Mbeki: Alone in his hour of need

There is a Nigerian saying that no misfortune can be worse than falling on hard times at the same time as one’s friends or allies.

Then one would be truly on one’s own, with nowhere to turn and no one to look to for help. Former president Thabo Mbeki had many influential Nigerian friends and was, for the better part of his presidency, the champion of an African renaissance and values-based leadership.

Yet, in one of the bitter ironies of power, the resounding silence in Africa’s most populous nation last month, when Mbeki was removed, was typical of the response throughout much of the continent.

Not that Nigeria—or any other African country for that matter—could have saved Mbeki. But there are many who believe that had the events of last month occurred when Olusegun Obasanjo was still in power, Abuja’s attitude towards Pretoria would have, at minimum, been one of restrained displeasure.

But there’s a new king on the throne who doesn’t know Mbeki and who shares no special bonds with him. The mood in Abuja now is one of callous indifference.

It is a sign of the state of things between Abuja and Pretoria that perhaps two of the most influential political figures on the continent only 24 months ago are now fighting for their political lives: Obasanjo is fighting to clear his name from allegations of fraud during his eight-year rule and Mbeki is deeply wounded. Both men go back a long way.

Mbeki first arrived in Nigeria in 1977 as the ANC’s representative to the country after he was deported from Swaziland. Nigeria’s military head of state, General Murtala Muhammed, had just been murdered in a failed coup and it was the lot of Obasanjo, his reluctant successor, to lead the country through a chaotic phase that combined the gluttony of oil wealth with the ribaldry of the continent’s first festival of African arts and culture. Lagos became Mbeki’s home away from home. He cultivated the inner circles of power and the relationship he built at the time not only gave the ANC a solid base, but it would become serviceable many years later when Mbeki and Obasanjo met again as presidents of their respective countries.

Business between Nigeria and South Africa may be booming—grossing an average R4-billion every year—but judging by press clips, the same can hardly be said for politics. At the height of Mbeki’s travails and shortly after his fall, the sentiment was not so much about the special relationship he had helped to nurture with Nigeria, or about the humiliation he had suffered at the hands of the party that he had served so faithfully for 52 years. Of course there were people such as Olugbenga Ashiru, the former high commissioner to Pretoria, who said in an article that Mbeki played a key role in ensuring that Nigeria’s last general elections were held on schedule. But this flitting compliment was a departure from the general tone, which was: what lessons can Nigerian politicians learn from the fall of Mbeki?

The overriding lesson, it seems, was that even though Mbeki spent 14 years in Nigeria, he is far less Nigerian than his rival, Jacob Zuma. In Nigerian politics, a deputy—any deputy—is famously called a “spare tyre”, it would be unthinkable for a deputy to overthrow his boss. In his column in The Guardian, Reuben Abati wrote that a Nigerian first lady would have taken the initiative. Mrs Mbeki and Mrs Zuma would have slugged it out in public before their husbands started the hot war.

“The meeting of the ANC national executive committee, in which the decision to recall Mbeki was taken,” Abati wrote: “would definitely have ended in chaos.

“First an attempt would have been made to bribe the members with oil and gas contracts, mining contracts and offers of position in government — Mbeki’s resignation would have generated serious tension between Zulus and Xhosas —”

Another columnist, the editor of ThisDay on Sunday, Yusuph Olaniyonu, said that if Mbeki had been a Nigerian politician he would have used all the tricks in the book to hang on to power. But Nigeria is only a mirror of the “real Africa” that Mbeki spoke about in Mark Gevisser’s book, Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred. This is a continent where infinite possibilities wrestle with incredible frustrations and contradictions.

At the risk of blowing against the wind, Mbeki was the first African leader to endorse the administration of President Umaru Yar’Adua. So why is Mbeki alone in his own hour of need? In official-speak the change in South Africa’s leadership is strictly an internal matter. Nearer the truth is that the Nigerian president is too busy fighting his own health and legitimacy issues to care about what is happening elsewhere. Even when the crisis in Zimbabwe brought Abuja and Johannesburg face to face, Yar’Adua choose a different, tougher route than Mbeki’s.

Yet it would be a mistake to regard this aloofness as an unqualified endorsement of Zuma. In an editorial in Punch the newspaper called for a healing of the wounds to save the party and the country, while Abati quipped that Zuma would soon find that running a country is not the same thing as dancing the toyi-toyi or having a sweet revenge. It’s a lonely road for Mbeki, but a rough one ahead for South Africa.

Azubuike Ishiekwene is executive editor of Punch in Nigeria. He writes a monthly column for the Mail & Guardian

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