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17 Nov 1995 00:00
Whether I live or die is immaterial. It is enough to know that there are people who commit time and energy to fight this one evil among so many others predominating worldwide.
If they do not succeed today, they will succeed tomorrow.
# Pretoria blunders as Nigeria burns
The execution of nine Nigerian activists has shown the Foreign Affairs Department up as bunglers who severely embarrassed President Mandela, writes Stefaans Brummer
THE full extent of government blundering over the Nigerian crisis began to emerge this week as officials tried to explain how they allowed the humiliation of Nelson Mandela at Auckland over the executions of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his fellow dissidents.
The Mail & Guardian learnt this week that a vital 24 hours was wasted before South African Foreign Affairs began moving to try to save them.
There was also major confusion of responsibility within the Foreign Affairs Department over the crisis. The deputy minister, Aziz Pahad, said this week that South Africa’s high commissioner in Lagos, George Nene, had instructions to maintain contact with Nigerian dissidents and had been doing so.
But Nene, re-called this week for “consultations”, said he had not interpreted contact with the opposition as his brief; his duty had been primarily to liaise on a government level.
“Not one of the civil liberty or pro-democracy groups has knocked on my door and said, ‘Let’s discuss things,’ the high commissioner complained, arguing the onus for contact had been on the Nigerian opposition.
South Africa’s approach to Nigeria exploded in the face of President Mandela at what should have been a triumphant appearance at his first Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in New Zealand.
The hanging of the nine dissidents came after desperate appeals from their supporters for a tougher approach.
Figures like Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka charged South Africa with “appeasement” and compared the strategy of “quiet diplomacy” to the notorious strategy of “constructive engagement” adopted by the Thatcher and Reagan administrations in dealing with the apartheid government.
Nigerian expatriates and South African civil liberties group Lawyers for Human Rights made frantic efforts to get Foreign Affairs mobilised to save Saro-Wiwa and his comrades after the Reuters news agency first broke the news on Wednesday last week that the military junta had confirmed the death sentences. The Nigerians knew from experience this meant the executions were imminent.
The Department of Foreign Affairs refused to act, however, until they had received “confirmation” of the announcement, which they did not obtain until the following day. High Commissioner Nene then tried, but failed, to contact the Nigerian government with the appeal: “Don’t do this.”
The lack of preparedness of President Mandela in Auckland for the looming tragedy was demonstrated by his statement on the Thursday that South Africa was standing by its policy of quiet diplomacy and there would be “time enough” to opt for stronger measures if persuasion failed.
Since the executions, virtually nothing has been heard from South Africa’s Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo, and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki—the first of whom carries constitutional responsibility for his department; the latter believed to have been largely responsible for formulating policy on the Nigerian issue. Instead, Nzo’s deputy, Pahad, has been left to carry the can.
This week Pahad told a media conference in Pretoria that South Africa’s policy towards Nigeria could not be compared with the 1980s “constructive engagement” of the United States and Britain towards apartheid. He said those countries had hidden behind the policy to avoid pushing for real change.
“We do not see anything wrong in principle with constructive engagement, but that does not mean weak constructive engagement.” Pahad later said: “The entire world was caught unawares ... so I don’t think (Foreign Affairs officials) could have had a finger on the pulse of such a controversial decision.”
Pahad countered criticism that he and Mbeki had not seen opposition leaders during a visit to Nigeria earlier this year, saying time had been limited. He pointed to the success of the mission, which some feel was a deciding factor in Abacha’s October 1 commutation of death sentences against former Nigerian ruler General Olusegun Abasanjo and other “coup plotters”.
But Pahad said Nene had instructions to maintain contact with Nigerian opposition groups. Nene told the M&G that he had had regular contact with the wives of Obasanjo and Moshood Abiola (the imprisoned, presumed winner of Nigeria’s annulled presidential elections). He said he saw the wives as “family representatives” rather than representatives of the opposition.
Rejecting criticism of South Africa by the Nigerian opposition, he said: “It is easy for them to criticise President Mandela in the press.” Pointing to divisions among Nigerian opposition groups, he said they could not expect stronger action from foreign governments if they could not agree on action themselves.
Nene, who was appointed high commissioner in February after serving as African National Congress representative to Nigeria since 1989, said Britain and the United States, both of which “have better systems of getting information”, had erred similarly. “Until the sentences were carried out, all of us thought it would not
Pahad replied that if Nene had not made contact with opposition groups, “he must explain”.
# A black comedy of errors
THE following are the events surrounding the executions of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his eight fellow dissidents at Port Harcourt:
l Tuesday October 31: A military tribunal appointed by the Provisional Ruling Council (PRC) of Nigerian military dictator General Sani Abacha hands down death sentences, with no option to appeal, against Saro-Wiwa, Barinem Kiobel, John Kpunien, Baribor Bera, Saturday Dobee, Felix Nwate, Norde Eawo, Paul Levura and Daniel Gbokwo. South Africa informs Nigeria’s high commissioner in Pretoria the sentences are unacceptable.
l Monday November 6: Deputy President Thabo Mbeki tries, apparently without success, to contact Abacha to ensure he will be attending the Commonwealth summit in New Zealand later in the week, so the sentences and Nigeria’s transition to democracy can be discussed. (Abacha did not come, sending Foreign Minister Tom Okimi instead.)
l Wednesday November 8, about noon: Reuters news agency reports the PRC met earlier in the day and confirmed the death sentences.
l Wednesday November 8, after 9pm: South Africa’s Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) hears from a Nigerian opposition group that the PRC had confirmed the sentences, and is told by Nigerian contacts the PRC is not bluffing.
LHR calls the Department of Foreign Affairs, and ends up speaking to Johann Marx, head of the section dealing with Nigeria. Marx tells LHR no strong action can be taken until his department has had confirmation of the PRC decision. LHR tells him Reuters and other sources confirmed it. He tells LHR he would have to check it with Nene, South Africa’s high commissioner in Lagos.
Marx calls Nene, who says he is in no position to confirm the PRC decision and suggests they wait for confirmation in the Nigerian media or work on it in the morning.
l Thursday November 9, morning: Nene gets the confirmation in the Nigerian media. He tries to contact senior Nigerian government officials with the message, “Don’t do this”. He fails to make contact. (Only after the hangings does he succeed in making contact.)
Meanwhile, the Commonwealth heads of government and their delegations gather in Auckland. Mandela and others appeal for a stay of execution, but Mandela defends his policy of quiet diplomacy, saying the time for sanctions and stronger action has not come—and that there will be “time enough” to consider these if persuasion fails.
l Friday November 10, about 11am: Saro-Wiwa and his fellow activists are hanged in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Foreign Affairs in South Africa gets the news before Nene, who confirms to them later in the day: “Yes, it looks like it.”
l Saturday November 11, early morning: Mandela and other Commonwealth heads of government are told about the hangings. Mandela, in his own words “almost out of control” with anger, calls for Nigeria’s immediate expulsion from the Commonwealth. (This position is later ameliorated, in consultation with other heads of government, to a two-year suspension. Expulsion will come if there are further gross human rights abuses or if Nigeria’s movement to democracy is unsatisfactory.)
The men who ordain and supervise this show of shame, this tragic charade, are frightened by the word, the power of the pen; by the demands of social justice and the rights of man. Nor do they have a sense of history. They are so scared of the power of the word that they do not read. And that is their funeral|—Letter from Ken Saro-Wiwa in jail, published in the Mail &Guardian, May 26 1995
# ‘You can’t blame Mandela’
NAIVETY and inexperience in African affairs contributed to South Africa’s failure to play a part in stopping the executions last week. Nigerian-born writer and academic, Professor Kole Omotoso—better known to millions of television viewers as the uppity “Gogo” in a cellular telephone company’s advertisement—lost his dear friend Ken Saro-Wiwa to the hangman’s noose, but believes Mandela is not to blame.
“I honestly have sympathy with the South African government. They didn’t create the situation in Nigeria,” Omotoso said. “The ANC and PAC had relations with Nigeria, which were very helpful in the struggle against apartheid and I find it difficult now to condemn them.
“You cannot blame Mandela. The South African government is extremely inexperienced in foreign affairs, particularly as it applies to Africa.”
While many believed the Nigerian government was not capable of flying in the face of international outrage against the planned executions, Omotoso said he had warned the government was bloodthirsty and capable of doing it. “Those who know my country know how irrational and illogical the military regime is. There wasn’t a chance that it would respond to what Mandela called ‘softly-softly’.”
South Africa’s support at the Commonwealth to suspend Nigeria and its withdrawal of its high commissioner for “consultation” was the correct approach, Omotoso said. It sent a strong message to the military regime that its actions were no longer a “private
Omotoso welcomed the initiatives being taken by human rights and political organisations now to isolate Nigeria and support the movement for democracy there.
“It is difficult for South Africans; there is a different kind of logic at work in Nigeria. South Africans are tremendously influenced by Western values and are now shocked that those same values do not apply in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.”
Omotoso said what has pained him every day since Friday, when his friend Saro-Wiwa died, was that it had taken the deaths of nine people to wake the world up to what was happening in Nigeria.
“South Africans are beginning to learn that General Abacha will just laugh in their faces when they preach western values to him.”
He supported the call for a boycott of Shell, saying multinationals could not hide behind excuses of autonomy for each country’s operation—the spoils all landed up in the home office’s
# Shell’s road to shame
Rehana Rossouw in Cape Town and own corrspondents in London and
THE Ogoni people have unfairly attacked the Shell petroleum company, the company’s South African general manager of corporate affairs, Koosum Kalyan, said this week.
The Ogoni had attacked Shell over environmental matters to raise the international profile of their campaign against the Nigerian government. Shell, however, is sympathetic to their grievances and does not merit the international and local vilification of human rights activists, Kalyan said.
Shell SA was “digusted and dismayed” by the executions of the human rights activists in Nigeria, but the company could not intervene in Nigeria’s domestic politics, she added.
Shell indicated from Brussels earlier this week that it was to press ahead with fresh investments in Nigeria, despite worldwide revulsion at the execution of nine Ogoni activists.
The company has long battled against accusations of causing environmental devastation in the Ogoni region. It had to pull out of Ogoniland in the face of hostility in 1993, but has remained by far the biggest oil producer operating in Nigeria as a whole—its production at 910 000 barrels a day dwarfing that of US competitors Chevron (380 000), Mobil (310 000), and Texaco (60 000); Agip SpA of Italy (130 000); and Elf Aquitaine of France (95 000).
None of them has indicated any desire to quit Nigeria, which exports about 1,6-million barrels per day of sought-after “light sweet” crude oil with a high gasoline content which would be difficult to replace from other sources. About 44 percent of it goes to the United States and another five percent to Canada. Europe buys the rest.
Critics argue that Shell, which has operated in Nigeria for almost 40 years and owns about 30 percent of the state oil company, had the power to rein in the Abacha regime’s human rights abuses.
Documents leaked to the Mail & Guardian of a meeting in London between the Nigerian high commissioner and Shell executives, with senior military and political officers present, reveal how slow the company was to take seriously foreign protests over the Ogoniland issue.
The high commissioner, Alhaji Abubaka, asked Shell directly for help to “debunk” the bad publicity being generated by British campaigners for Saro-Wiwa. He suggested that Nigeria should “counter-attack” with an advertisement campaign and that the Nigerian government should sponsor a television documentary.
Shell rejected suggestions that Body Shop, Greenpeace and other groups should be taken on directly on the grounds that it “would play into the hands of the groups” and “bring the matter more into the public domain”.
When the seriousness of the situation became apparent, Shell issued a report downplaying Ogoniland’s importance to the company and pointing out it had given large sums of money to Ogoni community projects. Privately, officials conceded these donations never reached their intended destination.
Shell holds 24 percent of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Ltd (NLNG), whose board was due to meet on Wednesday to discuss whether to go ahead with the new project. The Nigerian government holds 49 per cent of the joint-venture company, the Italian firm Agip holds 10 percent, and the French producer Elf 15 percent.
The International Finance Corporation, a subsidiary of the World Bank, has already announced it will not take up its former two percent interest in the plant.
Elsewhere in London, Brussels and at the United Nations, world leaders were exploring ways to draft measures designed to isolate Nigeria which one British Foreign Office spokesman described as being both “workable and effective”.
In Cape Town, Kalyan said itwould be unfair if Shell SA was targeted for a consumer boycott as the company’s operations were decentralised and the South African component could not be held responsible for decisions taken by the managing director of the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) in Nigeria.
“I know many people believe Shell is Shell no matter where it is, but the decisions taken on the ground by an individual team can be widely divergent.”
The company was making a contribution to improving the quality of life of communities in Nigeria by funding roads, clinics, schools, water schemes, scholarships and agricultural support projects to the tune of $25-million.
“The situation in the Niger Delta, and throughout Nigeria is fraught and complex, with economic, political and ethnic issues adding to the challenge the country faces,” Kalyan said.
“When the facts are simplified and distorted in the service of a campaign or cause—however well intentioned—; the solution moves no closer.”
# ANC MPs upset over foreign affairs
AFRICAN National Congress parliamentarians, starved of information about government policy on Nigeria, this week expressed shock and bewilderment at its disastrous outcome.
But despite MPs’ anger at President Nelson Mandela’s humiliation in Auckland, there appeared to be no immediate moves to bring the government to account for its foreign policy debacle.
Raymond Suttner, chair of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Foreign Affairs, said Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Aziz Pahad would report to it at a routine meeting—scheduled long before the executions—on November 27. “We’ll be looking at the report carefully and it may be that we make some recommendations as a consequence,” Suttner said.
MPs were caught off guard by the executions. “We really never believed they would do it,” said Baleka Kgositsile, chair of the ANC’s parliamentary caucus. Neither MPs nor ANC structures had access to information about the situation in Nigeria—; and what the government was doing about it—as the crisis
It emerged this week that:
l The ANC’s policy-making body, the national executive committee (NEC), has never discussed the issue or been briefed on it;
l The Foreign Affairs Portfolio Committee asked for a briefing before the parliamentary recess but was told by the Department of Foreign Affairs this was not possible.
One ANC MP criticised Deputy President Thabo Mbeki and Pahad for confining themselves, during visits to Nigeria, to meeting with representatives of the military junta and not making contact with pro-democracy forces.
“By embarking on a policy of quiet diplomacy without knowing exactly what its effect on Abacha would be, South Africa effectively legitimised the Abacha regime. We have not played a neutral role,” he said.
When the ANC NEC meets in Johannesburg early next month, the organisation’s failure to set in train the kind of solidarity actions the executions have now finally sparked is likely to come under close scrutiny. ANC MPs were quick to identify the organisation’s own culpability in failing to act.
“If the government felt it couldn’t engage with opposition groupings, it was up to the ANC to do so,” said one MP. “A broad cross-section of ANC members, from the ground up, is outraged by what has happened. There is anger at the ANC.”
While the ANC this week launched a broad-based campaign aimed at bringing about the speedy restoration of democracy in Nigeria, it was due to meet with its alliance partners, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, this weekend for more detailed discussions. Sources said it was possible an ANC delegation might be sent to Nigeria.
The government’s lethal miscalculation on Nigeria has brought into sharp focus the ANC’s ambiguous relationship with other countries. Such ambivalence feeds tensions within the ANC—; both internally and between its alliance partners, both of which have pushed for the government to take a harder line.
At the heart of the tensions lies concern that the ANC, as the senior partner in government, has been too content to follow a well-worn path marked out by a barely transformed Department of Foreign Affairs. It is argued that by doing so, the movement has turned its back on its past and is fudging its responsibilities to people—often former allies—still engaged in their own political struggles.
# Mandela’s softly-softly betrayal
The South African government should have known better than to believe diplomacy could change the ways of Nigeria’s brutal regime, argues Phillip van Niekerk
SOUTH AFRICA’S belated determination to get tough on the Abacha regime should not blind us to the scale of President Mandela’s miscalculation in initially urging the Commonwealth to go easy with the criminals of Abuja. South Africans will have some difficulty understanding the criticism, but it was picked up by the rest of the world who had looked to Madiba for moral leadership on the issue. For many Nigerians it meant nothing less than betrayal.
It would be unfair to imply that Mandela helped send Ken Saro-Wiwa and his colleagues to the gallows. But if the government had been more open to the pleas and warnings of ordinary Nigerians, they would not have proved themselves so deficient in predicting events on a continent that South Africa aspires to lead.
We will never know if a strong, principled statement from Mandela—calling not just for clemency, but condemning the whole trial as a set-up—would have made any difference. Ken Saro-Wiwa is dead. Nor can there be doubt that Mandela’s instincts would have led him to speak out more forcefully earlier. He was just hamstrung by a policy that was too clever by half.
It should not have taken the murder of Saro-Wiwa to destroy South Africa’s illusions about the nature of the Abacha regime. Mandela’s own emissary, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, visited Chief Moshood Abiola in his cell in Abuja in April and witnessed first hand the delusional, slightly bizzarre behaviour of the ruling military.
Abiola, after all, is a man charged with “treason” for having proclaimed himself president after winning an election that the vast majority of Nigerians participated in. His accusers, who blithely insist that the “judicial process” should prevail, seized power through the gun-barrel of a tank.
Tutu found Abiola’s “unsalubrious” prison conditions so much at variance with what he had been led to expect from the generals that he wondered why they allowed him in at all. The millionaire businessman, used to the creature comforts of a luxury home at Ikeja outside Lagos, is no Nelson Mandela.
He was willing to meet all of Abacha’s conditions for his release, and more, including house arrest and a gag on political statements. But they were never serious about letting out such a symbol of democratisation and he is still rotting in his cell.
Refusing to be swayed by fancy theories, Tutu read the nature of the regime correctly and has been consistently spot-on where the official position has been off the mark.
Abacha’s contempt for Mandela’s sweet reason prompted not a tougher official line but a softer one. Instead of supporting the democratic opposition, South Africa got drawn into a dubious form of “constructive engagement” with the dictators. When Deputy President Thabo Mbeki visited Abuja he did not see a single opposition leader.
It’s not as if different views are not there for the taking. Nigerians have strong opinions and are not afraid to express them. Nigeria has the most courageous, critical and well-written press in Africa.
On the day Mbeki saw Abacha, 43 criminals were being executed by firing squad. The most damning fact about that, from the South African side, is that Mbeki was surprised. The executions were in public and were advertised in the newspapers days in advance. Why didn’t the South African High Commission warn Mbeki?
Again, in the case of news about the confirmation of Saro-Wiwa’s death sentence and the determination to carry them out, Pretoria would have been better served by subscribing to Reuters or monitoring the BBC Africa Service than waiting for information from the High
But these failures belong in the domain of ineptitude which, one would hope, have their own rules of accountability. The more serious—and now discredited—philosophy underlying the dialogue approach is that, because we happen to inhabit the same continent as Nigeria, South Africans have a better understanding of Nigeria. Well, a thug is a thug on any continent, and Nelson Mandela has as much in common with Sani Abacha as Mussolini would have had with Mother Teresa.
The adjunct to all of this—that the British and the Americans didn’t understand because they are not Africans—was a failure to read what had been happening in Nigeria. The West has had cosy, cynical relationships with successive Nigerian regimes of every stripe. They folded their arms when the June 1993 elections, the genesis of the present political crisis, were annulled by General Ibrahim Babangida.
That they were finally stung into taking some kind of a stand against Abacha by Nigerian exiles and by political lobbies in their own countries is evidence that democracy sometimes works, not of western imperialism.
It is a mark of extreme confusion that Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad can claim the softly-softly approach was correct as some sort of payback because “we don’t forget the role Nigeria played in our struggle”. Does he not know that Nigerian support for the anti-apartheid movement came out of the monthly paychecks of ordinary people? That some of the African National Congress’ strongest supporters, such as Abiola and General Olesugun Obasanjo, are in jail?
Does he really see no distinction between thieving and unpopular dictators imposing themselves through terror and murder, and the broad mass of Nigerian people?
Abacha’s attempts to undermine Abiola—pointing that he too is tainted by corruption—have been repeated in these parts as gospel. The fact is that Abiola won a legitimate election, declared free and fair by the international community, an election five years in the making, and—most hopefully for a divided society such as Nigeria—one in which a Muslim southerner won majority support from all regions, all ethnic groups, all religious factions.
Instead, South Africa gave the dictators three years to implement a constitution that was produced by a conference less legitimate than South Africa’s old President’s Council. The document was only concluded after participants such as Shehu Musa Yar ‘Adua, one of the few participants who had shown real courage, were removed from the conference and sentenced to death.
It is my reading that Nigerians don’t want the world, including South Africa, to solve their problems any more than the ANC wanted its friends in the international community to draw up the blueprint for South Africa’s new constitution. International pressure was linked to specific targets: the release of political prisoners, the normalisation of politics, the creation of a fair framework to negotiate a settlement.
Nigerians looked to Mandela to take a strong stand, not because of our trade links with that country, but because the people of this continent see him as a fighter for justice. It will be a betrayal of all he stands for if South Africa continues to be seen as siding with corrupt elites in jackboots.
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