Mandela @ 94: In Search of the Nigerian Mandela By Adagbo Onoja

Mandela is 94 and so what? And so everything, especially for the Africans for whom he remains the unbeatable model of self-abnegation. And even more so for the Nigerians who are down and are in search of that single individual with the mystique to rally round the badly fragmented elite and re-make the badly broken giant called Nigeria. The VOA said last Wednesday morning that Mandela is the world’s most popular brand after Coca Cola. Cocacolanisation of the world is a reality but only over reliance on numerical indicators can put Coca Cola and Nelson Mandela together. Otherwise, the values they represent are vastly different.

Mandela’s global stature is, in fact complicating the debate on the equally complicated issue of the role of the individual in history. For the socialists in particular, which is where Mandela belongs to the extent of his membership of a guerilla army committed to a national democratic revolution, the individual does not make history on the basis of personal determination. The will to power is an aggravated nonsense. The historical achievement of the individual is not his own making but the outcome of a combination of objective and subjective conditions.

In other words, if you want to find out the mystery behind the great names in History, don’t look for it in their brilliance, their genius or determination. Important as these maybe, they don’t explain them. Napoleon couldn’t have given the world republicanism or Lenin Socialist democracy if certain conditions were not there. Stalin would not have emerged if he didn’t fulfil one essential condition over and above other contenders. After all, Lenin himself said of Stalin during the debate on his successor that the cook they had served pepperish soup, yet he was the best.

The socialist perspective remains unimpeachable but even then, we must recognize that Mandela’s greatness is almost on auto-pilot, almost an independent variable in itself. Mandela is almost a global industry, from conflict management to peace making, tolerance, reconciliation, race relations; authenticity and Africanity. Remind me of what I might have missed out. But it is still his social context that made him and the three powerful messages he sent to humanity and in which his greatness resides.

The first of the messages was that he remained a party man through and through. His greatest contribution was loyalty to the principles of his movement, (the ANC) and the humanity of its cause, to borrow a truncated phrase from Thabo Mbeki’s tribute to another veteran. It was not just for being jailed for so long that made Mandela great. It was this point about the organizational commitment and discipline, particularly that this sense of sacrifice went beyond serving a long jail term without selling out. It also includes the tearing away of Winnie from him arising from fear within ANC that Mandela wouldn’t leave office if the marriage stayed given the history of the fall of several communist parties to the spouses/mistresses of leaders. This is a speculation but a reasonable analysis. However, if it is true, it goes to show how much he had contributed to party building, a major deficiency in African politics. We need to expatiate on this.

Although it was Kwame Nkrumah who was the fire eater in articulating the Pan-Africanist ideals, it was Julius Nyerere who was the ultimate party builder. If African leaders like Milton Obote of Uganda, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda had stayed on and if Mandela had joined them, the story would have been different today in terms of organic political parties that could not be banned.

Unfortunately, by the time Mandela came up, Mugabe was about the only member of that generation in the African leadership landscape that knew party building. But Zimbabwe was preparing for another round of war with the British and his priorities were Zimbabwe. Having postponed the land reform for so long so that Namibian and South African independence would not be jeopardized, he was entitled to turn his attention to Zimbabwe by this time. Meanwhile, the South African military and its Generals who knew by around 1977 that Apartheid could not last much longer and were very prepared by 1990 for a post Apartheid political order had made sure that people like Kaunda and Samora Machel were no longer around by the time Mandela stood any chance to come up. So, what Mandela’s contributions to the party culture in Africa through ANC as mentioned above is an entry point in appreciating him.

The second of the messages was this: In spite of the external and internal pressures on the ANC, they managed to handle a negotiated settlement and a subsequent transition into a multi-racial democracy. There were other options but it is an academic matter now if such alternative options would have been better than the road taken, a process in which Mandela was a factor, even from prison. In the end, he came off as one worthy of the accolade, “blessed are the peace makers”, to steal another phrase from Thabo Mbeki in a speech somewhere else.

He thus remains the epitome of the aphorism: first in peace, first in war. When the African National Congress, (ANC) had no choice but to embark on a guerilla war against the Apartheid regime, Mandela threw himself in. But it is important to note that even though he was a frontline cadre of the struggle against Apartheid, he didn’t enter the war in a voyage of voluntarism. He entered as a cadre in due deference to a collective, organizational decision. This point cannot be overstretched in view of the party attitudes of some intemperate fellows in Nigeria today who are also hoping to make history. But voluntarists cannot make ‘good’ history.

In other words, his refusal to pursue a punitive expedition against the racists after taking over power in post Apartheid South Africa is such an enduring humanism. Very few others would have resisted the temptation to ‘deal with them’. So, again, he was first in peace. Professor Ali Mazrui is right to say that forgiveness is African, that the African has a very short hate retention memory. Whether this has served Africa well is another matter. It is unlikely that an agenda of avenging the past would have served a constructive purpose.

The third and last message was quitting when the ovation was loudest, refusing to entangle the ANC in any of the personality cult problems that develops in circumstances of towering men presiding over a towering country under a party full of battle -tested and politically advanced cadres. Almost everybody wanted him to stay and his stature within and outside the ANC was still tremendous. Even if it was the case that the ANC was ideologically too sophisticated for even a Mandela to stay on had he wanted, a determined Mandela could have had his way, given the experience of power struggles in equally well established parties in both liberal and Socialist democracies. There should, therefore, be no denying him of this major contribution to democratisation in Africa.

So, one by one, Mandela has achieved what some of his other African compatriots had been unable to or allowed to bedevil most of the earlier democratic transitions in Africa – the emergence of a leader who insists on punishing one group or another and who had no succession plan. He was bound to be seen as a different specie of leadership in Africa.

A 2004 book by Witwatersrand University don, Patrick Bond titled Talk Left, Walk Right: South Africa’s Frustrated Global Reforms had delivered a damning verdict on the service delivery record of the Mandela-Mbeki continuum, democratisation in South Africa still presents the best and the worst of democratisation in Africa. The problem is still the external pressures and the most succinct evidence is how the transformative “Reconstruction and Development” programme developed by Congress of South Africa Trade Union, (COSATU) and adopted by the ANC was skillfully supplanted with the “Growth, Employment and Redistribution, (GEAR) framework. If that could happen under an ANC government and under Thabo Mbeki who is unarguably Africa’s best groomed party cadre, then the future is fearful.

This reality notwithstanding, South Africa is way ahead by the typical African standard. It is a functional society. It is a manufacturing economy and as with manufacturing economies, its foreign policy centres on block formations. It is now a member of BRICS, the club of emergent industrializing or industry stabilizing economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. South Africa has a vibrant knowledge industry, defined by world class universities. In short, it is a power to reckon with. Above all, it has political parties that exist and function in tandem with the political party idea. These parties are not run on the basis of primitive accumulation of power. But the most strategic asset of South Africa is its power elite. It is an elite that has fought for state power and knows its mission in power. It still has a huge problem of empowering the black poor, dealing with violence as well as successfully managing contradictions such as in land inequity. These are challenges that can be stressful for any government but the party is moving, with all the contradictions.

But, for us in Nigeria, there is a lesson cum question in Mandela in relation to a crisis which has thrown up all manner of warriors in the name of Christianity, Islam, regions, ethnic groups, militias and sundry identities, all of them talking over and above their own heads and yet making no progress: Who is that man or woman which this crisis must throw up to be able to say to the Nigerians, this is the way forward as Mandela had done? Is there such a person or history is no longer about convergence of objective and subjective factors? Or is this the Nigerian exceptionality at work? That is if the theory of Nigerian exceptionality makes sense.

Of course, the Nigerian environment is vastly different from the South African scenario. That does not, however, follow that a crisis situation would not produce a crisis manager. Why is the Nigerian situation different or appearing to be so? Why are the leaders just going around in the night, holding secret meetings, scheming and stringing cabalistic alliances when the challenge is to mobilise Nigerians against unanticipated turbulence? Why are all the discussions just about the army of ambitious individuals but not about the grand issue of re-making the nation? Why the observable quick and cheap resort to centrifugal rather than centripetal politics at a time when smaller nations are suffocating in a muscle based global order? Does it mean that if the Nigerian State had been confronted by a more monstrous challenge like Apartheid, it would have packed up without a fight? Where are the Nigerian Mandelas -the nation builders, the party builders, the strategic thinkers?

We need answers to these sorts of questions so that Nigeria does not continue to embarrass the Blackman for still being a toddler at 50 in spite of extreme wealth in all respects. Happy birthday to the all time icon, Nelson Mandela, the only signifier that in spite of all the blows historically directed at the Blackman, the Blackman is not about to disappear!

Onoja, a columnist with Abuja based Blueprint is reachable via [email protected]