Thabo Mbeki, former South African vice-president, has revealed how Nelson Mandela, former president of the country, begged Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s former head of state, to halt the execution of the ‘Ogoni Nine’.
Speaking on “Mandela’s first major test in dealing with the international community”, Mbeki said his late former president also pleaded with Abacha for the release of former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Shehu Musa Yar’adua, brother to former president Umaru Musa Yar’adua.
Mbeki said he was on a delegation that sought their release in 1995. “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,” he wrote in a statement.
“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.” Mbeki further narrates the details of the everything that happened. “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 (2 a.m.) 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.” He said when Ken Saro-Wiwa and others were executed, Mandela “was truly surprised and genuinely outraged that Gen Abacha could evidently so easily betray his solemn undertaking in this regard”.
While Saro-Wiwa was executed and Abiola died in detention, Obasanjo regained freedom following the death of Abacha in 1998 and the decision of the Abdulsalami Abubakar regime to forgive all political prisoners.