Since leaving office, former South African President Thabo Mbeki has been, highlighting controversial issues during his tenure and that of Nelson Mandela. In his latest letter, he writes on the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the detention of Gen Olusegun Obasanjo and Chief M.K.O Abiola by former dictator, late Gen Sanni Abacha and says Abacha’s betrayal shaped Mandela’s stance on human rights abuse in Africa:
Much has been written about how much the so-called international community expected the new South Africa born in 1994 to lead the campaign for respect of human rights especially in Africa.
The first major test, which faced our late President Mandela in this regard, was at the 1995 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in New Zealand.
Here President Mandela came under great pressure publicly to condemn the Nigerian Abacha military government‚ especially for its continued detention of M.K.O. Abiola who had won the 1993 Presidential elections‚ and agree to the imposition of some sanctions against Nigeria.
President Mandela resisted all this until news came through that on the very first day of the CHOGM‚ the Nigerian Government had executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his Ogoni colleagues. He then immediately joined others strongly to condemn the Abacha Government and approved the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth.
Thereafter‚ despite strong presentations about human rights‚ South Africa’s strenuous efforts to get SADC and the OAU to impose sanctions against Nigeria produced a negative response throughout the Continent‚ leaving South Africa isolated on this matter.
President Mandela had visited Nigeria in 1994 and engaged General Abacha on the matter of the release of Mr Abiola.
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 that 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 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.
When Ken Saro-Wiwa and others were executed‚ President Mandela was truly surprised and genuinely outraged that Gen Abacha could evidently so easily betray his solemn undertaking in this regard.
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.