Mandela under fire for failing to act

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The Independent Online


In the rush to apportion blame for the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow political activists in Nigeria on Friday, accusing fingers have been pointed at President Nelson Mandela.

Rage is being focused on the South African President on account of his initial softly-softly approach towards Nigeria's military rulers and the growing perception that he had blocked tougher international action to isolate the country. Some Nigerians werebitter about their feelings of betrayal by a man viewed as the embodiment of Africa's moral conscience.

Mr Mandela ``had the opportunity to save the lives of the nine human- rights activists but he opted to fold his arms while they were being slain", said Imme Edigeji, a friend of Saro-Wiwa's and a representative of the Democratic Alternative, a pro-democracy group based in Lagos.

He blamed Mr Mandela for failing to heed the Nigerian opposition's appeals for decisive action against the government of General Sani Abacha. "We hope Mandela now sees the Nigerian military regime does not appreciate his language," Mr Edigeji said. Nigeria was widely regarded as the first crucial foreign policy test for the new South Africa and Mr Mandela's first chance to assert himself as the continent's most respected statesman.

South Africa did lead attempts by African states to persuade Nigeria's military government to quicken moves towards democracy. But, in doing so, Mr Mandela rejected calls to isolate the country. Instead, he opted for a policy that could be compared to the "constructive engagement" of previous US governments with the apartheid regime.

Aziz Pahad, the Deputy Foreign Minister, told the weekly Mail and Guardian before the hangings that South Africa believed the policy was working. He said South Africa had to tread carefully because Nigeria's leaders thought Pretoria was being used as a tool of London and Washington.

It appears the case was the opposite. The US and Britain may have been looking to Mr Mandela to provide a lead in how to deal with Nigeria.

In an interview published in South Africa yesterday, Doyin Abiola, wife of Moshood Abiola, the imprisoned winner of the annulled 1993 Nigerian elections, said that during meetings with US and British officials in September it was clear they were waiting to take their cue from President Mandela.

This impression was echoed by Nigeria's Nobel prize-winning writer, Wole Soyinka, who said that because of Mr Mandela's moral gravitas, neither Washington nor London would have dared go against him over Nigeria. Mr Soyinka added his voice to the list of critics of South Africa's Nigerian policy three weeks ago in a series of widely published interviews attacking the position of Mr Mandela and his African National Congress.

"They are not criticising Nigeria publicly for the very ironic reason that they feel they owe Nigeria a debt for its stand against apartheid,'' Mr Soyinka said. ``But how can they be so naive as to not recognise the fact that their debt of gratitude is to the people and not the government which is oppressing those very people."

In South Africa, most of the anger has been directed against Nigeria for having made Mr Mandela look bad. Archbishop Desmond Tutu accused the Nigerians of humiliating Mr Mandela. But the idea that Mr Mandela may share some responsibility is beginning to surface locally as well.

In a leading article, Johannesburg's Sunday Independent said: ``It has to be said that we have given the wrong lead. Shuttle diplomacy, hindsight now shouts out, merely bought time for Abacha and allowed his hangmen to tie their nooses well."

It added: "We have been taught a hard lesson in continental diplomacy, and now have to put that new knowledge to direct use.''