Time Nigeria and Africa hanged tough on South African xenophobia

South African Police Service members rescue a man from angry taxi drivers during a riot near the Bloed Taxi Rank on August 28, 2019, in Pretoria, South Africa. PHOTO | PHILL MAGAKOE | AFP | DAILY NATION

Many will read with dismay this week’s resurgence in xenophobic attacks against Nigerians in South Africa (SA). For me particularly, this latest episode hits home in a personal way. Nigeria may need to recall its envoy from that country and lead coordinated African responses to stop the mayhem. It’ll signal that Nigeria and Africa intends to join hands to address this and that it cannot just be business as usual. We can ensure justice and the rule of law for all law abiding residents of SA, native or foreign.

Dangerous Oblivion

I spent this last weekend of 1 September unaware of what had gone on elsewhere in Johannesburg. Reason was my quiet stay-in in the relative comfort the secure Edenvale area of Johannesburg. It had been my hideaway from the bustling city since arriving there on Saturday 31st August. This two-days stopover before flight to Lagos followed attendance at the African Leadership Forum (ALF) in Dar-es-salaam. There, I had been invited by the former Tanzanian President, Benjamin Mkapa and the Uongozi Institute.

I enjoyed my time in friendly Dar, engaged in eye-opening exchanges with President Obasanjo and at least five other former and current African presidents in attendance. I also tweeted excitedly about Dimowo Cosmas, the young Nigerian who emerged runner-up in the ALF awards. Done with my two days of work in Dar inputting into the leaders’ discussions my views as expert on African extractive governance, I flew out to Johannesburg. I had in total spent six weeks traveling across the Middle East and Europe far from my daily hustle in Lagos.

This long background is necessary as I got that close to the mayhem without realising. I ventured out on Sunday 1 September to nearby Festival Mall in Kempton Park, close to OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg. Not only did I shop for personal items on which I made significant cost savings relative to Nigeria, I also bought an emergency phone charger from a shopkeeper. He greeted me as I drove up close to his stall entrance.

It turns out he is Nigerian. So good had been our business transaction and courtseying that he told me as I was leaving that he bears one of the popular Eastern Nigerian names. His shop is located close to the entrance to  the famous Kempton Park taxi rank (bus park in Nigerian speak).

Near death experiences in paradise

I had a close shave with death in South Africa about a year and 9 months ago. I arrived in Johannesburg on Christmas Eve on the way to Pretoria to join my family members who had earlier flown  to SA. We were all headed for Safari at the Hluhluwe Mfolosi national Park in Kwa-Zulu Natal province.

My elderly taxi man, whose persistence and appearance had convinced me against the more prudent and safer alternative of taking a registered airport car hire or Uber that late in the night, turned out to be a murderer. Only a mix of cajoling, prayer and mother luck saw me escape the close shave. He was armed with a pistol! I gladly parted with wads of cash in gratitude for being spared.

Similarly, I had lost my laptop to a gang that specialized in “jamming” remote controlled car keys. This prevents car doors from locking. Once unsuspecting drivers depart in the illusion of having locked up, the hoodlums get free access to valuables in their cars. My encounter with them was at the Sunnypark Shopping Centre in Sunnyside, situated close to the Jakaranda-leaf-festooned seat of power in Pretoria, South Africa.

I will return to my experience of Sunnyside and its particularly Nigerian flavour that is not to my taste. If only to present an account that is more balanced than the one-sided one narrative South Africans often peddle about Nigerians. And indeed the unannounced victim narrative held by many less well-informed Nigerians at home. Lest I forget, my car was also once wrongfully towed from around this same mall, released only after being extorted.  I gave 1000 Rands (then worth about US$ 75) to the official-cum-criminal towing gang.

Don’t get me wrong. I had called Cape Town, SA home from 2012-15, and took my girlfriend there to live with me after my more than 15 years residency in the UK and Spain. Only marginally shaded by Madrid – which was special for meeting with my future wife – Cape Town afforded me much professional fulfilment and social stimulation. I still look back to the place with fondness. And I go back every February for the Mining Indaba.

My home in Cape Town, with the weekly work jaunts to Johannesburg and Pretoria, in many ways was a midway house. Between a thriving African city and an orderly European metropolis like Berlin. How can one hate that country where one married his longtime heart-throb and also gave birth to one’s two kids? Nevertheless, of the three times that I have been victim of crime, all occurred in SA and the perpetrators were SA citizens.

Close shave with death at Kempton?

I might have just escaped death by the whiskers. For my charger did not work to my satisfaction and I ventured back few hours after the purchase to see if I could exchange at the vendor’s. On parking right outside the shop, I noticed that the usually bustling shops around Kempton Park taxi ranch were under locks.

I inquired first with two stern-looking locals who told me that they were not aware of the reason why all the shops were locked. In retrospect, I realise that my Nigerian kaftan surely gave me away and their merely not volunteering information was in fact a favour of some sort. I could have been lynched. More enquires with a second person, and came back the retort: there had been looting and violence. If I had arrived a few hours earlier, in my full Nigerian regalia, and alighted from my car into the hands of the looting mob, my likely fate is better left to the imagination.

Complacency kills

I have this week seen at least two videos circulating on WhatsApp of two South Africans wanting foreigners out. One of them ostensibly a senior police functionary, justifying some of the violence against foreigners. The senior functionary was suggesting that foreign-owned businesses took away opportunities from South Africans! He claimed South Africans were neglected by the country’s authorities whilst conferring unspecified advantages on non-SA citizens.

This is not new: there is a shocking immunity with which some in SA have for long been allowed to instigate and perpetrate genocidal outrage. Left to fester, including during the time of Malusi Gigaba as SA’s home affairs minister, the frequency of these attacks soon reached a feverish tempo. The utterances of the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, which many construed (I’ll say rightfully) as incitement to violence some years back also come to mind.

Complex reality dangerously oversimplified

Is it true that all Nigerians are criminals as many South Africans are wont to believe? The answer lies in the social and economic position South Africans occupy in their own society. For those working in top universities and health institutions, to name just two of the sectors where Nigerians have made significant contributions to that country, a caricature of Nigerians as criminals is one they would hardly recognise.

It is also true that there are hundreds of Nigerians who engage in serious criminal activities in South Africa of the type that Nigerians themselves here at home will not condone. Nevertheless, criminal law enforcement should be allowed to take its course. Punish those found complicit. They should face the full wrath of South African law. To tarnish the majority of law-abiding, hard-working Nigerians in SA with the broad brush of criminality is ill-informed and unacceptable.

I often walked the streets of Sunnyside in Pretoria. Whether daytime or nighttime, I will be confronted by sights of loitering Nigerian young men. They discuss loudly in Ibo or Yoruba subjects like the results of English premier league games in a manner that might appear a mass brawl to the unaccustomed.

I’ve also experienced Nigerian nightclubs that play music at an unacceptably loud pitch. In clearly residential neighbourhoods in Pretoria. The South African trope that some Nigerians are rude is also true. I’ve witnessed a few fellow Nigerians ordering meals at restaurant, addressing waiters in languages that will be deemed uncivilized anywhere in the world.

There’s truism in the observation that criminal gangs – Nigerian, Ukrainian or Indian – thrive in SA because the police is compromised. Some SA men also fret that Nigerians “take their women”. If any Nigerian behaving brashly gets confronted and clobbered around the head by disaffected South Africans, one may not protest too much. There is a need fundamentally to be respectful of the society where one lives and to be law-abiding.

I am in no way condoning violence. Just to make the point that the blanket, indiscriminate violence visited on  Nigerian shop-keepers by SA looters and other such acts (which also affects Somalis, Mozambicans, Bangladeshi merchants and others) has really now come to a head. We’ll only stop these and other dastardly SA crimes with determined Nigerian and coordinated African actions to compel corrective actions in SA.

Recall our envoy and expel theirs

We have seen in Nigeria rising anti-SA sentiments connected to the xenophobic attacks. The ire has sometimes been directed at MTN, the SA telecommunications giant which has Nigeria as its largest and most lucrative market. Attacks against that entity or other SA ones may not be the most prudent. These are companies that employ tens of thousands of Nigerians and have also increasingly become part of our national economic fabric. MTN recently listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange. One should not cut his nose to spite his face.

It would be more astute if Nigeria’s government could grow some balls to confront SA this time in a manner similar to the tit-for-tat expulsion of citizens over yellow fever cards some years back. In that episode, SA fired the first shot but was persuaded ultimately to call for a ceasefire. That was given the robust and uncompromising Nigerian response.

With this latest xenophobic orgy targeting Nigerians, President Buhari has despatched a “special” envoy to meet SA president, Cyril Ramaphosa. The SA leader is a well-traveled, diplomatic and successful businessman. He must know how damaging these persistent attacks are for SA’s image in Africa and its ambitious corporate brands. Or has his infamous, and increasingly ineffective balancing act politics, tied his hands from acting?

If so, Abuja should immediately recall the Nigerian High Commissioner from Pretoria. Unless Buhari sees serious concerted SA actions to punish perpetrators. Those actions have to be on a level so compelling that Buhari can allow Nigeria to be persuaded to hold return fire. Nothing to lose here really. Our dignity and precious Nigerian lives are daily being trampled. Enough is enough!

Oladiran (Ola) Bello ​obtained both his MPhil and PhD degrees in International Relations from the University of Cambridge and also holds a First Class BSc degree from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. He has worked for organisations including the United Nations (New York) and Management Systems International (Washington DC), Merchant International Group (London) and Arthur Andersen (later KPMG). Dr Ola Bello has more than 10 years of experience in research and policy advisory, including on governance and extractive sector reform; sustainable development; and international development cooperation (including in EU-Africa relations). He spent three years with FRIDE (Spain) managing a donor-funded programme on the EU’s role in managing fragility and resource governance in select African countries. In 2012-2015, he was Head, Governance of Africa’s Resource Programme (GARP) at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) and also functioned as head of SAIIA’s Cape Town office. Ola is spearheading GGA’s technical support to Nigerian reform, including delivering ethics training for senior Nigerian judicial officers and change-makers (2017-2019). He’s also working to expand GGA’s role as in-country resource centre for multilateral consultative missions to Nigeria’s ministries and parastatals. These missions include the UNECA/AU mineral sector governance team.

Global cities offer lessons to Lagos on dynamic optimisation of transport

A tuk tuk driver in Lagos Photo: Olasunkanmi Ariyo


Commuting between mainland Lagos and the central business districts on the island remains a lot more onerous than it should. Long delays on the Third Mainland Bridge during peak periods (what Lagosians refer to as the “rush hours”) is both time and energy consuming. This constitutes a major drain on productivity while hindering the city’s strategic economic role. Slow mobility ranks alongside power shortages as a key structural constraint to Lagos’s competitiveness. Implementing creative ideas to optimise existing transport infrastructure will help. The Third Mainland Bridge especially requires urgent planning interventions to unblock what is arguably the most important transportation artery in Nigeria’s commercial capital.

This will bring relief to motorists even as city planners work on devising more long-term solutions. As the urban conglomeration that accounts for a full quarter of Nigeria’s economic output – and Africa’s first genuine contender for the status of a megacity – Lagos must think boldly and tweak more at the edges. Otherwise its longer-term sustainability and bid to consolidate itself as Nigeria’s economic engine will hang precipitously in the balance. A dysfunctional transport system with worsening mobility will have knock-on effects, likely hobbling Nigeria’s potential to drive integration and prosperity.

Tasking commute

A system of scheduled lane switches on the Third Mainland Bridge will help to expand capacity for travellers to Lagos’s islands in the mornings and commuters bound for the mainland in the afternoon. The following are proposals around lane optimisation on the bridge, which could significantly expand capacity for accommodating Lagos’s growing vehicular traffic. This author draws on his own anecdotal experience of early morning commutes on the bridge from the island side in Ikoyi to Ikeja on the mainland, a route he plies about four to six times each month. From about 4am to 8am on work days, island-bound commuters using the bridge contend with steady traffic build-up, which slows to a crawl at around 7am. During the afternoon peak hours, usually from 4pm to 8pm, the direction of the pile up is reversed. Workers leaving the island for their homes on the mainland contend with hours-long traffic delays.

On most working days, an observer entering the bridge at about 7am from the Ikoyi/Osborne ramp towards the mainland will notice the build-up of traffic on the four lanes coming towards the island. This usually tails back several kilometres, sometimes snaking unbroken all the way to the Oworonshoki entry to the bridge on the mainland end. A commuter travelling in the opposite direction towards Oworonshoki at this time might struggle to count up to 100 vehicles plying the entire four lanes. It should normally take about 10-15 minutes to travel the 11.8 km length of the bridge from Osborne to Oworonshoki, but commuters travelling this distance at peak periods sometimes need as much as one to two hours. This raises important questions about how a dynamic lane-switch and expanding system could help improve mobility via co-opting excess lane capacity on the opposite side of congested traffic.

Reshuffle to relieve

The whole Third Mainland Bridge needs creative rethinking. Since the bridge consists of four commuter lanes in each direction, there is a strong case for optimising peak flow through co-opting two proximate lanes from the opposite side to supplement the congested direction. This solution will see a dynamic optimisation of the 4+4 lanes, switching it to a 6+2 system when needed. It essentially requires reversing the normal direction of flow on two lanes on the other side (that is, the two closest to the congested side of the bridge). Some traffic can thus be diverted to the other side to supplement capacity. The two makeshift lanes will add to capacity by forming six lanes, thus freeing up the vehicular flow. The two lanes left on the lighter traffic side will still be sufficient for travellers heading in that direction.

Piloting scheduled lane shifts during peak period promises an exciting template that could be applied elsewhere in the city. The process should operate only on work days (Monday to Friday) with a coordinated arrangement in place to smoothly reverse the flow: six lanes will convey traffic towards the island from 7am-10am and six lanes will be open to vehicular flow towards the mainland from 4pm to 8pm.

Emulate trendsetters

The importance of good proactive management of dynamically switching lane systems along major commuter arteries cannot be over-emphasised. The devil is in the detail. Many world cities already implement similar approaches based on capacity expansion and constriction in each direction as needed. That has kept commuter cities from Cape Town through to Los Angeles and Tokyo ticking through peak traffic hours. Since the opening of the Third Mainland Bridge in the 1980s, the rapid expansion in the number of vehicles has not seen a corresponding expansion of road infrastructure. Under-capacity of the bridge relative to vehicular traffic growth is therefore one consequence.

Other measures, such as prohibiting some vehicles from plying congested routes on specific days or during specific hours, are more draconian than the capacity-switch system proposed here. Lane switching can alleviate the perennial hardship faced by motorists pending the actualisation of Lagos’s plan to build a 38 km Fourth Mainland Bridge. However, at the core of getting this right – like every public-administration issue in Nigeria – will be good governance of the system. This will require advance publicity, effective commuter education, adequate signage along the entire route, redesign of exit lanes and all other such measures required to create a well-functioning, dynamic and easily understood traffic optimisation system on the bridge.

Piloting this system could allow for another big transformation in Lagos’s traffic management: the creation of a small but uniformed corps to monitor motorists’ adherence to the temporary lane-partition system. This will help deter some of the notorious habits that slow down traffic on the bridge, especially the hundreds of slow-moving vehicles that stay in the fast lanes and obstruct faster moving vehicles. Poor education of motorists over the years, and a general lack of awareness of the drawbacks, has led to “lane-hugging” contributing probably as much as 30% of the traffic build-up, with increasing vehicular entry onto the bridge inevitably slowing down finally to a crawl. The bridge corps will also need to oversee a robustly implemented network of makeshift lanes marked by cones placed at one metre intervals. This will safely partition the two directions of travel. The cones will come into place an hour before the start of the lane expansion at peak-periods in either direction.

A bridge safety corps

While the bridge is a federal road, piloting a state traffic monitoring corps there could help lay the foundation for a dedicated bridge and highway corps. It could gradually grow into a specially trained unit within the Lagos State Transport Management Agency (LASTMA). Diligent planning and a smooth roll-out will be important to maximise benefits and mitigate potential risks in the system. A careful spatial redesign at specific points is needed to facilitate entry and exit onto the convertible two lanes on the proximate side of peak traffic. This redesign requires some investment but the likely gains for commuters will justify the expenditure.

Even as the fine points of the design and implementation are worked out, extensive precautionary measures will need to be in place to guarantee safety and achieve the intended goal. First, clear signage should be erected well in advance. The bridge corps officers must also be stationed at the entry and exit to the makeshift lanes. They will display information on placards reminding motorists of possible exits if using the two extra lanes.

Second, core components of the system should be carefully piloted before the actual roll-out. One possibility is to dedicate the two extra lanes during the mornings to only those motorists exiting at the Osborne and other ramps further into the island. Another option is to allocate one of the makeshift lanes for the exclusive use of commercial passenger vehicles, which is probably viable given the general shift to longer routing with fewer stops by commercial passenger vehicles.

Third, Lagos is notorious for the large number of motorists (particularly the commercial operators) who ignore road signs, routinely endangering the safety of other road users. Oversight systems and physical barriers will therefore be needed to compel all drivers, for example those needing to exit the bridge earlier at points such as the Oyingbo/Adekunle ramp, to opt for the normal four lanes from their point of entry onto the bridge. Continuing public education and clear and adequate signage throughout the route will guarantee public trust and buy-in for this dynamic-lanes system.

In the longer term, solutions focused on spatial reordering in Lagos will complement short-term tinkering of traffic lanes on the Third Mainland Bridge. In particular, creating safe and well-maintained business clusters and parks in strategic axes on the mainland will help to reduce workers’ commute through congested traffic. Even as city planners pilot such redesign and structural solutions, Lagos stands to derive immediate and sizeable efficiency benefits from switching the existing bridge lanes to aid decongestion at peak traffic hours.

Policy recommendations

  • The Lagos state government needs to explore bolder innovations in traffic management, including the redesign of lanes along major commuter routes and arteries to optimise carrying capacities, even as planners work on longer-term solutions.
  • Lagos should leverage the dynamic-routing experience of commuter cities such as Tokyo and Los Angeles. A scheduled switching of the eight-lane, Third Mainland Bridge to form a 6+2 lane system during peak traffic will help optimise flow and  expand the bridge’s carrying capacity. This should partially alleviate morning and afternoon traffic congestion.
  • More calibrated infrastructure investment is needed in Lagos. An explicit bias towards boosting commercial property development, security and business-enabling amenities on mainland Lagos is needed. Businesses should be incentivised to relocate from the island business districts to modern business parks situated close to working-class neighbourhoods on the mainland.
  • In a next step, a holistic spatial redesign of the city should be pursued within a new city masterplan that gives careful thought to decongestion, commuting, and access to services and infrastructure on a more inclusive, sustainable basis. This will create a better urban experience and deliver efficiencies in terms of integrated transportation, housing and commercial zoning.
  • A bridge corps should also be created to police makeshift lanes demarcated by cones placed at intervals, better to guarantee partition of the travel directions.
Dr Ola Bello, @drolabello holds MPhil and PhD degrees from Cambridge University and is the Executive Director of Good Governance Africa Nigeria (GGA). Copyright©2018 Vol 4, No 9. GGA Nigeria. All rights reserved.