Nigeria is boycotting an Africa economic summit in Cape Town, intensifying a diplomatic row after deadly attacks on foreigners in South African cities.
The withdrawal of Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo from the World Economic Forum gathering cast a cloud over initiatives to boost intra-African trade. He was scheduled to address a panel on universal energy access.
Rioting killed at least five in Johannesburg and Pretoria and on Wednesday South African companies MTN) and Shoprite shut stores in Nigeria following retaliatory attacks.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, on a charm offensive to attract $100 billion of new investment, tried to limit fallout from the violence, which rekindled memories of previous deadly attacks on foreigners that also saw reprisals on South African businesses abroad.
Police made almost 300 arrests, while people across the continent protest and voice anger on social media.
It is unclear what ignited the latest attacks, mainly targeting shops owned by African migrants, but unemployment is high and many South Africans are frustrated by limited economic opportunities.
Old wounds between Africa’s two biggest economies have been reopened.
“Clearly with this climate, he (Osinbajo) and Mr. President have agreed he should not go,” Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama told a news briefing.
Onyeama previously summoned South Africa’s envoy to Nigeria and demanded an explanation for “continued burning and looting of Nigerian shops and premises with ineffective police protection”.
Ramaphosa said on Wednesday South Africans should never take justice into their own hands against people from other countries.
“We need to quell those incidents of unrest. South Africa must be a country where everyone feels safe,” Ramaphosa said, condemning incidents in which women were killed.
Hundreds of mainly female students protesting violence against women tried to storm a conference centre in Cape Town.
They were pushed back by police who later used stun grenades against demonstrators. Demonstrators held placards including “Women are not sexual objects” and chanted “We want justice” as they banged on conference doors to force their way in.
“Women are raped in this country every day and nothing happens. The president is sitting having a fancy lunch with all these people trying to sell our country to the world while there is no peace and no justice,” said a student protester from the University of Cape Town, who declined to be identified.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Malawi’s Peter Mutharika also pulled out of the conference, but their governments did not give official reasons for the no-show.
South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation, commenting before Nigeria announced Osinbajo’s withdrawal, said attendance was “satisfactory”.
WEF spokesman Oliver Cann said Kagame and Mutharika informed conference organisers by Saturday – before the attacks started – they could not attend.
Zimbabwe Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo told Reuters the attacks were “unfortunate in an environment where we are looking forward to regional integration and co-operation.”
He is part of a large Zimbabwean delegation including President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
There are a significant number of Zimbabweans living in South Africa and they, along with Somalians and Nigerians, formerly borne the brunt of attacks on foreigners.
Immigration to South Africa from Africa and parts of south-east Asia picked up in the early 1990s, spurred by the end of apartheid and the economic boom that followed.
In recent years, attacks against foreign-owned businesses are a regular occurrence as frustration increases over mounting unemployment, currently at a decade high around 29%.
Some 60 people were killed in attacks directed at foreigners in 2008 and seven more in 2015.
Hundreds of University of Zambia students chanting “No Violence” protested outside the South African High Commission on Wednesday. Zambia criticised them for burning a billboard.
On Tuesday, the Football Association of Zambia (FAZ) called off the country’s friendly soccer international against South Africa in Lusaka, citing “prevailing security concerns in South Africa”.