(Continued from a previous post)
Since it was obvious that he was intent on pouring his heart out, I decided to let him speak. 'What do young Nigerians think about your leaders and their country and Africa? Do you teach them history? Do you have lessons on how your past leaders stood by us and gave us large amounts of money? You know I hear from Angolans and Mozambicans and Zimbabweans how your people opened their hearts and their homes to them. I was in prison then, but we know how your leaders punished western companies who supported Apartheid’. I reminded him that we had elected governments since 1999, and he knew some of our leaders in person. Yes, he did. 'But what about the corruption and the crimes?' he asked? 'Your elections are like wars'. Now we hear that you cannot be president in Nigeria unless you are Muslim or Christian. Some people tell me your country may break up. Please don’t let it happen'.
He sat back. I obviously got a lot more than I bargained for. Then he mellowed down, and apologized. He had not even asked me what I wanted to see him for, and he was tearing at my country. It was fine, I assured him. I merely wanted to meet him and pay my respects. He then asked me a lot of personal questions, and in particular what I was doing personally to improve the capacity of the Nigerian people to build the nation to be a source of pride and comfort for Nigerians, Africa and the black race. But he was in a lecturing mood.
'Let me tell you what I think you need to do' he said. 'You should encourage leaders to emerge who will not confuse public office with sources of making personal wealth. Corrupt people do not make good leaders. Then you have to spend a lot of your resources for education. Educate children of the poor, so that they can get out of poverty. Poverty does not breed confidence. Only confident people can bring changes. Poor, uneducated people can also bring change, but it will be hijacked by the educated and the wealthy'.
'Like South Africa today, sir', I quipped. He paused. 'It will be difficult for the world to understand that it will take generations to eliminate the structural roots and effects of Apartheid.' 'But', I drove the point home, 'You created the impression that the political compromises and concessions you made would lead to a dramatic change in the fortunes of black people'. 'Drammatic?' he asked. 'In many ways we achieved dramatic results'.' Like in sports', I pressed further. 'Sports is important to South Africans. It gave them confidence to believe things are possible. And it united them”. 'But sir, it created a false sense of progress, and people here think it is all a gimmick by white people to create a diversion'.' It is not a diversion, he countered. It is real. South Africans will have to come to terms with the reality that their country is a multi-racial, multi-cultural nation with rich and poor. Any efforts to reduce the gulf between the races and classes is useful, he insisted.
Then he was back to Nigeria. People had said to him that South Africa could become an alternative beacon of hope and inspiration for the black race and Africa. He told them it was always going to be Nigeria. Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa can provide a tripod for real change but young Africans need to capture that vision. 'So', he said to me, 'If this audience has been useful, I am glad. But it will be more useful to me if you go back to Nigeria and work to give young Nigerians good education. Teach them the value of hard work and sacrifice, and discourage them from crimes which are destroying your image as a good people.'
I have re-lived that rare opportunity many times since that visit. The 30-minute audience lasted for one hour, and I was escorted out by a man I saw close up as human as anyone. I had rarely come across such candour about my country, but it was clearly the product of genuine concern that one of Africa’s greatest assets was being frittered away.
As he shook my hand to say goodbye, he apologized again over his comments, but assured me that he would love to see Nigeria grow and develop into a world economic power under a democratic system. If there is any comfort to draw from Mandela’s disappointment, it will be that he may not have observed our free-fall as a nation in the last five years.