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Dr Anderson Uvie-Emegbo - When kings forget: History lessons about xenophobia
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Thursday, 07 May 2015 00:00

When kings forget: History lessons about xenophobia Featured

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Discrimination is a cold, hard and lonely place. Spread some warmth and love around. Stand up for victims around you. This might sound alarmist but xenophobia has been to a whole new dimension in South Africa.

We have condemned the spate of xenophobic attacks perpetrated by some black South Africans against their migrant African brothers and sisters. Such unspeakable evil is shocking especially against citizens of a country like Nigeria, which was at the forefront of anti-apartheid movement. Millions of dollars were spent to defend the interest of a fellow African nation. The events of the past weeks are a painful reminder that some Africans may not see themselves as one with the rest of Africa.

Perhaps it might be useful to go back to the history books. The Bible records the story of the Israelite slave, Joseph who, on account of his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, was made the Prime Minister of Egypt. Despite being a migrant, Joseph was the second most powerful man in the great Egyptian empire. After he foretold that Egypt would experience seven years of economic boom (prosperity and surplus), which would be followed by seven years of economic hardship (famine and austerity), Joseph went ahead to give Pharaoh a blueprint on how the nation could prepare for the coming austerity years. Joseph’s prediction came to pass even as his policy recommendations saved the nation from famine.

From Egypt to South Africa

After Joseph’s brothers met him in Egypt on their voyage to source for food supplies, Pharaoh invited Joseph’s entire extended family to immigrate to Egypt. This is one of the earliest mass migrations in biblical times. Joseph’s relatives lived peacefully in Goshen, an area that was given to them to live in. Did the Egyptians and Israelites live together happily ever after? Absolutely not! Many years later, the key actors in the migration accord -- Pharaoh and Joseph -- died. According to biblical history, the new Pharaoh did not know Joseph and conflict arose between Egypt and its Israelite migrants.

Maybe this explains the South African situation. The “born-free” generation (South Africans born after apartheid ended in 1994) may not have been properly oriented as to the role their African brothers and sisters played in liberating South Africa from the death grip of apartheid. Countries like Nigeria boycotted Olympic Games and lobbied for economic sanctions against a white supremacist government. The born-free generation never witnessed any of these struggles. We can forgive their ignorance but the memory of migrant Africans killed, maimed and whose businesses and livelihoods have been destroyed will stay with Africans long after these events have been curtailed by the South African authorities.

Ghana must go

Years before I was born, there were Ghanaian migrants living in Nigeria and working as teachers, craftsmen, artisans, factory workers, restaurant owners etc. Majority of these Ghanaians were hardworking. After some time, Nigerians began to resent the presence of our Ghanaians neighbours. In the early 80s, due to rising anti-Ghanaian sentiments, an expulsion order was given and Ghanaians had to leave Nigeria within days. Hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians fled to Ghana taking their belongings in a particular type of waterproof, plastic bag where they stuffed all they could carry. Known as “Ghana Must Go”, this bag is still very popular in Nigeria and can be bought from virtually any market in the country. Since then, the relationship between both countries has never been the same. Every time I meet a Ghanaian or I visit Ghana, I can see resentment and mistrust in the eyes of many Ghanaians towards Nigerians like me.

With rising anti-immigration sentiments in the streets and parliaments of Europe, the South African attacks could not have come at a worse time. If Africans are meted such treatment by a superpower within Africa, how can we expect the rest of the world to treat us differently?

Migrants and economic growth

Isolationism is not sustainable in a free market economy. Migrants are good for business. Many of us are internal migrants. Most of the major cities of the world are populated by people who have migrated from less economically viable parts of the countries. In Kenya, many Nairobians are from upcountry. In Lagos, there was a raging argument some weeks ago that given its cosmopolitan outlook and history as Nigeria’s former capital, Lagos is a “no-man’s land.” Of course one dare not provoke the indigenes with such inflammatory innuendos.

I am an internal migrant from the Niger Delta part of Nigeria. I migrated to Ile-Ife, a town in Southwest Nigeria to study medicine and surgery. Since 1995, I migrated to Lagos where I still work and live. The life of a migrant is tough. In the university, like many other migrants from minority tribes, I faced a lot of ridicule and discrimination. Most times I long for the pleasures of my home state – the delicious local meals, cultural events, etc. Many migrants work harder and longer than many locals. Back in Warri in Delta State, Nigeria (where I grew up), I recall locals being very resentful of Nigerians from other parts of the country who in the view of locals had the best jobs and opportunities. Unlike our South African brothers and sisters, such resentment did not degenerate to threats, harassment or violence.

Many migrants are willing to take up so-called blue-collar jobs that many locals won’t. In Lagos, some Togolese nationals own several neighbourhood automobile repair shops (also known as “mechanic workshops” in the local parlance). Almost all the workers there are usually Togolese. Asked why there are no locals, the answer is typically something like this: “The locals never stay; they are not ready to learn or they are looking for fast money.”

Locals typically have a sense of entitlement. And it almost always backfires. Sometime in the 1990s, in the oil city of Warri, the rising sentiment against migrant Nigerians and foreigners was so rampant that investors and workers felt unsafe. All the major petroleum firms relocated from Warri to cities like Port Harcourt and Lagos. Within weeks the local economy crumbled before our very eyes. Over two decade later, Warri is still a shadow of its former self.

Let us pause for a moment to reflect on the relatives of xenophobia. Everyday many discriminate on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, socio-economic status, education, gender and political leaning. We all have our biases – some expressed, others covert. Whether you are a local or a migrant, moments like these should cause us to self-reflect on how we treat those around us. Discrimination is a cold, hard and lonely place. Spread some warmth and love around. Stand up for victims around you.

Our political leaders must implement bold and far-reaching reforms that translate “economic growth” into “real development” that is evident to the locals in their society. Migrants should not be made scapegoats for perceived failed economic policies. Political leaders should be honest enough to tell their people: “It is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.”  

We are united

Beyond the restoration of calm, the South African authorities must hold the perpetrators and sponsors of these attacks accountable.  South Africa taught the world about ‘Ubuntu’ – roughly translated as ‘human kindness.’ Ubuntu philosophically refers to the belief that we are all united in a shared humanity. In the light of this, the South African government must swiftly pay full compensation to the families of these xenophobic attacks. Anything less would be unacceptable.

All black men and women of goodwill in South Africa must rise up to defend and protect the rights of migrants. South Africa has the right to review its immigration laws and determine who should stay or leave. Deportation of illegal migrants should be carried out humanely to prevent a backlash against South Africans and South African businesses in other African countries. South Africans must confront the monsters within their ranks or be collectively labeled as a xenophobic nation.

In 1996, South Africa brought us the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its latest national branding campaign speaks of “inspiring new ways”. To inspire trust and oneness within, the rainbow nation might need to establish a Peace, Diversity, Values and National Integration Commission. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” To reach out to Africa once again, South Africa must first heal itself. Only South Africans can do this for South Africa!

 Appearance:.

This article was first published in my guest column in the May 2015 edition of Financial Nigeria magazine, a leading monthly development and finance journal in West Africa.

Dr Anderson Uvie-Emegbo, Financial Nigeria guest columnist, is a leading Digital Economy & Services Leadership consultant. He is an International Faculty, Strathmore Business School, Kenya. He is also an Adjunct Faculty, Lagos Business School and School of Media & Communication, Pan Atlantic University, Nigeria. Anderson is an Alumnus of IESE Business School, Spain.

 

Dr Anderson Uvie-Emegbo

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