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Africa’s Powerhouses Trade Barbs After S. Africa Xenophobic Attacks

Men stand against a wall as police officers search their room during a raid at an Alexandra township hostel considered a hot spot for anti-immigrant attacks in Johannesburg, South Africa, April 23, 2015.
Men stand against a wall as police officers search their room during a raid at an Alexandra township hostel considered a hot spot for anti-immigrant attacks in Johannesburg, South Africa, April 23, 2015.

Nigeria and South Africa are no strangers to bilateral spats, ranging from the depiction of Nigerians in the film District 9 to “fake” yellow fever certificates. Now, following the recent wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Nigeria has recalled its diplomatic chiefs from Pretoria, drawing the ire of the South African government.

The South African government has criticized Nigeria’s decision to pull its senior envoys from Pretoria amid a wave of xenophobic attacks on foreigners and foreign-owned businesses.

The governments of Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique have repatriated hundreds of their citizens following the unrest, but Nigeria is the first to take such drastic diplomatic action.

Nigeria's envoys

Nigeria’s government says it did not formally recall its envoys, saying they were asked to return to Nigeria for “routine consultations."

That has done little, though, to stop the sharp exchanges. The South African Foreign Ministry released a statement this week reminding Nigeria of its failure to stop the Boko Haram insurgency that has killed thousands. It also recalled Nigeria’s mismanagement following the collapse of a church hostel in Lagos last year that killed 84 South Africans.

"We did not blame the Nigerian government for the deaths and more than nine months delay in the repatriation of the bodies of our fallen compatriots …” the ministry said.

The recent sparring exposes a complicated relationship between the continent’s two economic powerhouses.

Their open disagreement over who should chair the African Union in 2012 culminated in deportations of each other’s citizens who were accused of faking yellow fever vaccination cards.

District 9, a South African science fiction film set in Johannesburg depicting Nigerians as criminals and cannibals, was dubbed an insult. Censors later banned the film in Nigeria.

Jockeying for position

The much-touted inclusion of South Africa as the latest member of the BRICS club of emerging countries [Brazil, Russia, India and China] and its self-promotion as the “gateway to Africa” often riles Nigeria, which overtook South Africa to become the continent’s largest economy in 2014.

Professor Shadrack Gutto from the University of South Africa said both countries are eyeing a permanent African seat on the U.N. Security Council.

“I believe that some of this is stretching their muscles to indicate who is a better representative of Africa," said Gutto. "I believe that what Nigeria is doing is to really be seen to be exaggerating this xenophobia so that South Africa’s image is tarnished on the continent.”

While diplomatic relations have remained cool, business links in the past decade have grown. Between 2004 and 2010, South Africa’s investment in Nigeria grew fivefold. South African telecom firm MTN derives 37 percent of its revenues from Nigeria, where there are twice as many subscribers as there are in South Africa.

Last week, Nigerians gathered outside MTN offices in Kaduna to protest the violence against foreigners in South Africa. One of the protesters, Yusuf Amoke, threatened to attack South African businesses in Nigeria.

"If South Africans are not ashamed, if South Africans are not reasonable enough not to kill our people, not to destroy our businesses, then we Nigerians will also not be reasonable enough to leave their businesses to survive in Nigeria," said Amoke.

Despite the hostile rhetoric bouncing between the two countries, this recent tempest may be tempered with a change of presidents in Nigeria, according to Gutto.

Ibrahima Yakubu contributed information to this report from Kaduna, Nigeria.