South Africa on Thursday apologised for barring 125 Nigerians from the country and unveiled new immigration procedures aimed at ending a diplomatic row between the continent’s two powerhouses.
The dispute blew up after immigration officials at Johannesburg’s main airport last week refused entry to Nigerians, saying their yellow fever vaccination cards might be fake.
Since then, Nigeria has turned away 131 South Africans in retaliation, Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru told reporters in Abuja.
Nigeria says the cards were unnecessary as the country is yellow fever free.
“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 he 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.
Friday’s incident prompted Nigeria’s Arik Air to suspend its flights to Johannesburg, though it has since resumed its service.
Arik, one of two airlines affected, said health officials had given the reason as incorrect or unrecognised batch numbers on the documentation. Proof of vaccination is mandatory before one can enter the country.