“For our part we are convinced that there can be no compromise on the apartheid problems of South Africa, we find it difficult to fraternize with enterprises and organizations that are party to the system that holds or brothers and sisters in southern Africa in bondage and regards us on account of or colour as sub human. We cannot continue to cooperate with those that benefit from us, while at the same time reap large profits from the sweat and blood of our brothers and sisters held in slavery.” “Olusegun Obasanjo, 1977 International Conference for Action against Apartheid.
On December 5, 2013, our world collectively went darker due to the passing of an Icon, a legend, a moral giant, an inspirational figure. What we remember most about Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, apart from the decades incarcerated for his anti apartheid stance, was his insistence on forgiveness over vengeance which made him a potent symbol. His message of forgiveness and reconciliation would forever resonate in a world filled with strife and contention.
What is less known however is the force behind the struggle for liberation, the hard long fought battle born out of a sincere desire to end any form of oppression in Africa, be it the white minority rule in former Rhodesia and Namibia, the apartheid regime in South Africa or the chasm of power in Angola. There she was, the indefatigable force, widely touted as the Giant of Africa, Africa’s big brother and liberator, whose traditional approach to foreign policy was Africa as the center-piece. Population and size being the two greatest factors which conferred on her a leadership role, in addition to her ever growing cache of resources resulting from the oil boom, Nigeria threw her support behind the liberation efforts of South Africa which would ultimately end in Nelson Mandela’s release.
These efforts which were largely successful led to emancipation of South Africa to wit-
• The policy of isolation deployed by the Nigerian government to isolate South Africa diplomatically, economically, militarily and culturally: In March 1961, during the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference, Nigeria championed the cause of expelling South Africa from the organization. Nigeria’s belief was that if the commonwealth was truly a free association of nations containing a wide variety of races, there was no place in it for a racist regime.
• Nigeria championed the anti apartheid crusade at the United Nations. The UN resolutions (The General Assembly Resolution 2202 A (XXI) of 16 December 1966 and Security Council Resolution 556 of 23 October 1984) declaring apartheid a crime against humanity, was mostly due to the relentless uncompromising efforts of various Nigerian administrations to tackle the menace that was a flagrant disrespect of basic constitutional human rights of dignity of persons.
• Nigeria also vigorously campaigned to isolate South Africa on the international arena of sporting events. During the Commonwealth Games of 1977 in London, Nigeria successfully succeeded in pressurizing the conference to adopt the Gleneagles Agreement which stipulated that all Commonwealth governments undertook to actively discourage sporting links with South Africa. Nigeria and some African countries subsequently withdrew from the Montreal Olympics over this issue.
• Nigeria stepped up effort which included publicizing the evils of apartheid both internally and externally. The Voice of Nigeria (VON), external service of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) regularly broadcast programs to Southern Africa denouncing apartheid.
• The National Committee on Action against Apartheid (NACAP) was formed by Nigeria to encourage anti apartheid sentiments. Through various activities, the NACAP continuously informed the public of the dehumanizing practices of apartheid. Its principal aim, among others, was to disseminate the evils of the apartheid regime to all Nigerians beginning from primary schools to market women. Through NACAP, hundreds of South Africans resident in Nigeria went to school free of charge and workers contributed financially to the liberation of South Africa.
• After the Soweto massacres of June 1976, Nigeria went further and offered sanctuary to as many of the Soweto kids as could make their way to Nigeria and put them in Nigerian schools and colleges.
• In recognition of Nigeria’s unwavering commitment to ending apartheid, she was elected chairman of the UN special Committee against Apartheid until the apartheid system was finally dismantled in 1994.
• In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly proposed the holding of a World Conference for Action against Apartheid either in New York or “in a country that was irrevocably committed to the eradication of this heinous crime against humanity”. Nigeria as the chairman of the UN Committee against Apartheid was asked to host the conference. Thus, Nigeria hosted two apartheid themed conferences- the World Conference for Action against Apartheid which took place in Lagos in August 1977 and the Legal Status of the Apartheid Regime held in August 1984 also in Lagos. As a result of these conferences, the First National City Bank of New York and the Chase Manhattan Bank announced the cessation of syndicated loans to the South Africa government and her government agencies. Similarly, the midland Bank of the UK and the Banking committee of the US House of Representatives voted to stop all US Export/Import Bank loans to South Africa.
• The Nigerian government tried isolating South Africa economically by making it impossible for any firm operating in South Africa to get new contracts or even to do business in Nigeria. The government promised to set up an economic intelligence unit to monitor the activities of all multinationals operating both in Nigeria and in South Africa with a view to taking appropriate steps against them. This led to the nationalization of British Petroleum and assets of Barclays bank in 1978.
• While the UN Security Council imposed a voluntary arms embargo against South Africa and the General Assembly called on states to end diplomatic relations, close their ports to South African vessels, prohibit their ships from entering South African ports, boycott all South African goods and ban all exports to South Africa, refuse landing and passage facilities to South African aircrafts, Nigeria went further to call for mandatory arms and economic sanctions against South Africa. This was achieved in 1977 when the Security Council of which Nigeria was a member, made the arms embargo against South Africa mandatory.
It is noteworthy that Nigeria sacrificed about $45 billion in 13 yrs by refusing to export oil to South Africa as she continued to take measures to speed up the processes leading to the replacement of the apartheid regime with an egalitarian, just, democratic and united society in South Africa.
It is no exaggeration to say that one of Nigeria’s finest moments in foreign policy is her relentless efforts in the anti apartheid struggle in South Africa. However, as it often happens, instead of the recognition, regard and influence that should have been accorded to her by reason of her persistent and unyielding stance on decolonization of the whole continent from the shackles of apartheid and white minority rule, the reverse is the case.
In the subsequent construction of economic, trade and diplomatic policies of South Africa, Nigeria as the chief liberator is often sidelined while the great powers who have been allies of their oppressors and the imperialists are moved up the scale to take charge of the post independence era of bounty. Even worse, scores of Nigerian residents in South Africa are often brutalized as a result of xenophobia. This reminds me of the concluding stanza of Kwesi Brew’s Lest We Should Be the Last-
20;Now we have come to you,
And are amazed to find,
Those you have loved and respected,
Mock you to your face.”