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01/27/22, Kayode Soyinka
Photo: Adil Bradlow

DURING THE JUNE 12, 1993, political crisis in Nigeria, the late South African President Nelson Mandela despatched his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, to Nigeria. It was a last-ditch attempt by the revered Madiba to appeal to General Sani Abacha's better instincts; to persuade him to cool tension in Nigeria by releasing former Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo, and his then No. 2, Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, as well as the 38 military men and civilians convicted by a secret military tribunal of planning to topple the regime in a coup d'├ętat.

Sending Mbeki, who arrived in Abuja on Friday, July 21,1995, on a three-day visit was a very wise move by President Mandela, for if there were anyone in South Africa at the time who was truly close to General Abacha it was the Vice-President. Mbeki used to live in Nigeria where he served as the representative of the African National Congress (ANC) between 1976 and 1978. With Nigeria's heavy military investment at the time in the ANC's military campaign against the apartheid regime, Mbeki served as the linkman with Nigeria's military authorities and became particularly close to Abacha. They related to each other on a first-name basis.

Since the political crisis in Nigeria started, President Mandela had tried personally to intervene. He had been to Abuja himself to discuss with Abacha the situation of Chief Moshood Abiola who won the annulled June 12, 1993, Presidential elections. After waiting for a while in the hope that Abacha would yield to his plea and release Abiola, when nothing of the sort happened, he did a follow-up in April 1995 by sending the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu - again to General Abacha.

By the time Tutu got to Nigeria, the situation there had become even worse than when Mandela visited. General Obasanjo, Nigeria's Head of State from 1976 to 1979, famed for being the first and, up till then, the only military leader in Nigerian history to have voluntarily returned government to an elected civilian administration, had also been arrested. So, too, was Yar'Adua. They were both charged in connection with an alleged coup plot which the regime said it had uncovered.

Obasanjo's arrest, coming on top of the yet unresolved confinement of Abiola, was a move which Mandela, and several other world leaders who held the former Nigerian President in high esteem, considered went beyond the pale. The conviction of Obasanjo by the secret military tribunal brought three past British Prime Ministers together in an extraordinary alliance - Baroness Margaret Thatcher, her arch-critic within the Conservative Party, Sir Edward Heath, and Labour's Lord James Callaghan - in a joint letter to General Abacha appealing to him to show clemency.

For Mandela, arresting Obasanjo, trying him before a secret tribunal and finding him guilty meant that his two best friends in Nigeria, Abiola and Obasanjo, were now at the mercy of General Abacha. Had it not been for a last-minute hitch, Abiola would have bankrolled an ANC newspaper in South Africa. Obasanjo, as co-Chairman of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons' Group, sent to South Africa to negotiate the release of Mandela and the liberation of the country from White domination, was singled out and given special permission by the then racist regime in South Africa to visit Mandela in prison. That brought them together and Mandela had ever since been very fond of Obasanjo to whom he referred by the short form of his name: "Olu."

Mandela also became friendly with Abacha, after intense pressure within South Africa to intervene in the Nigerian crisis especially from the vociferous trade union movement and the intelligentsia led by the Nobel laureate, novelist Nadine Gordimer.

When I interviewed President Mandela in Cape Town in February 1995, he surprisingly referred to General Abacha as his friend. "Chief Abiola is a friend of mine and I am concerned about his position. General Abacha is a friend of mine and I have discussed the matter of Chief Abiola with him in a serious and confidential manner," President Mandela told me. The friendship between Mandela and Abacha should not be taken lightly; Mandela himself told me in that interview that they were expecting a visit the following week from Nigeria's First Lady, Mariam Abacha.

It was to me in that interview with our magazine, Africa Today, that Mandela first disclosed his intention to send Tutu to Nigeria as a special envoy. That move deprived the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) of the privilege of having the archbishop as leader of their own team which visited Nigeria in July 1995 to investigate claims of human rights abuses levelled against the Abacha regime. The team was later led by the Zimbabwean former Chief Justice, Dr Enoch Dumbutshena, and the former Canadian Foreign Minister, Flora Macdonald.

Mandela had hoped that he would be able to extract some concessions from General Abacha by sending Archbishop Tutu to him to plead for Abiola's and Obasanjo's release. That did not happen. The archbishop was warmly welcomed in Abuja. He had meetings with Abacha at which he delivered Mandela's plea and pressed for the release of both men. He was also allowed to see Abiola and, surprisingly, was the recipient of a concession volunteered by the detained politician for a conditional release. Abiola, however, still remained in detention.

Mbeki's trip to Abuja offered the best hope of persuading Abacha to show clemency, certainly potentially more effective than the efforts of the western powers. If he failed to persuade Abacha, no one else was likely to.

But as the international pressure was mounting on General Abacha, I took it upon myself to travel to Bishop's Court in Cape Town to see and interview Archbishop Tutu. The aim of the interview was, primarily, to ask him about his experience in trying to negotiate with General Abacha the release of Abiola and Obasanjo. Secondly, it was to clear the air concerning what Abiola had agreed to in Tutu's discussions with the detained politician. Had Abiola really agreed to his own conditional release?

Of course, the interview with Tutu also provided a unique opportunity to talk to a man who was not only at the centre of the anti-apartheid struggle throughout the 27 years Mandela was in jail, but who was the embodiment of hope for all the oppressed people of South Africa. The interview had to include, therefore, asking the archbishop about his experiences during the anti-apartheid struggle.

In many ways my interview with Archbishop Tutu was a revelation. There was his explanation, for instance, for why he chose to be constantly in the eye of the storm, loved by the people, but hated by the God-fearing upholders of apartheid who could not or would not comprehend how a Churchman could be a political agitator.

I saw Archbishop Tutu as a man who does not pull his punches. Yet he had a delightful sense of humour and an admirable ability to relate to people. Naturally, he was a man who had a talent for coining phrases. "The Rainbow People of God" are the immortal words with which he had described the people of the new South Africa.

And when he was asked after South Africa's first multi-racial election how he had felt as he cast his vote, this physically slight, elderly man seemed to tower as high as Table Mountain when declaring: "It was like making love again!"

His remarks concerning his visit to Nigeria were very emotional. He spoke of Nigeria as a country for which he had a great admiration. He told me: "Nigeria is perhaps the most important country on our continent and not only on account of sheer size of its population. It has played a very important role in the liberation of South Africa. I think, almost from the inception of the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid, the chairperson was held almost exclusively by the Nigerian ambassador to the UN. That showed the remarkable importance Nigeria attached to the liberation of South Africa. In a way, without that commitment from Nigeria, our struggle would have been a great deal more difficult - it would have taken longer."

He recalled what one Nigerian ambassador had said to him in a private conversation: "You know, by right we should not be wanting South Africa to become free because a free South Africa is going to be one of our strongest rivals. But we are so committed to it that we don't care even if South Africa should become our rival for leadership of Africa. We want to be involved in its struggle for liberation. So, we owe a great deal to Nigeria. That is a country with a large heart. There are not many countries in Africa that have as many highly educated people. I became aware of this when I was studying at King's College, London, in the 60s. I had Nigerian friends, fellow students, who were working for their PhDs in subjects like electrical engineering. They were quite extraordinarily impressive. A good number of South Africans went to study medicine at the University of Ibadan, which became the best medical school in Africa. When I asked the Dean how they had achieved this, he explained how they appointed Whites to all the important positions in the school and sent the Nigerians to Britain and other places; encouraged them to get all the qualifications they could; to come back to Nigeria and to understudy the White people. This they did and these highly qualified people, who had fellowships from places like the Royal College of Physicians or Surgeons, soon took over. They even had some of the best theologians, people like Professor Bolaji Idowu (former Head of the Methodist Church in Nigeria.") He further disclosed to me that it was in Nigeria, during a trip in the 1970s, that he was proud to find out that the pilots of the aircraft in which he was travelling were Nigerians and he remembered that in his native land racism assumed that blacks were incapable of such a vocation. He was therefore filled with pride to see his fellow blacks manoeuvring the big bird expertly.

So, he told me that this made him to tell General Abacha that: "...we in South Africa don't want to compete with Nigeria for the leadership of this continent, but we are jealous of the continent's reputation. The fact that the Giant of Africa is in the state that it is, in terms of its human rights record and the whole question of democracy, this has had a terrible impact on all of us. That is because we Africans are then dismissed by the rest of the world on the grounds that, if the leading nation is like this, what hope is there for the rest?" At one point he was so overwhelmed by his emotion, he moved to the edge of his chair, and tears welled as he exclaimed: "For the human rights record of the Giant of Africa to reach its present state - that has had a terrible impact on all of us." As a Nigerian, listening to him as he waxed so eloquently and emotionally in that interview, I have to admit that it was Archbishop Tutu that made me realise that it is not for nothing that my country, Nigeria, is being referred to as "The Giant of Africa"!

My interview, which is worth reproducing in full in this edition of Africa Today, showed Archbishop Tutu as nobody's messenger, but how would one expect him to be portrayed: a non-political voice of reason? As tense as the political situation in Nigeria was then, it was my view then that when the interview was read by the regime in Abuja, no shirt should hit the fan - nobody should be surprised that the archbishop was very critical of the situation in Nigeria then. He had been very critical of even his own president, the revered Mandela. His constituency was humanity and the human situation. Therefore, when he went to Nigeria he did not go just as a messenger of Mandela nor of anybody else. Archbishop Tutu was more than that. His major achievements are in three areas: the work he did in the liberation struggle, all the way to the release of Mandela; his readiness to withdraw from the limelight immediately Mandela and the other ANC leaders were released from jail or returned from exile; and his readiness to be critical of the new Mandela government when he needed to be.

He told me: "I never wanted to be actively involved in the way that we were when our leaders were in jail or in exile. I said clearly at the time that I was an interim leader. There were things that one was doing which, in a normal society, would not need to be done by a Church leader but by politicians."

The special interview with Archbishop Tutu reveals him in a way he may not have been seen before. l

*Desmond Mpilo Tutu, South African Anglican Archbishop and theologian; born 7 October 1931, died 26 December 2021.

*This Publisher's Note was first published in the September/October 1995 edition of Africa Today. It is reproduced here, with some updates.

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