It was May 29, 1999 a day etched deep within the mind of every Nigerian. ‘Democracy Day’—now a public holiday—marked the peaceful handover of political power after 16 years of military rule. It is the day Olusegun Obasanjo took the reins as the presidential candidate for the People’s Democratic Party in Africa’s most populous country. This famous day was akin to South Africa on April 27, 1994, Freedom Day; the day of the first democratic elections which saw Nelson Mandela voted in as president.
The journey towards May 29, 1999 was a long and arduous one for Obasanjo. The foiled coup against Sani Abacha, led to Obasanjo’s imprisonment in 1995, along with 39 others. He was charged with alleged anti-regime activities. During this time, behind bars, his thoughts wandered back to Mandela’s imprisonment. “He wasn’t doing it for personal aggrandizement. He was doing it for his country… all his people; not just his tribe,” he says. Mandela was the man from whom he would draw strength. He tasted freedom after Abacha’s sudden death in early June 1998.
“Mandela is a typical example of a man who exemplifies that biblical notion of overcoming evil with good. A life and a way of living that is worthy of emulation… Madiba is a typical example of a resolute person who believed in a cause and was ready to sacrifice everything for it. He set his country on the path of rectitude; he brought all the races and tribes together… He eschewed pettiness, recrimination and revenge… He did not fall into that mistake,” he says.
Obasanjo, a former army general and president of Nigeria served as the country’s head of state twice: once as the military ruler (1976-1979) and the second time as elected president (1999-2007). Obasanjo is lauded as the first military head of state to transfer power peacefully to a civilian regime in Nigeria.
They shared a similar role: as leaders of the two economic powerhouses of the African continent; but he felt there was much to be learnt from Mandela.
“We have a saying in this part of the world, that if a young man has as many clothes or dresses as an old man, he won’t have as many old rags. That means whatever you may be, you won’t have the experience of the old man,” he says, as he recollects his numerous meetings with the former president to seek out his advice.
“I remember when I met him at Pollsmoor prison [on February 21, 1986]. I was talking about his brother, Buthelezi (Mangosuthu Buthelezi was chief minister of the KwaZulu Bantustan. He was considered to be an apartheid collaborator). President Mandela did not hesitate to say, yes, comrade Buthelezi is a freedom fighter in his own right. The means are different, but the objective is the same. He did not see Buthelezi as somebody to be ignored. He saw him as part of the struggle and as someone who has a role to play,” he recalls.
It is difficult to describe Mandela in a single sentence, but Obasanjo tries: “He stood for the greatest achievements of Africa in the 20th century—which is the liberation of Africa and indeed the dignity of the black man.”