The Gospel According to Mandela

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime

And departing leave behind us

Footprints on the sand of time

–          Henry Wordsworth Longfellow

Since the public was jolted by the news of his anticipated death last Thursday (December 5), the whole world has been thrown into frenzy. It is not the mourning of his death that gripped the world really, it is the celebration of his life. At 95 before the bell tolled last Thursday, the global icon of leadership and model of forthrightness, Nelson Rolihlala Mandela, lived a long and fulfilled life before he lost the last struggle, fortunately in the caring hands of his family and loved ones.

The life and career of Nelson Mandela would continue to serve as inspiration to several generations unborn. His legacy will for many years be a barometre by which world leaders, especially those of African descent, would be measured. To say Mandela was great in life and death would even be an understatement. He was more than great as he towered above many acclaimed great men with the totality of a personality that was uniquely Mandelan. His life is a reminder, as Longfellow wrote several years ago, that each person can also leave indelible “footprints on the sand of time” at the end of his/her earthly sojourn.

Fine tributes by prose stylists have been written all over the world and thousands of newspapers and the blogosphere have been filled with the analyses of his life and times. It is doubtful if the world would have another unifying force in a single person that would attract about 90 Presidents in many years to come. This would not be surprising because it is not everyone that can ever pay the price Mandela paid by spending 27 years in prison though he had an option of relinquishing his beliefs to regain his freedom. On a lesser scale, not everyone can also exercise his sense of judgment by leaving when the ovation was loudest at a time he could have also contested for another term as President of South Africa.

But of all what has been attributed to the late Nelson Mandela, it was his incurable optimism with large heartedness that appears to be most relevant to us Nigerians at this critical moment. Though sentenced to life imprisonment, Mandela believed he had tomorrow. And tomorrow eventually came and he transformed, by the stroke of fate, from being Prisoner to President.

According to Mandela, “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lie defeat and death.”

The gospel of Mandela is optimism and hope in the face of adversity and turmoil. He was a practical manifestation of the dictum, “whatever a man can conceive and believe, he can achieve.” Mandela conceived freedom, believed freedom and achieved freedom. Now, it is freedom at last for him and he would not have to worry about the problems of Africa, especially corrupt leaders and poverty, the latter of which he described as an unnatural phenomenon that can be overcome by the actions of human beings.

Nigeria has had her fair share of troubles with the ship of state drifting ominously on unchartered seas. Caught in the tight grips of insurgency and counter-insurgency, poverty and corruption as well as criminality and man’s inhumanity to man all over the land, the average Nigerian lives for the moment as tomorrow is uncertain. The virus of exploiting the opportunities of today, to cheat and deplete, is deeply engrained in the leaders and followers alike such that it is the quick-fix method that is often sought.

However, if we would learn from the life of Mandela, we would be positive that Nigeria too would be better and God would make our leaders more compassionate and reasonable.  Pessimism leads to despair, despondency, desperation and death. Optimism enlivens and hope invigorates. Nigeria is an open prison but we should imbibe the Mandela spirit that one day, we shall get it right and be free from the shackles of problems that have made life a hell for millions of our people.

Then, there is need for forgiveness, compassion and love as demonstrated by the Madiba. Though he spent many years in prison, he should not be there in the first instance, he demonstrated uncommon generosity and large-heartedness towards his tormentors. He excused the prison warders that they were only doing duty. His forthrightness and large heartedness saved the country from what would have been a paroxysm of civil strife. Without a leader like Mandela, the well-tormented black community would have, in a triumphal ecstasy, retaliated the long years of Apartheid cruelly unleashed on them by the white supremacists.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead into my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” Mandela said. Though he wasn’t renowned to be a religious person, he demonstrated the virtues of religion and rose above parochial sentiments that still define our own national politics. The gospel of Mandela is that we should not be chained to the past; we should not consider today’s grace an opportunity to settle yesterday’s score.

Mandela was open-minded, always smiling and irradiating goodwill to all. He bore no resentment to anyone. There is too much hatred around here on ethnic and religious grounds, whereas the essence of religion is to love. “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies,” Mandela said, and he lived his life seeking freedom, preaching love, promoting peace, giving hope and making the world a better place than he met it.

For Nigerians, as the world is unanimous in showing love to the late global statesman, the gospel according to Mandela should be imbibed by all and made to resonate in our society. “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite,” Mandela further said as part of his gospel. Based on the legacy of the Madiba thus, let us all live and let live; let us love and spread love because at the end of it all, we will leave one day and become history.

Adieu, Mandela, the man who altered the course of history and through personal character brought dignity to the whole black race!