could not be immediately be reached for comment.