Nelson Mandela in prison
sn't it marvelous that those who vilified him yesterday are today singing kumbaya about him, and dancing on the dead man's tomb full of praises for him, even before he is buried. As I watched from the comfort of my living room this most amazing spectacle that unfolded in South Africa today, it is important to remind people that the name Mandela was not always loved and revered by European and American governments throughout his years of imprisonment. As at the last count, nearly a hundred heads of states have attended Mandela's memorial service today at the FNB stadium in Soweto on the outskirts of Johannesburg. President Reagan once described him as a terrorist, and Prime Minister Thatcher used even more unflattering words to describe him. These governments, especially the British and the American governments resisted all calls and demonstrations to apply sanctions to the South African apartheid government. If anything, Mrs. Thatcher, whose husband had vast business interests in South Africa, campaigned vigorously against any calls for sanctions.
But he was a man of the people. Ever since I was old enough to remember, there was always some form of protests and campaigns in Nigeria and across Africa to end apartheid and to free Mandela from prison. While the UK, US, and other European governments resisted, their people took up protests repeatedly to denounce the apartheid government and called for Mandela's release. From the late seventies, but mostly in the eighties, we saw peoples' protests in far away Australia, New Zealand, across the streets of America, London, and at various European capitals. Concerts were held in his honor and several parliaments were lobbied by celebrities to apply sanctions against South Africa. Sadly, as long as Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan remained adamant those calls fell on deaf ears for a very long time. But the people did not give up as the protests continued, growing louder and louder by the year until they became unbearable to the political leaders. And even before they finally acted, people were already boycotting the products of those companies that did business in South Africa.
When they finally freed him from prison, it was not out of a sudden change of heart by the racist South African government, not at all, their economy was finally taking a severe beating thanks to all the boycotts and the forced sanctions that finally came. It was not only on the economic front that South Africa was isolated, there was a virtual freeze and ban in participation in all sports, international musicians would not play inside South Africa, and finally the Afrikaans were finding it very difficult to obtain visas to travel out to many western countries. In the end apartheid crumbled as a consequence of this incredible squeeze. What astonished me the most was that western governments, particularly the UK and US allowed this suffering and deprivation of blacks to go on as long as it did. But what is it about the ANC or Mandela that they feared so much to make them resist all calls, even by their own citizens, to seek for the man's freedom. They knew that the man was a freedom fighter, so why did they brand him a terrorist? What troubled me personally more than any other nation's actions were that of the government of Israel that firmly and closely aligned themselves with the apartheid government till the very end.
What happened to Mandela was not new in our world. We are often quick to condemn those that are fighting for freedom, for liberation, and to brand them as terrorists. Back in the early forties, before the UN created the modern state of Israel, many Israeli heroes that fought guerilla wars against the British occupiers were branded as terrorist and often imprisoned. People like late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was once branded a terrorist and sent to prison. Isn't it ironic that Israel is now doing exactly the same to the Palestinians. Even in Palestine, for a very long time the world regarded the likes of PLO as a terrorist organization, and Arafat as the most dangerous terrorist in the world. The IRA in Ireland comes to mind, ETA in Spain is another example, and so on and so forth. The bottom line is that when people fail to obtain justice through the established avenues they seldom resort to violence in order to get the attention of those in authority who have refused to negotiate with them.
It is worth noting that while many western governments shunned the yearning of the oppressed blacks in South Africa, it was communist countries like USSR and Cuba that came to their rescue with moral support and arms supply. Even Libya under Gaddafi was a major backer, and of course several African countries of which Nigeria played a leading role. Mandela spent most of his life after incarceration reconciling his people and many others in various countries around the world. He was indeed a man of peace. It was therefore not surprising that even in death he has continued to bring disagreeing parties together. As I watched the heads of states that gathered at his memorial, I can't help but notice their disparities. Can you imagine Barak Obama under the same roof as Raul Castro, Robert Mugabe, and President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea? Today I watched as a US President shook hands with a Cuban President, something that has never happened in more than sixty years. Such is the power of Mandela even in death, and I hope we have learnt something from that singular act. If Mandela can honestly reconcile with those that dehumanized him and his people for over a century and jailed him for twenty-seven years, why can't we reconcile our little tribal differences in a country like Nigeria.
His inauguration in April 1994 set a record for the largest concentration of heads of states outside the annual UN meetings every September in New York. His memorial today has very much surpassed that number. As Obama rightly put it, "he makes me want to be a better man." Yes, he makes all of us want to be much better than we are. That is the best definition of greatness I can think of, an inspirational man and a reconciler. Among the presidents and former presidents, I saw our Presidents Jonathan and Obasanjo. I wonder if they learnt one or two things from this memorial, if they resolved to make peace on their political infighting, and above all, if they have been inspired to do the right things for the sake of Nigeria's unity and progress. Will they live up to Mandela's ideals and do what's right for Nigeria and damn the consequences. And finally I thank God for the rain. It was as if the heavens opened and rain which signifies life in many African cultures came down and poured endlessly. And then I know without any shadow of doubt that our gods and our ancestors have accepted him. As the rain continued unabated I gasped that even the Lord Almighty has opened the heavens for him. Thank God for Madiba.