South African government on Thursday sent a letter of apology to Foreign Affairs Minister, Olugbenga Ashiru, apologizing to Nigeria for barring 125 Nigerians from the country last Friday and unveiled new immigration procedures aimed at ending a diplomatic row between the continent’s two powerhouses.
The deportation of Nigerians by the South African government made Nigeria turn away 131 South Africans in retaliation, Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru told reporters in Abuja.
“We apologise for this unfortunate incident and we hope this matter will not in any way affect our bilateral relations,” deputy foreign minister Ebrahim Ebrahim told reporters in Pretoria.
“We’ve put into place certain mechanisms to ensure this doesn’t happen again, and we believe that this matter is closed,” he added.
Ashiru said Nigeria had accepted the apology, saying a South African envoy was expected soon to formally apologies for the row.
“Thereafter we will move quickly to ensure that we put machinery in place so that it will be a lasting solution, because we don’t want this to happen again because of our bilateral relations,” he said.
“We felt it was un-African to have deported well over 125 Nigerians in a space of two days,” he added.
Ebrahim said South African officials had agreed to reopen an airport clinic that would allow travellers to receive yellow fever vaccines on arrival. Immigration officials will also need a foreign ministry official’s consent before turning away large groups of travellers.
South Africa, the richest country on the continent, is struggling with its reputation for xenophobia — a perception that was reinforced after nationwide attacks on immigrants left 62 dead in 2008.
The government has moved quickly to mend this latest row.
“Cabinet expressed shock and regret at the reports regarding how African foreign nationals, particularly Nigerians, and other nationals from other parts of the world have been treated” at Johannesburg’s main airport, minister in the presidency Collins Chabane told reporters in Cape Town earlier Thursday.
Ashiru on Tuesday had accused the South African authorities of targeting Nigerians.
“What you see playing out is what we call xenophobia by South Africans against all Africans — not just Nigerians — including even those from their neighbouring countries,” Ashiru said.
Nigeria had been certified as free of yellow fever by the World Health Organization, the minister said.
“That is why countries in Europe and the US do not demand yellow fever cards from Nigerian travellers,” he added.
A joint statement by the Department of International Relations, Republic of South Africa, and the Nigerian High Commission in Pretoria, said: “The South African government has sent a letter of apology to the Nigerian government following this regrettable incident which the South African government believes could have been handled in a better way” adding that both countries have agreed on number of measures to avoid future occurrence.
Among the measures agreed were:
* The Bi-National Commission between South Africa and Nigeria should be revived as soon as possible. There is also agreement that the Immigration Working Group should also be revived.
* The National Department of Health and the Gauteng Health Department should consider re-opening the vaccination clinic at the OR Tambo International Airport so that passengers without the yellow fever card can be vaccinated upon arrival at the airport, rather than be deported.
* The South African and Nigerian Health authorities would exchange vaccine batch numbers and details about the official institutions that administer the vaccine for verification purposes at the port of entry. This information would also be made available to the Missions in Lagos and Abuja who issue visas based on the proof of a yellow fever certificate. The airlines will also be informed about the verification process.
* Immigration officials should be the first officials that deal with the passengers at the port of entry and if they experience challenges, they should invite other units (such as health) to help and not the other way round.
* When it comes to mass deportations, it was agreed that senior officials at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (including Protocol) should be consulted by Immigration and Health officials at the airport before undertaking such action. This will provide the Senior Officials to consult with the Department before deporting large numbers of people.
They hoped that “these measures, when fully implemented, will address the current immigration challenges affecting citizens from the two sister African countries and help us avoid a recurrence of the regrettable incidences we have seen recently.”