SA moves to placate Nigeria over yellow fever row

South Africa apologised to Nigeria on Thursday for deporting 125 Nigerians accused of trying to enter the country with fake vaccination certificates, seeking to defuse a growing dispute between Africa’s two biggest economies.

Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ismail told a news conference the government had sent a letter of apology over the “regrettable incident” that spiralled into tit-for-tat expulsions of South Africans and a threat of action against South African companies in Nigeria.

Last week, officials at Johannesburg airport deported 125 Nigerians, saying their yellow fever vaccination certificates were fakes—the latest twist in a long-standing rivalry between the powers vying for dominance in the continent.

Nigeria responded with the deportation of 84 South Africans.

The government is not seeking an apology from Nigeria over the deportation of its citizens, Ebrahim told reporters, flanked by Nigerian diplomats.

“I understand the reaction of the Nigerians,” Ebrahim said, adding the incident would not affect bilateral relations.

Cards proving vaccination against yellow fever—a deadly mosquito-borne disease—are required by most African countries for entry but counterfeits are easy to buy from hawkers at Lagos airport. Relatively developed South Africa has better facilities to detect fakes than most countries on the continent.

Ebrahim did not say that the suspect certificates had in fact turned out to be genuine but said South African officials had acted in a way the “government believes could have been handled better”.

Nigerian Foreign Minister Olugbenga Ashiru has accused Pretoria of “xenophobia” towards migrants from the rest of Africa and threatened retaliatory measures, including some targeted at South African companies.

Nigeria is the biggest market for South Africa’s mobile operator, MTN. South Africa’s Shoprite and Standard Bank Group also have profitable operations there.

Nigeria and South Africa have been at odds diplomatically at the African Union several times, including over Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s and Côte d’Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo’s bid to stay in power last year.

South Africa backed Gbagbo and Gaddafi as counterweights to Western hegemony, even when the two men began killing opposition demonstrators, while Nigeria favoured intervention to oust them.—Reuters

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