How do you define Nelson Mandela?
It is only when you do so that you are able to answer the question whether Nigerian Mandela is possible. Nelson Rolihlalala Mandela, the first president of democratic South Africa finally bowed to the superior argument of death as all mortals must last week Thursday, December 5, 2013. He was renowned for so many inspiring statements and speeches both before and after he went to jail, came out, climbed into the presidency and bequeathed a stable and prosperous country to posterity.
Two of them will help us in defining the phenom called Nelson Mandela. The first is excerpted from the speech he made on gaining freedom after his 27 years incarceration: “I stand before you not as a prophet but as your humble servant. I place the rest of my life in your hands”. The second is taken from his inaugural speech as elected president in 1994: “Never again shall this beautiful land witness the oppression of one by another”.
Mandela committed his life to the fight for equality in South Africa, not the replacement of White supremacy with that of Black. He proved that even in continental Africa rent asunder by ethnic, tribal, racial and religious divisions, it is possible for a man to lay down his freedom to bring about a united “rainbow nation” after defeating the scourge of Apartheid. It is possible for an a Black man, an African Black for that matter, to carry power and authority with such grace, panache and dignity such that a grateful world through the United Nations decided to set aside July 18 every year as the Nelson Mandela International Day to encourage people to emulate his virtues. No other human being, living or dead, has been so honoured. You only find that honour set aside for founders of major religions by their adherents.
We are told that man is a product of nature and nurture. The blood that flows in your veins; the genetic signature ruling your actions as well as the environment in which you grow up define who you are and what footprint you leave behind. Mandela was lucky to be born with a strong character, which helped him to stay in prison despite many offers for him to compromise for his freedom. In spite of his travails, he refused to be blinded by rage and vengeance, which would surely have destroyed South Africa by now. He meant it when he declared the end of oppression.
So, we return to our question: Is a Nigerian Mandela possible? Looking at our history, your answer is likely to be: No. The British colonialists did not lay a foundation that would allow a Nigerian Mandela to emerge. Otherwise, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe would have been the nearest thing to that. He was one of the greatest exponents of Pan-Africanism.
In fact, Dr Mandela in the early 1960s, visited Nigeria and stayed awhile with a prominent Zikist, Chief Mbazulike Amechi, to receive schooling on the subject before he returned to South Africa. It is also on record that Dr Kwame Nkrumah, who later became a radical Pan-Africanist, also was inspired by Dr Azikiwe when he was still a student in London.
Azikiwe’s National Council for Nigerian Citizens, NCNC, espoused that Nigerians should forget their differences and build a united nation. Unfortunately, his colleagues in the decolonisation effort had other ideas. Chief Obafemi Awolowo wanted to control his region and from there attempt to spread his power base to other parts of the country. He introduced tribalism into our politics and successfully pulled out his region from the national movement of which the West was once the leading light under Dr Herbert Macaulay and Azikiwe. Sardauna Ahmadu Bello was more interested in building the Northern Region, which was a colonial makeover of his grandfather’s Islamic empire, the Sokoto Caliphate. He had the grand design of the Caliphate ruling the rest of the country.
Zik thus became one of the few who led the fight for independence in Africa and the Third World but failed to emerge as the leader after independence. The foundations of Nigeria augured better for tribal and regional ascendancy over nationalism. Nigeria ended up with sectional and tribal Mandelas: Ahmadu Bello for the North; Awolowo for the West, and Dr Michael Okpara for the East. Even at that, the various Minorities sprouted their own little Mandelas, such as Isaac Adaka Boro for the Ijaw nation, Joseph Tarka for the Tiv, Justice Udo Udoma for the Ibibio and what have you.
Even after independence, Nigeria missed several opportunities to grow its Mandela. The first military coup of January 15, 1966 was dubbed a revolution in which key members of the ruling party, the Northern People’s Congress, NPC, lost their lives. Events from that precipitated a civil war because it was painted in tribal colours. But in Ghana, Flt Lt Jerry Rawlings similarly staged a coup and executed past leaders whom he blamed for Ghana’s underdevelopment. Even though Rawlings came from Ewe, a minority tribe, Ghanaians did not see what he did as a tribal agenda. He succeeded in rebuilding Ghana to the stable democracy and progressive economy that it is today. Rawlings thus emerged as Ghana’s own Mandela, even though with bloodstained hands.
Nigeria, once again, lost a prime opportunity for a local Mandela to emerge when the presidential mandate of Chief Moshood Abiola was annulled in June 1993. The kind of mandate Abiola received defied religion, region and tribe. Nigerians were ready for a Mandela, but the military refused to let them have it. Some have argued that if General Murtala Mohammed had lived a little longer he could have become our own Mandela. We can’t say for sure since he was with us only for six months, a period of the usual honeymoon leaders enjoy before they show their true colours. Besides, Mohammed rose to power on the crest of infamy. He had been a key figure in the massacre of Igbos both before and during the civil war when he committed so many war crimes.
It is still possible for a Nigerian Mandela to crop up. The reason is very simple. Nigerians are hungry – in fact, famished – for a Mandela of Nigerian extraction. When the late President Umaru Yar’ Adua declare himself our “servant-leader”, and proceeded to make his assets declaration public, Nigerians were already looking up to him.
But his ill health, the excesses of his wife, Turai, and the “cabal” banished the hope. Also, when the former Minister of Power, Prof Barth Nnaji battled the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, workers’ unions and raised power supply to a level that was attested to by the generality of Nigerians, he was already being hailed.
If we get a leader who will be selfless, give Nigerians their due without caring about religion, tribe or regions; fight corruption and devote himself whole-heartedly to the overall and even development of the country, Nigerians will follow him.
He may not be a Mandela, but he will be enough.
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