By John Ejoha Odah
Address by Comrade John Ejoha Odah on behalf of Abuja Collective on the occasion of the memorial to celebrate the life and times of NELSON MANDELA on 13th February 2014 at the Yar’Adua Centre, Abuja.
On behalf of the Abuja Collective, it gives me great pleasure to welcome you to this commemorative event in honour of Nelson Mandela, who joined his ancestors 70 days today, following a most eventful 95 years sojourn on this earth.
Comrades from the anti-apartheid era in the universities, students and labour unions and other progressive professional bodies in and around Abuja felt it a duty to celebrate the passing of this towering stalwart of the South African struggle, because in his lifetime, in his actions and deeds, in his persecutions and perseverance, in his resolute refusal to succumb to carrot to betray his people and win personal freedom, in his resolve to die for the struggle to free his people if need be, Comrade Mandela inspired millions of people around Africa and the entire world.
As young people in tertiary institutions around Nigeria, as workers and young professionals, the inspiration that came from the launch of Umkhonto we sizwe (the Spear of the Nation), which Mandela was the first leader of, was enormous.
The mission of the new armed wing of the ANC as released in December 1961 stated thus:
A time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. That time has come to South Africa. We shall not submit and we have no choice but to hit back by all means in our power in defence of our people, our future and freedom.
In the Nigerian context, while the government and people were virtually united in a national resolve to support the decolonisation process in the Southern African sub-region as a whole and South Africa in particular, it was not all the time that the rest of civil society were in agreement with the government of the day on the particular direction the struggles should be supported.
We chose to commemorate Comrade Mandela’s transition today, the 13th February, to coincide with the anniversary of the 1976 assassination of General Murtala Mohammed. We bear testimony to the fact that Nigeria’s frontline role in the struggle for the Liberation of the Southern African sub-region reached its peak during the short reign of General Murtala Mohammed as Nigeria’s Head of State.
In his famous “Africa Has Come of Age” speech at the OAU Summit on Angola, the late Nigerian leader mobilised African Heads of State for the recognition of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) as the authentic government of the Angolan people. This was against the wish of the West and their imperialist designs, which had continued to collaborate with racist South Africa to keep the sub-region supposedly free of communist influence.
At the appropriate time, Comrade Chairperson would request us to have two minutes silence in honour of two of Africa’s great sons – Murtala Mohammed and Nelson Mandela! We are indeed pleased that Aisha, General Mohammed’s daughter, is in our amidst today and would give a solidarity message on behalf of the Murtala Mohammed Foundation.
Many Nigerians involved in the anti-apartheid struggle and campaigns would have fond memories about that era; we dealt with young secondary school students from South Africa, after the 1976 Soweto uprising, who were not used to the West African culture of bargaining when you go to the market. It took us time to find out why many of them were broke within two weeks of getting their monthly stipends from the South Africa Relief Fund.
It turned out that when they went to buy their groceries and other items, they pay the first price that the traders asked. The Nigerian comrades had to teach them the rudiments of bargaining in a market situation.
We had more complex and complicated situations to deal with too. While Nigerians were broadly in agreement on the need to support the struggle in Southern Africa against colonialism and apartheid, there were those especially in the corridors of power and in the civil service who were wary of the radicalising influence of the progressive organisations in the Southern African sub-region.
There were people who bought the Western propaganda that the ANC, for instance, was a communist or communist influenced organisation and therefore efforts should be made to reduce its influence in the struggle. Therefore, while both the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were accorded representative status in the country in 1976, some elements in government (over the period), acted to favour the PAC in the belief that it is Pan Africanist.
Therefore a major part of our anti-apartheid struggle and campaign in our country was devoted to getting our government to refocus and support the true representatives of the South African liberation struggles. In the process, in 1987, ex-student union activists, labour activists and other civil society groups came together to form the Nigeria-ANC Friendship and Cultural Association (NAFCA) as a platform to push for the recognition of the ANC as the authentic voice of the South African people’s struggle for liberation. The post apartheid 1994 elections and subsequent events confirmed that we were truly with the real representatives of the South African people.
Since Mandela passed on, on December 5, 2013, the outpouring of tributes and reminiscences has been unprecedented and overwhelming. In the course of this occasion, our South African comrades who knew him will still bring new perspectives and angles to the extraordinary person that he was.
A few days back, the last will that Comrade Mandela left behind was read by those he mandated to execute it. Despite his stature, the estate he left behind for his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren was a modest $4.1 million. As a South African columnist aptly puts it: “He had the world at his feet after he was released from prison, but he chose not to use his position to amass his own wealth.”
It is our hope that this emphatic message from beyond is not lost on the public office holders and political elites of both Nigeria and South Africa.
As a people we were committed to the struggle for the liberation of the Southern African sub-region because we believed then, as we still do, that with any part of the African continent still under colonial yoke, our own freedom was incomplete. We believe that for the African continent to have full political and economic independence; Nigeria and South Africa must cooperate and work together to overcome the economic stranglehold the West has over our African economies.
We believed that we needed to build people-to-people relations across the cultural divide between our two countries. Since the first post apartheid election and the enthronement of multiracial democracy in South Africa twenty years ago, we see that there has been growing business and economic linkages between our two countries, which is desirable and should be encouraged.
For government-to-government relations, the two countries established the Nigeria-South Africa Bilateral Commission. What appear to have lagged behind are the people-to-people interactions and the promotion of civil and cultural exchanges between the people of both countries.
The benefits of a strong Nigeria-South Africa relation in the civil and cultural level can be seen in the relationship between the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). The workers of both countries have maintained fraternal relationship that predates the dismantling of apartheid. Soon after the post apartheid elections, the two centres started having bilateral meetings and went on to exchange organisers amongst their affiliate unions.
At the international trade union level, COSATU and NLC worked closely to coordinate the African voice in these fora. We believe that these can be achieved across other sectors if there was a more organised body to promote these people-to-people interactions.
Before concluding this short welcome address, permit me to say that our celebration is under the theme: “Africa, Liberation Struggles and the Future of Our Continent.”
As stated in the beginning of this address, the liberation struggles of our Southern African brothers and sisters gave us here a lot of inspiration. The struggle for socio-economic and political rights championed by Comrade Mandela and his other stalwarts – Albert Luthuli, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and many others – gave us hope that Africa can be transformed from a vast land of colonial and neo-colonial plunder to one in which the majority of its long suffering people will be free from hunger, malnutrition and underdevelopment.
We had embraced the ANC because we believed that as the oldest surviving political organisation in the African continent, with over a century of existence, Africans all over the world have positive things they can learn from it.
We need to remind ourselves, and the political elites in all of Africa, especially those of Nigeria and South Africa, of the immortal words of Amilcar Cabral, the assassinated Guinea Bissau revolutionary that:
Always remember that the people do not fight for ideas, for things that exist only in the heads of individuals. The people fight and they accept the necessary sacrifices. But they do it in order to gain material advantages, to live in peace and to improve their lives, to experience progress, and to be able to guarantee a future for their children.
National liberation, the struggles against colonialism, working for peace and progress, independence – all these will be empty words without significance for the people, unless they are translated into real improvements of the conditions of life.”
In conclusion, it’s clear to all that Mandela gave his all, throughout his life. In celebrating his life, we must remind ourselves that he stood for all that was noble.
He practiced and defended accountability in governance, tolerance, forgiveness and respect for humanity.