Nelson Mandela’s prolonged stay in hospital for lung-related complications elicited in his country folk and much of mankind, unprecedented outpouring of good wishes, pro-Mandela demonstrations and prayer vigils for his quick recovery. The United States’ president, Barrack Obama, who let it be known that Mandela is one of his role models, made it a major part of his recent visit to South Africa to spend time with the iconic leader’s family and to express solidarity. Leaders, civil society actors, students and workers across the globe have identified with the ailing 94-year-old former president widely regarded as a transformational leader who permanently altered the course of history.
Against the backdrop of Mandela’s revered stature as a big impact and much loved statesman, the question arises as to whether Nigeria, Africa’s largest black country, can ever have a leader in the mould of Mandela. The question acquires urgency in the light of ongoing jostling for the nation’s presidency, two years ahead of the magic date of 2015.
We know for sure that very few leaders in world history so far have attracted the kind of uncommon love and bonding enjoyed by Mandela from his countrymen. Imaginably, reports that so and so Nigerian leader or former leader is hospitalised usually evoke feelings ranging from mild indifference to the dismissive Yoruba expression, “Onpe ko to ku” (What is stopping him from dying?) Sociologists tell us that such scornful utterances, pungent jokes and ridicule are ways in which afflicted societies get back at unpopular leaders. In other words, sooner than later, the rascality, double dealing and negligence of leaders have ways of catching up with them at least in the dismissive responses of popular culture.
But let us go back to the question of whether a Nigerian Mandela is on the cards or whether it is no more than an idle fantasy in the current circumstances. In bringing up this poser, this writer is well aware of excuses that have been offered on behalf of a sadly diminished political class such as we have. For example, some have argued that the division of the Nigerian public sphere into ethnic and religious war camps forecloses the possibility of a Nigerian Mandela. You can only have, they argue, an Igbo, Ijaw, Nupe or Yoruba Mandela because the reception and perception of leadership are affected by ethnic and religious prejudices.
At first blush, the argument seems persuasive; when you inspect it closely, however, in the light of South Africa’s own fractured, interracial public sphere, it falls apart easily. Mandela, wrote himself into iconic status, not just by the crucifix of 27 years in detention, 18 of which were spent in the lime quarries of the infamous and harshly isolated Robben Island prison, but perhaps more importantly by forging a “rainbow nation” out of the assortment of races that constitute South Africa. He not only refused to revenge his cruel victimisation under apartheid rule, but managed to persuade neo-apartheid forces under the Africaneer Volksfront Coalition, led by Gen. Constand Vilijden from precipitating a disastrous civil war in the heady days of 1993. If heroic resistance to white supremacist rule symbolised by dramatic suburban riots and relentless guerrilla tactics of the African National Congress created the opening for ending apartheid, it was Mandela’s statesmanship that enlarged that opening into a doorway that permitted the birth of the South African nation.
To get back to the point: Ethnicity and religious divisions even when intemperate cannot be the excuse for not having a Nigerian Mandela. Indeed, it may well be the turf as we saw in South Africa and in Abraham Lincoln’s the United States for great statesmen to arise, provided they are willing to place the larger interests of the nation above their personal conveniences.
There is the point, too, that by the time Mandela stepped down as president he could easily have converted his larger-than-life stature into extended, if not permanent rule. Conscious of legacy, and the need to engineer decent political values, he allowed a succession to Thabo Mbeki, a worthy leader in his own right who earned himself a good place in contemporary South African history.
In contrast, we do not see Nigerian leaders who are willing to forfeit the privileges of office in order to promote enduring values or even the survival in the short-term of a nation torn apart by the desperate hustle of its political class for office at any cost. Under the military, the norm was to proclaim what Larry Diamond famously called “transitions without end” in which programmes of so-called democratisation were used as pretexts for elongated personal rule. In the civilian dispensation which began in 1999, the recurrent refrain had been: No vacancy in Aso Rock. Ample sanctions of course await those foolhardy enough to contest the truth of that battle cry. You can check this out by recalling the travails of a former vice-president, Abubakar Atiku, and, currently, those of the Rivers State governor, Chibuike Amaechi.
Let me digress to posit that apartheid for all its abhorrent discrimination, left in South Africa an infrastructure, even if unevenly of political values into which its emergent black leaders were socialised, apart from substantial infrastructural development in the major cities which make the country look like many parts of the First World. Mandela was in a sense produced by that culture even as he opposed its extremities, drawing on, both in protest and in conciliation, essential elements of his African roots to produce a unique blend.
Back to Nigeria; our leadership deficit is matched only by the regression of values and of decency in political and social life. When was the last time any political office holder resigned their appointment on the ground of public opprobrium? Even when they face a storm, they inform us about which political enemies are behind it, rather than bow out honourably in order not to pre-empt public inquiry. Mandela gave himself up, poured his entire life into the struggle to first liberate his people and then to elevate their status and dignity. He cared less if he died or had to quit office in this all consuming enterprise.
For as long as Nigerian politicians and their praise singers do not see beyond their noses and material comforts; for as long as office seeking for short-term benefits is their preoccupation, such as it is today, so long will the prospect of a Nigerian Mandela appear like a sour jest. Worse still, a reprobate political class might bring the national roof crashing down on everybody.
We cannot foreclose however the possibility, even if currently, dim of a Mandela arising from the fringes and the shadows of the current Nigerian impasse. After all, we must keep hope alive in order to surmount or tide over depressing times.