For the 187 Nigerians who returned home from South Africa on Wednesday, it is time to thank God for sparing their lives from the jaws of death impelled by xenophobic attacks in the rainbow country. For many of them it was a tough decision, but one they had to take after their horrendous encounters with militants in the former apartheid enclave, just like their counterparts from other African countries like Zambian, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
From their testimonies, their plight was a case of search for greener pastures turning sour. Besides the dislocation returning home will cause them, the mental agony of having to count their losses is an eternal torture. The returnees from different parts of the country said they had been running from pillar to post to escape attacks as they made their ways from different parts of South Africa into Johannesburg to be documented for return to their country of birth.
They said they responded to the presidential directive that all Nigerians in South Africa return home, as the Nigerian authorities in Johannesburg had commenced documentation of the affected nationals preparatory to their return home. The process of their return had been accelerated by the gesture of indigenous carrier, Air Peace, which deployed its Boeing 777 aircraft to bring back hundreds of Nigerians who were trapped in the xenophobic conundrum.
As the aircraft arrived South Africa in the early hours of Wednesday, more than 320 Nigerians who were set to return home were subjected to security checks by Immigration authorities, who required them to carry out fresh set of biometrics and subjected them to other humiliating experiences, delaying them for 15 hours before they could embark on the six-hour flight to Nigeria.
While it was a sweet-bitter experience to return home, emotions took the greater part of them as they boarded the aircraft. Tears flowed freely down their cheeks because reality of having to return home had dawned on them.
As the aircraft landed at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, the cabin crew of Air Peace emerged with placards with the inscription ‘Say No to Xenophobia.’ As they disembarked from the Boeing 777-200 which landed at exactly 9.32 at the hajj and cargo section of the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos, the returnees were in high spirits, praising the airline, the Nigerian government and the Nigerian Consul General for the great efforts made to evacuate them from South Africa.
Horror tales from returnees
Some of the returnees told journalists at the airport that their erstwhile South Africans hosts were fierce in their attacks on Nigerians, going from house to house and from shop to shop, looting and burning whatever they believed belonged to Nigerians.
Juwon Sadiku, an indigene of Oyo State, who said he was a businessman, regretted his long stay in South Africa, saying: “It was a narrow escape from that hell called South Africa. Those people are wicked. They hate Nigerians because of our enterprise and courageous spirit.
“It was terrible, my brother. We barely escaped with our lives. We were all scared. In Pretoria, some of those South African militants were going from house to house, looking for Nigerians to kill.
“The apartheid in South Africa is still there. This time around, it was not a case of whites against blacks but inhumanity from black South Africans to fellow blacks who are foreigners. The people have a poor sense of history. They forgot the role Nigeria, as part of the Frontline States, played in their independence. They are evil. They are just callous.”
He went on: “Even if you are married to their women, they will not spare any foreigner, especially Nigerians. I do not know what we have done to them to warrant this level of hatred. “But I do not blame them. It is time for our government to rise up and defend the interest of Nigerians. They must be forced to pay compensation for the wanton destruction of our property. Our people should also target their business interests and halt them here in Nigeria.”
Another returnee, Olu Bamidele, who hails from Ikorodu in Lagos State, said he had been in South Africa for many years, but had to return home following federal government’s gesture to evacuate Nigerians and save their lives.
Another returnee, a mother of two of South East extraction who declined to give her name, said she would not forget in a hurry how the premises that hosted her business were set ablaze by rampaging South African youths.
She said: “My brother, these are my two children (pointing to them). I am happy that I am alive and back with them to Nigeria. I was running a beauty shop in Pretoria, but some South Africans came and set the premises where I carried out my business ablaze. I lost everything.
“How am I going to carry on with my life? I had to join the aircraft provided by Air Peace to return.
“Even the car I was driving, in the wake of the xenophobic attacks, I asked an agent to help me sell it just to get some money to resettle myself, but the place where the car was put up for sale was vandalized and the car burnt. But what can I do but resign to fate? When there is life, there is hope.
“I even have a valid work permit and visa to stay in the country, but that is now history. We have returned. We are looking up to the Nigerian government to see what they will do to assist us.”
Returnee points accusing finger at South African govt
Yet another returnee, an indigene of Anambra State who gave his name as Uche Nwabu, said he had to hide for many days in Pretoria when Zulu militants launched attacks on Nigerians and other foreigners.
He accused the South African police and security agencies of conniving with the irate militants to unleash terror on Nigerians.
He said: “On one of the days, I was returning from work where I served as a tiller. We heard that South African militants were attacking Nigerians. We alerted the South African police that their people were carrying out violent attacks on Nigerians. They ignored us and looked the other way. We had to run for dear lives.
“As I speak to you, a lot of Nigerians are afraid to leave their homes in Pretoria for Johannesburg for fear of attack. Many of our people have been killed and are unaccounted for. But this madness must stop. Our government must stand up to take serious action.
“My brother, if the situation in Nigeria were better, most of us would not have gone to South Africa to risk our lives. If government could provide uninterrupted power supply, create a friendlier business environment, most of us will prefer to stay here and salvage our country.”
He, however, wondered why government had not severed diplomatic ties with South Africa, considering the “evil” their people have done to Nigerians.
He said: “Government should go ahead and cut the flight frequencies of South African Airways and other businesses in Nigeria. That way, their government would call their people to order. ”
Why some Nigerians would not return
Narrating his unsavoury experience, another returnee who identified himself as Roland Chibuzo from Abia State, said some Nigerians were reluctant to return home in spite of the gesture from government because of the investments they have in South Africa.
He said: “I can tell you for free that many of our people are reluctant to come back to Nigeria because they have invested heavily in South Africa. Some or people have houses, hotels and other investments, and they will not like to leave such behind. If they return home, what will they be doing here? Where would they start from? It is a serious dilemma.”
Speaking about their ordeal, one of the returnees, who hails from Osun State and identified himself simply as Saheed, lamented how he was sacked from job by South Africans as well as other inhuman treatments meted out on him.
Another returnee, Victor Uwas, an indigene of Delta State, said: “My brother, the situation was terrible. We were all scared because they were going from home to home looking for Nigerians to kill and maim.
“Apartheid is still continuing in South Africa with their wicked policy of segregation. This time, it is not about segregation between the white and the black but segregation between South Africans and the nationals of other African countries. It is about the oppression of other Africans.
“The reason they are attacking Nigerians is that South African youths are lazy. They blame Nigerians for their economic problems, which is very wrong. That why the Nigerian government must cut diplomatic ties with South Africa.
“The whole world is keeping quiet because the evil of xenophobia is black people against black people. If it was against while people, America and Europe would have said something to condemn the evil act.”
He, however, urged President Muhammadu Buhari to say something to send a strong signal to his South African counterpart that the Nigerian government would take every step to protect her people.”
Another returnee from Abia State identified as Onuoha Chizoba said although it was painful, he was happy to return home.
He said: “I would like to advise Nigerians still staying back in South Africa to return home, because from the plans we learnt that those South African have, they will carry out more attacks on foreigners, including Nigerians.”
On his part, an Osun indigene who gave him name as Aliu Saheed said many Nigerians were refusing to come home because of their investment in South Africa.
He said: “Many people do not want to return home because of the cars and other property and families they have in South Africa. How do you expect such people to come to Nigeria like that without any compensation?
“We who decided to return home have lost everything; that is why we are here. I worked in the protocol department of a South African company for six months. I have been in the country since 2015. In the company where I worked at the airport, they refused to pay my salary.
“I was attending one of their schools, but I was pushed out because I am a foreigner.”
A female returnee, who gave her name as Temide Olakojo, from Oyo State, said: “I registered my company in South Africa. I was selling beauty products with valid papers. I decided to return home because of the massive killings and looting of property of Nigerians by South Africans.”
Another female returnee said she was lucky to have escaped because the car she rode in was stopped and she was asked by the South Africans to introduce herself. She spoke their language,
And they spared her life. She said after the narrow escape, she resolved that it was time to return home.
She said: “I have lived in South Africa since 2012. I had a permit, but based on the bad experience, the search for greener pastures has turned sour.”
Why we volunteered to evacuate Nigerians from South Africa —Air Peace boss
Speaking on the gesture by Air Peace to evacuate stranded Nigerians in the xenophobic attacks, the Chairman of the airline, Allen Onyema, said: “We carried out the evacuation free of charge. It is for our people. We decided to do it because we want to show that it is not all about money; that nobody can go into his grave with his bank account or a fat purse, but that you can go to the grave with the legacies you leave behind.
“So we decided to carry out this evacuation after seeing the gory pictures on the internet. Like I have always done before in this country, it was a duty to lift the lives of my people in trouble.
“It is not the first time. It was a patriotic act to send signals to some foreign countries who want to try Nigeria.
“Yes, as Nigerians, we have our differences. But we are one and the dehumanization should stop to restore the dignity of this country.
“We moved in to restore the pride and resolve of Nigerians to live together, to do this for the harmony of Nigerians to support the government.
“This is to give the returnees a sense of belonging. As we moved into the aircraft, they started singing the national anthem. They felt proud to be Nigerians.
“As they sang the national anthem, it brought drew tears to my cheeks. The motivation is there, and we thank God.
“Air Peace is ready is do as many trips as there is a single Nigerian left in South Africa to be evacuated. We were to move over 320 Nigerians, but the authorities in South Africa frustrated us. We are ready to go back and bring our people.”