Black Market Arms Deals and Nigeria-South Africa Relations


The frosty relations between Nigeria and South Africa (SA) even got frostier with the two attempts, in quick succession, by Nigerian authorities to buy arms in South Africa through the backdoor and the backlash of seizure of the physical cash, impounding of a private jet that conveyed the cash and emissaries, and the negative publicity these have given to Nigeria. The first episode was $9.3m cash and three unofficial persons (including an Israeli and a former fugitive, the renegade Niger Delta insurgent leader) that were conveyed in a private jet owned by a famous Nigerian pastor, who is also leader of the Christian association. The second case was different from the first only in the amount of money involved- $5.7m (N952m) that was seized by the recipient SA’s Asset Forfeiture Unit of the National Prosecuting Authority.

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These two incidents happening in a space of two weeks underlie a high level of desperation by Nigeria to procure arms, which apparently led to the circumvention of standard operational procedures in doing so. Considering the fact that South Africa, like Nigeria and all other African Union (AU) member-states are committed to the cause of stemming local and regional insurgency, and in view of the general understanding of the critical Nigerian situation, one would expect Nigeria to assume that South Africa would understand the desperate situation in which Nigeria was and relax the rules for a quick purchase, acquisition and delivery of the arms.

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However, this was not to be as the South African authorities not only stopped the purchase; but also confiscated the arms money (running into almost N3b), seized the cash and detained the emissaries. The manner of handling the matter- in spite of Nigeria’s official explanations- and the whistle-blowing of such ostensibly secretive affairs between nations, irked the Nigerian government and made them to rethink South Africa’s goodwill towards Nigeria. Nigeria’s response after the second incident of seizure has been that, “the rivalry is too clear and too close for comfort…They (SA) are happy with our problems of terrorism. We’ve done a lot for South Africa and we can mention them. Look at their companies thriving very well in Nigeria. Government policy is favourable even though companies like DSTV charge much more than other operators”.

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The fact that Nigeria officially intervened and explained away that the “gentlemen” were their representatives and that the arms were to reinforce the soldiers in the war against Boko Haram, should have made SA to tread softly, deal with the matter with utmost secrecy and communication should have been strictly confidential- may be a thing between Jonathan and Zuma or their security advisers. But no, it became piece of item for all newshounds and ordinary citizens of both countries. Even the Boko Haram camp got it and can now see how badly desperate and letdown those they are fighting could be.

It is pertinent to mention here that the two episodes of seizure of arms cash came on the heels of (indeed few days after) an ugly episode in Nigeria in which a church building collapsed, killing 115 worshippers, 84 of whom were said to be South Africans. This caused a national shock and bitterness for the South African nation, which believed that there could have been a conspiracy to target its citizens as reprisal for what they suspect was Nigerians’ payback for years of South African xenophobia against Nigerians living in Madibaland. The President, Jacob Zuma addressed the nation and referred to the incident as the worst single human disaster involving nationals since the end of apartheid. This was not going to go down well between both nations, no matter how diplomatic their High Commissioners in Abuja and Pretoria would have handled it, or well Jonathan would have spoken to Jacob on telephone.

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Few days after, SA made a meal of what used to be covert and secret deals, causing enough international embarrassment for Nigeria. The arms deals showcased few but very unpalatable things- Nigeria’s shortcut in getting things done as a way of life; illegality and complicity of government and its people in international commerce (more of government money laundering, an act many private individuals from the country have been accused of or caught); use of renegade militant leader and an avowed enemy of the nation, Mujahideen Asari Dokuboh, a man who had once been arrested in Benin Republic using presidential jet after similar arms deals and who had vowed to pull Nigeria down if Jonathan did not get a reelection; use of private aircraft belonging to a pastor, who happens to be a close friend and associate of the Nigerian president as well as a Niger Delta man like Dokuboh and the president; and leasing out of a “gospel-plane” for commercial purposes; and other things beyond immediate imagination.

All of these have thrown spanners in the wheel of Nigeria-SA relations, which were ensconced in the few words, as quoted earlier, of the National Security Officer. Fact- while Nigeria threw caution to the winds, acting suspiciously and criminally by using a renegade and an Israeli and a clergyman’s plane to carry cash for arms; while it confuses its people and South Africans about what the true intention with the cash and sought-after arms of the conveyers was by the inclusion of a Muslim jihadist and former Niger Delta militant on that mission; while Nigeria acted very foolishly and South Africa needed to be circumspect; the SA authorities needed not have taken the course of exposing the deal and blowing it out of proportions after government’s intervention.

The fragile, cold-hot Nigeria-SA relations dates back to the apartheid era when Nigeria, the giant all the way from West Africa, using enormous human, material and financial resources, led the Frontline States and the global movement to free Mandela, end apartheid and install democracy in South Africa. The successive military and civilian administrations had even contemplated direct military incursion in South Africa to dislodge the white supremacists’ rule and put in its place black majority rule. This was the golden era of Nigeria’s foreign policy. The relationship however did not get any better even after both countries achieved their common dream of democratic South Africa. The Mandela administration, as a reciprocal measure for Nigeria’s past and consistent goodwill, rallied African states together and mounted pressure on the dictatorship of the Abacha junta to set Nigeria free. This however put the two governments on collision course and the hostility soon became institutionalized in the national culture and foreign policy of both countries. South Africa’s post-apartheid emergence as a stable democracy and big economy soon dwarfed Nigeria’s stature as giant of Africa, which, expectedly, was a bitter pill to swallow for millions of naturally proud Nigerians, who had enjoyed that “giant” tag for three decades.

Rivalry became the order of the day and with worsening social and security conditions at home, more and more Nigerians sought haven in SA and further brought pressure on the latter’s economy, which expectedly culminated in dislike and disrespect for Nigerians and the general national forgetfulness of the SA people, of the many sacred and giant roles Nigeria had played for thirty years in SA’s liberation. Like what its entertainers now do in shooting musical videos and taking frequent holiday trips to SA, Nigeria resorted to SA to buy arms, after the USA stopped selling same to the Nigerian military on allegation of human rights abuses in the war against terror. The descent to this seemingly abysmal level of even buying arms from SA shows the extent of Nigeria’s diminution and concession of military superiority to the South African country. Sad, but that confirms the fears of Nigerians that the giant is sleeping or dead.

For Nigeria to score a clean goal against its SA rivals, it must not just cut the liberties of the South African companies as payback for the recent assaults. Nigeria must get things right- it is high time we stopped stealing from the national treasury and put (and pull together) all our resources to build our roads, airlines, refineries, telecoms companies, Pay-Tvs, vehicles, consumables, and so many more that we can do; and kill our taste buds for foreign and South African exotics.

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