By Fatteh Hamid
President of Nigerian Union South Africa, Collins Mgbo, tells FATTEH HAMID how recent viral videos showing some Nigerians arrested for alleged drug trafficking by an indigenous group in South Africa is affecting the Nigerian community
In the last few weeks, there have been video clips showing some Nigerians being arrested in South Africa for alleged dealings in illicit drugs. What can you say about this?
What I know is that there’s an organisation that operates based on the information given to it by people about those selling drugs in a particular place or province. It goes there, does its investigation, and afterward makes arrest. After arresting them (suspects), it airs it (the arrest) because there’s a television channel here in South Africa that normally shows the documentary. So, yes, something like that is happening.
How true is it that Nigerians are involved in drugs in South Africa?
Yes, there are Nigerians involved even though it is not only Nigerians that are involved in such deals. However, most of those involved and apprehended at the moment are mostly Nigerians.
Are South African citizens also involved?
Yes, their citizens are also involved. In the last video I watched on TikTok, there were South Africans involved too.
Did the group reach out to the Nigerian Union South Africa at any point during its investigations before making arrests?
No, they didn’t reach out to us and we didn’t get involved even when they started. However, I got involved when something happened that led to the death of an innocent Nigerian in my province.
How did that happen? Was he killed because he was caught with drugs?
It was early last month (April) when a Nigerian was killed by a member of the group. I had to follow them to the hospital. As I heard, what happened was that they got information about some people in the area, when they got to the area, there was a spot where people gathered to hang out and have fun by playing cards and drinking. When they came, they arrived with many cars so everyone around the area was scared and ran away. Members of the group chased the people they saw and five people were caught. Out of the five people caught, one of them was a Zimbabwean. They started torturing them with the intention to get information. The Zimbabwean man who was the eyewitness told us how the people were tortured. One of the Nigerians tortured by them is currently hospitalised with a kidney injury due to the level of torture he suffered.
What happened afterward?
When I went to see him, he gave us information about what happened when they were captured. He narrated how they were severely tortured and beaten on the head until the Nigerian who died couldn’t take it; He succumbed to the pain and died. In fact, before he could be confirmed dead by a doctor, he had already been taken to the mortuary. There was no proof that a doctor certified him dead before he was taken to the mortuary and that was what one of the Nigerian doctors complained about. It was only the paramedics that said he was dead before he was taken to the mortuary. We were concerned about the way he was rushed to the mortuary without being examined and signed in normally as dead like it is normally done in the hospital by a professional. Due to this, as a union, we requested an autopsy. We also found out that the dead man was from Anambra State.
What was the result of the autopsy carried out? Did the autopsy confirm that he took drugs?
We haven’t seen the result because it is not out yet. We are still waiting for the outcome.
Was his house also searched the way houses of some suspects were searched in the viral videos online?
They never went to his house, they never met anything on him. It was under the guise of getting information that they tortured and killed him. They only met him on the street.
Do you think the group is constitutionally authorised to arrest suspected drug dealers?
The truth is, the way these people are handling this thing (arrest) is unconstitutional and they need legal backing to do what they are doing. They arrest people illegally, torture them behind closed doors, bring them out and start to record them. What I will say is that the (South African) constitution says that if anyone is found wanting for a crime, the person should be taken to court and tried. There are even some of them (suspects) that they beat to the extent that they become helpless. This is unconstitutional; the fact that we have a media house covering this is terrible as well. We are not saying Nigerians are not involved but the process this group is taking is wrong. They should be arrested, handed over to the police, and have them prosecuted.
There were claims in some of the videos that some Nigerians were arrested with ammunition and accused of even stealing cars. How true are those claims?
That is a lie. Nigerians aren’t involved in any kind of theft. The only thing I can say with certainty is that some Nigerians are involved in drug dealing but in terms of theft, that I don’t know. I’ve never seen or heard anything related to that.
What are the efforts of NUSA in conjunction with the Nigerian embassy in South Africa to have this alleged maltreatment of Nigerians resolved?
On Saturday, May 27, 2023, we hosted the social commission event in Pretoria. The event had people from all concerned parties. South African, Nigerians and other migrants were there. We sat down and discussed. South Africans said the things they want, and Nigerians stated the discrimination and other things they were facing and didn’t want. Then we discussed the way forward. We also had senior officers of the police, the consulate, lawyers, doctors, and others in attendance. The essence of the event was to discuss the problems Nigerians were facing in South Africa, the problems South Africans were also facing in the hands of Nigerians and how we can solve them between the migrant community and the host community. That is one of the efforts we have put in place to mediate. We have a committee that we refer cases to. The committee gets involved and makes sure that due diligence is done. That event was the maiden edition and it was championed by the organisation.
What impact have the operations of the group raiding the homes of Nigerians and arresting some had on your compatriots living in South Africa?
Everyone is kind of jittery in the sense that some people, irrespective of the industry, face different stereotypes. However, in this immediate crisis, our concern is that they can do whatever they want to do but it must be according to the law. They should investigate, arrest those who are involved, and have them prosecuted. They have the right to do that. They must just ensure that every action is according to the law because you cannot be committing a crime while trying to solve a crime.
How have these drug-related arrests in any way worsened the perception South Africans have about Nigerians?
It didn’t start today. The involvement of Nigerians in illicit drugs here in South Africa is not an issue that started recently. But it has always been an issue as I said with stereotyping that when they see a Nigerian, what they first think about is illicit drugs, thuggery and others. This isn’t good. It is something we are also fighting to say no to. We are not who these people (South Africans) stereotype us as. We are better and more straightforward than that. Not all Nigerians are involved in crime. There are also citizens of other countries who are involved in crime but the stereotyping of Nigerians is extreme. We only have a minute percentage of Nigerians who are into crime. We have a huge percentage of Nigerians who are doing exceptionally and contributing immensely to the economy and growth of South Africa in all sectors.
Do you think the stereotype you talked about could trigger xenophobic attacks against Nigerians in South Africa?
Yes, it is possible. In fact, just recently, I saw a post from the man leading the group (of people arresting Nigerians) saying that he had been receiving death threats from unknown members of these (drug) cartels and they associated the threats with Nigerians. They said they would come for Nigerians if anything happened to him. That is what the social media post was about.
How well can this be managed to avoid another xenophobic attack?
The government of South Africa is quiet about this and I don’t know why. If the government can step in and try to monitor what is happening, they (the group) wouldn’t be taking the unconstitutional actions they have been taking. They shouldn’t be killing people, they shouldn’t be illegally torturing people, and the government has to step in immediately. This is the job of the police and the government should step in and ensure that normalcy is restored. The South African government should caution them because if it (the unlawful arrests) continues like this, it might get to a point where Nigerians would want to retaliate because of the lives of the innocent that are affected. If this crisis leads to that, then no one is safe and we would all be in danger.
What do you think are the lasting solutions to the issues regarding Nigerians trafficking drugs in South Africa?
I think I would love to go back to the root of the problem. The Nigerian government should create opportunities so that Nigerians, youths in particular, will not leave Nigeria for other countries. For example, many Nigerians coming to South Africa to sell illicit drugs do not have the right qualifications to work. If you don’t have the right papers to work, you cannot work. So, for them to survive, they get into the wrong things. If our country is good, there will be no need for us to seek greener pastures in other countries. But on the other hand, that is not an excuse for anyone to go into crime anyway. I’m just saying that that should be a measure that the Nigerian government should put in place. Crime doesn’t pay. If you enjoy today, tomorrow you’ll cry. They need to understand that the consequences that result from criminal activities are far more than the little pecks that come from them today. We try to educate them (Nigerians) and make them know that irrespective of the situation they find themselves in, they should not engage in illegality.
In some of these videos online, many of the Nigerians arrested were said to be without the necessary papers to live in South Africa. Who is to blame for that?
Again, the Nigerian government has to get involved. Other countries have been able to negotiate for their citizens and they were given some periods to make arrangements. What really happens is that most Nigerians come in with visiting visas that last for three to six months. When that visa expires, it cannot be renewed. The South African government won’t renew it for you because it stated the duration that a foreigner should visit. Therefore, you have to go back. The only exception is if a foreigner gets into a genuine relationship with a South African within the period and gets married or has an agreement to marry them, he (the Nigerian) can apply for a relative permit.
How often does that happen?
This doesn’t happen most of the time, by the way, so when their visiting visas expire, there’s no renewal, but they refuse to leave and hence become illegal foreigners. You see them stay for six, seven, or eight years lamenting that they do not have papers when the truth is that they aren’t taking the proper channel which is through an application. However, there is some form of institutional xenophobia against Nigerians in South Africa generally. For many of those who came in legally, when they apply for permanent residence, they don’t get it or it takes longer than usual which is a different case for citizens of other countries. We have that feeling that there’s institutional xenophobia against Nigerians in the renewal of passports, and in applying for permanent residence, among many other issues that we are faced with.
Do you think the security agents seen assisting the group in making arrests in the videos are authorised to do so?
The South African constitution is clear. As long as you are in South Africa, irrespective of your nationality, the police have the right to do their job in protecting lives and property. It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you are Nigerian, Congolese, Zimbabwean, or from nationality at all. The constitution is clear. As long as you’re living within the walls of this country (South Africa), it is their responsibility to protect lives and property. That is why I earlier said we were appealing to them to do what the constitution says by protecting everyone, irrespective of one’s nationality. When they do that, there’ll be sanity. Of course, some policemen do their job rightly but then, those who can be seen assisting this group, they should allow the law to take its course. The law is meant for everyone and the police should be the ones upholding it more. When there is a crime, they should have the person (involved) arrested and tried in court.