Nigeria plans to airlift its citizens out of South Africa after anti-immigrant riots

  • >> Julie Turkewitz, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-09-10 11:44:44 BdST

Caption: File Photo: Police officers keep watch as demonstrators gather outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre during a protest against gender based violence, at the World Economic Forum on Africa, in Cape Town, South Africa, Sep 4, 2019. REUTERS

Nigeria plans to repatriate at least 600 of its citizens living in South Africa after recent attacks in and around Johannesburg that targeted Nigerians and other African immigrants and left at least 10 people dead.

The announcement, made by President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria and Godwin Adama, the Nigerian consul general in Johannesburg, is the latest effort to respond to a conflict that has consumed the continent’s two largest economies and angered people across Africa.

“We have made arrangements for the immediate voluntary evacuation of all Nigerians in South Africa who are willing to return home,” Buhari said on Twitter, adding that he is very worried about “the recurring issue of xenophobia.”

“If nothing is done to stop it,” he added, “it could negatively affect the image and standing of South Africa as one of the leading countries in Africa.”

South Africans began attacking immigrants and shops owned by immigrants last week in the most recent eruption of anti-foreigner violence that has prompted widespread condemnation on the continent. Among the events that spurred these latest riots was a strike by truck drivers meant to protest foreign workers.

South Africa is home to many immigrants, but its poorest citizens struggle to find employment and some South Africans have blamed competition by foreigners. Violent attacks on outsiders, particularly those from other African nations, have become a major problem. Some assaults have been deadly.

In the recent spate of anti-immigrant protests, people burned cars, buildings and shops, and were seen carrying refrigerators and vending machines out of businesses.

Africans across the continent responded by boycotting South Africa. Pop stars cancelled concerts. Madagascar and Zambia refused to send soccer teams for a match. Nigeria recalled its ambassador and pulled out of a major economic forum.

Buhari, who leads the continent’s most populous nation, is under particular pressure to respond to the attacks, as some in his country have criticised his handling of security. Nigeria has been plagued by violent Islamist groups like Boko Haram in the north, and killings thought to be perpetrated by Fulani herdsmen.

Adekeye Adebajo, a Nigerian scholar who leads the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg, said that the Nigerian president’s critics had used what had been perceived as his weak response to the South African riots as “another stick with which to beat Buhari.”

Nigerians will begin leaving South Africa on Wednesday, said Adama, the Nigerian consul general in Johannesburg.

The flights will be paid for by Peace Air, he said, a Nigerian company that has volunteered to help its citizens.

The government will kick in funds if necessary, he added. About 600 people will leave on two flights, but many more have contacted officials to express interest in leaving, he said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa has repeatedly condemned the riots as well as xenophobia. On Sunday, he called lawlessness “a crime against our prosperity and stability as a nation.”

“Those who want to upset our public order,” he said in a statement, “must expect to face the gravest impact of the law.”

The riots continued into the weekend, with many people marching in the streets and then heckling a veteran South African politician, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, founder of the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party, who gave a speech condemning anti-immigrant violence.

The police have responded to the attacks by arresting at least 420 people in Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg.

Critics of the attacks have said that the violence is particularly painful because many Africans once rallied behind South Africans in their struggle to defeat apartheid. Now, some have found themselves protesting the actions of the same South African communities that they once so strongly supported.

© 2019 New York Times News Service