Durban, South Africa – The recent xenophobic violence in South Africa against migrant workers has sparked a new diplomatic rift with Nigeria, with the South African government condemning Nigeria’s decision to withdraw its envoys from Pretoria.
On Sunday, the South African government released a statement calling Nigeria’s move “an unfortunate and regrettable step” and said the government and a wide range of civic organisations had been “decisive and unequivocal” in condemning the attacks on foreign nationals in the country.
The statement by South Africa’s Department of International Cooperation, however, goes on to deride the Nigerian government over its inability to rein in the Boko Haram insurgency in the north of its country. It also points out that South Africa did not blame the Nigerian government for mishandling the aftermath of the collapse of a church building in 2014, which left 84 South Africans dead.
Nigeria’s acting high commissioner in South Africa, Ambassador Martin Cobham, and the consul-general, Ambassador Uche Ajulu-Okeke were called home on Saturday to brief the Nigerian parliament about the welfare of Nigerian citizens in South Africa following the anti-immigrant violence in Durban and Johannesburg.
Tolu Ogunlesi, West Africa editor of the Africa Report magazine, criticised the tenor of the South African government’s statement.
Ogunlesi said it was not logical to compare the Nigerian Church disaster in 2014 to the xenophobic attacks and referring to the church disaster was misplaced in a diplomatic context. The Nigerian government has been criticised for mishandling the response to the collapse, with bodies repatriated some nine months after the incident.
“The statement sounded like the thoughts of someone, rather than a diplomatic response,” he said.
Many South Africans however, including prominent South African analyst, Eusebius McKaiser, have described South Africa’s response as justified.
“This response from South Africa – via Clayson Monyela [deputy director-general of the Department of International Relations and Co-Operation] – is fully justified in my view,” McKaiser wrote on Facebook on Sunday night.
“However it certainly helps neither South Africa nor Nigeria – and definitely not the continent, geopolitically – for diplomatic relations between us to deteriorate,” he added.
While some have described Nigeria’s decision to recall its envoy as “opportunistic”, others say the action has only come after public pressure.
“The government did not say anything even in the face of protests almost on a daily basis especially in Abuja and Lagos,” Deji Badmus, a freelance journalist based in Lagos, said.
Badmus told Al Jazeera that the government decided to act following the decision of the parliament and a meeting of the Nigerian senate.
“I don’t think it would have been proper for the Nigerian government to say nothing, do nothing, when, foreigners, not just Nigerians are being attacked in South Africa,” Badmus said.
Jackie Cilliers, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, however feels that Nigeria’s diplomatic withdrawal is not indicative of a continent-wide indictment of the South African government’s failure to stop anti-immigrant violence.
“I don’t think Nigeria’s action is a statement on behalf of the rest of the continent,” he said, adding that the “reality is Africa is multi-polar and there is no singular country that can speak for the entire continent”.
Rift between leaders
Few believe Nigeria’s decision to recall its envoys speaks for anyone other than themselves.
Nigeria and South Africa haven’t enjoyed close relations in the past decade, especially under the leadership of presidents Jacob Zuma and Goodluck Jonathan. Analysts see this rift as part of the larger story of worsening relations between the two countries.
“It has become an all-out contest for influence in Africa between South Africa and Nigeria,” Cilliers said.
Leaders from Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have publicly condemned the attacks, with both Malawi and Zimbabwe sending buses to repatriate citizens following the violence.
Few doubt however, that the violence has been a blow to South Africa’s image.
“I think African states have reacted quite strongly to the xenophobic violence in South Africa this time,” Cilliers said.
Zuma’s administration has come under much criticism for the violence. But not everyone agrees the South African government’s response has been poor. Cilliers, for one, describes the government’s response as “admirable”.
Tolu Ogunlesi said the latest developments between the two countries was only a manifestation of the quality of leadership in both.
“President Goodluck Jonathan has been a dismal leader and Zuma has also not lived up to his responsibility,” he said from Lagos.
“They both don’t inspire confidence within their countries and outside.”
At least seven people in South Africa have been killed in the attacks against migrants since March 20, when South Africa’s Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini spoke out against foreign workers.