By Ochereome Nnanna, Editorial Board Chairman
Former Nigerian military head of state and two-time President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo in an exclusive impromptu interview over lunch at the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library (OOPL), Abeokuta, Ogun State, after a teleconference seminar on Monday September 16, 2019, spoke on the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, why Nigeria led the crusade against apartheid and could do so again if the need arises and why South Africa must take measures to heal the wounds of the attacks, pacify and reconcile with affected countries like Nigeria.
Mr. President, you must be shocked at what is happening in Africa which you and many of our past leaders fought for the independence of many countries, especially for the end of Apartheid in South Africa…
It is unfortunate. Only last week, I got a letter from Prince (Mangosuthu) Buthelezi, who I worked with in the days we were fighting Apartheid. He was the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, IFP. Even when I met Nelson Mandela in prison and I talked about Buthelezi, Madiba said, “Oh, Comrade Buthelezi is a freedom fighter in his own right.”
So, when the unfortunate incidents of xenophobia were happening in South Africa, Prince Buthelezi had the presence of mind and thoughtfulness to write me a letter expressing his own disgust about what was happening in South Africa, and also sending to me some of the communications and statements he had made, including statements appreciating and acknowledging the roles played by Nigeria and the roles played by me in particular.
He dated that letter 11th of September (just last week) and I got it the same day. I replied. And I did not make it public because I wanted his permission to make it public. And today (Monday, 16th September 2019) I sent a message to him and I said the letter I wrote to you which is a letter between two brothers, may I have your permission to release it to the Press? And he said it is a beautiful letter. You can release to the Media. Which I have just done.
And basically what I was saying in that letter was that it was unfortunate that leaders who should speak out against these sad occurrences are not doing so when, and as they should do, and that encouraged those perpetrating the xenophobic incidents. I thanked him for the position he has taken and the positions a few brothers in South Africa have taken.
I made the point that South Africa is entitled, along with other African countries, to claim leadership in Africa. That leadership will not be entitled if countries decide to encourage xenophobic incidents. Two, I made the point also that we in Africa played the role we played against colonialism and Apartheid in South Africa not because we want to gain anything in terms of material gain but on principle that we black people believe that no black person anywhere in Africa and indeed anywhere in the world should be treated as a second class citizen in his or her own country or anywhere in the world because if we don’t do that, then we all will become second class citizens in the world.
The third point I tried to make was that in the international community most of the countries that have developed are countries that opened their borders to migrants, and those migrants really do not go out with emptiness. Some of them have education, some of them have skills. Some of them have experiences, some of them have entrepreneurship and some of them have guts and can make contributions in the country they have just adopted as their country of abode. I also made the point that wealth creation does not come through xenophobic attacks that it comes through actually encouraging openness.
When it comes to crimes, you don’t take the law into your hands. You have the laws in your country and anybody who has gone against the law and is an inhabitant of your country you let the law take its course. Whether the person is a citizen or non-citizen, once he resides in your country, the law must take its course. I think that the government of South Africa should do what it should do to pacify those that have been hurt by xenophobic attacks, reconcile with the countries where those people come from and take measures along with Nigeria to do whatever is to be done to put this type of misbehaviour behind us. In Africa we should be talking about friends and brotherhood, particularly now that we are talking about free trade areas. How can we talk about free trade areas when there are xenophobic attacks?
When you were president you were closely engaged with South African presidents from Mandela to Mbeki before you left office. Between Nigeria and South Africa a lot of things were achieved for the continent. Since these xenophobic attacks started, the Nigerian government seemed to be grappling with the problem until some reprisal actions in Nigeria appeared to wake them up. Knowing your reach in African did they make any effort to reach you?
No, I don’t think they need to reach me. What is important for me is that they should have used all the avenues. And one of the avenues that we set up was the Joint Commission. We set that Joint Commission at the Vice Presidential level (what they call Deputy President in their country). That should have been used, apart from the fact that no president should be more than a telephone call away from another president of a country. They should have called them…’’my brother, what is this nonsense, please do something about it.”
Three or four years ago, I was in South Africa. A similar incident had just happened because this is not the first time. This is probably the third or fourth time. And the question was raised in former President Zuma’s presence, oh if you were Zuma what would you do?
I told them if I was in Zuma’s shoes I would not allow it to happen. But if I were in Zuma’s shoes and it happened I would vehemently condemn it in the public. Number two, I would make an example of people who committed that type of atrocity, and I would of course, take measures to reconcile with those countries where the victims come from. I think now it might be a bit belated, but I also believe that it is better late than never. I believe that President Ramaphosa is now waking up to his responsibilities. Harm has been done, but some of them not connected to loss of human lives can be corrected.
Nigerians are now saying that, may be our Afrocentric foreign policy is no longer bearing any fruit and should be discarded…
No, no, no, I don’t look at it that way. In the letter that I wrote, I made it clear that we did not fight against colonialism and Apartheid because we wanted material gain. It is a matter of principle, and you cannot beat that. I see myself as diminished, as a second class citizen in the world if I allow any black man anywhere in the world, and particularly in Africa to be treated as a second class citizen because of the colour of his skin. I have to bear part of that responsibility. I cannot accept that. I believe I should bear some of the responsibility. That was what motivated and goaded us to take the measures we took, make the contributions that we made, and the commitments we put into it, and the sacrifices that we made. If the same situation occurs tomorrow, I believe that Nigeria will do the same thing. It is a matter of higher duty and responsibility as the country with the largest population of black people in the world, we owe that to the black race in the world.
Let us talk about Nigeria…
(He taps the table and gets up) I don’t want to talk about Nigeria!