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Officials Hound Nigerian Community

Nigerians in Zimbabwe appear to be bearing the brunt of Mugabe’s seeming contempt for their former leader.
By Mike Nyoni
What began four years ago as a personal tiff between Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe and his then-Nigerian counterpart, Olusegun Obasanjo, is gradually swirling into xenophobia against Nigerian nationals in Zimbabwe. Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono last week gave the sentiment an official seal, and extended his attack to other nationals from Asia.

Mugabe was angry that at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in the Nigerian capital of Abuja in 2003, Obasanjo had supported

Zimbabwe’s continued suspension from the club of former British colonies. Heads of government at the meeting said Mugabe had not made enough reforms for the country to be readmitted after it had been suspended for human rights violations a year earlier.

South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki, who supported Mugabe, lost the vote to the other members of the troika on Zimbabwe, Prime Minister John Howard of Australia and Obasanjo. Mugabe immediately announced that Zimbabwe would withdraw from the Commonwealth if it was not readmitted – which it did at the end of the year, with Mugabe describing the Commonwealth as “a useless club where people drink tea and make speeches”.

From then on, government spin-doctors have made unsavoury remarks about the former Nigerian leader, accusing him of being used by outgoing British prime minister Tony Blair to settle personal scores with Mugabe. The attacks reached a crescendo in the aftermath of Nigeria’s recent presidential election, won by Umaru Yar'Adua.

Zimbabwe state media accused Obasanjo of “fixing” the outcome to ensure his favourite candidate won against his fiercest rival, former vice-president Atiku Abubakar. As if to confirm the hostility between the two African states, Mugabe did not attend the swearing-in ceremony of the new Nigerian leader.

In the face of a relentless economic decline of 3,700 per cent inflation and a contracting job market where unemployment is reckoned at more than 80 per cent, Zimbabweans have turned against the weakest scapegoat for their plight – blaming foreigners for crowding them out of

the indigenous economy.

This week a senior official of Zimbabwe’s small traders' association in the capital Harare accused Nigerians of taking over most city shops at the expense of Zimbabweans. He told a state radio programme that Nigerians had occupied “all the corner shops” in Harare to trade in trinkets.

“You see an empty shop today,” he complained, “and when you ask [Harare City] Council officials if you can lease it, you are told it has been taken. You return tomorrow and you will find a Nigerian there selling trinkets.”

He said Nigerians were most likely paying in foreign currency or bribing municipal officials.

“We are not saying foreigners should not come and invest in Zimbabwe,” he said. “What we are saying is that Zimbabweans should get first preference. These are foreigners, they have somewhere to go. Where do we go if we can’t find shops to operate from in our own country?”

Gono last week lent weight to this negative perception of not just Nigerians but other foreign nationals whom he accused of abusing government hospitality to engage in black market foreign exchange transactions.

“Some of the purveyors of this trade [in foreign currency] are non-Zimbabweans who have come all the way from their mother countries in the region, some from West Africa, South East Asia, and beyond, under the banner of [existing] friendly relations and [those] being forged between Zimbabwe and their countries,” he said.

“We cannot, and will not, allow any shadow forces to interfere with, or derail our turnaround programme, which we are putting back on the rails with immediate effect.”

There was no mistaking the governor’s references, mainly to Nigerian and Chinese nationals who have recently been accused of dealing in foreign currency and selling narcotics in the Harare central business district.

Chinese traders, in particular, have been accused of undermining the local cotton and footwear industries by flooding the market with substandard products. This is despite Mugabe's Look East policy, which has sought to strengthen trade between Zimbabwe and Asian countries. The policy began after western governments slapped Mugabe with targeted sanctions over human rights violations and his disputed re-election in 2002.

The traders’ association official said if foreigners wanted to bring genuine investment, they should look for long-term projects that create employment for Zimbabweans. “Why do they come all the way from their country to engage in petty trading?” he said.

The official said there was a need for clear government policy guidelines on what investment projects foreigners could undertake. Many Nigerians, he went on, had escaped prosecution in their country, had come to Zimbabwe and entered into marriages of convenience to hide from the law. And, he claimed, “most of them are engaged in illicit business…, including prostitution and human trafficking”.

Gono said the lifestyles led by foreigners in Zimbabwe were not commensurate with their official businesses.

“You go to their shops in the city centre and you find one or two items on the shelves,” observed Gono. “But look at the vehicles they drive, look at where they live and you can be sure the shops are a front for illegal transactions.”

An official in the foreign affairs ministry, who refused to be named, denied that there was growing xenophobia against foreigners, and Nigerians in particular. “There is nothing like that,” he said. “Why should we be fighting our own African brothers?”

He, however, warned that foreigners should not violate Zimbabwe’s laws hoping to hide behind their foreign citizenship. “They will be arrested like anybody else,” he said.

He also denied that there was bad blood now between Mugabe and Obasanjo, “He is gone, that is all. Why should Comrade Mugabe be fighting a civilian?”

Mike Nyoni is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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