ABUJA, Nigeria—At first it looked like dozens of young men and women marching on the highway leading to the international airport here in Nigeria’s capital Wednesday chanting “enough is enough South Africa,” wanted to stage a peaceful protest against recent anti-foreigner attacks in Johannesburg.
But when they began to destroy billboards and set fire to the entrances of a busy mall housing the South African retail store Shoprite, it was obvious that the attackers were out to retaliate for a fresh wave of violence against Nigerian immigrants and Nigerian-owned businesses that began at the start of September.
“We are not going to keep quiet and watch as South Africans slaughter our brothers and sisters who have done nothing wrong but invest in the country and strengthen its economy,” Nnamdi Okechukwu, one of the protesters in Abuja, told The Daily Beast. “This time around, it will be violence for violence and blood for blood.”
In a country divided across religious and ethnic lines, Nigerians have found a common voice condemning xenophobic attacks on foreigners in South Africa.
Despite spending over an hour in traffic as protesters blocked the Abuja airport road, a number of motorists could be heard speaking in their support. Even policemen who prevented the demonstrators from attacking the mall, before now one of the most visited shopping complexes in the city, privately expressed support for the protest marchers.
“If I was not a policeman, I would have joined in the protest,” one officer, who did not want to be named, told The Daily Beast. “South Africans should be grateful to Nigeria for helping them end apartheid.”
Across the country, protests and attacks targeting South African-owned businesses have increased since the start of the week.
In the southwest, angry protesters looted groceries and toiletries from Shoprite in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial center, and an outlet owned by South African mobile company MTN was vandalized in the city of Ibadan on Tuesday, forcing the telecom company to close its stores and service centers nationwide “as a precaution until further notice.”
On Wednesday, hordes of rioters gathered outside South African-owned outlets in the Lagos mainland district were forced to disperse after police fired teargas at them.
On Thursday, the South African government ordered the temporary closure of the country’s high commission in Abuja, and its mission in Lagos, after threats were made to diplomatic staff.
As expected, the situation has escalated into a diplomatic row between Africa’s top two economies. Nigeria on Wednesday recalled its High Commissioner to South Africa, Kabiru Bala, and the government has also boycotted the World Economic Forum meeting between business leaders and governments being held from Wednesday to Friday in Cape Town, which Vice President Yemi Osinbajo had been expected to attend.
As relations between the two countries strain further, famous Nigerian entertainers have added their voices.
Singer Tiwa Savage canceled an upcoming performance over what she described in a tweet as “the barbaric butchering of my people,” while afrobeat star Burna Boy, who said in a tweet that he had not visited South Africa since 2017 after “xenophobic experiences,” vowed to never go to the country again until the government “wakes the fuck up and really performs a miracle.”
Xenophobic attacks resurfaced in South Africa at the start of the week: Angry mobs claiming that foreigners had taken jobs that should have been filled by locals looted and destroyed shops, properties, and vehicles. The country’s police said that five people were killed in the violence, which targeted many foreign-owned stores, and 189 people allegedly involved in the violence have been arrested.
The attacks began on Monday, a day after South African truckers started a nationwide strike to protest against the hiring of foreign drivers. Indigenous drivers mainly in the south-western KwaZulu-Natal province blocked roads and targeted foreign-driven vehicles. Riots then broke out in Jeppestown, a neighborhood in Johannesburg, and quickly spread to other areas.
Unemployment in South Africa is at its highest level since the labour force survey was introduced 11 years ago, with almost 28 percent of South Africans unemployed. Many locals blame African immigrants for taking their jobs.
“South Africans are mostly angry with Nigerians because they believe our businesses are expanding across their country,” Peter Amadi, a Nigerian who owns a clothing store in Johannesburg, told The Daily Beast via telephone. “I have personally been threatened by persons who have asked me to leave their country or prepare to face the consequences.”
Of the five killed at the start of the week, two were South African, leading to suggestions by a government officials that some of the violence was related to common crime. One of those killed was Zimbabwean, while the other two victims are yet to be identified. It is yet to be officially determined if any Nigerians were among the dead. But images on social media showing what purportedly are Nigerians being attacked and killed in South Africa has fueled anger across this West African nation, with many recalling the previous history of xenophobic attacks on Nigerians.
Sporadic attacks on immigrants have become commonplace over the last four years. Several people were killed in 2015, and thousands fled after xenophobic attacks across South Africa. In 2017, violent anti-immigrant demonstrations broke out in the capital Pretoria. Last April, protesters forced hundreds of foreigners from their homes and looted shops in Durban.
In the three years to July 2019, nearly 130 Nigerians have been killed in South Africa. At least 10 Nigerians were killed in the country between January and June 2019.
While xenophobic attacks may not be new in South Africa, the latest ugly events have attracted global media attention, and could change the way South African nationals are treated abroad. The government itself fears that could be the case.
"The attacks on people who run businesses from foreign nationals is totally unacceptable," South African President Cyril Ramaphosa warned on Tuesday. There can be “no justification whatsoever” he said, for South Africans to attack people from other countries, “because when they do so here, they should also know that fellow South Africans will be attacked in other countries.”