Opinion: Xenophobia – Why I won’t blame South Africa

by Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri

I think this is unfounded. In the wake of the governorship election held in Nigeria in April 2015, a Lagos traditional ruler, Oba Akiolu, bellowed at the Igbos in Lagos to vote for his preferred candidate or else they would be cast into the Lagos lagoon. It was a hate speech that has not been retracted till this day.

Is the black man inherently wicked? Is savagery ingrained in the anatomy of the black man? Is the melanin theory really rationally defensible? These are questions that go through my mind in my many moments of introspection. On October 5, 2012, four young Nigerians were beaten blue-black and burnt alive in Aluu community in Rivers State. Hundreds of onlookers watched as their fellow human beings groaned in pain, and experienced the most agonising death. There was not a single conscience pricked, nor a lone voice of reason among the cheering crowd that threw in a word of caution. Questions were asked later.

Recently, another video that went viral on the internet shows a Kenyan man mercilessly beating a young woman who allegedly stole an item from him. He then pulled a heavy stick and slammed it hard on her spinal cord. She fell and died instantly. He then dragged and dumped her body beside a gutter. He did this in broad daylight with a large crowd standing by and watching keenly. No one tried to stop him. Questions were asked later.

When Akayesu, the bourgmestre (mayor) of Rwanda’s Taba Commune made his famous inciting speech, the Hutus woke up one morning and instantly saw their Tustsi neighbours, friends, colleagues, and well-wishers who they had cohabited with for so many years as enemies. Just like that! There was no previous record of animosity or tension between them. The hatred button was automatically turned on for no just cause. Reason took flight! Before the world could realise what was happening, over 800,000 lives have been matcheted, hacked down, stabbed, axed, shot, raped and massacred using the most gruesome means available. Questions were asked later.

Or is it the 12 year old boy named Samuel that was accused of trying to kidnap a school child with N50? The mob watched as he was clubbed and then burnt to death. It was a painful death and the ghastliest way to die. Not a single person among the mob made an effort to restrain an act clearly steeped in barbarism. Questions were asked later.

Why are questions always asked after the fact?

Is it Congo, Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Gambia, Biafra and so forth…where haven’t we witnessed traumatising incidents that shocked global conscience? What was done to avoid a repeat? Do we ever get tired of saying “NEVER AGAINS?” I think the greatest hypocritical shouts of condemnation against the xenophobic attacks in South Africa have come from Nigeria. And there is no better time for these vociferous condemners of South Africa to, first of all, look at the man in the mirror.

I have seen arguments that attribute blackman-to-blackman savagery to poverty and illiteracy. I think this is unfounded. In the wake of the governorship election held in Nigeria in April 2015, a Lagos traditional ruler, Oba Akiolu, bellowed at the Igbos in Lagos to vote for his preferred candidate or else they would be cast into the Lagos lagoon. It was a hate speech that has not been retracted till this day. Nigerian online spaces instantly became infected with the hate fever, with people of various tribes hurling invectives and the bitterest words at one another. In that momentary fit of insanity, many forgot their best friends, wives, employers, customers and colleagues come from different tribes across Nigeria. Majority of those who indulged in the name-calling, defending the Oba’s barbaric vituperation are men and women who hold themselves out as “well-educated.”

Responding to an absorbing article regarding Akiolu’s hate speech authored by African amazon, Chimamanda Adichie, a lot of online commentary rained negative adjectives on her for airing her personal opinion. Authors of these contemptible flare-ups comprise men and women who also boast of “being well educated.” The decency to write a rejoinder was, as usual, never contemplated. Chimamanda’s offence was that she defended the right of Igbos to personal safety and dignity. She was abused for honouring a tribe she hails from, and is always proud to identify with in global circles where she continues to reign. Isn’t it so ironic that the bullies turned on Chimamanda, while totally ignoring the trigger factor: the Oba’s unfortunate statements? The after-the-fact- syndrome, is it?

Fights among intellectuals in the United States, for instance, are always welcomed. It is always a moment of great learning and erudition. Recently, Professors Jody Freeman and Richard Lazarus have been “fighting” with their former friend, Professor Lawrence Tribe, a former leading scholar in the environmental law and climate change movement. The bone of contention is the (un)constitutionality of the Obama Climate Plan which Professor Lawrence now thinks is unlawful. The fierce arguments and counter-arguments on both sides illuminate the brightest shades of intellection and scholarship. Students, scholars, government officials and the private sector have stood by and watched their “fights” in awe. There is so much to learn from both sides. What about the famous Pacificus and Helvidius debate that took place between two young Americans – James Madison and Alexander Hamilton – 200 years ago which continue to shape America’s foreign policy till date? Because dissent is the bedrock of democracy, in progressive societies, it is always welcomed.

Lets quickly turn the page to the recent Okonjo Iweala and Charles Soludo debate. An opportunity to enlighten the populace by providing detailed and rigorous analysis of the indicators of macro-economic governance in Nigeria was squandered. Instead, more than half of the epistles they exchanged were riddled with profanities, curses, and self-aggrandising diatribes. They are not ordinary Nigerians. They are not poor. They are in fact, among Nigeria’s best scholars, trained in the best of global institutions. They couldn’t have done that if they lived and worked abroad. They did that comfortably in Nigeria because regard for one another is alien to our nature. There is something within us that finds savagery acceptable once we are in the African continent.

Naturally, the craving for bad news in Nigeria is unprecedented. It makes people happy. That explains why the social media went agog when news broke out that a popular blogger’s website had been taken down. That bad news signals someone’s downfall, and calls for “widespread celebration.” Bad news are always anticipated, albeit, subconsciously and inadvertently. That again explains why its easy to believe a false, negative rumour about another person, even when the subject of the rumour is within our reach and the means of independent verification is available to us. Apart from mental laziness that is so pervasive, people fear that verifying the bad news may disprove or dispel the negativity which gives them so much joy. So, believing false rumours about people, hateful propaganda and bad news without interrogating them, and asking basic questions about the “what, how, when, and whys” forms part of the strategy for sustaining the “feel good” effects of bad news. Mindsets like this explain why wickedness and xenophobia thrive in Africa.

Social media has made it possible for people to hide under the banner of anonymity and spread hate and defame others. Because public confidence in the judiciary is so low and libel laws are so weak, its easy for people to wake up one morning and write fabricated epistles about people that they don’t know and have never met or seen before. Someone that has never seen you before can pen your biography and dot every sentence with bitterness, lies and unfathomable hatred. And such stories are believed because independent thinking and news-verification constitute enormous “hardwork” so foreign to our melanin nature. On what moral ground do such people shout and condemn xenophobia in faraway South Africa whilst ignoring the patches of envious darkness in their hearts and mounting sleaze in their own backyard?

Imagine if half of the energy dedicated towards negativity is applied towards devising new solutions to localised problems. At the slightest mosquito bite, everyone turns to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the UN mechanisms to help us solve basic problems we caused for ourselves, no thanks to our enduring cruelty and willful violence. Ideas about homegrown solutions are always forcefully resented. Private and public organisations would rather dish out press statements begging ICC to “come and help.” Imagine if a fraction of the time dissipated in manufacturing and spewing hatred is dedicated to innovative problem-solving. But NO, thinking is hard work. Developing solutions is better outsourced to the west and global institutions, while we busily revel in favourite pastimes of cruelty and bitterness. Later on, we turn around and complain about inequality and racial justice. Isn’t this so laughable?

I have taken an active part in the BLACKLIVESMATTER campaign and racial justice conversations at Harvard Law School. I have seized every opportunity to mount the podium to make strong representations in support of the movement for equality and justice. But each time I retire to my room, I ask myself a different set of questions: do black lives really matter to black people? Do they truly love and care about one another? The answers shock me.

I have decided not to condemn South Africa. In many hearts across Nigeria and Africa is xenophobia entrenched so firmly within, and just waiting to explode. I don’t have to wait to see dark thoughts harboured in many bitter hearts transform into gory images before I speak up. Xenophobia starts from the little acts of inhumanity towards another, whether in our acts, thoughts, conduct and public and private expressions. If unchallenged and unrestrained, they blossom into those images of violence we have seen in South Africa. Until we learn to challenge and overcome our inherent wickedness, collective irrationality and group senselessness, xenophobia will be here with us for a long time. Like I said earlier, before you condemn South Africa again, please, take a look at the man in the mirror.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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