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Nigerian Senate calls for more action on xenophobia in South Africa

Violence in South Africa has targeted foreigners
Violence in South Africa has targeted foreigners Reuters/James Oatway/Sunday Times

Tensions are brewing between Africa’s two main powerhouses, Nigeria and South Africa, with the Nigerian Senate calling on the International Criminal Court to investigate Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini for his alleged role in inciting the deadly violence that has rocked cities like Durban and Johannesburg.

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Nigerian civil-society groups and social network activists have reacted with horror to graphic images of foreigners being harrassed, stabbed and set ablaze in broad daylight in South Africa.

The Nigerian Senate jumped in the fray on Wednesday, calling on the ICC to investigate Zwelithini, who last month reportedly compared foreigners to "lice" who should leave the country.

The violence in South Africa is condemnable, according to Senator-elect Shehu Sani, who is with the All Progressives’ Congress. But he cautioned Thursday that the Nigerian response to South Africa’s xenophobia, especially in times of shock and outrage, should be measured.

"It is true that our people were killed and maimed and intimidated, but we shouldn’t destroy our relationship with South Africa because of the activity of xenophobes," he said in a phone interview from Abuja. "Xenophobes do not represent the spirit of South Africa."

Something has to be done, he added, to prevent a new wave of violence. "This attack was not the first in South Africa and it may not be the last if nothing is done," he remarked.

The Nigerian government has criticised Pretoria for failing to protect African migrants from armed mobs. Abuja has already summoned South Africa's high commissioner in connection with the violence.

Nigerian junior foreign minister Musiliu Obanikoro has registered "Nigeria's protest over the ongoing xenophobic attacks". In a statement, he urged Pretoria to take "concrete steps to quell the unrest," calling on the South African authorities "to compensate the victims".

The National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) has condemned the attacks as "inhuman and very barbaric," suggesting that a boycott of South African companies may be on the cards.

"We don’t want (…) black-to-black fighting, black-to-black looting, black-to-black maiming, black-to-black killing," NANS president Tijani Usman told RFI in a phone interview from Abuja, arguing that some South African youths do not appear to know that Nigerians helped Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress during the apartheid struggle.

Social networks have been abuzz with calls to boycott South African products and companies, and Tijani believes a boycott should be considered if xenophobic acts do not stop.

It’s unclear however what the impact of a boycott would be. Less than 1 per cent of South African exports go to Nigeria, worth approximately 200 million US dollars (185 million euros), according to John Ashbourne, a London-based economist with Capital Economics, a macroeconomic research company.

Some South African firms are active in Nigeria, including mobile phone company MTN, Johannesburg-based retailer Massmart and Cape Town-based retailer ShopRite. "For those firms it is a bit of a concern," said Ashbourne. "For South Africa as a whole, it really isn’t."

There are fears that anti-South African sentiment could grow across southern Africa   Zimbabwe and Zambia have already expressed their concerns   if xenophobic attacks continue.

"If the government in South Africa isn’t able to get this under control and – worse – if this sort of action continues and becomes more common then certainly I do think we will see growing anger in many places and calls for some kind of action," said Ashbourne.

Whether this would have any effect on the violence in South Africa is a different question. "It’s difficult to imagine a substantial enough boycott to have a big economic cost, and even if it did I am not sure that it would really change things because the South African government agrees that this has to stop," Ashbourne observed.

Some African activists have also called for a boycott of the 25th African Union Summit, scheduled to be held in South Africa in June. An online petition is urging leaders to boycott a meeting held in "a country where their citizens are being lynched."

Nigeria is opposed to a summit boycott, according to the Nigerian ambassador to France, Hakeem O. Sulaiman."I do not think that boycotting the summit is a solution and that is why my government is collaborating in a very pragmatic and consistent manner to ensure that this (violence) is addressed properly," he said in an interview with RFI.

"We must continue to condemn and encourage the South African government to live up to its own international and domestic obligations to ensure human dignity of people in their country, and not only their nationals," he added.

More than 5,000 people from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi have sought refuge in camps, according to Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

In a statement, the French medical NGO said that "injured Malawian and Zimbabwean men told medics that they are too afraid to openly seek medical treatment for their wounds and fractures for fear of further attack."

The Zulu king appeared Monday to backpedal on his earlier anti-foreigner remarks. Speaking to supporters in a Durban stadium, he called on the "Zulu nation" to attack those who attacked foreigners.

Two complaints have already been lodged against him at the South African Human Rights Commission, which investigated him in 2012 after he accused homosexuals of being "rotten."

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