By Desmond Ovbiagele
The year was 1990. I had just emerged from the cavernous bunkers that serve as Unilag’s Engineering Faculty, still dazed from the mauling I had received from the vengeful Thermodynamics exam I had just written. As I blinked in the mid-afternoon sunshine, I suddenly observed what I had desperately hoped not to see.
Crowds lining the narrow strip of road that snaked from the University Auditorium toward the campus exit,straining to a man to catch a glimpse of the legendary freedom fighter’s convoy as it cruised away from the venue of the lecture he had just delivered. An event I had hoped to attend on the presumption of a timely escape from the Houdini-proof knots prepared for his hapless students by our ‘sadistic’ professor.
Alas. It was all over. The great man was leaving. And all I could do was jostle my way to the edge of the road and stare in bemusement as he waved regally from the backseat of his vehicle. Suddenly
actually, there was no ‘suddenly’. No Hollywood twist. Apologies for any raised expectations. But I never got any closer than that. He actually left. But notwithstanding what was obviously a fleeting moment, an abiding image was created and has stuck with me since then.
It was the striking impression of not one, but two iconic figures of our time. Because as dazzling as Mandela’s world-renowned smile was, it was outshone by the sheer wattage radiating from his beaming and equally charismatic companion alongside in the vehicle – Chief MKO Abiola. Two titans of the continent, basking in each other’s reflected glory, their respective political careers indisputably on a steep upward trajectory. Men on the move, destined to be agents of change in their divinely-appointed realms.
Fast-forward to eight years later. One of those figures was embarking on the last lap of a historic presidency during which he had redefined the national identity of a continental powerhouse and inspired it to feats of achievement in unchartered territories such as conquests in the African Cup of Nations as well as the Rugby World Cup.
The other figure? Dead.
But notwithstanding the drastically divergent paths their lives took following that fateful day in 1990 (although MKO’s journey was soon about to take the same detour to incarceration as had the older statesman’s before him), there remains a single quality that both men had in common which was the key to the powerful legacies they left behind.
Because if I was pressed to affix a single attribute to Mandela, it would be transcended. He was a member of one of several tribes in his native country; a black man in a so-called ‘rainbow’ community; a stalwart in one of multiple political organizations. But his decisions and actions always appeared to be influenced by the greater good rather than the narrow interests and prejudices of his home base; his sights were constantly set on what would ultimately benefit the majority rather than what would score a transient victory for a self-serving faction of the society.
His life stood for an ideal, a purpose beyond mundane desire; in his uncompromising quest for justice and equal opportunity he represented virtues that towered above the crippling influences of personal sentiment and facilitated game-changing breakthroughs in the most intractable of scenarios.
He transcended, so he triumphed.
And it was this same quality that engineered the decisive victory of MKO at what is still regarded to be the freest and fairest election accomplished in the history of the entity called Nigeria. Like Madiba, Abiola was not necessarily a saint (and in fairness, neither man ever claimed to be one); his faults and weaknesses were widely publicized and well known to all.
But somehow he established a connection with a critical mass of his countrymen that transcended his tribe (Yoruba) or religion (Moslem); he represented a virtue (remember ‘Hope 93’?) that resonated powerfully with an oppressed majority who desperately craved for positive and lasting change in their circumstances. And his personal status (multi-billionaire) notwithstanding, there was something about the passionate rendering of his convictions and ideals that elicited a very cooperative response at the polling booths.
Unfortunately we have been forever deprived of the privilege of knowing exactly to what extent his presidency may or may not ultimately have met the lofty aspirations that were vociferously promised and highly anticipated.
What we do know is that the quality of transcending the various forms of chauvinism (be it ethnic, religious, political, ideological or personal) to achieve a greater good is sorely lacking in the country’s political landscape today. Some may argue that it in fact has always been lacking.
Because the passing of the South African statesman elicited a bout of soul-searching to identify if any of our own leaders past or present approximated the stature of the great man’s legacy —or even came close. Such an exercise was always doomed to be inconclusive at best because compelling evidence to support any legitimate claim was inevitably in short supply.
Tribal, religious or political sentiments have all too frequently plagued the decisions and actions of those entrusted with (or who have forcibly appropriated) the power to determine the fate of the greater society. And increasingly, those debilitating vices have forged an unholy alliance with rapacious greed cronyism to engender a toxic atmosphere of distrust and despair; the antithesis of what those two iconic figures I gazed at several years ago stood for.
The result is that with another crucial round of elections looming less than 18 months away, the political climate is depressingly void of any manifestos of genuine hope or personalities or genuine inspiration (especially at national level) that could rekindle the same scale of expectations aroused (and subsequently doused) 20 years ago. In their place instead are intrigues, manipulations, accusations and counter-accusations, political cleavings and leavings, all tied together with an endless string of rhetoric and bombast.
Perhaps God will still send a deliverer before 2015. I certainly hope so. Two decades (or five, as some may justifiably argue) is a respectable jail sentence for any nation.
In the meantime, I just wish I had been able to answer those Thermodynamic questions a whole lot quicker.