To Be a Nigerian in South Africa

For Nigerians who have migrated halfway down the continent to the comparative prosperity of South Africa, their adopted country can be a hard and brutal place. Nigerians often face racism in South Africa and elsewhere, where they are considered disreputable and dishonest. Official corruption and violence, even against relatively well off immigrants, is rampant and often deadly.

He is by every standard a successful Nigerian businessman and resident in South Africa. Apart from running a company that he says is worth about ZNR20 million (South Africa Rands), Chibuike Okeugiri, construction engineer, is president of Ohaneze Ndigbo, South Africa, as well as chairman of the Nigerian Regional Leaders Forum. He is also married to a South African; he is a card-carrying member of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), contributed financially to the electoral success of the ANC at the last presidential election and has resided in the country for over 11 years.

Impressive as these credentials may look, Okeugiri says the fact that he is a Nigerian still makes things difficult for him in South Africa. “You know quite well that a Nigerian is already found guilty before trial in most countries. So, just by the name Nigerian, in a country like South Africa where there is a high level of xenophobia, you are looked at even when you are running a legitimate business as if there are other things sustaining you and not the business you claim you are doing,” Okeugiri said.

And he sure has good reasons for saying so. Sometime in April 2012, the South African police treated Okeugiri to a raw deal. “While I was away [in Nigeria], South African policemen, for no just reasons broke into my premises without a search warrant and… instead of even conducting a search they started stealing items like laptops and desktop computers. They broke my safe with the anticipation that as a Nigerian they will see drugs there… once they see you drive one or two nice cars they just assume that this man must have some ‘other’ means.”

Okeugiri is not one to allow such infractions go unchallenged. “When I came back, I decided to pursue legal action against the South African police for that act. You know for such behavior, some Nigerians will just let it go for fear of more intimidation by the police,” he said.

Whereas he chose to challenge the South African police in court, the same cannot be said of Chuks Okoye, another Nigerian businessman who has been in South Africa since 1997. Also married to a South African, Okoye owns a number of stores within Pretoria and Johannesburg apart from his investments in real estate.

In February 2011, Okoye said the policemen stormed his offices in Central Pretoria and held him hostage for over six hours while searching through the premises. “While the operation lasted, they changed sniffer dogs at least three times, each time believing that the sniffer dogs were not sensitive enough since they couldn’t sniff out drugs as they had expected,” Okoye said.

He added that, “apparently they came with a view that as a Nigerian I probably may be dealing in drugs or stolen goods. Fortunately when they searched my premises they could not find any incriminating evidence but because I am a Nigerian they subjected me to ill treatment.” Goods were seized from Okoye’s business and the press was invited to witness the embarrassing scene.

The following day, he said South African newspapers were awash with stories of a Nigerian drug syndicate that was busted by the police. Okoye’s business suffered after the incident and he was also imprisoned. “They locked me up for some days only to go to court and the case was discharged because there was no basis. The court even apologized to me,” Okoye said.

So why did he not claim damages for the losses incurred? Okoye explained: “I am not trying to press charges for damages and for lost opportunities because as a foreigner I fear for further attacks; people might lose their jobs if I do press for damages.” That exactly is where Okeugiri differs. He too is aware of the dangers of taking on the South African police in court, but he is willing to give it a fight. He added that, “in most cases when a Nigerian is killed here, the police never come out with any meaningful investigation. So many Nigerians have died here and nobody takes the pain to investigate the cause of their death. In fact you can get a bail of ZNR 1,000 for murder and you may not get a bail of ZNR 10,000 for fraud.”

Once again, Okeugiri speaks from experience. As leader of the Ohaneze Ndigbo in South Africa, his organization currently handles a number of cases in court involving the shooting of Nigerians by the South African police. For instance, he said, “There was a time the South African police launched a campaign against illegal standing. But in the real sense of it, speaking legally, how do you determine illegal standing and how do you define somebody to be illegally standing?”

In one of such instance, Ekene Mbakwe, a 38-year-old Nigerian, was waiting for a taxi in the Hillbrow area of Johannesburg when he was accosted by the South African police, who shot him in the course of an argument, resulting in the loss of an eye.

There was the case of Jude Okorie, a 35-year-old Nigerian. One day the police came to his shop in Johannesburg looking for another Nigerian. After identifying himself, they discovered that he was not the one they were looking for. Shortly after that something bizarre happened. “One of the policemen said he had been longing to shoot a Nigerian and he wanted to start with him (Okorie) and he shot him. This happened in Hillbrow about two years ago. He was shot in the stomach but he survived. In this matter like several others, we (Ohaneze Ndigbo) as an organization have taken the South African police to court to ensure that there is a fair judgment. The policemen involved were arrested and later came out on bail. But we are very hopeful that we are going to get something positive out of all these court cases,” Okeugiri said.

Whereas, Okorie is hopeful about getting reprieve from the courts, Theophilus Anonefie can no longer have such hopes. He was killed. He was said to be looking for a house to buy and had followed a real estate agent to a suburb of Johannesburg to look at a property. “He drove into the area and parked waiting for the estate agent… the police sighted him and they asked him what he was doing in that particular area. He explained that he came to view a property that he wanted to buy and in the course of the argument one of the policemen shot him and he died,” Okeugiri said. Anonefie left behind a wife and a child. The policemen who killed him were granted bail because the South African judicial system ensures that murder is a bailable offense.

Allegations of corruption against the South African police remain widespread in the country. Jacob Selebi, former South African National police commissioner, was arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for 15 years over involvement in unlawful and corrupt property deals. Mangwashi Phiyega, the first female South African National police commissioner, Selebi’s replacement, has promised to check the excesses of the police and curb rising cases of corruption within the force.

Such promises notwithstanding, Nigerians continue to bear the brunt of envy from South African business competitors. In this respect, Omoregie Ogboro, a Nigerian lawyer based in Pretoria, says he is a living example. “Even as a South African-trained lawyer, I still face problems in practice. I have to prove myself beyond doubt as an attorney… There are instances where I make appearances in courts where they cannot believe that a Nigerian can appear as a lawyer. So then the matter will be stood down and I will be invited into the chambers and asked to introduce myself and I will have to show my qualifications,” said Ogboro who has lived in South Africa for 12 years.

Ogboro sees the South African media as unfriendly and quick to accuse Nigerians of crime without taking pains to verify. The lawyer is not saying that Nigerians do not sometimes get involved in criminal activities, that, “if you compare the number of Nigerians who are into crimes here with those that are doing legitimate business and doing very well, you will discover that the whole thing is deliberately blown out of proportion.”

Arguments such as Ogboro’s notwithstanding, the average Nigerian in South Africa is still seen first as a potential criminal, sometimes due to racial profiling. So what is it about the Nigerian that makes him vulnerable to such suspicions? “I can say that Nigerians are very loud people. You see even in the criminal world here, if you talk about drugs, Nigerians are not doing drugs more than some other countries here but because of their lifestyle it becomes difficult to identify those illegal dealings. If any Chinese man (in South Africa) is doing something, he must have a shop, he must have a business place so when you ask him what he does he has something to show. But for most Nigerians here, they could have the money to open up businesses but then they don’t find it relevant to do that. They would rather prefer to drive very big cars and dress smartly and live in the suburbs but in the morning they sit down at home… So already you have given yourself a tag,” Okeugiri said.

That is not the only thing that makes Nigerians vulnerable. Adedapo Adesanmi, president of the National Association of Yoruba Descendants in Southern Africa says, “Nigerians still come here to South Africa with the mentality that they can do anything and get away with it. You will find that Nigerians don’t obey traffic rules because following rules has not been a part of us as Nigerians. These are some of the value erosions that we have suffered over the years as Nigerians and it is affecting us.”

Talking about value erosion, Okoye said it is so bad that sometimes he finds it difficult identifying himself as a Nigerian. The businessman added that some unscrupulous Nigerians even go as far as generally seizing control of some parts of Johannesburg turning the area into a drug and crime haven. One example is Hillbrow, a suburb of Johannesburg that is now so prominent for drug peddling and other related crimes. Okoye attributes such desperation to the manner in which some Nigerians came to South Africa; many left lucrative jobs, sold houses and cars in Nigeria before relocating to South Africa without a clear idea of what to expect where they were headed.

Almost on a daily basis, Nigerians embark on a tortuous journey across deserts and land borders in search of greener pasture. For instance, investigations reveal that a good number of Nigerians who are immigrate illegally to South Africa do so by travelling first to Kenya due to the relatively relaxed immigration policy in that country. From Kenya, they proceed on the journey to South Africa by walking across the land borders of Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi and Botswana. The journey can take an average of six months and is fraught with danger.

Faced with unemployment and the lack of proper documentation to stay in the country, many Nigerians resort to all sorts of crimes including drug peddling, armed robbery, gun running and fraud. Many of them, especially the men, deliberately seek out South African women for marriage as a means of ensuring that they get naturalized as South African citizens.

Meanwhile, South African men are often envious of their Nigerian counterparts for getting the attention of their women, yet they end up breaking their hearts. “In fact, it can even be worse than that,” says Asanda Dlamini, a South African lady from the Eastern Cape Town area. She explained that some Nigerian men use their South African girlfriends or wives for drug peddling and even prostitution. “I have a friend who married a Nigerian man and had a son with him. But the man introduced her to drugs and then started taking money from her in exchange for drugs. At a point she was fired at the bank where she was working and blacklisted from the banking industry.” Dlamini added that, “the man turned their matrimonial home into a brothel and was taking money from people who came to sleep with his wife in exchange for giving her drugs. Eventually he sold everything the family had and left the lady, who by then had become HIV positive, with nothing.”

As far as Ogboro is concerned, what really gets Nigerians into crimes in South Africa is the lack of employment opportunities. For instance, despite the fact that he studied law in South Africa, it was difficult for him to find a place to serve his Articles of Clerkship, which is a prerequisite for registration as a lawyer in South Africa. “Where I served my articles was a place owned by attorneys that I knew right from when I was in school and I used to bring them jobs. Even at that, the practice is that lawyers serving their articleship are paid by the law firm they are serving but in my own case I was the one paying the law firm,” Ogboro said.

Okeugiri believes that even when the Nigerian is into legitimate business, his interest in a foreign land still needs to be adequately protected by the embassy or Diplomatic Mission of Nigeria. “That is one of the challenges we have here. During the last xenophobic attack (2008), Nigerians protected themselves by themselves. There was nothing the mission did,” Okeugiri said.

He added that, “this is why I said that we hope that the current high commissioner (Ambassador Sonni Yusuf) will live up to expectations… The Gabonese high commission and those of other smaller countries here take full responsibility for their citizens here. If a citizen dies, they make sure that the case is properly investigated and his corpse sent home. But not in our own case here. Most Nigerians have been buried in mass graves here.”

Nigeria has two primary missions in South Africa, the Nigerian high commission in Pretoria and the consul general in Johannesburg. Efforts to get the missions to respond to such allegations proved abortive and several calls, voice and text messages to the telephone line of Okey Emuchay, Nigeria’s consul general to Johannesburg, initially went unanswered.

Considering the enormity of the issues involving Nigerians, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on the Diaspora, says, “We need a Diaspora Commission with a focused, result-oriented person as head. It’s a large population of Nigerians in the Diaspora and it’s a lot of work. And our embassies also need to be a little bit more responsive, maybe better communication strategies can help.”

Whether this advice, if implemented, will help the likes of Okeugiri to stop moving around with a licensed gun and feel more comfortable in spite of his huge investments in South Africa, remains only a question time alone can answer.

Adejuwon Soyinka