A combination of stigmatisation, unemployment and desperate attempts to get the Golden Fleece abroad, makes Nigerians, some of who leave lucrative jobs and sell properties back home before travelling, frustrated and vulnerable to all sorts of crimes in South Africa
By ADEJUWON SOYINKA/Johannesburg
He is by every standard a successful Nigerian businessman resident in South Africa. His company, a construction firm, employs about 40 permanent staff including South Africans and other nationals as well as a pool of another 60 non-skilled workers who are engaged for the duration of any project his firm is handling.
Apart from running a company that he says is worth about ZNR20 million (South Africa Rands), Chibuike Okeugiri, construction engineer and president, Ohaneze Ndigbo, South Africa as well as chairman of Nigerian Regional Leaders Forum, South Africa is 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 slightly 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 [behind that is] 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. He said it all happened while he was away to Nigeria where he was attending the burial of his uncle. “While I was away, South African policemen for no just reasons broke into my premises without a search warrant and tore every place open and nobody was there and then eventually 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 however not one to allow such infractions go unchallenged. “When I came back, I decided to pursue a legal action against the South African police for that act. You know for such a behaviour, some Nigerians will just let it go for fear of more intimidation by the police but then we are not trying to encourage that. The more we try to get the government to understand that what their police is doing is not right, the better for the Nigerians because if we all keep quiet it will become the norm,” 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 estates.
But this did not prevent him from getting a taste of the South African police’s “hospitality.” Sometime in February 2011, Okoye said the policemen stormed his office premises in Central Pretoria and held him hostage for over six hours while searching through the office. “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 an incriminating evidence but because I am a Nigerian, they subjected me to ill treatment; they seized my goods and invited the press to come in and the media had their own views because what the police told them was that my goods were imported illegally and I do not have proper permit to import. This was in spite of the fact that I tried to explain to them and gave them documents that were available in my office, they still refused and embarrassed me hugely.”
In view of this, the following day, he said South African newspapers were awash with stories of a Nigerian drug syndicate that was busted by the South African police. “Still that was not enough, they seized my goods and the customs did all the checks they could because they were under pressure from the police to find something wrong and that made the customs to withhold my goods for about two weeks again and I appealed to them that I was losing business and money as well. 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 apologised to me,” Okoye said.
So why did he not claim damages for the losses incurred as a result of that raid and the infraction of the police? Okoye said, “As a foreigner I accepted my fate. I am not trying to press charges for damages and for lost opportunities because as a foreigner I fear for further attacks because 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. “They could plant something on you and then turn round to conduct a search and find it and they could even kill you. What they say here is that a dead man has no right in South Africa. So some of us carry firearms around and we are licensed to carry firearms,” Okeugiri said. 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 organisation 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 that says no 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? Legally there is nothing like that but they used that campaign especially in Johannesburg to discriminate a lot against Nigerians.”
In one of such instances, Ekene Mbakwe, a 38-year-old Nigerian was standing, waiting for 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. “The case was brought to our office and we engaged on it as an organisation. At a stage the South African police wanted to negotiate with us but still we refused the negotiation and the case is still in court,” Okeugiri said.
There was also the case of Jude Okorie, a 35-year-old Nigerian. He had a shop where he runs a small business in Johannesburg. One day the police came to his shop looking for another Nigerian. He identified himself and they discovered that he was not the one they were looking for. But 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 organisation 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 an estate agent to a suburb of Johannesburg to look at a property when tragedy struck. “He drove into the area and parked waiting for the estate agent. Where he parked, 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 offence.
That is why Adedapo Adesanmi, national president, National Association of Yoruba Descendants in Southern Africa, said the best thing is for a foreigner to ensure that the police or anyone else does not kill him. “Life is so cheap here, they will just kill you and they will be released on bail while a good lawyer will help them to look for loopholes in order to wriggle out of the case,” he said. Adesanmi, who runs a property development and management company in South Africa said when he first came into the country, he was arrested by the police on false accusation, from jealous business competitors.
“At that time, I was into barbing salon business and I would carry placard and stand on the streets to encourage people to come and patronise me. Meanwhile the South Africans who were also doing the same business will just sit there and expect customers to come to them. So when they were not getting customers they became jealous. They lied that I was assaulting them verbally and the police came to arrest me. That happened a number of times and usually they would arrest me on a Friday so that on Saturdays and Sundays when most people usually come around to barb their hair, I would be in detention until Monday when the courts will sit and I will appear before a magistrate who will eventually throw the case out because the police will not be able to present any criminal case against me,” he said. This happened a couple of times until the magistrate warned the police never to bring me to court on such charges again.
“The judicial system is okay but the problem is with the prosecution and the police. The enforcement arm is open to abuse because their policemen are now exposed to what they call “jojo” which is bribe. We have seen instances where police plant drugs in the cars of people and then arrest them for drug possession especially if they know that you are a Nigerian. Once they do that you will then have to look for a lot of money in order for them to get you out of the problem,” he said. Confirming this, Okeugiri said the South African police in fact call Nigerians, automated teller machines, ATMs. “A Nigerian is the ATM because they say that once you touch a Nigerian, money will come out”.
Allegations of corruption against the South African police remain widespread in the country. In fact, Jacob Selebi, popularly known as ‘Jackie’, the immediate past South African National police commissioner, the equivalent of the inspector general of police in Nigeria was arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for 15 years over involvement in unlawful and corrupt property deals. He was only recently released from prisons on parole on health grounds. However, Mangwashi Phiyega, the first female South African National police commissioner, who replaced the disgraced police chief has promised to check the excesses of the police and also curb rising cases of corruption within the force.
Such promises notwithstanding, Nigerians continue to bear the brunt of envy from South African business competitors; a scenario which also extends to regulated professions like law and medicine. 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 even situations where I would have to bring my qualifications to court just to clear the air. 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.
A similar scenario also recently played out in the medical profession where two Nigerian doctors were erroneously arrested and paraded as fake doctors on national television. Ogboro who represented the two doctors in court explained that Rasheed Aremu and Akinloye Eweoya were arrested by the police who accused them of not being qualified to practice. Ogboro said the two doctors own a number of clinics in different parts of Pretoria and Johannesburg and employ other Nigerian doctors. He said they ran into trouble when they accommodated two Nigerian doctors who had just arrived South Africa and were waiting to write an examination with which they would regularise their papers and then become fully qualified to practice as doctors in South Africa. Even that is not an offence.
“Before you write the board examinations in South Africa to regularise your practice, you join an established firm or surgery. All nationalities do the same thing ranging from Cubans to Portuguese, Zambians, Congolese, Zimbabweans, they all do it,” Ogboro said.
The matter went to court and according to Ogboro, “I wrote to the embassy and the embassy wrote to the schools they attended in Nigeria, the Nigerian Medical and Dental Council also sent a lot of verification and there is a body they registered with in the US which also sent letters identifying them and to cut the long story short, they found that these guys were well qualified. So they dropped the charges against them but look at the damage and the disgrace they had given them because they are Nigerians.”
Ogboro sees the South African media as unfriendly and quick to accuse Nigerians of any crime in the country without taking the pain to verify. “Once anything happens, the headlines you will see the next day are that ‘Nigerian fraudster’ arrested even when it may later turn out that the person arrested is not even a Nigerian at all.” The lawyer is not in any case saying that Nigerians do not sometimes get involved in criminal activities in that country. But he said “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 and at other times for reasons of actual crimes committed by some other Nigerians or people of other nationalities who parade themselves as Nigerians. 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. Let’s take a country like China for instance, if any Chinese man is doing something here, 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. Even your landlord that you are paying rent to will want to understand how does this man pay rent without going to work? So already you have given yourself a tag,” Okeugiri said.
That is not the only thing that makes Nigerians vulnerable. Hear Adesanmi, “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 and that is 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. “And the reason is very simple, when you see the kinds of crime some Nigerians get themselves into in this country, you will not want to be identified with them,” Okoye said. 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. In this respect, he gave the example of 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 even came to South Africa in the first place which he says, easily predisposes them to crimes. And he is right. There are many who 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.
In fact, the magazine learnt that almost on a daily basis, some 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 illegal immigrants in South Africa actually do so by travelling first to Kenya due to the relatively relaxed immigration policy in that country. From Kenya, they then proceed on the journey to South Africa by walking across the land borders of Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi and Botswana. Sometimes, this is a journey that takes an average of about six months and it is fraught with a lot of dangers.
By the time they finally make it to South Africa, such Nigerians then suddenly realise that the grass is not as green, on the other side, as they had thought. Faced with unemployment and lack of proper documentation to stay in the country, many of those in this category then resort to all sorts of crimes including drug peddling, armed robbery, gun running and fraud. Many of them, especially the men, also deliberately seek out South African women for marriage as a means of ensuring that they get naturalised as South African citizens.
If they stopped at that, the story would have been a little understandable. But they usually don’t. In most cases, the magazine learnt that many of them end up abandoning their South African women and children almost as soon as they get the South African citizenship. 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 even get so mean as to 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 for 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.”
Incidents like this, says Okoye, make it difficult for the average South African to trust Nigerians. Okoye who says he met and married his South African wife of 17 years long before deciding to relocate to South Africa, told the magazine that his marriage and motive for marrying a South African is still often viewed with suspicion by South Africans.
As far as Ogboro is concerned, what really gets Nigerians into crimes in South Africa is the lack of employment opportunities. For instance, he said despite the fact that he studied law in South Africa; it was difficult for him to get a place to serve his Articles of Clerkship, which is a prerequisite for getting registered 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. He was paid a percentage of cases he brought into the chambers. Such treatment, added to the high hopes of a greener pasture with which many Nigerians left their motherland even selling their property before travelling, ensures that they are suddenly left frustrated, unable to return home, lonely and vulnerable to all sorts of crimes.
But Ogboro says unemployment is not a tenable excuse for getting involved in crimes. “You just have to be disciplined, have a focus and know your objectives and what you want to aim at because we all have a choice. When leaving home you should always have at the back of your mind what you want to go and do where you are going. Don’t just go aimlessly,” he said. He explained that artisans like plumbers, mechanics, carpenters, electricians and cobblers are really engaged in South Africa.
While agreeing with Ogboro, 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 in such a country. “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 explained that what the Igbo did was to organise themselves as a group and ensured that they mobilised at least three buses filled with Nigerians many of whom have licenced guns to barricade any settlement with a predominance of Nigerians during xenophobic attacks.
He added that, “this is why I said that we hope that the current high commissioner (Ambassador Sonni Yusuf) will live up to expectations. It is either we have a mission or we don’t have a mission. The people in the missions cannot come here receiving salaries on behalf of Nigerians and then do nothing for Nigerians. 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 of the magazine to get the missions to respond to such allegations proved abortive as several calls, voice and text messages to the telephone line of Okey Emuchay, Nigeria’s consul general to Johannesburg initially went unanswered. A visit to the consulate in Johannesburg on Monday, July 30 also did not yield any result as Emuchay was unavailable having travelled out of South Africa while officials at the consulate advised the magazine to send an electronic mail for inquiries to which they have also not responded as at the time of going to press.
While agreeing with the fact that Nigerian embassies in different parts of the world often fail to protect the interest of Nigerians wherever they are, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, chairman, House of Representatives Committee on the Diaspora, however, said it will be unfair to generalise and say all Nigerian embassies are equally guilty. “Some are doing better than the others. Some have more challenges than the others,” she said.
Considering the enormity of the issues involving Nigerians in the Diaspora, Dabiri-Erewa 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 licenced gun and feel more comfortable in spite of his huge investments in South Africa however remains only a question time alone can answer.