Just as Mandela and his generation gave way to the younger generation in order to let South Africa move forward, so also does the Buhari, Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida and Abubakar Atiku generation need to quit the stage and let Nigeria progress.


South Africa and Nigeria are Africa’s biggest economies and hold some of the brightest prospects for the continent. They have also given Africa two strong leaders – Nelson Mandela and Muhammadu Buhari, who in their old age, held sway in their countries. Both were generals; Mandela, the commander-in–chief of the South African insurgent army, the Umkhonto we Sizwe, and Buhari, a general in the Nigerian Army. Then as heads of state, they became the commander-in-chief of their respective countries. They had very long periods of incubation. Mandela was in prison for 27 years before emerging to lead his country to independence. Buhari was, 44 years ago, military governor of the North-Eastern State, which comprises the present Bauchi, Borno, Yobe, Taraba, Adamawa and Gombe States. Forty three years ago, he was the federal commissioner (minister) of petroleum resources. Today, he combines that ministry with his being the president of the country and head of the federal executive. Thirty six years ago, he became the military head of state. In the post-military era, he was presidential candidate five times: in 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019, winning the last two times.

Despite their shared history, they could be contrasting leaders. For instance, Mandela believed that: “There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way.” In contrast, Buhari is not as adventurous or visionary. Even on the simple issue of the electronic transfer of signed election results from polling booths to collation centres, he ensured the country stuck with the manual transfer by declining to sign the 2018 Electoral Act.

Mandela agreed that the past is important, but that it should not rule our present or future: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” He therefore set his sight on the future, making necessary changes rather than spending time blaming the evil Apartheid system. But Buhari dwells a lot on the past, viewing people and issues from that prism. His government spent a lot of its first term blaming the sixteen-year rule of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the state of affairs he inherited in Nigeria. That became both an obsession and a self-inflicted paralysis.

Mandela encouraged the youth to be educated in order to lead South Africa: “Young people must take it upon themselves to ensure that they receive the highest education possible so that they can represent us well in future as future leaders.”

But Buhari is not known to encourage the Nigerian youth. He said, for instance, that: “We have a very young population and our population is estimated conservatively to be 180 million. The 60 per cent of the population is below the age of 30. A lot of them have not been to school and they are claiming that Nigeria has been an oil producing country and therefore they should sit and do nothing and get housing, healthcare and education free.”

While Mandela had a robust foreign policy in which he took firm stand on issues such as the embargo on Libya and Cuba and the murderous Abacha regime in Nigeria, the Buhari government has no discernible foreign policy, with diplomats having to second guess the government.


Mandela inherited as president, not just multi-racial but also ethnic problems which snowballed into ‘black–on–black violence’. He worked hard to overcome this, including once allowing the leader of the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to act as president.

Buhari also inherited serious problems, including terrorism, herdsmen-farmers clashes and banditry. While his government has been able to significantly reduce the operational areas of the Boko Haram terrorists, insecurity has significantly gotten worse with murderous bandits roaming states like Zamfara, Sokoto and Katsina, and the country witnessing more killings than at any other time in its history since the 1967-1970 civil war.

While in incarceration, the marriages of both men suffered and they had to divorce their wives; Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Safinatu Buhari, nee Yusuf. Both men remarried. However, Mandela showed more empathy and respect to his wives. Even when the marriage had apparently broken down, he still staked his reputation by accompanying Winnie to court as she faced a four-count charge of kidnapping and assault. This was also despite the fact that she openly disagreed with and criticised him and the African National Congress (ANC). In contrast, when Mrs. Aisha Buhari cried out that the Nigerian government had been hijacked by a few persons, Buhari who was vising Germany at the invitation of Chancellor Angela Merkel replied: “I don’t know which party my wife belongs but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room.”

Mandela, as evident in his personal attendance of the Winnie court proceedings, and his reverence for the judiciary, had respect for the courts. In contrast, Buhari shows marked disdain for the courts, as evident in the Sambo Dasuki and Sheikh Ibrahim Yaqoub El-Zakzaky’s cases in which his government blatantly refuses to obey court orders.

While Mandela had a robust foreign policy in which he took firm stand on issues such as the embargo on Libya and Cuba and the murderous Abacha regime in Nigeria, the Buhari government has no discernible foreign policy, with diplomats having to second guess the government. Things were so bad that for a long period, the country had no ambassadors in almost all the countries in the world. Perhaps Buhari needs to learn the positive effects of Mandela’s leadership.

Buhari has to pray to God to teach him not just to number his days in life but also in the Presidency, so his story will not be like that of President Olusegun Obasanjo, who after being federal minister, deputy head of state, head of state and two-term president, sought in vain, and to his eternal shame, an unconstitutional third term in the Presidential Villa.


If God has blessed a man, he does not need human accolades as icing on his cake; Buhari has to avoid any temptation of ever seeking votes again or trying in any manner to lead the country after his constitutional second term. He is like a man carrying an elephant on his head; he does not need to tarry on the road, using his feet to dig for crickets. He is doing his best and only history will judge if his best is good enough for the country.

Buhari has to pray to God to teach him not just to number his days in life but also in the Presidency, so his story will not be like that of President Olusegun Obasanjo, who after being federal minister, deputy head of state, head of state and two-term president, sought in vain, and to his eternal shame, an unconstitutional third term in the Presidential Villa.

Just as Mandela and his generation gave way to the younger generation in order to let South Africa move forward, so also does the Buhari, Obasanjo, Ibrahim Babangida and Abubakar Atiku generation need to quit the stage and let Nigeria progress.

Let me end with one of Mandela’s thoughtful quotes: “The world will never respect Africa until Nigeria earns that respect. The black people of the world are looking up to Nigeria to be a source of pride and confidence. Every Nigerian citizen should be made to understand this truth.”

Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of African workers, is a human rights activist, journalist and author.