Sometimes life affords us opportunity to witness and participate insignificant moments in history. Such an opportunity came my way in 1989. As the Coordinator of National Security, President Ibrahim Babangida appointed me as a special envoy to follow up on a discussion he had with the then British Prime Minister, Mrs Margaret Thatcher on a plan by President Frederik Willem de Klerk to end apartheid in South Africa.
The experience that followed provided me rare insights into the workings of the apartheid regime and the character of the late South African president—a towering figure who was determined to right historical wrongs without minding the consequences.
As I, therefore, reflect on the period leading to the end of apartheid in South Africa and the role Nigeria played, I cannot but pay this tribute to a courageous man whose place in African history is assured.
It all started on 28th March 1989 when, on her way to South Africa, the then British Prime Minister, Mrs Margaret Thatcher decided to do a stop-over in Lagos to see President Babangida.
Addressing the media at the airport, Mrs Thatcher said she was very “happy to accept President Babangida‘s invitation to stop over in Lagos to have talks with him. I do this because I have great admiration for the leadership he is giving here and for the courageous way in which he is tackling the economic problems of the country”.
She added that since both would be attending the Commonwealth Conference CHOGM scheduled to hold in Malaysia in October of that year, it was an opportunity to chat ahead of the conference.
The British Prime Minister took a few questions after her brief remarks and not surprisingly, they were centred around the situation in South Africa and the role of Britain at the time. While she was evasive in her responses, Mrs Thatcher alluded to a meeting between Soviet and British academics and the ANC “in which they urged that the problems of South Africa be solved not by confrontation, not by violence, but by negotiation. That is our objective too.”
By her return itinerary, Mrs Thatcher was to do a brief stop-over in Accra, to see President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, before heading for London. But she again routed her flight from South Africa through Lagos where she met President Babangida for a second time within a week. Not long after those visits, President Babangida invited me for a briefing before he saddled me with a delicate assignment. He said Mrs Thatcher had told him in their meetings that President de Klerk was working to bring an end to minority rule in South Africa. She therefore sought the help of Nigeria to ascertain the level of his (de Klerk’s) commitment and then see how we could strengthen his (de Klerk’s) hands. While President Babangida said he believed Mrs Thatcher as an honest broker on the issue, he had doubts as to whether President de Klerk meant business or that he would get the support of the white establishment in South Africa on such idea. The assignment President Babangida then gave me was to ascertain how serious President de Klerk was on ending apartheid in South Africa as well as what Nigeria could do to help that process.
After my meeting with President Babangida who gave me a list of contacts within the South African government, including close aides of President de Klerk, I decided to co-opt Colonel Kayode Are into the assignment. Colonel Are was not only my deputy at the time but also a close friend whose opinion I deeply valued. The two of us embarked on this extraordinary mission with no time to spare. We first met with the then Director-General of South Africa’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), Dr. Niel Barnard, in London on 15th Jan 1990. That marked the beginning of a long and enduring partnership between our two institutions, and I visited South Africa several times thereafter to discuss the way forward. I also had direct sessions with President de Klerk who, in our first meeting, made it clear that he wanted to be the last minority president. I was a bit skeptical about that even though he sounded genuine.
On 2nd February 1990, while we were still working underground with their security officials, President de Klerk took the world by surprise. In his address at the opening session of parliament, he announced the end of segregation of public facilities in South Africa, recognised the African National Congress (ANC) as a legitimate political party and set a date for the release of Mr Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years of incarceration. Not surprisingly, as de Klerk made his speech, there were shouts of ‘traitor’ from several MPs within his own Conservative Party who staged a dramatic walk-out. One of them, Koos van der Merwe later addressed the media where he described de Klerk as “a traitor to his own people” because by the declaration, the then South African president was “trying to kill the Afrikaner nation.”
That historic speech inaugurated a season of far-reaching political reforms and marked the beginning of the end of apartheid regime in South Africa. Four weeks later, I visited President de Klerk in Cape Town with a letter from President Babangida. The culmination of our discussion was a meeting between both presidents in Windhoek on 31st March 1990 at the sidelines of Namibia’s Independence Day celebration.
Much more significantly, however, five senior Nigerian journalists were in Namibia for the event. When I sounded them out about whether they would like to visit South Africa, they were excited. I discussed the idea with South African officials, and it was agreed that they could undertake a visit. A vehicle was provided for the long journey that took almost 20 hours from Windhoek to Johannesburg. The reports filed by these top journalists when they returned to Nigeria validated most of what Colonel Are and I had witnessed which confirmed that De Klerk was moving in the direction of majority rule.
Meanwhile, at some point, I discovered that while our engagements with South African officials were cordial and fruitful, it was also necessary to brief the leader of Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi. I got the feedback from reliable South African contacts that Chief Buthelezi was aware of Nigerian mediation and as a critical factor in the country, he needed to be carried along. President Babangida wrote him a letter. Having welcomed the idea, the South African Government provided the plane that took me to Ulundi, capital of Zulu Kingdom where Chief Buthelezi was happy to receive me. He called his entire cabinet before reading President Babangida’s letter. There and then he asked the Cabinet Secretary to draft a reply. I then drove with him to the statute of their ancestral warrior, Shaka Zulu where we took photographs before I flew back to Johannesburg.
However, although Colonel Are and I worked underground in our engagements with the South African authorities, some of our colleagues within the continent picked up the information that high-ranking Nigerian officials were collaborating with the apartheid regime and a few African leaders were uncomfortable. That was a problem we left for President Babangida to handle with his colleagues.
In April 1992, President de Klerk undertook a three-day State Visit to Nigeria at the invitation of President Babangida. The visit was the first by a South African head of state to our country, and President Babangida—who was at that period chairman of the Organisation of African Unity (now African Union)—signaled to the continent and the rest of the world that Nigeria supported President De Klerk in his efforts. This certainly was the key to South Africa’s acceptance by the rest of the continent.
Following President de Klerk’s death on 11th November this year, his office issued a prerecorded posthumous video where he tendered apology for “the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to black, brown and Indians in South Africa.” I believe he genuinely meant what he said.
In their tribute, the Mandela Foundation said that President de Klerk would “forever be linked to Nelson Mandela in the annals of South African history” while President Cyril Ramaphosa said de Klerk “took the courageous decision [as president] to unban political parties, release political prisoners and enter into negotiations with the liberation movement amid severe pressure to the contrary from many in his political constituency.”
As I reflect on the legacy of the late President de Klerk, I am reminded of the extraordinary things ordinary people can achieve. It took great courage for President de Klerk to stand up to the white establishment in South Africa after which he accepted the position of a deputy in President Nelson Mandela’s ANC-led Government of National Unity. He will therefore be remembered as a peacemaker who changed the course of history in his country. And I am grateful for the part that Nigeria played in supporting his efforts while I salute the courage of President Babangida for taking the right decision at the time.
May God grant President De Klerk eternal rest.
*Aliyu Mohammed Gusau was former National Security Adviser