SOUTH AFRICA MUST COMPENSATE VICTIMS, PUNISH PERPETRATORS ~ SENATE COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN, AJIBOLA BASIRU
The Chairman, Senate Committee on Diaspora, Non-Governmental Organisations and Civil Society Organisations, Senator Ajibola Basiru, speaks to FEMI MAKINDE on incessant attacks on Nigerians and other foreigners in South Africa among other sundry issues
What is your view about how Nigerians and other foreigners are being attacked in South Africa?
The act is condemnable like most people have said and it is a concern to us that there is a breakdown of law and order in South Africa. It is the obligation of a state to ensure the security of lives and property of those residing there, either they are citizens or foreigners. There appears to be a failure on the part of the South African government to protect those living in the country. The other dimension to this is the xenophobic attacks but whether the attack is xenophobic or not, nobody should be allowed to take the law into their own hands. So, as it is now the Nigerian government needs to engage the South African government that it must fulfil its obligations under international law to ensure the safety of lives within its territory. There have been attacks against Nigerians in the past and it appears that there have not been serious efforts to bring the attackers to book to serve as a deterrent to others. It is very important for the Nigerian government to insist that this is about law and order and that the perpetrators must be brought to justice. If Nigerians are culpable in any regard, resorting to self-help and attacking them is not the civilised thing to do. We think that the Nigerian government will insist that the legal rights of its citizens and all other Africans in the country will be respected and that they should be allowed to live peacefully and their lives are not put in danger under any guise in South Africa.
Do you agree with the claims that the xenophobic attacks have the tacit approval of the South African government?
I don’t believe this and I know that it will be irresponsible of any government to set its citizens against the citizens of other countries. I know that cannot be their policy but what is apparent is that there is a failure on the part of the South African government to fulfil its obligations of maintaining law and order in its society. What is of concern is that it appears the insecurity in South Africa is also symptomatic of the xenophobic attack. If you have law and order in a society, such incidents will not be occurring without efforts by the government to arrest the situation but I don’t believe that it is a state policy to set South Africans against foreign nationals in the country. I think President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa is somebody, who is well grounded and he knows the implications of having a diplomatic row with a country like Nigeria.
Should compensation be paid to the victims of these attacks?
Of course yes. Compensation should be paid to the families of those killed, those maimed should also be compensated as well as those whose properties and businesses were destroyed. It can’t be put to question and in order to atone for what has happened, compensation should be paid. If people laboured for years to build houses or businesses and such now come under reckless attacks, then the victims deserve to be compensated. Compensation is one of the things that must be put on the table by the Nigerian government and they must insist that it must be paid. Another important thing is that there must be deterrent, the perpetrators must be apprehended. This is important if only to serve as a deterrent to others and to show that South Africans are not in sync with those reckless persons that took the law into their own hands. The government must, apart from paying compensation, invoke its criminal justice system to deal with such people and to ensure that whoever is found culpable is brought to justice.
Why do you think the African Union has been silent on the xenophobic attack in South Africa?
I think it is symptomatic of the challenge of the AU itself as an entity. When it was Organisation for African Unity, it used to be said that the OAU could only bark but not bite. But it appears that the African Union can neither bark nor bite and this is unfortunate. It is unfortunate because this issue borders on security. South Africa is a multi-ethnic and multi-racial society and it has within its territory a large number of nationals of other African countries and the number of Nigerians in the country is put at about 800,000 people, and that is a large number. If you now have the families of such people taking the law into their own hands against South Africans in their country, it will not augur well for their security and stability. I thought the African Union should have been at the forefront of ensuring that the actions are documented and remediation is requested from the South African government.
How has the Nigerian government reacted to the situation so far?
So far, the actions of the Nigerian government are okay and they are the things expected from any civilised government. I do not agree with what some people are saying because a government cannot take actions based on emotions. You have to look at the Principle of Reciprocity in international law and also ensure that whatever measures being taken will be beneficial to Nigerians especially those of them who are in South Africa. I am aware that we have a large number of intellectuals in that country and scholars as well as professionals in almost all facets of life in that country. I believe that the steps taken so far about boycotting the World Economic Forum in South Africa and some other things including considering a recall of the High Commissioner to South Africa will make South Africa know that Nigeria is not treating the issue with kid’s gloves this time round.
But you cannot talk about economic sanctions without looking at what will be the implication even on our economy. We also have investments in some of the businesses owned by South Africans. We cannot go to the era of the Cold War where people just talk of economic sanctions. Nigerians have large investments in South Africa as well. They have investments in the real estate sector and other sectors of their economy. It is not a clear cut thing. It will be hasty to be talking about economic sanctions or nationalising the companies at this time.
Will you say the actions taken by the Nigerian government against the attacks on its nationals not coming too late?
It is not too late. The President of the Senate, Senator Ahmed Lawan, met with the South African High Commissioner to Nigeria in July and August this year to raise this issue. Also, when the Minister of Foreign Affairs appears before the Ninth Senate for screening, he explained the various steps that the government had taken before that time. Concerning the killing of a businessman in South African some weeks ago, there was an arrest of four policemen in the country for murder. I am aware that steps should be taken but they must be taken in such a way that it will not negatively affect the relationship between the two countries and even our people in South Africa.
There is this belief that Nigerians troop abroad because our economy is in a bad shape. Do you think this is the reason?
That is a very ridiculous and laughable claim. All over the world, people travel for many reasons. There are Americans in Nigeria, there are Canadians here, Chinese are here and nationals of countries with very good economies. Are we saying they came here because their countries are not good? I agree that we need to fix our infrastructure and make our country work, but many countries train their nationals and they travel out and send remittances to their home countries. So, it is ridiculous to say that Nigerians travel abroad because the country has its challenges.
As a senator from the South-West of this country, how do you view the government’s efforts to tackle insecurity in the region?
From the point of conception, I think they are going to achieve their aim but it depends on implementation. The efforts are commendable. The idea that there will be collaboration among security forces and that there will be a joint patrol of major highways in the South-West, as well as the involvement of the South-West governors to establish the Western Nigeria Security Network which has been approved by the Office of the National Security Adviser, is laudable. These are all efforts that are commendable but beyond these, there are so many issues that should be addressed to tackle this insecurity issue. You can’t have centralised police in a country like Nigeria. Secondly, there is a shortage of personnel in the police force. The total number of all our security personnel put together is said to be less than a million in a country with a population of between 180 and 200 million people. You also talk about intelligence gathering and the capabilities of our security agencies. Also, the lack of an adequate supply of electricity is a major problem in tackling security challenges. Our land tenure system is another problem because when you travel on the road, after the last house in any town, you will see a large expanse of land that is not cultivated. These are the places where criminals use as their hideouts. Lands are left fallow without anybody putting them to productive use.
Do you support the establishment of state police to tackle security challenges in the country?
Yes of course. There are compelling reasons to consider state police to tackle insecurity in the country. The only argument against state police is that there is a propensity for it to be used to oppress the opposition. To guide against this, there must be the rule of law in place and the independence of the judiciary. Even the federal police is a veritable instrument for oppression. For me, in the interest of security, there is an urgent need for state police in Nigeria.
How will the lack of an adequate supply of electricity affect security?
I have had the opportunity of travelling to other countries and I know that there is a connection between an adequate supply of electricity and security. It will be difficult for criminals to operate even at night if the roads are well illuminated. Absence of electricity is a problem and devices like closed-circuit cameras cannot do much without power supply. The question of power needs to be sorted out in order to effectively tackle the insecurity problem in Nigeria. Our highways should be lighted to enable people to travel without fear. This will even have a positive effect on our productivity as a nation because people will be able to travel at any time of the day without being afraid