An evening of tributes for Nelson Mandela hosted by Professor Wole Soyinka at Freedom Park, Lagos provides a platform for unsparing criticism of the Nigerian government. Nseobong Okon-Ekong reports.
Could they have gathered a better crowd of keynote speakers? Not quite. When Professor Wole Soyinka is the rallying point for an event, you cannot expect anything less than a quality gathering. Add to that the eminence of the person in whose memory the clarion call was sounded and you would not be wrong to expect an evening of excellence. And that is exactly what it was when Soyinka organised an evening of poetry, tributes and music in honour of Nelson Mandela at Freedom Park in Lagos recently.
For whatever reason, the Nobel Peace Laureate seemed to be satisfied with putting the show together with the active collaboration of Yomi Okubadejo-Okusanya and Theo Lawson. Having put his reputation behind the show, he preferred to take a back seat and left the spotlight to persons of no less importance as Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State. After his welcome speech, he stepped into the background. Expectedly, the platform turned into an avenue to fire shots at the government of the day in Nigeria and Amaechi probably put it in the best perspective by preceding his comments with an excerpt from a speech delivered by Mandela in which the late African made scathing criticism against Nigeria.
Nelson Mandela reportedly said: "You know I am not very happy with Nigeria and I have made that very clear on many occasions. Nigeria stood by us more than any nation but you let yourself, Africa and the black people down. Your leaders have no respect for their people. They believe that their personal interests are in the best interest of the people. They take the peoples resources and turn it to their personal wealth. There is a level of poverty in Nigeria that is unacceptable. I cannot understand why Nigerians cannot be angrier than they are. What about the corruption and crimes? Your elections are like war. We hear that you cannot be president in Nigeria unless you are a Muslim or a Christian. Some people tell me that your country may break up, please don't let it happen. Let me tell you what I think you should do, you should encourage leaders to emerge, who would not confuse public office as the source of making personal wealth. You have to spend a lot of resources for education, educate children of the poor so that they can get out of poverty. Poverty does not bring confidence, only confident people can bring changes. Poor and educated people also bring changes but it would be hijacked. Teach young Nigerians the value of hard work and sacrifice and discourage them from crime, which is destroying your image as good people."
Amaechi said he was moved to background his summation with Mandela's speech because he like Mandela feels that Nigerians are too lukewarm. He said, "If you see a thief and allow him or her to be stealing what are you supposed to do? Stone him! How many people have you stoned? We told you they stole money; people went to the street to protest the removal of oil subsidy, at the end, what have you done? Oil subsidy that is not reaching the poor, as far as few individual continue to enjoy the money, you have done nothing. "Today we are mourning Madiba, and Madiba was very angry with Nigeria when he died. You have been told about $50billion not N50 million and nobody is talking. In some countries, they will return that money. That $50billion will change Nigeria."
Some people read Obasanjo's letter and were asking if he is a South-south man?
They said he is a Yoruba man, why is he writing like that? If you don't take your destiny in your hands, we will go and other leaders will come and they will continue to steal and Madiba will still be angry." Of course, Amaechi was in the good company of Nigeria's radical activists. Dr. Joe Okei-Odumakin, President, Campaign for Democracy urged African leaders to study from Madiba's school of leadership, concluding that he was an inimitable leader. While recalling Mandela's visit to the Centre for Black Arts and African Civilisation (CBAAC) in 1994, Professor Tunde Babawale recalled Mandela's visit to CBAAC in 1994. He highlighted his qualities, while raising the pertinent question, "when will we have another Madiba?" Femi Falana beamed the spotlight on Mandela's life as a lawyer. He recalled how he set up his practice and how the white establishment tried to get him disbarred for offering his legal services to the black South Africans for next to nothing. By doing this, he seemed to have taken the wind out of the sail of white South African lawyers who placed their fees beyond the reach of most blacks.
The matter went to court and the judge eventually ruled in Mandela's favour. Falana also recalled Mandela's famous speech where he adopted Fidel Castro's celebrated closing remarks which insisted that it was his prosecutors, rather than himself that should be tried for treason. Falana and Gani Fawehinmi would adopt the same style during their 1992 trial for treason in Abuja. While Gani used Mandela's speech, Falana used Castro's. Mandela, he said, believed in serving the poor with his legal practice. Governor Rauf Aregbesola of the State of Osun who had the previous week named the Freedom Park in Osogbo in memory of Mandela lamented the dying fervour for radicalism in Nigeria. He recalled Mandela's antecedents and called for his emulation.Nigeria's lit erary community represented by the likes of Ogaga Ifowodo, Odia, Kole Omotoso, Kunle Ajibade, Dagga Tolar all read for him. Ajibade read from Mandela's Way while Ifowodo read Mandela's Mantle, a poem with 27 sonnets. He read the last sonnet. Tunji Sotimirin mimicked Mandela and delivered the speech about freedom that Madiba gave in London. It was spot on.
The evening also had in attendance, Professor JP Clark, Yemi Ogunbiyi, Femi Odugbemi, Tunde Kelani amongst others. The Lagos City Chorale led by Emeka Nwokedi performed four South African numbers and then really got everyone excited with their rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In". On the performance train were the wonderful dance troupes Crown Troupe of Africa and Footprints of David. Spoken Word artistes who appear to gaining increasing fame in recent times in Nigeria were not left behind. Six of them were on hand to honour the memory of Madiba.
Femi Kuti and the Positive Force Band provided a fitting end to the evening with songs like "Army Arrangement", "Water No Get Enemy", "Wonder Wonder" and "Wey Our Money".