from Africa in Transition

Two African Obituaries: Dikko and Gordimer

July 15, 2014

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On July 14, the New York Times carried the obituary of Umaru Dikko, a former Nigerian minister accused of corruption who was once the subject of a kidnap attempt. On July 15, it carried an obituary of Nadine Gordimer, the South African author who became a major anti-apartheid icon.

Dikko is a figure now largely of historical interest. Gordimer is regarded as one of the giants of twentieth century literature and is likely to be read far into the future.

Corruption in Nigeria is an old story. Shehu Shagari was elected president in 1979, following decades of military rule. Umaru Dikko was his campaign manager. As president during one of Nigeria’s periodic oil booms, Shagari launched ambitious housing, infrastructure, and agricultural projects which, it was widely believed, were also nests of corruption. When oil prices fell, many of the projects were suspended, but the allegations of corruption and poor governance remained.

Following flawed elections in 1983, the Shagari administration was overthrown on New Year’s Eve 1983 in a military coup led by Muhammadu Buhari. Buhari launched a fierce anti-corruption campaign. The Buhari government accused Dikko of stealing millions of dollars from a rice distribution program. Dikko fled to London.

There, in July 1984, he was kidnapped by a team of Nigerians and alleged former Israeli Mossad operatives, put in a box, and taken to an airport where he was to be shipped back to Nigeria as “diplomatic baggage” to face charges of corruption. The British authorities, alerted by Dikko’s secretary, discovered the plot, delayed the flight, and freed Dikko. Despite the fact that the Nigerian government denied any involvement, British public opinion was outraged. A nasty diplomatic crisis ensued, with each country tit-for-tat expelling diplomats. The bilateral relationship between Nigeria and the United Kingdom was suspended for two years.

In August 1985, Buhari was overthrown in a military coup by Ibrahim Babangida. However, he remains one of Nigeria’s most powerful northern politicians. Dikko, too, after a period of residence in London, returned to a political career in Nigeria. He served as chairman of the disciplinary committee of the ruling People’s Democratic Party, which is headed by current president Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari has been an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency in 2003, 2007, and 2011. Especially in parts of southern Nigeria, his Islamic faith is suspect, and he is seen as authoritarian, reflecting his rigorous anticorruption campaign while he was chief of state. In the public mind, whether justified or not, he remains associated with the Dikko kidnapping attempt.

It is hard to imagine a greater contrast between Dikko and Nadine Gordimer, though they were of the same inter-war generation. Gordimer was born in 1923; Dikko in 1936. Dikko was a Muslim from the north, the son of a traditional ruler, and part of the Sultan of Sokoto’s connection. Gordimer, like many of the white opponents of apartheid, was Jewish, the daughter of a Latvian father and an English mother. She wrote more than two dozen works of fiction in addition to literary criticism and political essays.

Her fiction was a devastating inquiry into the consequences of apartheid. Three of her novels were banned at one time or another by the apartheid government. She was awarded the Booker Prize in 1974 and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991. She was a member of the African National Congress and, according to the Guardian, supported the armed struggle. Nelson Mandela spoke highly of her fiction and after his release from Robben Island, they became friends. However, toward the end of her life she became a fierce critic of the ANC’s corruption, its attempts to curb whistle-blowing, and, in general, what she saw as a betrayal of its ideals. She, in turn, has been accused of racism, of being a white liberal of little relevance to South Africa’s black majority. The provincial government of Gauteng (Johannesburg) banned one of her recent novels from its public libraries.

Like any great literary figure, Gordimer belongs to the world, as well as her South Africa. She is also much better known than Dikko. That is why I have given Dikko more space here.