Kole Omotoso: What I know about Nelson Mandela, Abacha and M.K.O Abiola

by Kole Omotoso


During the events that followed the June 12 annulment of the election that would have seen Bashorun Abiola as president of Nigeria, President Mandela continued to interact with Sani Abacha. One of his interventions had to do with the plight of Bashorun Abiola’s family. Bashorun Abiola was in prison. His business had collapsed. His accounts had been blocked.

Last night, at ten minutes to nine o’clock South African time, Nelson R. Mandela, popularly known as Madiba died. As dawn breaks this morning celebrations, ruminations, but mostly celebrations begin across South Africa in all circles of the South African Rainbow Nation. It is a long time since the world has seen one person’s life effect millions of other lives as President Mandela’s life has done. I have no doubt that volumes and volumes of the evidence of this reach will be put together sometime in the future.

Growing up in Nigeria, it was natural that what went on in South Africa was part of a youngster’s political awareness. It was only natural that as an African I felt insulted by the apartheid system and read everything that I could find on it. At Oyemekun Grammar School Akure where we had the school usual notice board ‘newspaper’ my contribution was boosted by my incessant listening to what was then the radio station that came out of Pretoria.

At the University of Ibadan I was for a short time president of what was then the International Students Society, which gave me opportunities to meet South African students studying in the university. During my time at the University of Edinburgh I got more directly involved with the cultural aspects of the work of the African National Congress in London under the leadership of Mandla Langa, who remains a friend and a confidant.

Together with him we organised meetings to educate students, especially students from other African countries, about the struggle in South Africa. My studies took me to Cairo from time to time and Radio Cairo’s programme to the rest of Africa in English and French provided opportunities to speak on the South African struggle.

As president of the Association of Nigerian Authors I was part of the organisation that invited sixteen South African writers, with the collaboration of the French Embassy in Nigeria, to a writers’ conference in Lagos for writers from Africa and the Caribbean to meet South African writers – black, white coloured and Indian, in all their rainbow colours.

Against this background it was only natural that I would keep following what was happening in South Africa after I left Nigeria in 1988. The annual Black, African and Third World annual book fair organised by John La Rose and New Beacon Books of North London was a major meeting point for writers, publishers, book sellers from all over the world including South Africa.

Even before Nelson Mandela was released in February 1990, the writer Njabulo Ndebele had asked if I would like to come to teach at the National University of Lesotho, outside of Maseru. So after a year at the University of Stirling in Scotland, I accepted a visiting professorship at the university where Professor Ndebele was the Deputy Vice-Chancellor. During my stay in Lesotho I made a visit to Johannesburg to see Dr. Slabbert who had been the leader of the opposition in the all-white South African parliament.

There was some sensitivity from members against those who broke the cultural boycott of South Africa by visiting the country and having anything to do with the apartheid government and structures in any way. There were arguments and strong sentiments but for me it was more and more important to see and report on what was happening in the country.

One of the first things that Mandela’s release on February 1990 made possible was the falling away of the cultural boycott policy of the liberation movements. In February 1992 my family and I arrived in Cape Town to take up the post of a professor in the English department of the University of the Western Cape. The Vice Chancellor was Professor Jakes Gerwel while my friend, Professor Njabulo Ndebele had moved from the National University of Lesotho to assume the deputy vice-chancellorship here at the University of the Western Cape. When President Mandela began his presidency, Professor Jakes Gerwel became his Director General, a position that allowed me access to some interesting details of the relationship between Nigeria and the young newly independent democratic South Africa.

My prominence in the country came out of the early and later years of the cellular phone. My story became part of the story of the young democracy. I had appeared in a television advert for the then new Nissan pick-up, known as bukkie in South Africa. This was in 1993 when the National Party was still in power. I am shown repairing and rebuilding an old house on a piece of land I had just won back from the history of African deprivation in South Africa.

At the end of the day, I reflect on the old house, on the land which I hoped to pass on to my children and I place my tools into the back of the bukkie and drive into the sunset. Well, a week or so after the advert was shown on the television, it was pulled. The makers of the advert called me to say that they had had to pull it because some white farmers did not like the advert. The first reason was that black people do not buy bukkies. The second reason was that they did not like the idea of a black man talking of handing over land to his children. It was this advert that the newly formed Vodacom saw and asked if I would like to see a script about the cellphone. The rest is part of the history of advertising in South Africa.

My first meeting with Nelson Mandela was in the company of the late Bashorun M.K.O. Abiola. Sometime in 1991, Zwalake Sisulu, who edited a monthly magazine for the liberation struggle, had asked me if I could find someone to rescue the journal with some fund. I approached Bashorun Abiola. He requested details about the journal and he expressed interest. But about the same time, the idea was also being mooted that a newspaper be set up that would be sympathetic to the liberation movement in general and the African National Congress in particular.

It was within this ambiance that Bashorun Abiola came to Johannesburg and I flew from Cape Town and we had dinner with Nelson Mandela and his core ANC officers. Nothing came out of that project. But I remember a few things of that evening. There was a need for an extra chair to be placed at the table. Nelson Mandela identified the chair and I moved to carry it to the table but he had already taken hold of it and would not let me carry it!

During his presidency I would meet him at public functions and snatch a few words of what became an on-going conversation about Nigeria. The days before the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa I wrote to him to plead with the government of Nigeria to spare the lives of Ken and his colleagues. I wrote to other South Africans as well including Archbishop Tutu. None of them believed that Sani Abacha would hang the Ogoni nine.

During the events that followed the June 12 annulment of the election that would have seen Bashorun Abiola as president of Nigeria, President Mandela continued to interact with Sani Abacha. One of his interventions had to do with the plight of Bashorun Abiola’s family. Bashorun Abiola was in prison. His business had collapsed. His accounts had been blocked. The family approached President Mandela and he approached Sani Abacha who arranged to send money to President Mandela to be given to the family of Bashorun Abiola. And my former Vice Chancellor Professor Jakes Gerwel was the conduit for this relief fund.

Nelson Mandela’s life has much to teach us, no matter where we are in the world. The first is Nelson Mandela’s unapologetic attitude to the collateral damage that his devotion to the political life of his country imposed on his family. Yes, he would have loved to devote his time and resources to his family but fighting the apartheid system was something that came naturally to him and made his soul be at peace. He acknowledged the damage it did to his private life but he could not regret what he did.

The second lesson that Nelson Mandela teaches us with his life is that a leader must lead. At a time when no one in the liberation struggle would even dream of talking to the Afrikaner, Nelson Mandela had come to the conclusion that the African National Congress must lead the liberation struggle to negotiate for change in South Africa. I played the part of his colleague and fellow prisoner on Robben Island Govan Mbeki in the first film to be made of the struggle in which Sidney Poitier played Mandela. Govan Mbeki was a Marxist and open critic of any meeting with the enemy. I had six speaking opportunities in that film and all are questions about the possible betrayal of the movement by Mandela talking to the enemy. For Mandela, a leader leads by taking decisions to which he would gradually persuade his followers to follow.

The third lesson is the unambiguous decision to have only one single term. In a continent where nobody ever gives up political power, he left office after one term in power.

There will now follow controversy on the legacy of Nelson Mandela. Already, the African National Congress is nothing like the liberation movement that he led. Corruption is rife. Divisions have appeared within the ANC, and within the Congress of the South African Trade Unions. New political parties are coming into existence, parties which announce that they rather than the ANC can lead South Africa to the ideal of Nelson Mandela, a country where there was freedom and equal opportunity.

Whatever the conclusion of that controversy, it cannot be denied that goose pimples still grow on our skins as we watch Mandela sworn in as President of South Africa. His is the story of the hero who left home, fought the demons of his time and returned home triumphant. Nothing could sound or read sweeter to an African, given the negativity that had been heaped on Africa and the African throughout history. Nelson Mandela restored the dignity of Africa and the African. For this alone we thank him for being. We wish that his soul rest in peace.



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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.


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