Sunday, 8 December 2013

A tale of two countries

Nelson Mandela famously declared in the 1963-64 Rivonia trial that he was ready to die for ‘the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities’, and promptly served 27 years of what was supposed to be a life sentence. Nor was he alone, merely the chosen leader of a remarkable generation of men and women who lived to reap the rewards of their collective sacrifice. I never met Mandela himself although I was once privileged to interview Walter Sisulu, one of his staunchest comrades who did time with him. It was in the heady months following the first-ever democratic elections in 1994 and I was confronted with a modest man who had turned down the opportunity to join the government in any post of his choosing because he wanted to spend the few years left him with his wife, Albertina, whose conduct during her husband’s extended absence was the ideal of Caesar’s wife: above suspicion.
At the time I met Sisiulu we here in Nigeria were labouring under the tyranny of General Abacha, who had just then executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, and you could see the pain cross his gentle features when I raised the subject. He said something to the effect that teaching people the virtues of democracy was not easy and left it at that, implying perhaps that we had to figure a way of fighting our own oppressors. Mandela himself was more forthright. He blasted Abacha as ‘illegitimate, barbaric and arrogant’ and called on the opposition to intensify its efforts to get rid of him. Abacha returned the compliment (although he later apologised, as he might have) by remarking that he didn’t blame the freedom fighter who had ‘lost touch with the global socio-political trend’; and one of his ministers, Professor Ademola Adeshina, perhaps wanting to please Oga at the top, wondered how anybody can ‘spend 27 years in prison and still be sane’.
It happened that Mandela died when our present Oga at the top, who was quick to praise the dearly departed as ‘a wise, courageous and compassionate leader’, was apparently on a private visit to Germany, where he might or might not have visited a hospital for a possible illness he might or might not have contracted in London following his fifty-third birthday celebrations. He was accompanied by his wife, who was herself treated at this possibly same hospital for seven weeks last year, and who later confessed that, ‘I actually died; I passed out for more than a week. My intestine and tummy were opened.’ Dr Patience then seized the opportunity to mourn afresh the memory of her late sister, Stella Obasanjo, and recalled the painful moment’ when the latter’s corpse was brought home, which would have been how ‘my corpse would have been brought here’, but for ‘God Himself’: ‘I am not Lazarus,’ she gushed, still marvelling at her resurrection, ‘but my experience was similar to his own’, and then promptly pre-empted her Biblical precursor - seven days to his four - but let us not be pernickety.
In amongst all this, we recall that it was Stella Obasanjo’s then president husband who justified all the money he pumped into the National Hospital at Abuja so that he, along with ‘the Vice-President, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, the ministers and top government officials will receive treatment instead of going abroad’, before promptly sending his wife to this same abroad, where she nonetheless died following a routine ‘tummy tuck’. But then even now, after all the billions supposedly expended, patients routinely complain about ‘the long delays’, the ‘sloppiness’, the ‘unprofessionalism’, the ‘lack of coordination between the different units’, the ‘inadequate personnel’, all of which is par for the course, including the lack of transparency concerning just how much of the nation’s resources were not spent achieving succour for the worthy amongst us who can nevertheless go foreign with the forfeited money.
President Jonathan himself seemed much taken with the spectre of the Grim Reaper when he expanded on his wife’s miraculous recovery. In his opinion, it put an end to the apparently superstitious belief that nobody ever left Aso Rock with his family intact: ‘The story was that one of us (the President or his wife) will die. Today we are celebrating her’; and added: ‘Her recovery has put an end to that belief. I am not too good in celebrating, but for this particular one, I think we have to thank God for keeping the life of my wife.’ With fifteen months to go before the April 2015 elections, this seems perilously close to tempting fate. It also has the disadvantage of making him sound shallow, especially when we recall Mandela’s famous speech I quoted at the beginning of this blog.
All of which reminded me of an amusing passage in Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, where he recounts receiving treatment at a Cape Town clinic for TB 23 years into his sentence. The morning after surgery, he was served the full Monty: eggs, sausages, black pudding, baked beans, toast, marmalade... His horrified surgeon happened to be passing and immediately ordered it removed. The patient was to be on light foods to aid his recovery. Mandela, who had existed on ‘mealie pap porridge' for two-and-a-half decades, grasped the tray and declared himself ready to die for the sake of the eggs, sausages, black pudding...
Ken Saro-Wiwa was also accused of treason and one wonders whether, had he been imprisoned instead of executed, he would have even survived long enough to be treated at the National Hospital that Stella Obasanjo wasn’t killed in, but let us not be too despondent. According to the (extremely conservative) Economist magazine, ‘since Mr Mandela left the presidency in 1999 his beloved country has disappointed under two sorely flawed leaders, Thabo Mbeki and now Jacob Zuma. While the rest of Africa’s economy has perked up, South Africa’s has stumbled. Nigeria’s swelling GDP is closing in on South Africa’s. Corruption and patronage within the ANC have become increasingly flagrant.’ Sound familiar?
© Adewale Maja-Pearce
Adewale Maja-Pearce is the author of several books, including Loyalties
and Other Stories, In My Father's Country, How many miles to Babylon?, A
Mask Dancing, Who's Afraid of Wole Soyinka?, From Khaki to Agbada,
Remembering Ken Saro-Wiwa and Other Essays, A Peculiar Tragedy, and
Counting the Cost, as well as the 1998 and 1999 annual reports on human
rights violations in Nigeria. He also edited The Heinemann Book of African
Poetry in English, Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal, Christopher Okigbo:
Collected Poems, The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Short Stories,
and Dream Chasers.

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