When Air Peace announced early last week that it was willing to help bring back Nigerians who were caught in the middle of xenophobic attacks in South Africa, at least 600 people were said to have indicated their desire to return to their fatherland to start afresh.
Attention had been drawn to another round of xenophobic attacks on foreigners, particularly Nigerians and their places of business in the South, about two weeks ago when photos and videos of purported attacks were shared online, forcing the public to cry out to the Nigerian government for urgent action. The reports at the time had also sparked attacks on businesses in Nigeria believed to be owned by South Africans.
On the back of the outrage, Air Peace airline had offered a free service to fly distressed Nigerians back to their home country and that pledge was fulfilled days after.
On Thursday, it was confirmed that 187 Nigerians had returned to the country on Wednesday night and were received by authorities of Nigeria’s Diaspora Commission, the office of Mrs Abike Dabiri-Erewa.
Many of the returnees were grateful and expressed joy to be able to see the country they can proudly call home again, even if it means a fresh start for their lives.
At least 319 Nigerians are still expected to be evacuated from South Africa on Tuesday, according to the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Those who have returned have now been able to reconnect with their families, but the ordeal in South Africa is not one they’ll forget in a hurry.
“It wasn’t a pretty experience. I have not had that much fear since I left Nigeria few years ago in search of better opportunities,” one of the returnees who sought anonymity, told Newsroom on Saturday afternoon.
But after reuniting with his family, the returnee says he now looks forward to building his life again.
“I now have to pick up the pieces and start all over again,” he says.
For many of the returnees, having to pick up the pieces and start all over after losing so much is daunting, and this was echoed by Segun, who tells Neusroom he was able to reunite with his family after benefiting from MTN’s donation of free data and cash sum to the returnees.
“It’s not easy at all, especially when you’re losing a lot of property to a place you can’t even get it back. Obviously, it’s painful and hurtful but you just have to move on and start over,” he adds.
Segun prays the government to further provide opportunities for not just the affected returnees, but for Nigerians as a whole.
“This is Lagos where you just have to keep your head up,” he says of his determination to get his life back on track.
Dabiri-Erewa has said that more Nigerians are expected to make the short trip back home in the coming days but like Segun, Benjamin is desperately hoping that President Buhari’s government has more plans to fully integrate the returnees into society by providing jobs that they can do to put food on their table.
Benjamin, who has now found home with his sister in Lagos, says but for the free flight back to Nigeria and cash reward, he is practically left with nothing.
“Before I left South Africa, my home was perfect. Now that I’m here, everything is bad. Very bad. I don’t think I can cope, I can’t. It’s just too bad. I can’t go back to South Africa now, it’s the way forward I’m looking for,” he laments.
Though many of these returnees have been left to rue their luck and count their losses, many others are just grateful to have returned alive. To this set, there’s no better time to hold on firmly to the cliche saying, ‘when there’s life, there’s hope’.
“We just thank God,” another returnee, a woman who pleaded anonymity, says of her belief to bounce back.
Nigeria’s minister of foreign affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama had said over a week ago that the government has made its demands clear to the South African government on its expectations on compensation for affected persons, and the returnees would hope that these demands are met in no time.
“We have registered our strong protest to the government of South Africa. But most importantly, we have put forward to the South African government what we think will make a big difference: one with regard to compensation with those who have suffered loss and most importantly, a security proposal that we believe will safeguard the security of Nigerians in the future,” Onyeama said.
While the government works to resolve the issues with the South African government, authorities have advised Nigerians to refrain from attacking the purported South African-owned businesses in the country, as the livelihoods of thousands of citizens are dependent on their employment at those companies.