From Juliana Taiwo in Cape Town, Gboyega Akinsanmi and Eddie Alegbe in Lagos with agency reports, 06.04.2008
South African President, Thabo Mbeki yesterday apologised to President Umaru Yar'Adua over the recent wave of xenophobic uprising targeted at Nigerians and other foreign nationals resident in his country.
Also yesterday, Nigerian and South African governments agreed to set up a team consisting of business people who are familiar with business conditions in both countries to assist in removing obstacles preventing the growth of Nigerian businesses in South Africa.
Mbeki tendered his apology while holding talks with President Yar'Adua in Cape Town. Yar'Adua is on a three-day state visit to South Africa.
The South African president said: "We extend an unreserved apology to the president with regard to these attacks that have taken place in some parts of our country, attacks against other Africans particularly."
He said his government was "opposed to any manifestation of any xenophobia amongst our people. We are quite determined to make sure we protect the security of everybody but are also very, very keen that the process of the reintegration of displaced people within communities from which they came is done as quickly as possible. Many of our communities are already indicating interest that the displaced people should return”, he said."
While responding, Yar'Adua expressed concerns about the uprisings that few weeks ago dislocated Nigerian businesses, and displaced the country's nationals.
"Nigeria expresses our deep concerns not only to the victims of the xenophobic attacks, but also to the government and people of South Africa because we have experienced these issues over the past and we know that hardly are these kind of issues spontaneous," he said.
Yar'Adua also commended Mbeki for heeding the international call for the deployment of soldiers whose intervention eventually contained the uprising.
He said Mbeki had made a determined effort to "put a stop to the situation," and lauded his decision to deploy the army to the streets to bring the violence under control.
“It is important for authorities to stand firm and uphold the principles that will guide community relations and reject this kind of behaviour and this the South African government has done", he said.
The two leaders also agreed on strengthening economic and political ties between the two countries. Mbeki confirmed that "Nigeria has the largest number of bilateral agreements with South Africa, more than any other country on the continent and probably around the world."
Mbeki, who has been facing hard times at home, added that economic development between the two countries was a prime goal. He also said it was important to promote greater investment by Nigerian companies in South Africa, which already has many businesses operating in Nigeria.
Supporting his counterpart, Yar'Adua called his visit a "watershed" for relations between the two nations, stating that the duo could together promote African growth and development.
However, yesterday's parley between the two leaders and their delegations also centred on how to create conditions conducive for the growth of Nigerian businesses in South Africa.
In a joint press conference after the meeting, Mbeki said though Nigeria has the largest bi-lateral agreements with South Africa than any other country, the challenge has always been the implementation.
He said both governments have agreed to strengthen the implementation apparatus and erase the challenges that have militated against agreements signed.
“We hold the view that it is very important to strengthen this partnership between Nigeria and South Africa in the interest of both countries and the continent. We also believe both countries have a positive impact on the development of the continent. Nigeria has the largest bi-lateral agreements with South Africa than any other country but one of the obstacles have been the implementations of these agreements. “We are concerned to deepen the relationship in the area of economy which will include investments in each other’s country. We are interested in seeing Nigerian businesses more active in South Africa. “The South African government is very interested in opening the space because as you know there are many South African businesses in Nigeria and this is good.“The team to be set up is made up of business people from Nigeria and South Africa that will be familiar with the business conditions of each country so that they can assist in unlocking the things that are blocking better trade between the two countries.
“South African government will look at elements in terms of regulations that might be blocking the intervention and participation of Nigerian companies in South African economy”, he said.
The South African President said the business group will focus on ensuring increased investment by investors from both countries and would find ways of addressing the challenge of implementing the numerous agreements entered into.
"We have put in place necessary processes that tend to encourage business partnership between the two countries. This will drive the common challenges of addressing the economic development of both countries", he said.
Responding, President Yar’Adua said the economic, political, social and cultural cooperation which exist between both countries would be further strengthened through strategic partnership.
“We will continue to cooperate in the economic, political fronts. We will continue with a high powered delegation visit to ensure a very active bi-national commission. This commission met a fortnight ago in Abuja and will continue to meet annually on a regular basis with the various sub-committees to consider all aspect of this partnership, to work out various frameworks, agreements and details of implementation of agreements signed”.
While fielding questions from the media, President Yar’Adua used the opportunity to reiterate that Nigeria has never supported the establishment of the United States African Command (AFRICOM) on Nigerian soil.
“Nigeria has never agreed to host Africom. I had asked President Bush on my visit to the United States of America with respect to Africom, that what we need is for the US to assist the AU to establish the African standby force and to assist the Gulf of Guinea nations establish the Gulf of Guinea Guard Force.
“Africom is part of US defence policy and has nothing to do with us. There are about four other commands like the Pacific Command, the European Command and the Middle East Command and now there is African command.
“Whatever assistance expected is by training, supply of equipments and logistics to assist the AU establish the African Standby force consisting of a brigade in each of the regional groupings. We have a proposal to establish a Gulf of Guinea Force to enable the Gulf of Guinea nations see to the maritime security of our countries and that is what I asked President Bush to do”, he said.