When I was elected secretary-general of the students union at the University of Benin in 1987, I headed a secretarial named after Mandela. I do not know when the decision was taken to make Mandela the tutelary patron of our union whose struggles were mundane by comparison to the race-wide, all-of-humanity-embracing, cause that kept him underground for several years and eventually in prison for twenty-seven more. The honour, which was our union’s, served to remind us, student activists almost all born after the apartheid hate machine had jailed Mandela, of the highest aspiration of our youth: to be conscious citizens, to know what is right and to have always the courage of our convictions. But it wasn’t much of a secretariat: a few wood-paneled cubicles partitioned off the first floor gallery of the main cafeteria building. All of its grandeur lay in the name alone. Happily, several battles after, peaking with the nationwide anti-SAP protests of 1989, the UNIBEN students union got a house of its own.
But perhaps it was precisely in the modest nature of our secretariat that we came close to being worthy of taking Mandela’s name. Its physical state testified to the state of siege under which student unionism nationwide had been placed by the combined military dictatorships of Generals Muhammadu Buhari and Ibrahim Babangida. For good measure, the main battle across campuses was for the reinstatement of unionism made voluntary and dependent on the say-so of vice-chancellors. That method of pacifying the campuses which had become hotbeds of resistance to military tyranny came from General Abisoye, head of a panel constituted to find the root causes of the 1986 crisis at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria—the same that led to the famous lamentation by Ango Abdullahi, ABU vice-chancellor, that “only four [students] died.” With active unions on campuses, we could more effectively defy the ban purportedly placed on the National Association of Nigerian Students by Buhari in 1984. Mandela’s, after all, was a life lived fighting one banning order after another, including the ultimate ban: from the equal humanity of black and white and any hue it pleased the apartheid policemen of colour to classify and rank humans by.
But if Mandela was the unquestionable African patriarch of my initiation into political manhood — taking his place on the high dais alongside such usual suspects as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Amilcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba, Agostino Neto, etc. — he was, also, an inspiration to me as an aspiring poet. The moment I began taking myself seriously as a would-be poet coincided with my entry into the university. While waiting for my admission letter from the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board, I wrote a poem for a national anti-apartheid poetry contest organised by the National Action Committee Against Apartheid (NACAP); one of the ways by which Nigeria sought to be deserving of her self-designation as a frontline state. The poem earned me a consolation prize and my first visit to Lagos for the prize ceremony in the old National Assembly chambers at Tafawa Balewa Square. Having failed to be part of an excursion to Lagos while still at Federal Government College, Warri, I would get my chance three years after with a poem whose theme was a struggle symbolised by Mandela.
And from then on, Mandela as Muse would become fused with Mandela the Political Mentor blooding us with courage in the brutish political terrain of Nigeria’s military tyrannies. The title poems of my first two collections, Homeland and Other Poems (which also includes a cycle of poems on South Africa) and Madiba, bear witness to Mandela as muse to me. And not to me alone, either! Whole museums and libraries would be filled to the rafters with works inspired by, and directly about, Mandela. In any case, I had merely followed two literary fathers, JP Clark-Bekederemo and Wole Soyinka, in seeking to banish despair with hope by looking to a land far more savagely wounded, gashed and bleeding, and yet to be envied due to the sheer ineptitude, corruption and outright stupidity that makes Nigeria the Giant of Anarchy. One only had to look at the glowing list of men and women of unbreakable will, titanic courage, and incorruptible vision that South Africa, apartheid be damned, could boast of to understand the near-instinctive wandering of Nigerian artists, be they poets, musicians or painters, from the B(l)ight of Benin to the Cape of Good Hope.
Three days ago, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was buried among his ancestors. His transfiguration from mortal flesh to immortal spirit marks the end of an era defined by the struggle to restore the full dignity of the black race through the defeat of institutional racism as exemplified by apartheid. His likes may never walk the earth again. As saints and sinners outdid themselves to eulogise Mandela, a man many of them branded a terrorist and left to rot on Robben Island, a man whose prison uniform nearly all of the African leaders of his time, elected or self-imposed, are not worthy of washing, I could only think of the morning after the epochal event as 16 December 2013 AM (After Mandela). What Africa might be with just five leaders half the man that Mandela was!