George Nene, best known as Dikgang in the struggle, has fallen. I will take the Nigerian angle, which may be the least known. Apart from our days in Lusaka, we spent time in Nigeria where I was a student at the University of Nigeria and he was a Chief Rep. At the time of my arrival in January 1987, our Chief Rep there was Victor Matlou. A year later, Dikgang arrived to replace him, to assume his first diplomatic posting. We spent three years together before I left him there at the end of 1990.
Dikgang was a cool, profound and incisive thinker and analyst. He was also an ambidextrous and crafty diplomat; and a good writer. My univeristy was in Anambra State, Eastern Nigeria, more towards Cameroon, while the ANC office was in the then capital, Lagos, in the west coast. I would however, visit Dikgang from time to time on weekends and holidays. As he was under-staffed at that stage (running the office only with a Nigerian lady secretary) he would ask me to assist with writing speeches about the situation inside the country and dispose of political correspondence. He knew my DIP background would come in handy.
After Mandela’s release in February 1990, he was on “Thank You” visits in various parts of the world. I was doing my fourth and final year at that stage. One week-end I got to his Victoria Island residence (there is Lagos Mainland and Lagos Island). He shared with me his “diplomatic headache”. At that stage the HQ had moved from Lusaka to JHB. He got correspondence from the HQ to communicate with then President Ibrahim Babangida that Mandela would be coming. No problem. But there was an Obasanjo problem. Let me quickly sketch some background about Obasanjo so that you understand the problem in context.
In 1976, a senior military officer, Dimka, assasinated Murtala Mohammed in an attempted coup. General Olusegun Obasanjo negotiated Dimka’s surrender successfully. The offender was executed and the Federal Military Council appointed Gen Olusegun Obasanjo as the new Head of State. It is said in 1977, O.R. Tambo presented T. Mbeki to Obasanjo as a Chief Rep. In 1979 Obasanjo handed power to a civilian government led by Shehu Shagari in 1979. In 1983 the Shagari govt was toppled by Muhammadu Buhari. Obasanjo objected and Buhari locked him up. In 1986, General Babangida toppled Buhari. Senior military officers called on Babangida to release Obasanjo, which he did. Obasanjo was a wealthy farmer.
Dikgang told me that when “Obasanjo’s people” heard that Mandela was coming, they came to him to request that Mandela must also visit Obasanjo at his farm, “as if he is a Head of State”. They made a meal of Obasanjo’s previous contact with OR and TM to stake a claim on Mandela. He told the Obasanjo delegation that Mandela was a guest of the Nigerian gvt, as Nigerians they must go to their government. “You are the Mandela man here. So you must talk to Ibrahim Babangida”. That’s how they put pressure on him. They kept on phoning and sending people to his office to find out how far he was. We explored various scenarios. When I travelled back to Anambra State, I still left him in a quagmire.
A few weeks later, the Nigerian media reported that Nelson Mandela would be visiting Nigeria. He would be hosted by President Ibrahim Babangida in Lagos, then by the Governor of Anambra State in the East, and by the Govenor of Kaduna State in the North. We saw Mandela and his entourage on TV arriving in Lagos. His visit to Lagos was concluded a few days later. We travelled to Enugu stadium one day where Mandela was to be hosted by the Governor. The stadium was packed to capacity: musicians, cultural troupes etc. By late afternoon, Mandela had not yet turned up. It started raining. The MC announced through the loud hailer that we must leave and come back the following day.
The day was bright and beautiful. The whole of Eastern Nigeria descended on the grounds. Mandela arrived with Winnie, Stanley Mabizela, other “exiles and inxiles” and Rivonia Trialists. A group of us as South African students were given chairs next to the VIP section.
In his speech, Mandela started by apologising for not having turned up the previous day:
Yesterday I was invited by General Olusegun Obasanjo on his farm. There was a lot of food We attacked goat meat; we attacked beef; we attacked bush meat; we attacked a special kind of fish etc etc. General Obasanjo said eat Mandela, you had no food in prison. Indeed, I have not seen so much food since I was released. General Obasanjo over-fed the former prisoner. After all that feast, my stomach was too heavy for me to ger off the chair and come here…..all along the crowd was in stiches. Then boomed “Winnie Mandela, Woman of Courage” a hit single released the previous year by popular female singer, Onyeka Onwenu. The crowd sang along…
A few weeks later, I met Dikgang in Lagos. He told how the Mandela visit to Obasanjo was finally brokered. He personally sought audience with President Ibrahim Babangida. It was finally agreed that before Anambra State, he would go to Obasanjo’s farm provided a number of security concerns were refined – which finally happened.
He joins a powerful line up of departed ANC Chief Reps: Victor Matlou (Nigeria); James Stewart (Madagascar); Max Moabi (Angola); Boyce Bocebo and Max Mlonyeni (both Regional Chief Reps in Zambia) Thami Sindelo (Italy); Vusi Shangase (USA West Coast) etc.
Dikgang had numerous engagements in the Frontline States prior to that time.
Go Well Big Chief.