Mandela and Nigeria

by Michael Egbejumi-David

Not a whole lot of positive news rushes out of Nigeria – especially lately, but one of the things we got absolutely right was our determined leadership and our drive in the pursuit of the emancipation of the Black man. Nigeria was right on point in its dogged fight for the liberation of all Africans, particularly in places like Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia), and South Africa.

Nigeria was a consistent, principled and an uncompromising front-line crusader for total freedom in those countries. Nigeria especially nailed its colours to the freedom of the people of South Africa very early on at a time when most countries around the globe could never have dreamt of challenging the colossus that was the Apartheid State and its Western backers.

As a country, Nigeria didn’t just talk the talk, we walked the walk. We put our money where our mouth was and we gave of our very best intellectual talents to see through our commitment. We were unyielding in our single-mindedness until, eventually, all South Africans became free. Even our musicians (like Sonny Okosun) were singing revolutionary songs and banging-on about the liberation of the peoples in southern Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela long before it became fashionable to do so.

It was during the regime of the irrepressible Gen Murtala Muhammed that Nigeria specifically refocused its foreign policy and made Africa its cornerstone. Muhammed moved us from the “non-aligned” nations’ league and made Nigeria a “neutral” nation. In other words, we became a significant player. As a result, Nigeria indeed became the giant of Africa. Particularly, Nigeria became a major force in the liberation of Angola and we coordinated and led a vigorous and a robust opposition to the South African apartheid regime.

Nigeria became very active at issuing passports to Black South Africans who wanted to travel abroad. We also became adept at facilitating various freedom fighters’ and their families’ passages. The Muhammed/Obasanjo regime was the first to ban the importation of clothes from South Africa in those days, setting the way for what later mushroomed into global economic isolation of the apartheid country.

Maj Gen. Joseph Garba was a remarkable and a tireless hand throughout this period. Garba was so good at his job; he was appointed President of the United Nations Security Council in early 1978.

Earlier on, using our dynamic leadership and economic leverage, Gen Obasanjo moved against British interests in Nigeria. Over disagreement about how to end colonisation in Rhodesia, Obasanjo nationalised British Petroleum. The threat of further Nigerian action quickly convinced the British that Africa could no longer be taken for granted. Nigeria has come of age. This bold move facilitated the emergence of democracy in Zimbabwe.

Shortly after his release from prison in 1990, Mandela embarked on a tour of some African (and other) countries to thank them for their support during the liberation struggle. Nigeria immediately put at Mandela’s disposal, a Nigerian jet. Naturally, during some of these visits, Mandela also asked for financial support for his Party, the African National Congress (ANC) as the Party reorganises itself and prepares for a future national election. Of course, quite a few countries obliged and pledged some money. But in Nigeria, Mandela got a shock. In a meeting with Babangida, IBB signalled his aides and they disappeared into a side room. The aides reappeared shortly after with many cases packed full with cash. Mandela and his group simply weren’t prepared. They were speechless. But Babangida smiled broadly and took care of that logistical headache too.

After Mandela became president in 1994 and apartheid officially collapsed, South Africa needed a large number of Black professionals to help run some of its firms and businesses. Naturally, they looked in the direction of Nigeria and we responded. Today, it is estimated about 25,000 Nigerian professionals are still working in various South African industries, and mutual business and trade continue to flourish between the two countries.

Even at Mandela’s inauguration as President of post-apartheid South Africa, Nigeria was the only country that turned up with two sets of government delegations; headed respectively by Abacha and MKO Abiola!

Post apartheid, relationships soured somewhat between the two countries, in part due to Abacha’s duplicitous nature in some of his dealings with Mandela; due to the jostle for regional prestige; and also as a result of the way some of our brothers have chosen to conduct their lives in modern South Africa. But on the whole, Nigeria was there strong when South Africa and Mandela needed us.

There is no doubt that Nigeria helped liberate millions of Africans. That leadership status in Africa is one Nigeria has not relinquished. It was well earned. Mandela freed millions of his people. His unquestionable status as The Greatest was similarly well earned.

Rest well, Madiba.

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