Takeaways from Ezekwesili’s presence at WEF amid xenophobia

Xenophobia and Nigeria
Nigeria and South Africa are two important countries to the continent’s economy and development, especially against the backdrop of the recently signed African Continental Free Trade Agreement. The Gross Domestic Products of both nations sums up to an estimated $725.583bn. When this figure is measured against Africa’s total GDP of $2.2tn, Nigeria and South Africa hold about 30 per cent. Succinctly, three of every $10 spent in Africa flow from and between the two countries.

Dr Obiageli Ezekwesili reiterated similar fact when she spoke to a group of Nigerian professionals and entrepreneurs that met her on the sidelines of the recent World Economic Forum. She had mentioned to the delegation that one per cent growth on each side of the economies of Nigeria and South Africa translates to half per cent growth for the whole of Africa. If you juxtapose this data with the fact that Nigeria and South Africa have over 30 bilateral agreements – one of the highest bi-national agreements between two African nations – only then can we appreciate that the destruction of businesses owned by investors and entrepreneurs from both Nigeria and South Africa amount to retrogression.

South Africa brings strong corporate footprint into the African economic landscape, whereas the peculiar circumstances of Nigeria make the citizens stronger in informal and semi-formal sectors. MTN and DStv might have the technologies and infrastructure to provide their services, but Nigerians have a way of creating a retail chain around them to ensure that cash flow trickles into personal pockets. South Africa can create a system,but Nigerians know how to work with and around a system to have a bite from the pie.

Nigerians cannot be boxed; they are disruptors of a system for good. They know how to trade and how to find the missing links in any economic chain. They have a never-say-die spirit. While South African businesses are anchored on innovation, Nigerians are creative and adventurous. Both approaches are relevant for the movement of goods and services in the continent. What South African companies create, Nigerians distribute to places beyond their wildest consideration.

Consequently, xenophobia, no, Afrophobia, or, better still, Nigeria-phobia, does not need to be taken with levity. The army of critics who came out last week to attack Mrs Ezekwesili for attending the WEF ignored these vital facts. They did not see why it was important to have a Nigerian strong voice at WEF for the protection of Nigerian-owned businesses. They ignored the fact that we, in South Africa, are part of the group of Nigerians who make remittances home; we bring back part of the money that South African companies repatriate from Nigeria, through our small corner shops.

Lessons for the Nigerian community
By some kind of coincidence, the violence this year occurred about the same period as the one in 2008,around the WEF week. I remember vividly that in 2008 was sitting in the office of the Ogoni Solidarity Forum in Cape Town. The news of violent attacks and looting of foreigners’ shops was announced by three activists that rushed into the office. My wife and I had been apprehensive for days as we saw images from violent scenes on television. It started in Johannesburg; we prayed for days that the law enforcement agents would be able to stop it. The day that it started in Cape Town, we were about to close when three of our comrades came in. They told us that violence had finally broken out in parts of the city.

It saddens as l look back and realise that Nigerians missed opportunities to organise and strengthen their community in South Africa since 2008. The feeling among the South Africans that foreigners must leave their country has increased and very prevalent than it was in 2008. Worse still is the subliminal message that other nationalities, but Nigerians, can be tolerated.

The current attacks in Pretoria started because a group of taxi drivers erroneously believed that a Nigerian drug dealer had killed one of their members. It turned out to be a Tanzanian that killed the South African. Also, the 2008 attacks were mainly in informal settlements and townships where Nigerians are not conspicuous, compared to 2019 when looting of shops occurred in the main city of Johannesburg – where foreign-owned shops are predominantly owned by Nigerians. The attacks, for all intents and purposes, were targeted at Nigerians than others. On this ground, the voice of Ezekwesili at WEF for Nigerians was relevant and apt.

But the former presidential candidate did not speak for Nigerians alone; she also asked the Nigerian community delegation that met with her a lot of questions around how much they were organised. It is the questions that she had raised at the interactive session at Southern Sun Hotel in Cape Town that prompted me to reflect on how the community organisation, which started in 2008 –reactionary to xenophobic attacks – has still not fared better. The process of organising Nigerians in 2008 started in my office at the Community House. The three comrades that came to my office to notify me of the attacks later became an intervention group. They were concerned about how my wife and I felt. It was agreed that we should stay back in the office that night. Our security was paramount to them. They got us food, sleeping materials and access to the shower in the building.

I was asked to reach out to other Nigerians in the city to come over to the Community House for shelter. The activists brought more food items to cater for the group that took refuge in the building. The attacks intensified,and within 72 hours a crowd of Nigerians and other African nationals had converged in the premises. I was asked to put together a report. Two reports were written;one on the situation as it affected different nationals and the second report on Nigerians.

The camaraderie, which the ‘Nigerian only’ report elicited, gave birth to the Nigerian Union Western Cape. There was a seeming epiphany among Nigerians that they could not continue to be loosely organised on the basis of ethnic, local government and state enclaves. Leaders from different groups converged regularly to discuss the welfare of their members and the way forward.

While we were busy organising ourselves, news of the coming of President Umaru Yar’Adua (now the late) to attend the WEF inflamed the passion for an organisation for Nigerians. An advance team of ministers arrived to see things for themselves ahead of Yar’Adua. The ministers wanted a written report, which would inform Nigerian government’s position; that is how the ‘Nigerian only’ report came about. I recall this background to highlight that after 10 years, the Nigerian community has not been able to take steps to change the narrative about our nationality in South Africa.

But there was a plan
So much could have been achieved in the last 10 years, if not for clannish politics that bedevilled the community. Great ideas and plans had been thrown out of the window because of the persona of those who propounded them,even without thinking twice. The meeting with Ezekwesili was also a rude awakening that Nigerians in South Africa must wake up and organise themselves. The delegation to meet her, a former minister, was led by Mr Cosmos Echie, the acting president of Nigerian Community Western Cape, an umbrella organisation that transformed from the NUWC formed in 2008.

The meeting with her was good, but our inability to provide enough proof for her to make stronger case during the WEF was missing. The WEF became a platform to trumpet the case of Nigerian citizens. There couldn’t have been a better platform for the voice of a Nigerian global citizen to show our contributions to South Africa. At a time the host country was busy demonising Nigerians, Ezekwesili used the platform to defend us. If I were part of the Nigerian government, I would ignore partisan differences and congratulate the amazon for leveraging on her personal profile to state the case of Nigerians. It would have been more productive, if the Nigerian government had reached out to her to speak in stronger voice.

She spoke on our behalf. But she also spoke to us as a group. She told us that Nigerian entrepreneurs and professionals must make themselves relevant in the economic mainstream of South Africa. She stated that if Nigerians could be known to be adding value to the country, the negative perception fueling hatred against them would abate. She admonished us on the need for our entrepreneurs and professionals to make collective footprint on the socio-economic landscape of South Africa. Our meeting with her took us back to the main argument of Mr Austine Kedi-Ewroh and Mr Echie, who contested for the offices of president and vice president of the NCWC in July 2018. Both of them canvassed a change of the narrative over Nigerians through socio-economic activities and professional visibility.

For the first time in the history of our community, a plan was articulated in a manner that Nigerians clearly saw projects that would elevate them through collaborations and a collective. Their plan had two components: providing community services and building a socio-economic active community. They told their compatriots that the first part was not enough to change the narrative around Nigerians. Their approach was to bring together Nigerian entrepreneurs through crowd-funding.

They planned to promote Nigerian-owned businesses and to strengthen them with resources collectively raised, so that Nigerian businesses can employ at least two Nigerians each. They planned that each of the businesses would be aided to expand; in turn, these businesses will contribute to a trust fund for community services. The funds contributed will be used for the training of Nigerians who did not have the skills needed to be relevant within the South African formal sector. They also planned to raise funds to buy a building, which was to be designated ‘Nigerian House’, to serve as an event centre and provide shelter to vulnerable compatriots.

Kedi-Ewroh failed in his bid to head the NCWC on July 29, 2018 by less than 50 votes for two reasons; the first being that the over 100 academics and intellectuals who had come out to vote for him could not endure the disorganisation and long queues. Second, due to sympathy and loyalty to tribal sentiments and hegemony, the man who became president of the NCWC jettisoned the plans. According to him, the organisation does not need to follow the route of socio-economic involvement. He believed that the plan was too idealistic for an “ordinary community” organisation. He told people that none of the 10-point agenda, which Kedi-Ewrohand his team developed to position Nigerian entrepreneurs, was necessary. True to his words, he went about pursuing mundane activities; organising social gatherings that have no significance to the well-being of his compatriots.

The aforementioned is not recalled to vilify anyone, except to say that, as we sat around the table with Ezekwesili, we intellectualised and pontificated without substance. If the plan that was presented to Nigerians in 2018 had been allowed to see the light of day, when she inquired about our organisational blueprint, there would have been projects to affirm our ideas. She asked us about the population of Nigerian professionals in the province, but we could not give an accurate figure.

The team of Kedi-Ewroh and Echie reached out to Nigerian academics and intellectuals in the four different universities in Cape Town; besides hundreds of students, they reached out to the doctors. Information was collected to ensure that a profile of Nigerian professionals was captured and published on a website. The plan was that at the touch of a button, one could see the number of Nigerians in different professions and careers in Western Cape.

We sat at the table with Ezekwesili, but there was no way to give the accurate amount of shops owned by Nigerians, how much they are worth, how much tax they pay, how many franchises are ran by Nigerians and how many South Africans that are employed by Nigerians. We could not tell exactly how many Nigerians are studying in each of the universities in Cape Town, let alone South Africa; we relied on old information and facts acquired individually from other sources.

We elected to be conservative, even as we know that we have serious footprints in every sector of the country. We were a reflection of Nigerian football; blessed with lot of quality players, but unable to make a strong team.

Serious work is needed at this time to change the narrative.


Wuganaale is a sustainable development consultant, a pastor, writer and an activist based in Cape Town, South Africa

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