Two weeks ago, rumours began to surface that black South African citizens were grouping to stage attacks on African immigrants resident in the country. The rumours suggested that long held, stereotypical sentiments that Nigerian immigrants were usurping citizens and stealing their healthcare and social privileges and engaging in criminal acts. On Monday, September 2nd, South Africans went into action, vandalizing the personal properties of African immigrants, and even killing immigrants via arson. The news would trigger formal sanctions from Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and trigger riots in Nigeria, with flames of discord stoked through social media and other viral messaging.
This week saw a wave of looting and violence mostly targeting nationals of other African countries in South Africa.
— BBC News Africa (@BBCAfrica) September 7, 2019
But it also brought to the fore, the reluctance of Nigerian and South African governments to tackle the problem headlong and find viable solutions. The South African government released a statement after the attacks vowing to find the perpetrators even though information was available for them to have thwarted the attacks in the first place. The Nigerian also knew that reprisal attacks would happen across Nigeria and did little to prevent them. Even the government’s decision to official withdraw from the World Economic Forum summit which happened two days after South Africa’s attacks came after intense pressure from citizens.
Professor Oby Ezekwesili chose to attend the World Economic Forum as a private citizen with a clearly defined plan. The World Economic Forum is a global summit which attracts international press and provided a unique opportunity to directly address the xenophobia and wrest the narrative from reticent governments and foreign press.
To gain maximal attention, Prof. Ezekwesili convinced WEF founder Prof. Klaus Schwabb and Africa CEO of the WEF Elsie Kansa to offer her a special panel to discuss Africa’s economic future and how xenophobia harms that future. She impressed on them why they can no longer separate the church from the state and now urgently must deal with this deep seated issue that keeps rearing its ugly head with heavy effects in the business community. They also discussed how stereotypes are fostered and what both governments must do to dispel them. Her special session was incisive, direct to point and showed her layered understanding of the continent’s problems and her theories on how to address them.
Ezekwesili, always one to engage constructively with every opportunity, began a conversation that challenged the WEF to become more involved in Africa’s economic growth by understanding and solving its problems in ways that show understanding contextualization of how its culture and evolution have influenced the continent’s trajectory. She spoke to Africa as a whole to look inwards and solve its problems, and reduce its reliance on external help and intervention to provide viable solutions. Fearless and articulate, Oby Ezekwesili’s time at the WEF this year moved important conversations. It is a lesson for us all.