It was sad seeing the United Kingdom and the United States – two countries which supported the vicious apartheid regime of South Africa and the incarceration of Dr. Nelson Mandela – in the limelight when Mandela died last week, while Nigeria, which led the African onslaught against apartheid, played the second fiddle.
Shortly after President Jacob Zuma of South Africa broke the news of Mandela’s death in the night of Thursday, December 5, President Barack Obama of the US and Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK addressed the media. The US, France and other countries announced that flags would be flown at half-mast. Conversely, our country issued a statement signed by Dr. Reuben Abati, the media aide to President Goodluck Jonathan. Because ours was a statement signed by Abati while those from the US and UK were speeches read by their chief executives, naturally our TV and radio stations, while broadcasting the news of Mandela’s death the next day, gave priority to Obama and Cameron.
To further buttress our unpreparedness, an announcement came from the Presidency later in the day declaring three days of national mourning for Mandela with flags flying at half mast. It looked like an afterthought done because others had done so. Rather than setting the pace as the acclaimed Giant of Africa on such an African matter, we allowed others to take the glory and momentum.
Many excuses would be given for this. One would be that the President was not in the country when Mandela died. The second would be that Mandela died at night, while it was still day in the United States, which gave them a head start. But these are what they are: Excuses. And excuses do not rate highly among those who are strategy-driven.
Through his illness, Mandela warned the whole world for many months about his imminent departure. Even a few days before he passed on, it was announced that he had relapsed and could not recognise people anymore. That was his final warning.
Therefore, the Presidency had enough time to prepare for Mandela’s departure: in terms of what to say or do whenever he died. Even though the President was in Europe when Mandela died, nothing stopped him from addressing the Nigerian media that travelled with him and sending the clips to Reuters, AFP, NAN, NTA, etc, for broadcast.
Such a live broadcast would have given Jonathan the opportunity to subtly chip in the role Nigeria played in the life of Mandela and the fight against apartheid. For example, many of our people do not know that when the apartheid regime was looking for Mandela to jail him in the early 1960s, that he ran to Nigeria and Nigeria’s President, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, handed him over to Chief Mbazulike Amaechi – a parliamentarian then – to give him refuge for six months before he eventually decided to go back, and was arrested in August 1962, tried and jailed.
Many of our people do not know that during the Murtala Muhammed/Olusegun Obasanjo regime that a contributory fund was set up for students, civil servants and other Nigerians to donate money to support South Africans and the fight against apartheid. Nigeria was like a home to many African National Congress leaders and South African students. Many ANC leaders had access to the Nigerian passports to enable them to travel round the world because the apartheid regime seized their passports.
Furthermore, Nigeria antagonised many of the countries that supported the apartheid regime, especially Britain. For example, Nigeria privatised British companies in Nigeria, notably the Britain Petroleum, which it converted to National Oil. Nigeria boycotted some international meets, especially the Commonwealth Games. All these measures were meant to pressurise the UK to set South Africa free.
Mandela was very appreciative of Nigeria’s contributions to the fight against apartheid. For example, Nigeria was one of the first countries he visited after his release from prison after 27 years in February 1990. Not only that, when Nigeria and South Africa had a match to play for the 1994 World Cup qualification, Mandela was asked which country he would prefer to win. He said South Africa was his country, while Nigeria was like a country to him. So, he did not know the country he preferred to win. Nigeria eventually won that match and qualified for its first World Cup. Mandela was to reciprocate by rallying Africa and the Commonwealth to sanction the dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha after the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in November 1995.
Unfortunately, we have allowed our people to be taught history by the CNN, the BBC and other Western media. And the Western media would always tell every story from their perspectives, and not ours. Our people know how George Washington fought the British for America’s independence but don’t know how Azikiwe fought the British for Nigeria’s independence. We know how Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa lived for the downtrodden of India but do not know how Tai Solarin, Mallam Aminu Kano or Chief Gani Fawehinmi lived and fought for the downtrodden, or the Talakawas, of Nigeria.
In Christianity, for example, Christ taught that pure charity is when you give with your right hand without your left hand knowing. But in relations between a nation and other nations, it is not counted as vain or arrogant for a nation to draw attention to its contributions to any country or cause. What it does is that it guides the nationals of the benefitting country whenever they are taking any action concerning the other nation. For example, if young South Africans know the contributions of Nigeria to their nation’s freedom, whenever any xenophobic statement or sentiments are expressed by any of them concerning Nigerians, there would be some voices among them that would sue for caution, pointing out that Nigeria was very supportive during their time of need, and now that Nigeria is experiencing its own economic apartheid, caused by years of military-cum-civilian misrule and corruption, it would not be fair for South Africans to be hard on Nigerians living in South Africa.
Before his death, Mandela was the greatest living human being on earth. That cannot be diminished by envy or anything. In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly gave him the rare honour of declaring his birthday (July 18) Nelson Mandela International Day. His 27-year incarceration was the pedestal to his fame, but his pursuit of love and forgiveness, instead of hate and revenge against those who oppressed and killed his people, made him stand taller than any of his contemporaries. The Western world had taken advantage of his fame, naming monuments after him and erecting statues in his honour even before his death. What have we done to claim Mandela as our own, being the biggest Black nation in the world? What can we name after him even before his burial on December 15? If we knew how to play our cards well, we could have secured an agreement with the South African Government to have his body lie in state in Nigeria before burial or have Nigeria make a special presentation at his burial. Strategic planning is not an accident.
Mandela is indescribable and irreplaceable. For me, he is the greatest human being of all time. When he was ill, I had written a eulogy on this page for him on June 18, entitled “What is the fuss over Mandela’s health?” Since his passing, I have been short of words about what more to say about him. But I feel sad seeing our leaders and common people eulogising him, even when we continue to spread bitterness, hate and vengeance among our compatriots, causing bloodshed at the least misunderstanding, promoting corruption in our little spheres of authority, always thinking about ourselves and family first in all our dealings, and seeking power and clinging to it as if our life depended on it. Again, that he never got medical treatment abroad was also part of the South African pride. In our case, even sprains and headaches make our leaders seek treatment abroad because of our poor state of health care. We no longer feel embarrassed when our leaders and private individuals die abroad. It is telling enough that as he was dying in his South African home, the remains of Chief Solomon Lar were being brought from the US where he died recently.
Mandela has taught us that the life that is celebrated is a life of integrity, sacrifice and service to others. Anyone who lives like that never really dies.