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Simon Kolawole: If Only Nigeria Had A Mandela



By Simon Kolawole
Credit: Thisday

Credit: Thisday

My little girl, on Tuesday, told me her homework was to write a short essay on “The Leader Who Inspires Me”. I wondered whom she was going to pick. She, without any prompting, picked Nelson Mandela, the hero of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the global icon of the movement against socio-political injustice. He stepped down as South Africa’s first black president in 1999 – three years before my daughter was born. She wrote: “I grew up hearing about him. Little did I realise what he had sacrificed for the sake of his people.” After a gush of encomium on Africa’s greatest son, she concluded: “I think the world would be a better place if all leaders were like Mandela. I aspire to be just like him.”
Two nights later, Mandela died at a very ripe age of 95. I re-read my daughter’s essay.  “I think the world would be a better place if all leaders were like Mandela.” As Nigerian politicians tried to outdo one another in splashing tributes on Mandela, I parodied my daughter: “I think Nigeria would be a better place if our leaders were like Mandela.” Many of our leaders and commentators eulogise Mandela hypocritically. They extol his forthrightness in the struggle against injustice, but are busy perpetrating social injustice against millions of Nigerians. They celebrate Mandela as a selfless leader but are busy accumulating obscene wealth at our expense. They praise Mandela for uniting South Africa but are busy sowing seeds of ethnic and religious hate in Nigeria.
Let’s talk about the real Mandela a bit – for the sake of those who are celebrating the man without believing in, or understanding, what he actually represented. For one, he was a unifier. He preached and practised unity in diversity. He did not seek to promote one ethnic agenda above the other, despite the circumstances of his life. In his address to the sabotage trial that eventually led to his life imprisonment in 1964, he said: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities…”
After 27 years, he was released from prison in 1990. Elected President in South Africa’s first multi-racial election in 1994, the inimitable Mandela said he was going to establish “a rainbow nation”. In case you don’t know, South Africa has several major ethnic groups: Zulu, Xhosa, Venda, Tswana, Basotho, Bapedi, Tsonga, Swazi, Ndebele and the Afrikaan. In prison, his best mate, Ahmed Kathrada, was a Muslim. He was above myopic and chauvinistic sentiments. He refused to exact revenge over the white supremacists who subjected him to physical and emotional torture for most of his life. Rather, he brought everyone under the umbrella of reconciliation. That’s greatness.
When I hear Nigerians eulogise Mandela, hypocrisy is the word that jumps to my mind. Ethnic champions campaigning for bloodshed ahead of 2015 elections are celebrating a man who refused to play the ethnic card in his lifetime. Many Nigerians, young and old, shouting Mandela today probably didn’t know that Mandela stood for peace and unity irrespective of colour, race and religion. White South Africans were shocked at his accommodation. The last President of the apartheid regime, FW de Klerk, described Mandela as a man “with a remarkable lack of bitterness”. That’s greatness.
If only Nigeria had a Mandela! We have had the misfortune of being ruled by those who hardly see beyond their local cocoons. Right from the Independence era, most of those at the forefront of leadership have pursued nothing but sectional interest to the detriment of the greatness of this country. We have been ruled in the main by those who whip up nothing but ethno-religious sentiments, just to gain and retain political power. We have been ruled by those who think owning the most expensive houses and riding the classiest jets are the hallmarks of greatness in public office. But we are celebrating Mandela today not because of his wealth and fortune, but because of his wealth of leadership that has changed the fortune of a nation and a continent.
There is no excuse we want to give about the unending fragmentation of Nigeria by politicians and their allies. South Africa, like Nigeria, is a colonial creation. It is a diverse entity, like Nigeria. They had a common enemy in European colonial powers, like Nigeria. The only difference is leadership – a leadership determined to build one, united, indivisible country. As Mandela himself put it on his inauguration in 1994, “We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
I urge the new generation of Nigerians to shun the politicians and their clones who go about preaching the balkanisation of Nigeria as the only precondition for our progress. They keep reproducing the prejudices perpetrated by the founding fathers of Nigeria. These prejudices must end with their generation. We need a new Nigeria – a rainbow nation, as espoused by Mandela. My daughter’s words are coming back to me yet again: “I think the world would be a better place if all leaders were like Mandela.”

I know of only one man who spoke disparaging words against a secular saint like Nelson Mandela. When the then South African president criticised Gen. Sani Abacha for the judicial murder of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists in November 1995, Abacha said Mandela, having spent 27 years in prison, had lost touch with reality – an obvious inference of senility. The irreverent Abacha said Mandela was a white man in black skin and “the black head of a white country”. The world celebrates Mandela today and spits when Abacha’s name is mentioned.

Mandela, it must be recalled, was completely against the senseless war against Iraq by US President George Bush in 2003. He described Bush as a “mad man” trying to plunge the world into war. Was Mandela right? Thousands of lives were lost, and are still being lost, in the misadventure. Terrorism has been on the rise with no end in sight. And, I can bet, the Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria is one of the several offshoots of that misconceived war on terror. The world has clearly become a less-than-safe place.

Every day, Nigerian authorities keep giving the world evidence that they are a joke. A Saudi cargo plane inexplicably crashed into an equipment on the tarmac at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, last Thursday and it took a whole day to sort it out. Scores of local flights had to be cancelled and foreign airlines were landing elsewhere. Just because of a minor accident which, in saner societies, could have been taken care of in less than 30 minutes. It is only bullet-proof cars these mindless chaps know how to buy very well.

Former editor of Sunday Sun, Mrs Funke Egbemode, is dragging the high and mighty to Eko Suites & Hotels, Victoria Island, Lagos, on Thursday, to launch a collection of her insightful writings over the years, which she has dubbed “Conversations with My Country”. Egbemode belongs to a generation of Nigerian commentators who admit that we have a problem but think that there is a solution. Many Nigerians have given up hope on their country, but in Egbemode, I have a “comrade” who thinks it is not finished with us yet. Congratulations, sister.


Simon Kolawole Live!: By Simon Kolawole, Email[email protected]

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