By UCHE EZECHUKWU
It has become a great irony of fate that instead of being the chief mourner as well as the chief celebrant of the life and times of Dr. Nelson Mandela who departed the world on Thursday, December 5th, 2013, at the ripe age of 95, Nigeria seems to be an onlooker, even as those other nations that do not deserve to lay any significant claims to the great icon are now falling over each other in celebration and mourning.
For, apart from the subdued tribute of President Goodluck Jonathan, rendered from his official engagement in faraway France, as well as the order that our flag be flown at half-mast for three days – a period delineated nationally to mourn him – Nigeria has largely remained a passive mourner of the departed South African leader. Yet, there are many weighty and obvious reasons why Nigeria should have led the way in the mourning of his passing due to the many significant and symbolic things that Nigeria, its people and leaders have meant to the South African nation, people and leaders – past and present.
For instance, if you were a student in any of the key Nigerian universities in the 1970s and 1980s (as I was), you would easily agree that Nigeria was, indeed, a once proud godfather and undisputed leader of Africa and you would become sad that it is the oyibo nations, and not Nigeria, that is today, leading the way in the celebration of the life and times of the departed Nelson Mandela. In those days, our university campuses were literally bursting at the seams with students from South Africa and other troubled South African countries and they were enjoying mouth-watering Nigerian government scholarships, even as Nigerian students looked on wistfully and in envy of the pampered foreigners who the government bent backwards to make at home.
Those Southern African students were the cynosure of the rest of us who watched them swimming in affluence, carousing and reveling from sunrise to sunset, out of the copious largesse of the federal government. Nigeria, the ultimate Big Brother, was not just the great provider for the refugee students from the oppressed nations of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia, it also became a formidable frontline state for the physical liberation struggles in those lands – waging ferocious physical and diplomatic battles for the lives and freedom of those oppressed African brothers and sisters.
The very politicized campus life of those days – a sad departure from what it has become these days – was heavily punctuated with activities that revolved around the plight and predicament of our oppressed brethren in the Southern African region. Shouting posters, luxuriant banners and expressive bills ubiquitously announced the zeal of the academic communities in support of the dynamic activities of the governments of the day over their eloquent deeds for the ferocious liberation struggles that raged. Those were the days when the different South African musical groups –Ipi Thombi, Amandla, etc, invaded the university communities very regularly, even as symposia and freedom workshops became regular features and themes in Nigerian campuses, as support was drummed up by the government to do everything humanly possible to liberate our fellow suffering Africans in South Africa and everywhere else in the region.
The liberation struggles in Southern Africa became a mirror of our pop culture and music life as many of our musicians built their fame on anti-apartheid music. The late Sonny Okosun was a clear case in point. The exiled South African musicians like Miriam Makeba were regarded as Nigerians as their songs were rendered at every popular spot. Nigerian society was electrified by the Southern African experience. Literature boomed in mirror of those times.
As the copious words of celebrations spew forth across the nations, at the passing of Nelson Mandela, what has become obvious is that the Oyibo nations have continued to abjectly manifest their shamelessness, as they suck back their vomit so shamefacedly in hypocritical celebration of the man they had persecuted so badly when he became the symbol of a land and people they once vowed to exterminate. As encomiums tumble forth, this week, from leaders of the Western nations, younger people must feel overawed over the ‘goodness’ and ‘sincerity’ of the Western nations and their leaders as well as their humanity. Yet, those crocodile tears must be seen for what they are – falser than vows made in South African wine. The people who are celebrating Mandela today should have hidden their faces in shame while those who should be celebrating him have been relegated to the background. It has become a sad reality that the first has become the last and the last the first.
The leaders of the United States and Britain were the the first to pay such tributes that have become iconic and the most quoted the world over, yet they were the nations that had brought about the greatest amount of pain and punishment to the Black people of South Africa through their support and sustenance of the white minority government in South Africa which dehumanized and oppressed the Black majority through the evil Apartheid system. It is those nations that are today pretending to be the greatest friends of the people of South Africa, as well as the greatest lovers of freedom and human rights.
On the contrary, the nations and the peoples that had battled most to end the oppression of the South African people by mounting the military, economic and psychological pressures that made the release of Nelson Mandela from the prison possible, have today been relegated to the background and lost in the ‘celebration’ of the man that symbolized all the atrocities that had taken place. I recall that as Africans battled the minority government and their Western collaborators on the ground and on the diplomatic fronts, it was only the Soviet Union and its satellite allies of the Eastern bloc that had stood with Africa.
I recall how Cuba had sent thousands of its soldiers to fight and die alongside the MPLA, ANC, SWAPO, ZAPU/ZANU, as well as with the Nigerian forces at the frontlines of Namibia, South African and Zimbabwean struggles. Nigeria’s efforts might have seemed like the David against the Western Goliath at the international diplomatic fronts in the fight for the liberation of the Black peoples of Southern Africa, but in conjunction with the countries of the Eastern bloc and other radical African nations like Libya, those efforts paid off greatly.
It was a day of great joy when the courageous Olusegun Obasanjo administration faced up to the British recalcitrance against the campaign to impose sanctions against the minority governments in South Africa and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) by nationalizing two foremost British business interests in Nigeria. Nigeria nationalized Barclays Bank and the British Petroleum and renamed them as Union Bank and African Petroleum. That action might have been largely symbolic but it sent a very stinging message to our former colonial masters that in the issue of the freedom of our fellow Africans, Nigeria was ready to sacrifice every other type of prime relationships, and was ready to make enormous economic and diplomatic sacrifices. For South Africa and Zimbabwe too, Nigeria withdrew on several occasions from the Commonwealth Games, as a way of underscoring our determination not to have much to do with Britain and the Commonwealth nations, like Canada, that wined and dined with the dubious minority government in South Africa.
It is significant that at the time when Nelson Mandela was being hunted by the Apartheid regime with the help of the American and British intelligence agencies, after he and his colleagues had founded the Umkontho we Sitwe (the Spear of the Nation) as the military arm of the ANC and had started causing disruptive terror and sabotage against the white minority regime, it was in Nigeria that he had found sanctuary and safety. In fact, at the time that South Africa had become too hot for him and his comrades, it was the newly independent Nigerian nation under the regime of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa that had smuggled him to Nigeria and sheltered him for six months until he, Mandela, had voluntarily decided to go back to South Africa where he was captured, tried and handed a life sentence.
The arrangement was reportedly masterminded by Nigeria’s first president, the Right Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who had mandated one of his foremost acolytes and the then minister of Aviation, Chief Mbazulike Amaechi (the Boy is Good) to shelter the anti-apartheid fighter in his home in Nigeria for six months until Nelson Mandela decided on his own that he had had enough and voluntarily went back to South Africa, where he was to be snatched by his persecutors and jailed for 27 years. When he was released from prison in 1990, Nigeria and Libya were some of the first places that he visited in obvious recognition of the great contributions which those nations, their people and leaders had made both for the liberation of the Southern African nations and for the pressures that facilitated to the release of Mandela himself.
Significantly too, many of the other senior anti-Apartheid fighters, including Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as the second Black president, also took refuge in Nigeria and acquired different levels of training.
During his visit to Nigeria, soon after he was released after 27 years in prison, Madiba had journeyed to Enugu where, at the Government House, then manned by the military governor, Colonel Robert Akonobi, he held a meeting of gratitude that lasted for over a month with the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who had come from his Onuiyi Haven home at Nsukka, for the purpose. Chief Mbazulike Amaechi was also invited to meet and discuss with his famous host on the same occasion.
As the world celebrates him, Amaechi proudly recounts those fond memories, even though it is difficult to hide the fact that that officialdom was to later rob him of the opportunity of following up on what should have been a prized relationship. In fact, in Lagos which was still Nigeria’s capital, Mandela thanked President Ibrahim Babangida and Nigerians for what Nigerian people and leaders had done for him and his country; he went to Enugu to specially thank Zik and ‘the Boy is Good’ for their more personalized gestures to him as Mandela.
Judging from what had taken place in their relationship at the time it mattered most, its state and complexion today falls below what it should be. It is true that there are hundreds of thousands of Nigerians who are today in South Africa eking out a livelihood, even as South African companies are raking out fortunes from their successful enterprises, the artificiality in the human element of such relationship leaves a great deal to be made up.
There is no doubt that the paucity of education of especially Black South Africans on the contributions of the other Africans towards their freedom leaves a big yawning gap. Today, rather than embracing fellow Black Africans as brothers and sisters, a deep sense of xenophobia rubs the two groups of amity which should have reigned. Sadly, this hostility and xenophobia is not just limited to the ordinary non-informed peasants but is often noticeable among the cadres and ranking levels of the government, the police and other institutions of government.
The greatest milestone that the ongoing celebrations of the life and time of Madiba Nelson Mandela should be for the South Africans and their other African brethren to do an introspection that would enable all Mandela’s people – which is all of us – to look back and see from where he, Mandela had got here and to see the sturdy bridges that had made it possible for him and his people. Such introspection would point to a significant and unforgettable Nigerian connection.