Mandela and Abacha: How not to deal with dictators

The real lessons of a disastrous earlier effort at ‘quiet diplomacy' (April 2007)

South Africa's foreign policy towards the dictatorship of General Sani Abacha in Nigeria in 1995 is both dimly remembered and poorly understood. This is partly because the ANC have, somewhat disingenuously, used the events of that year to justify their policy of 'quiet diplomacy' towards Zimbabwe. The claim is made that South Africa was highly outspoken against Abacha, found itself isolated in Africa as a result, and learnt its lesson - and for this reason have not condemned Robert Mugabe's more recent depredations.

For instance, the ANC chairman, Mosiuoa Lekota, told an audience in May 2002 to "remember what happened to us" at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November 1995 when Mandela supposedly criticised the planned hanging of the playwright Ken-Saro-Wiwa, by the Abacha regime. "We suddenly found that we were the only ones who condemned the planned hanging. As a result, we learnt a valuable lesson that, especially in Africa, you cannot act alone because you will find yourself isolated and in a position similar to that of the apartheid government."

The basic problem with this explanation is that it is based on a complete misrepresentation of what actually transpired. The real story of the ANC's policy of ‘quiet diplomacy' to the Abacha regime is worth re-telling both to dispel the lingering effects of such disinformation, and because of the possible insights it provides into the current Zimbabwe policy - due to the striking parallels between the two situations.

General Sani Abacha seized power in Nigeria in a military coup in November 1993. From the start of his presidency, in May 1994, Nelson Mandela refrained from publicly condemning Abacha's actions. He did though try to quietly intercede with Abacha in an attempt to secure the release of Chief Mashood Abiola. He also dispatched Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Nigeria as his emissary in early 1995.

In July 1995 it was announced that a military tribunal in Nigeria had condemned 14 alleged coup plotters to death, and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo and ten others to life sentences.

The Organisation of African Unity's Secretary-General, Salim Ahmed Salim, said he was gravely concerned at "the implications which the reported sentences of those found guilty of the offence could have on the continued stability, security, unity, as well as the international image and role of Nigeria."

Namibia's President Sam Nujoma sent a letter to Abacha, duly leaked to the Namibian press, calling on him to show clemency. He stated that he was "utterly shocked by the latest alarming developments in Nigeria and deeply concerned about the fate of those...found guilty of certain serious charges by the military tribunal...Carrying out such harsh sentences against the accused will not do any good for Nigeria. Instead, it will invite more wrath, indignation and isolation from the international community."

South Africa said nothing.

Thabo Mbeki was sent to Abuja (apparently) to appeal for clemency. On his return flight he lectured journalists on the need for a "more equal relationship between Africa and the Western world in a sense that the Western countries must accept the capacity of African countries to set an African agenda." "Western countries" he added, "must hold themselves in readiness to assist in the implementation of that African agenda and not exploit the economic weaknesses of the continent to set the agenda themselves." "The point is that we were not there to reinforce anything wrong but to jointly solve the problem" explained Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, Aziz Pahad, who accompanied Mbeki on his trip.

The military rule Abacha had imposed turned out to be, Martin Woollacott wrote in the Guardian (July 1995), quite "unlike that of previous army governments, whose members had some regard for the country's true interests. This regime represents, in the words of a leading member of the opposition, Beko Ransome-Kuti, ‘a rule far more brutal, far more cynical and far more vicious than anything we have experienced'." What was being witnessed in Nigeria was "pure predation, the seizure of national assets by those who control the means of violence and the ruthless suppression of any who oppose that process, Nigeria is perhaps the worse example in the world today of a state being looted to death."

Nonetheless, the ever worsening situation in Nigeria resulted in no change in South Africa's approach. Commentators divided between those who sought to rationalise the ANC's policy, and those who regarded it with incomprehension and pleaded for a change. One writer in the Star claimed, "Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo's policy of ‘quiet diplomacy' towards Nigeria is the best option...It is in South Africa's continental interest to see Nigeria return to stability, peace and prosperity. So it is best to remain friends with the junta and maintain influence."

In the Witness (August 1995) Richard Steyn took the opposite view. He wrote that South Africa's approach of giving "Abacha the benefit of the doubt before deciding to add its voice to the swelling chorus of disapproval being heard around the world" was dismaying to Nigerian opponents of the regime. If, however, Mandela could "lend his considerable weight to an international campaign to isolate Abacha, he could make the crucial difference...He owes Abacha and his regime nothing, and has little to lose by condemning them publicly."

Up until the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November 1995 the ANC government vigorously opposed the imposition of sanctions against Nigeria. Shortly before the meeting Mandela's spokesman, Parks Mankahlana, said that "quiet persuasion" would yield better results than coercion. Even after the Nigerian government announced the death sentences against Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists, during the summit, Mandela refused to condemn the Abacha regime or countenance the imposition of sanctions.

He stated "I am confident that to be in touch with the Nigerian leaders and to persuade them not to the correct approach. If persuasion does not succeed then it will be time to consider other options." Adding, "I'm anxious to save lives and to speed up the process of Nigeria returning to democracy".

This was not a view shared by Robert Mugabe who described the verdict as "shocking to everybody" and said sanctions such as the exclusion or temporary suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth should be considered. "Those who violate the rules will be asking for sanctions, but we've got to spell out a regime of sanctions that would apply-that's one thing we shall be doing here".

The execution of Saro-Wiwa and the eight others on the 10th of November was a very public humiliation for Mandela, and one that put his international standing at risk. A lawyer of Saro-Wiwa's defence team wrote him a letter stating, "Were quiet diplomacy pursued in South Africa. . . I doubt you would be alive today."

Mandela responded by lashing out at Abacha, whom he accused of being a "corrupt, frightened dictator." Reversing his earlier position he now supported the suspension of Nigeria from the Commonwealth, and the imposition of oil sanctions. Within the space of a few hours South Africa's foreign policy had been turned on its head. "Only hours earlier", one journalist observed, Aziz Pahad had said that South Africa "had no intention of calling for an oil embargo, or taking the lead in action aimed at forcing the West African giant into democracy."

Mandela told journalists that "a hardened man" like Abacha would only "be moved unless some sanctions which can hurt Nigeria's economy are applied." "What we are now proposing are short and sharp measures" he said "which will produce the results Nigerians and the world desire. We are dealing with an illegitimate, barbaric, arrogant, military dictatorship which has murdered activists, using a kangaroo court, and using false evidence."

Thus, the claim that South Africa was the sole voice of criticism against Abacha before Saro-Wiwa's execution is quite false. At different stages Nujoma, the OAU, and Mugabe spoke out, while South Africa remained silent. This refusal to condemn gross human rights violations, the diplomatic efforts on behalf of the regime (by opposing sanctions), and the reliance on the private assurances of a despot, had (almost) caused severe damage to the new government's international reputation.

The only element of truth in later ANC accounts was that having performed this dramatic volte-face South Africa found itself out on a limb and politically isolated. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, given his previous stance, Mandela failed to mobilise either SADC or the OAU against the Abacha regime, and his calls for sanctions fell on deaf ears. However, the reasons produced by Mandela and Mbeki, at the time, for their failure to bring Abacha to account were very different to those later produced to rationalise the Zimbabwe policy.

In November 1996 Mandela complained that the reason South Africa had failed to influence events in Nigeria, after the Commonwealth meeting, was that it lacked the necessary leverage. "The policies of (Nigeria) can be changed by those countries that do trade with Nigeria-like the United States, which imports Nigerian oil, Britain, France and the European Union countries. You cannot expect a man who has no trade with that country, simply because of his moral authority, if he has it, to influence events in that country."

Mbeki had made a similar claim earlier that year. South Africa did not buy oil from Nigeria; and Abacha did not bank in South Africa; and as a result, Abacha "does not have anything to do with this country in a way which would allow this country to use any means to oblige change".

Quite clearly, Zimbabwe is a completely different case and South African has numerous means of exerting influence and obliging change, should it choose to do so.

The reasons for Mandela's sudden reversal of policy on the 10th November 1995 are quite clear - he felt he had been personally betrayed by Abacha, and he was trying to salvage his reputation. But what had motivated the pursuit of this policy of ‘quiet diplomacy' in the first place?

Behind ‘quiet diplomacy'

The South African government's consistent refusal to condemn the Abacha regime in Nigeria through the course of 1995 was regarded with incomprehension by commentators and Nigerian opposition figures alike.

The ANC fobbed off calls for it to "toughen its stance" with various excuses. One of these was that they didn't "want to push the Nigerian government into a corner. They are prickly people and pressure might make them worse." Another was that South Africa was concerned not with courting publicity but "to solve problems." A third was, as Nelson Mandela put it, " Nigeria has been very generous to us in the course of our struggle."

The exiled Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka expressed his astonishment, in October 1995, at this failure "to distinguish between the oppressive state and the people. They are not criticising Nigeria publicly for the very ironic reason that they feel they owe Nigeria a debt for its stand against apartheid. But how can they be so naïve as to not recognise the fact that their debt of gratitude is to the people and not to a government which is oppressing those very people."

Even once Mandela had reversed his policy, following the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa on the 10th of November, he remained unapologetic about his earlier approach: "In my view it was absolutely correct" he said, "especially for us in the ANC. We don't forget the role Nigeria played in our struggle."

What was odd about this statement, Phillip van Niekerk observed at the time, was that Abacha had imprisoned some of the ANC's strongest supporters during the apartheid period, such as Mashood Abiola and Olusegun Obasanjo.

The full truth behind this policy of ‘quiet diplomacy' only emerged several years later. In January 2001Tayo Odunlami reported in The News ( Lagos ) that Abacha had given the ANC tens of millions of dollars, looted from the state treasury, to help fund its 1994 election campaign.

In a July 2000 affidavit Abubakar Atiku Bagudu, a crony of Abacha on trial for his role in the theft of billions of dollars from Nigeria , had claimed that some of these funds, "were employed towards contributing to President Mandela's of South Africa elections of 1994. It was in the sum of 50 million US dollars". Odunlami was quick to link this "Greek gift" from Abacha with the "unusual behaviour of the ANC leaders during Nigeria 's democratic struggle."  

South Africa 's foreign policy was certainly for sale at the time, and it probably still is. The ANC itself acknowledged that it had funded its 1994 election campaign with donations from foreign sources. In August 1994 Deputy President Thabo Mbeki admitted that the ANC had, up until this point, sustained "ourselves on the basis of donations by foreign governments and supporters" something which was unlikely to continue in perpetuity.

Despite the staggering amounts it received in foreign currency, it was still left with a post-election overdraft of tens of millions of rand. The organisation also had a huge bureaucracy which it had to continue support. In July 1994 it had 1 200 full time staff in its Johannesburg headquarters alone.

In a report to the ANC's national conference in December 1997 the Treasurer General's office stated the "ANC had largely depended on friendly countries and institutions for its funds" and was "dependent on the President's initiatives and those of some officials for income."

Two of the ANC's biggest donors, in the 1990s, were Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and President Suharto of Indonesia . Not only did Mandela refrain from criticising their lamentable human rights records but he interceded diplomatically on their behalf, and awarded them South Africa 's highest honour. Suharto was awarded a state visit, a 21-gun salute, and The Order of Good Hope (gold class).

In April 1999 Mandela acknowledged to an audience in Johannesburg that Suharto had given the ANC a total of 60 million dollars. An initial donation of 50 million dollars had been followed up by a further 10 million. The Telegraph ( London ) reported that Gaddafi was known to have given the ANC well over ten million dollars.

Mandela defended his embrace of Gaddafi, as he did other dictators who gave the ANC money, on the basis that "He helped us at a time when we were all alone, when those who are now saying we should not come here were helping our enemies." The case of Taiwan suggests that a large enough donation could buy anyone, even the National Party government's closest foreign allies, an ‘anti-apartheid' pedigree.

In March 2002 Next magazine ( Taipei ) revealed that Taiwan had, in June 1994, made an ten million dollar payment to the ANC from a secret slush fund. Citing "diplomatic sources" the magazine claimed that a senior official from the ANC had approached the Taiwanese president after Mandela's inauguration and "proposed conditions to us", saying that if Taiwan would give the ANC 20 million dollars to pay off it's election debt the new government "would continue to maintain relations with Taiwan for a year-and-a-half to two years longer." After some haggling over the price an agreement was reached, and "both sides finally agreed on a figure of 11 million dollars." (Mail & Guardian 22 March 2002)

Eugene Loh I-cheng, Taiwan 's last ambassador to South Africa , confirmed that the Taiwanese government had approved the payment on the 20 June 1994, and he had handed over the money "in small denominations of South African rand to a senior member of Mandela's inner circle." Loh identified one contact as Thomas Nkobi, the ANC Treasurer General, but according to the Washington Post Mbeki was also involved in the transaction.

In July 1996 Mandela defended his decision to delay breaking off ties with Taiwan on the basis that that country "supported us during the later phase of the struggle (against apartheid) ... It is not easy for me to be assisted by a country, and once I come to power, I say: ‘I have no relations with you'."

This article was first published in two parts on Moneyweb in April 2007 (see here and here)