There he stood, right in front of me. It was my opportunity to make history, my “personal history” as Katherine Graham, the late publisher of the Washington Post fame titled her Pulitzer-winning autobiography: “Personal History”. I had every opportunity to ask FW de Klerk, the former President of South Africa questions. Questions I had been itching to ask as a newsman.
Like a cowboy, I wanted to pull out a question from my holster and fire it at him point blank. But I froze. I was tongue-tied. I was nervous. It was unlike me. Then I watched him sadly as he walked away from me and vanished into the outside beauty of the city of Cape Town to my bitterest regret. For the first time I disappointed myself as a reporter who always carried a tape recorder to international conferences with the hope of catching big fishes like De Klerk.
Now, I wanted to ask him questions related to death. It was a year after his political “twin brother” Nelson Mandela died. How does he feel? How does he feel about death in general? Does he miss Mandela? Where was he when Mandela died? What went through his mind on hearing that the man whom he jointly shared a Nobel Peace Prize had left this planet for a more peaceful realm? Where does he think Mandela would go—to heaven or to hell? What does he miss most about Mandela? What is the state of South Africa without Mandela? Questions. Questions. Questions. Of what use is a reporter who had questions but was so scared to ask them? Was I really scared? I don’t know. I don’t really know. It was unlike me.
We were all in the same room with De Klerk. The late Alhaji Ismaila Isa of New Africa Holdings was there. Raheem Adedoyin, the then Secretary of IPI Nigeria chapter was there. Eniola Bello, the Managing Director of ThisDay newspaper was there. Mallam Haruna, the celebrated New Nigerian newspaper legend who now writes a column for The Nation and for Daily Trust was there. Mallam Kabiru Yusuf, the Chairman of Daily Trust and IPI board member representing Nigeria was there. The late Mallam Wada Maida, Managing Director of Finley Communications was there. Mallam Garba Shehu, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity was there. And the late Hajia Bilkisu was the only Nigerian woman journalist there. Of course, my own “twin brother” Dimgba Igwe who died on September 6, killed on the street of Lagos while jogging, was there. We were all there in Cape Town, South Africa, listening to De Klerk as he went on memory lane, talking about the South Africa he and Mandela jointly freed from the clutches of apartheid.
In a way, South Africans should thank God and count themselves lucky that the white apartheid government lasted that long before surrendering their beautiful country to majority rule, to black rule. Oh, how I wished the British had delayed in giving Nigeria independence until say 20 years ago. Perhaps, with the billions of oil money stolen and still being stolen by our so-called leaders, the white colonialists would have used our oil money well to benefit us. They would have given us the infrastructure badly needed in Nigeria today for economic growth. They would have given us good roads. They would have given us constant electricity that would stimulate economic growth. They would have turned Nigeria into another South Africa. But look at the price we are paying for independence. A country so blessed but cursed with infrastructural deficiencies everywhere. No light, no good roads, no good educational system, no transportation, no underground train, no modern railways, no befitting airports like the type we have in Dubai and elsewhere. Nothing. Except millions looted and kept in foreign accounts to be used by foreigners in building their own economies. Today, oil price has fallen and things are falling apart. The country is going in tatters. Inflation, like a monster escaped from the zoo where it was caged, is now threatening to devour us. May God help us all.
We are independent, yet very much dependent on the outside world for imports. Everything in Nigeria from something as “low-hanging fruit” as petrol, we import. We cannot even refine petrol when we are Africa’s leading oil-producing country. Instead, we import petrol under the mercy of the mafia who keep collecting questionable subsidies from government. Oh, Nigeria, a country that calls itself the giant of Africa, yet is a dwarf beside South Africa.
“South Africa is a very successful country,” I heard De Klerk proudly proclaiming as he addressed us in Cape Town under the auspices of the IPI. He does not regret granting South Africa independence in 1994. Hear him: “If I look back at the 20 years which have passed since 1994, and if I was asked: will I take any of the big, major decisions which I took during my presidency and my leadership of the National Party, whether I will take them differently, my answer is: No, I have no regrets. All the big decisions. With the advantage of hindsight, I would never do them differently. All the big decisions I would take again. It needed to be done. To avert a catastrophe. But more importantly, it needed to be done because we sat and found ourselves in a situation which was morally indefensible, which was wrong, and we had to put the wrong right and bring justice to all South Africans. Today, South Africa finds itself with either a half full or a half empty glass. I think the glass is half full. We are amongst the leading countries in the world, if you look at the percentage of the total budget which goes for education and training. But we need good principals in schools, we need to limit the power of trade unions within education—there is more trade unions …In many schools teachers work three and a half hours a day. It is totally unacceptable.
“As far as the good side, the positive side which makes the glass full, we have the best banking systems in the world. Judged by the World Economic Forum’s statistics, we are second when it comes to corporate governance, we are in the Top 20 percent with regards to infrastructure and many, many other things. We have so much in our favour. I see South Africa as the best structured economy in Africa. I see a pivotal role for South Africa especially in sub-Saharan Africa. International companies are recognizing this, they are using South Africa in many instances as a base. I see Africa as an awakening giant. And often when I speak in Europe and in the United States, I warn them and say: you need a coherent strategy for Africa. China has one. Whereas Europe and the USA has a tendency of ignoring the problems in other parts and ignoring the future growing role of the continent within the world economy and within a global situation in which we find ourselves.”
Ah, Nigeria! How I wish everything that De Klerk said could be said of Nigeria. That we have the best structured economy in Africa, that we have the best infrastructure, the best roads, the best educational system, the best universities, the best professors and lecturers who are well paid and motivated, the best banking system, the best corporate governance, the best healthcare facilities, the best transportation, the best energy system. But it is not the case. South Africa has beaten us to almost everything.
Adieu FW de Klerk, the great reformer who had the moral courage to repent and change the evil called apartheid thereby saving his country from avoidable Armageddon.