President Cyril Ramaphosa and President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria briefing during a state visit to South Africa. 03/10/2019. Picture: GCIS / SIYABULELA DUDA
President Cyril Ramaphosa and President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria briefing during a state visit to South Africa. 03/10/2019. Picture: GCIS / SIYABULELA DUDA

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari  began a visit to SA on Thursday with a call to beef up protection of foreign nationals, weeks after xenophobic attacks in Johannesburg stirred tension between Africa’s leading economies.

Nigeria is SA’s largest trading partner on the continent, with trade flows estimated at $4.48bn in 2018. Only 9% of Nigeria’s total trade is intra-African, and almost half of that is with SA, according to data from the Stellenbosch-based Trade Law Centre.

Buhari and President Cyril Ramaphosa went into long-planned talks aimed at bolstering trade ties and political co-operation as both leaders struggle to boost their flagging economies.

But the talks were expected to be overshadowed by the violence in SA targeting foreigners, which included Nigerians. Mobs descended on foreign-owned stores in and around Johannesburg in early September, destroying properties and looting.

“We call for the strengthening and implementation of all the necessary measures to prevent the re-occurrence of such actions,” Buhari said at the start of the talks.

The violence — in which at least 12 people were killed, most of them South Africans — sparked fury in Nigeria and saw hundreds of migrant workers repatriated to the country.

“We have expressed our deep regret at the events of the past few weeks that manifested themselves through attacks that were directed at foreign nationals and our condemnation of all forms of intolerance and acts of violence remains very, very firm,” Ramaphosa said.

WE FIRMLY CONDEMN ALL FORMS OF INTOLERANCE AND WILL NOT HESITATE TO ACT AGAINST CRIMINAL ACTS AND VIOLENCE

Nigeria recalled its high commissioner and evacuated some of its citizens last month after a spate of attacks in SA left at least 12 people dead, two of them foreigners. Protests in Nigeria over the violence targeted SA companies including MTN and Shoprite.

SA has seen sporadic attacks on migrants, including Nigerians, souring the government’s relationship with its regional counterparts. The worst of these occurred in 2008 when about 60 people were killed and more than 50,000 forced from their homes. Another seven people died in similar attacks in 2015.

Buhari condemned “the very few incidents of retaliatory attacks” which saw some SA businesses in Nigeria forced to close shop.

“We took strong and decisive measures to stop the attacks and prevent any recurrences,” he said at Union Buildings, the seat of the presidency in the capital Pretoria.

For his part, Ramaphosa, who has repeatedly apologised over the attacks, reiterated his government’s “deep regret at the incidents of public violence”.

“Some of the acts of violence were directed at foreign nationals and some of whom coming from your own country. We firmly condemn all forms of intolerance and will not hesitate to act against criminal acts and violence,” he said.

The three-day state visit, the first to SA by a Nigerian leader since 2013, had been planned before the wave of violence. A “town hall meeting” between Buhari and Nigerians living in SA is scheduled for Friday to listen to the expats’ experience and showcase efforts to support them.

The two nations signed dozens of accords Thursday that will enable SA to leverage the recently agreed African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) to tap West African markets. They’ll also boost Nigeria’s efforts to diversify its economy, which relies on oil to generate two-thirds of government revenue and more than 90% of export income.

“We have identified key sectors for investment to boost economic growth and development,” Ramaphosa said at a joint briefing with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in Pretoria. “These sectors include roads, rail infrastructure, mining, manufacturing and agro-processing.”

Bloomberg and AFP