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Love, brief anger and love again: Mandela’s relationship with Nigeria

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Love, brief anger and love again: Mandela’s relationship with Nigeria

by Osho Samuel

A true son of the African soil who blew the trumpet of freedom on the plains of South Africa has finally gone to rest. Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s anti-apartheid revolutionary leader who was incarcerated and stepped out of prison to become South Africa’s first black president has journeyed to the other side.

December 5, 2013 will go down in history as one of those rare days in which the world stood still, united and spoke with one voice in celebration of a true legend, who transcended the barriers of color, background and language to make his voice heard in his world. Mandela gave of himself for the struggle for equality, emancipation and human dignity; his voice penetrated the thickets of apartheid in South Africa. The exit of 95 year old Nelson Mandela in the last month of 2013 has once again shown the world the true meaning of selfless service and true leadership.

As tributes from well-meaning individuals and dignitaries flowed from different parts of the world, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan sent a condolence message to President Jacob Zuma and the people of South Africa. Jonathan said that, “Dr. Mandela will always be remembered and honoured by all mankind as one of its greatest liberators, a wise, courageous and compassionate leader and an icon of true democracy”. Nigeria’s president also announced that there will be three days of mourning in honour of the icon and flags are expected to be flown at half-mast.

In the course of Mandela’s fight against apartheid, he was arrested for sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, serving most of the sentence on Robben Island. He got his freedom in 1990 as South Africa began to move away from racial segregation, a process completed by the first multi-racial election in 1994. Mandela won the election and emerged as the first black president of South Africa at the age of 77. He spent a single term in office and he handed over to his deputy Thabo Mbeki in June 1999.

As the President of South Africa he had meaningful encounters with Nigeria. Considering that Nigeria was one of the foremost supporters of Black South African liberation movements during the apartheid era, Mandela had fondness for the West African country.

Just after his release from prison, Mandela undertook a tour of Africa in April 1990 and Nigeria was one of his stops. He addressed large rallies in Lagos, Enugu and Kaduna. Nelson Mandela who received more than fifty honorary awards got one of them from a Nigerian institution when he was awarded Doctor of Laws degree by Ahmadu Bello University in December 1985. On May 14, 1990, he was bestowed the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (GCFR) in Lagos by the then President of Nigeria, Ibrahim Babaginda. A lot of Nigerians from different walks of life do not hide their respect and love for Mandela and this only depicts the impact he has made on majority of Africans through this reconciliation moves.

Mandela however had a sour relationship with Sani Abacha, one of Nigeria’s former military dictators. During Abacha’s reign, Madiba spoke against his tyrannous rule. These statement made by Mandela on November 26, 1995 gives a picture of the face-off between the two African leaders. Mandela said; “Abacha is sitting on a volcano, – And I am going to explode it underneath him”.

In June 1994 Nigeria’s military ruler, General Sani Abacha arrested and sentenced for execution 40 political opponents including former Nigerian head of state Olusegun Obasanjo as well as Chief Moshood Abiola. Mandela, using quiet diplomacy, sent Archbishop Desmond Tutu first and then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki on successive missions to Nigeria to lobby for the release of Obasanjo, Abiola and nine others.

Abacha told the visiting Tutu that “The vast majority of Nigerians were happy.The only problem was a small group of agitators, representing nobody but themselves, who were determined to cause trouble.” And on the day deputy president Thabo Mbeki visited, Abacha executed 40 alleged criminals as a slap on the face of Mandela.

Right up until the Commonwealth Summit in 1995 Mandela was misled by Abacha into believing that there would be a stay of execution. However, in November 1995 Abacha moved ahead with the execution of the nine Ogoni leaders including Ken Saro-Wiwa. After which South African president Mandela then publicly criticised General Abacha for human rights abuses and personally pushed for a two-year suspension of Nigeria’s membership in the Commonwealth of Nations. Mandela also criticised Royal Dutch Shell for going ahead with a US$4 billion gas project in Nigeria despite its unpopularity within Nigeria and the rest of the world.

READ: From The Archives: Olusegun Obasanjo’s Brilliant Open Letter To Margaret Thatcher In 1986 concerning apartheid

READ: Mandela: Pres. Jonathan Declares Three Days Of Mourning; Flags To Be Flown At Half-Mast

However, Mandela briefly fell out of favour with Nigerians when he was criticized by Nigerian opposition leaders and intellectuals that South Africa was to blame for Ken Saro-Wiwa’s death. They expected him to have stopped Abacha from executing Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other minority rights activists. He responded to his critics by saying that; “Nigerian leaders that are blaming South Africa and its president are merely diverting attention from their weakness; from their failure to do what all democrats do – to ensure that there are prominent leaders inside the country who are prepared to face the music, and challenge Abacha”.

This shows that he tried his best to stop the brutal execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa but there was a limit to the extent to which he could dabble into the affairs of other countries. He made his voice known and frowned sternly to the injustice meted out to the Ogoni activists. He expected Nigeria to have her own Mandela who would have been strong enough to confront the reckless behavior of Sani Abacha. In 1997, there were indicators that Nelson and Abacha were able to resolve the diplomatic row between the two countries personally.

As can be seen from the adulation and tributes from Nigeria since the news of his passing broke, the season of anger between the Nigerian activists community and Mandela did not last for long. He continued to be a model, the benchmark against which all Nigerian leaders were measured… and all came short.

Humanity wonders why so much applause for an African leader on his odyssey to heaven’s gate. A satirical website joked that Mandela would be the first politician to be missed. Why would the President of the United States, Barack Obama demand that the American flag be flown at half-mast as a sign of respect for the loss of a South African? Why did the United Nations adopt Mandela’s birthday, July 18 as Mandela’s day? Is this not too much for an African?

Maybe it was because Madiba gave much more than most African leaders gave: Went to prison at the age of 46, got his freedom at the age of 72, became the President at the age of 77 and spent just a single term in office. His discipline with power as the first black President shocked the international community; it was against the norm in Africa where leaders who never went to prison are absolutely drunk with power. His culture of humility, stance towards charitable work, reconciliation sermons and addicted campaign for peace distinguished him out of the masses.

Nobel laureate, Mandela is truly a man to be celebrated among the sons of Africa; his stand against social injustice was unwavering, his fight against apartheid was brave, his struggle for emancipation was inundating.

And he truly was Nigeria’s friend.

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