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With malice towards none

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When he eventually soared into silence, we were shocked even though we expected it. His health became a drama not of an impending tragedy, but a spectacular ending. The sort of ending Shakespeare described as “sweet sorrow.”
Many craved the chance for a last peep at the dying man, even if he was in a futile rage against his dying light. Throughout his life, we saw the fighter who was a man of peace. He wanted to avenge the white man but he became a reconciler of races. He had a bad temper, but he lightened the world with his supernova smiles and his torso dances with children, if ungainly. Unlike his contemporaries, he did not die in office so he could live in the hearts of his people. He was the one who first invited his foes to dinner and then to share power. Later they shared the Nobel Prize. A statesman who felt cold comfort in a politician’s robe. A revolutionary with royal bona fides. He had every reason to be bitter, but he became a proselytizer of one world. A Samson in battle, a Solomon in council. Heroic and stoic.
He forgave everyone who in 27 years stole his vital years, a law career, the pride of family, gregarious bliss of friendship. He became an inmate, menial labourer, active vegetable, loner, wearer of shorts, mine worker, hewer of water and wood, an innocent in jail, at the beck and call of his white accusers.
He returned bigger than his superiors, became president, a statesman, citizen of the world, an activist for the world’s ravaging disease, a concert organizer, a host of presidents and students, and by the time he turned 95, he had morphed from human to a saint, from villain to champion. The pugilist who never relished an uppercut except against injustice, who never wept because they damaged his tear-duct at a salt mine, who hid his quiet solitude at not really having a traditional, stable family, who adopted the world as family. The man after turning 95 had become, in his odyssey from apotheosis to apotheosis, the most towering figure of the past 50 years. In company with such colossi as Churchill, Roosevelt, Lincoln, he belonged to the ages. So when Nelson Mandela died last week, we were relieved of the angst of expecting. We were taken out of our misery.
“Anticipation is more potent than surprise,” wrote poet Samuel Coleridge. It was a great and delicious misery. Never was a death so expected, and never was its arrival so celebrated. A celebration so solemn as the man.
Yet it is his death that strikes me in this column, and I use it to tell the story of Nigeria. I wondered, if we had a Mandela here, if we would have called for a national conference. He emerged from jail to face a South Africa on the verge of what many called a civil war. He faced ethnic suspicions, racial tension, intraparty fission, elite disarray, ideological warfare. His freedom had caged his country in chaos. He needed to bring them together.
Many say that was his greatest legacy, he who grew up a man of feuds became the symbol of one South Africa. In his death, that is the envy of every testimony. He acted “with malice towards none and charity to all” according to another reconciler, Abraham Lincoln, who wove heroism out of the throes of division.
It is the tragedy of us as a nation that we have never had a personage like him in all our history. Not even Herbert Macaulay, with all his nationalist grandeur, left this world with enough heft to hold very ethnic group in awe. All our heroes have been ethnic heroes, and all of them died ethnic champions. We have never had a truly Nigerian hero, one who fired our imagination unsullied by tribe or faith.
The closest would have been Nnamdi Azikiwe, who, after taking over the mantle from Macaulay, rose in stature, and fired our zeal as a polyglot liberal with easy charm and warm diction and bonhomie. But he lacked the moral stamina, first when he had to deny the partisans of his movement and ran away into hiding when he thought the colonial lords hunted him. He also could not rise above Chief Awolowo’s Action Group’s corralling of his NCNC footprint in Western Nigeria. It denuded him of the chance to be premier. Rather he paid Awo back in his ethnic coins by ousting Eyo Ita. So the Zik of Africa had shrunken into the Zik of Igboland. In the Second Republic, he presided over the NPP that was essentially an eastern advocate. When he died, after his nine lives, he was seen principally as Igbo icon. Although we pretended it was a National burial, just as Ojukwu’s, the Igbo saw his funeral and the approbation of his life as principally theirs.
Of course the passing of the Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, enmeshed Nigeria into its sanguinary chapter we call the civil war. he was unabashedly an northern imperialist with regal hauteur and a sense of entitlement to Nigeria for the north. His death was mourned mainly in the north. Nzeogwu might have thought he was doing an anti-feudal good, but he ended up with a profile of slayer of a people’s beloved. It made Nzeogwu a tribal champion.
For Awo, he had an austere pose, an almost ascetic grandeur. He was the most profound, methodical, and visionary of any leader we ever had. The greatest Nigerian ever, he crafted templates that all the other regions followed for governance. Few can doubt his role in turning the Western Region into a place of wealth and envy. Paradoxically when Awo died, it was not essentially a Nigerian death. It was a Yoruba death. Awo’s role in stealing Zik’s thunder in the West has irritated the Igbos up till today, so also were his assertion about starvation as a legitimate weapon of war. We cannot forget the oporoko and second hand clothes speech, or when he sent a Yoruba man to Sokoto to represent UPN at the polls even though the party had Hausas.
Achebe, no icon in that regard, described Awo a tribalist. A nation lives the way it mourns. In each of the deaths, the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo saw them as the hero as their special tragedy. Each tribe was an exclusive club of mourners, jealous of their funeral woes and tears, their magnificent misfortune. The deaths of our icons have followed the big three patterns noted above. All the whites and black tribes, and Indians and other Asian indigenes of South Africa saw Mandela above the parochial traps of tribes and race. None of our leaders has been seen to have flown of their primordial cages. Perception is the problem. We don’t trust or even forgive.
It calls for extraordinary statecraft, an ability to persuade by words and deeds, by character and symbolism. We are not Nigerians yet. In many states, politics of ethnicity has ruptured prospects of harmony.
Mandela did not organize a national conference. He did it by example. This is the way our political elite should grow. United States President Barack Obama cannot build a coalition like Mandela partly because of his race and partly because of his inability to connect with people on an emotional level. This Mandela had aplenty. He combined a mystique of moral grandeur, a playful humanity, deep empathy to bring people to his side.
We want leaders who have mastered the “other,” a Yoruba or Hausa leader who can feel the Igbo deep in his bones the way President Clinton warmed to blacks in the US. Or an Igbo leader not ensconced in his tribal cocoon.
When they die, and all Nigerians mourn, then we have that sense. Gani Fawehinmi inspired close to that pathos, but he was an activist, not a political leader. Such a leader would not fall to narrow cant or tantrums, but will contain the Nigerian multitude, like the Madiba did his people.

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  • Published: 5 years ago on January 29, 2014
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  • Last Modified: January 29, 2014 @ 10:07 am
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