Nigerian expats in South Africa too often feature in bad news, but the Nigerian Community Excellence Awards have proven that there’s been, at best, unbalanced reporting. The second edition of the awards featured a range of achievers, from cool, sun-glassed musicians to a 10-year-old author.

“We may be loud, but we are intelligent,” Akinloye Anthony Bamigboye told the mostly Nigerian audience in the small auditorium at Old Mutual’s headquarters in Sandton as he received the Platinum Award of Excellence on Saturday night. It summed up the ceremony well, minutes before he was shouted down by an enthusiastic audience for making too long a speech too late in the evening.

By that time the awards ceremony had been on for more than three hours, and those who had arrived at the 17:00 starting time stated on the invite had been there for more than five.

The man next to me whispered that Ekiti state, where the professor is from, is known for its bookworms. It showed.

Bamigboye, who practises in Bryanston and who has three decades of experience as a gynaecologist and obstetrician on three continents, eventually raised his pack of speech notes in surrender, but said Nigerian expats could take their skills back to their country one day to stimulate the economy.

The Nigeria Community Excellence Awards are in their second year and were born following the outcry in Nigerian communities around the xenophobic attacks by South Africans in recent years, and the counteraccusations by local communities that Nigerian drug dealers and pimps were holding them ransom. At the heart of these somewhat exaggerated reactions to real problems lies a frustration with failed policing and government systems.

The awards organiser, Nigerian community newspaper editor, Olaniyi Abodedele, was keen to take up a call by his government for Nigerians themselves to play a positive role and to reach out to the communities they live in. The awards were an extension of the work he’d done as editor of the Nigerian Voice magazine, which he founded in 2010 – “to showcase the positives that Nigerians do” – and which is distributed in the Nigerian High Commission, where he has good relations with diplomats.

The awards, with Old Mutual as the main sponsor, aim to do the same – a kind of soft power initiative to complement the work that’s being done or not at an official level.

The event was about as glitzy as community events get, and the raft of awards – 24 in all – meant it was a long evening, but never dull.

From the outset there was flirty-bordering-on-sexist banter between the MCs, television presenter Mabel Mabaso, a South African, and Nigerian businessman Ekos Akpokabayen. Lots of references were made to the popularity of Nigerian men with South African women (there were some such mixed couples at the event), and somewhere an entertainer sardonically joked about the nervousness Nigerians felt around stern South African immigration officials, even if they did nothing wrong.

The evening was attended by a number of Nigerian diplomats from the High Commission in Pretoria and the Consul General in Johannesburg, as well as the high commissioners from Ghana and Kenya, who said they came “in solidarity” and joked that because “when Nigeria calls, you go”. Proceedings kicked off with the singing of the Nigerian and South African national anthems – with an equal enthusiasm for both – and jokes about the short Nigerian anthem and the lengthy South African one.

The young talent award went to Adaeze Ogechi Ugwu, a 10-year-old who wrote her first book, The Duck Who Thought It Couldn’t Swim, aged seven. The sports award went to a Gauteng table tennis champion, Chijioke Osuji, who had also represented South Africa. Bunmi the Bone Bender, a Nigerian medical doctor from Durban who is the South African female champion in kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, was a nominee but didn’t make it, although her name elicited gasps from the audience.

Chigoziem Emereuwa, who was the sole survivor of a car crash that killed her parents and siblings aged 11, in 2001, received a prize for the most inspiring Nigerian personality in South Africa. She bagged a PhD in pure mathematics aged 27 from the University of Pretoria, and in her spare time she volunteers in Mamelodi where she helps guide children to be optimistic about their future.

Medical doctor Ezeogu Ozoemena Oduah Augustine, also nicknamed “small ambassador”, got the Nigerian Community Spirit Award for the work he’s been doing in eSwatini (Swaziland) as part of the Nigerian government’s volunteering programme, the Technical Aid Corps. He feels strongly about projecting a positive image.

“My aim since I came into the country was to prove there are good Nigerians in the diaspora,” he said.

He also urged Nigerians not to export tribal divisions. Afterwards he explained this with a rather quirky metaphor of buttocks, gesturing towards his backside. When you sit down, he said, these parted, but if you wanted to walk to move forward, they have to be together.

Augustine told the audience he encountered negative perceptions of Nigerians abroad.

“My answer to people is, if Nigerians are bad, in southern Africa, in Swaziland, we have so much rape and abuse of women. Do we say all Swazis are rapists? No, because in Nigeria we have the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Through a concerted effort, he said, Nigerians abroad could prove that “Nigeria is a unique and good country”.

Anthony Ogbe, minister: consular and immigration in the Nigerian High Commission in Pretoria, dedicated his Nigerian diplomatic personality of the year award to those Nigerians who had lost their lives here, but also those who had done the country proud. Ogbe, who has worked with South African police and Nigerian community organisations around violence against suspected Nigerian criminals in South African communities, said he’d been a diplomat for 31 years, but dealing with the challenges of Nigerians in South Africa has been “quite memorable”.

“Many of our nationals have not had it too easy,” he said.

Ogbe honoured those Nigerians “from all walks of life who are coming here to promote good relations between South Africa and Nigeria”.

Nigerian expats in South Africa have been particularly impressed by Ogbe’s efforts to reduce the turnaround time and malpractice in passport applications for Nigerians in South Africa easier.

Abodedele’s dream of turning the awards into a red-letter day for Nigerians in South Africa slowly seems to be bearing fruit. South Africans could do well to take note.

This article was originally published on Daily Maverick
Carien Du Plessis / Daily Maverick

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We are about democracy, human rights, public opinion, political behavior, civil rights and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

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