Security guards conduct checks after anti-South African protesters attacked the MTN office in Abuja, Nigeria February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
Guards conduct checks at the MTN offices in Abuja after protesters attacked the building © Reuters

Nigerian protesters attacked the head office of MTN, the South African mobile phone company, in Abuja on Thursday as a wave of xenophobic violence in Africa’s two largest economies increased.

The unrest in the Nigerian capital followed a spate of attacks on Nigerian-owned businesses in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, and the business centre of Johannesburg this week, in that country’s worst flare-up of anti-foreigner rioting in years.

It came as Phuthuma Nhleko, the group’s chairman, was in Abuja to meet Yemi Osinbajo, Nigeria’s vice-president, who is running the country in President Muhammadu Buhari’s absence.

According to a spokesman for MTN, the protesters stormed its offices and stole phones, vandalised equipment and attacked customers. The violence underscores the fragile relationship between Africa’s political and economic powerhouses.

MTN has faced a period of turbulence in Nigeria, its biggest market. The Johannesburg-listed company last year paid $1.1bn to settle a record fine — originally set at $5.2bn — for alleged violations of a law related to SIM card registration.

Nigerian government officials have since voiced support for MTN’s continued operations. Adebayo Shittu, Nigeria’s communications minister, told the Financial Times last week: “I would be . . . irresponsible as a minister if MTN is scared away.”

But an inquiry led by the senate, over allegations that it illegally took nearly $14bn out of the country between 2006 and 2016, remains unresolved. MTN denies any wrongdoing.

In a statement on Thursday, MTN expressed “concern over attacks on non-nationals in both countries”.

Geoffrey Onyeama, Nigeria’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times he had voiced his government’s “deep concern about recurring attacks on Nigerians” to the South African ambassador in Abuja this week.

Resentment of migrants has been simmering for years in many of South Africa’s poorest settlements. Analysts attribute it to hopelessness fed by high jobless rates, running at about 27 per cent nationally, and repeated failure by the ruling African National Congress to provide basic services.

More than 60 people died in anti-foreigner violence in the country in 2008, and thousands were forced to flee their homes, as rioting spread from Johannesburg townships to cities such as Cape Town. Further violence in 2015 claimed seven lives and again spread nationally before police and the army restored order.

The most recent outbreak has put pressure on the opposition Democratic Alliance, which took over Johannesburg and Pretoria after the ANC lost power there in last year’s local elections and which hopes to use them to showcase its ability to govern in time for 2019 national elections.

Herman Mashaba, Johannesburg’s DA mayor, was criticised last year for claiming that illegal immigrants in the city were “criminals” and that the ANC had left the border open.

“Foreign nationals are not our enemy,” Mr Mashaba said in a condemnation this week of the attacks, which he called “an unfortunate misdirection of the community’s demand for safety and jobs”.

Some residents have claimed that Nigerian-owned businesses are fronts for drug dealers and prostitution. Others say criminals have been fanning the unrest to loot and steal.

On Thursday Malusi Gigaba, the home affairs minister, called on South Africans to desist from further violence but said the government would crack down on undocumented migrant workers.

“Those who commit crime should not be labelled according to nationality, but because they are criminal,” he said.

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