Former South African President, Thabo Mbeki
  • Says killing of Saro-Wiwa, others led to a drift in Nigerian, S’African relations

Olawale Olaleye
Former South African President, Mr. Thabo Mbeki, monday gave a graphic picture of how Nigeria’s former military head of state, General Sani Abacha, betrayed a solemn undertaking he had with South Africa’s late president, Mr. Nelson Mandela, a development he said led to a drift in the bilateral relations between Nigeria and South Africa.

Mbeki, in a piece posted on his Facebook page, titled: “Propaganda and the Pursuit of Hegemonic Goals – The Myanmar and Zimbabwe Experience”, said the Mandela administration was under intense pressure from the international community to support its proposed sanctions on Abacha’s government over alleged rights abuse, but the former South African leader refused to succumb to the pressure.
The pressure, he claimed, came against the backdrop of expectations by the international community that the post-Apartheid South African government under Mandela should have led the campaign for the respect of human rights especially in Africa, adding that Mandela’s first major test was at the 1995 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), held in Auckland, New Zealand.

But Mandela, he said, refused to yield to pressure initially on the grounds that his government had been in talks with Abacha on the release of the late Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni detainees; the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential election, the late Chief MKO Abiola, as well as General Olusegun Obasanjo and the late General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua.

Mbeki, who was clearly alluding to the hypocrisy of the international community on human rights protection, said: “President Mandela resisted all this until news filtered in on the very first day of the CHOGM that the Nigerian government had executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni colleagues.

“He then immediately joined others to strongly condemn the Abacha government and approved the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth.”

Narrating the story in detail, especially what the events that forced the former South African leader to have a change of heart, Mbeki said after Mandela had personally visited Nigeria in 1994 and engaged Abacha on the matter of the release of Abiola, he (Mbeki) also led a small delegation a year later as a follow up to Madela’s visit.

According to him, “In July 1995, I led a small delegation of our government to Nigeria to meet General Abacha. This time our focus was on the two matters of persuading General Abacha and his government to release the Ogoni leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and his co-accused, as well as to release Generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Shehu Yar’ Adua, who were detained for allegedly having been involved in a planned coup d’etat.

“We met General Abacha at 02.00 hrs at his offices. Having heard us out, he told us that he would reflect on what we had said and would respond to us before we left Nigeria.

“A day or so later, then Chief of Defence Staff and effective deputy to Abacha, Lt.-Gen. Oladipo Diya, invited us to lunch. During this lunch he gave us General Abacha’s response to the issues we had raised.

“This response was that with regard to the matter of Ken Saro-Wiwa and his co-accused, Gen Abacha could not intervene to stop a legal judicial process, which involved murder charges.

“However, if the accused were to be found guilty and sentenced to death, he would use his prerogative as head of state to reprieve the accused so that they would not be executed.
“Gen. Diya also reported that Gen. Abacha had said there was a military tribunal which was considering the matter relating to Generals Obasanjo and Yar’Adua.

“It was necessary that he should allow the tribunal to complete its work. His view was that the tribunal would recommend the release of the two Generals, failing which he would again intervene to release them.
“After asking Gen. Diya to convey our thanks to Gen. Abacha for the commitments he had made, we suggested to him that it would be best that the Nigerian government makes the necessary announcements when the time came, rather than that we should do this.

“Diya agreed to this and said that Gen. Abacha would issue the necessary orders at the appropriate moments.

“Our delegation still had a small challenge to address. We had travelled from South Africa with a journalist. Treated by our Nigerian hosts as a member of our delegation; she was present at the lunch, where Gen. Diya gave us Gen. Abacha’s response.

“She therefore had a real ‘scoop’! Together with her we agreed that if she were to publish what we had been told by Gen. Diya, the likelihood was that not only would the Nigerians deny the story, but this would also inevitably condemn Ken Saro-Wiwa and others and Generals Obasanjo and Yar’Adua to death.

“A principled person, she kept her word not to publish her ‘scoop’, convinced as all of us were that Gen. Abacha had made a commitment to President Mandela and South Africa, which he would honour.

“It was with this knowledge that President Mandela left South Africa to attend the New Zealand CHOGM meeting.”

Mbeki further disclosed that when Saro-Wiwa and others were executed, Mandela was truly surprised and genuinely outraged that Abacha had evidently so easily betrayed his solemn undertaking to him to keep them alive.

“Undoubtedly our government drew its own conclusions from this painful experience with regard to the complexities of the construction of inter-state relations, including as this relates to the effective promotion of human rights,” he said.