Mandela, our Mandela is the first individual to become a truly global brand without opposition and dissenting views. We all love him with a passion. At the epistemological level, what is important about the Mandela brand is not our individual values, beliefs and practices but how we can improve our own brand image by associating with him.
I heard Christine Amanpour of CNN reminiscing this weekend that she had interviewed many dictators the world over and had often asked them their role model. Without exception, their response was Mandela. She wondered why their own practices were so far from the values Mandela espoused of principled struggle for human rights and dignity, respect for the other, forgiveness, commitment to democracy and above all, stepping out of power that he already had in his hands.
As I hear all these ultra conservatives, racists and white supremacists join humanists, human rights activists, progressives, socialists and communists extolling the virtues of Mandela following his death this 5th December, I wondered what people are saying means.
The first point to note is that because Mandela is the global brand, everybody gains by associating with him. As I reflected on responses to his death, it struck me that as a self acclaimed progressive, I am equally guilty and as I live in a glasshouse, I can’t afford to throw stones.
My claim to fame, if any, is that inspired by Mandela, I worked tirelessly as an undergraduate in 1976 and 1977 to establish the Youth Solidarity on Southern Africa (YUSSAN) to advance the struggle for the emancipation of Africa from racism and colonialism. I virtually abandoned my studies to develop the organisation not only in Ahmadu Bello University where I was a student, but also in the universities of Ife and Ibadan.
My satisfaction in life was that within three years, virtually all universities in the country at that time had branches. With great satisfaction, I withdrew from active participation in YUSSAN, my job had been done and I had made my contribution.
In the early 1980s, I was invited by YUSSAN to a symposium of tributes to those who had contributed to the struggle against apartheid and I dressed up for the occasion. Under the chairmanship of Maitama Sule, over twenty people were decorated for their contributions and yours truly was not even mentioned. I was initially shocked and upset. How come they did not know about my great contributions I wondered?
On reflection, I realised I was over-rating my contributions and searching for recognition I did not deserve after all, what I implemented was really ideas from my teachers, Patrick Wilmot and Bala Usman, who were all properly decorated for their contributions. I was simply in search of the Mandela brand.
Later in life, I did notice that people who had made great achievements in life would seek out Mandela moments in their life to shine. In 1997, I went to the University of Fribourg in Switzerland for my sabbatical and my director explained to me that she had the opportunity to participate in one of the last negotiation sessions between the Afrikaners and the ANC and her argument that equality means “one person, one vote” clinched the deal. Yes indeed!
In 2000, I joined Global Rights as their Nigerian Country Director. When I went to Washington D. C, for my induction, the Executive Director, a world acclaimed human rights leader had a giant picture in her house giving Mandela his ballot to vote. She happened, totally accidentally, to be the presiding officer at the polling unit that Mandela voted in, in the first democratic elections in the country. She explained to me with pride her great achievement to democracy by giving Mandela his ballot paper. Yes indeed, it was a great contribution to the struggle. Yes indeed, the Mandela brand is so great that we all seek to be identified with it.
Our former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, in an interview with journalists last Friday extolled Mandela for refusing to seek a second term in office. Obasanjo said he still remembered Mandela’s words to him: “Olu, show me a place in the world where a man of 80 years is still running the affairs of his country.” Obasanjo was happy to complement Mandela for this decision. However, when Obasanjo’s first term was ending and he was reminded that the Mandela option was sensible, he scoffed it. Even more scandalous, after his constitutionally proscribed two terms, he desperately tried to amend the Constitution to get tenure elongation. He rejected the Mandela principle in practice.
Mandela fought for four decades to overthrow the apartheid regime and at the end of the day, got power but took the very wise decision to allow others exercise that power after his first term. This is simply a super human performance. It was the late Alistair Cook of the BBC who reminded us atht “power corrupts and absolute power is absolutely delicious.” Ask Obasanjo, he knows. The greatness of Mandela was to have been so long in opposition and still retain his humanity and basic commitments to human and democratic rights.
We are able to appreciate Mandela more when we look at what the other opposition figures did when they got power. Robert Mugabe was a political prisoner for ten years between 1964 and 1974. After prison, he continued the struggle until he became the President of Zimbabwe in 1980. Since then, he has stubbornly refused to leave the presidential office. Shortly after coming into office, he could not hide his disgust at the fact that people in Matabeleland did not vote for him. He organised a massacre of over 20,000 people and transformed the country into a hell hole for any that opposed him
In Guinea, Alpha Conde became President after decades in opposition campaigning for democracy. General Lansana Conte humiliated him during the elections of 1993 and 1998. When he became President, he refused to hold parliamentary elections for three years. When eventually the elections took place two months ago, all observers agreed that there was no level playing ground. He has been engaged in a campaign of ethnic hatred against the Fulani is actively pushing the country towards civil war.
In Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade became President in 2000 after 26 years as an opposition leader. He became President as leader of a coalition of opposition parties but on getting power dismantled the coalition. He ruled for twelve years after manipulating the Constitution to get an extra two years and still contested for an unconstitutional third term until he was humiliated out of office through general elections.
Laurent Gbagbo was another opposition leader who got to power in Cote D’ivoire after decades of struggle. For five years after his first term, he refused to hold presidential elections because he was afraid he would lose. The French finally were able to convince him that he would win the elections so he agreed to elections in 2010 and lost. He rejected the people’s verdict, remained in power precipitating the country into yet another civil war.
Yes indeed, all over Africa, the people who had fought so hard for democracy as opposition icons have shown scant regard for the values of democracy and human rights when they got power. They showed themselves to be callous, authoritarian and often brutal and people who were interested in power for their personal aggrandisement only. Mandela was so different because throughout his life, he kept his sight focused on the core values he started the struggle with. No wonder then that he became the global brand accepted by all but copied by so few. For our future to be bright, more people would need to copy Mandela.
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