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In July of 1974, Nigeria under the leadership of General Yakubu Gowon established diplomatic relations with Cuba. Gowon as Head of State was noted for his long winding speeches which sounded more like sermons from the pulpit. His present day obsession with prayers has a long history to it.
In contrast, his successor General Murtala Mohammed never delivered speeches – let alone sermons. He was a man of action who simply thundered and when the thunder came to an end, he told the nation that all decisions of his government were to be implemented “with immediate effect”. And they were.
By the time he came to power, Nigeria and Cuba had established diplomatic links for a little over a year. In diplomatic circles, with their fine traditions of etiquette, this was simply too short a time for any significant thing to happen. But a very significant thing happened between Cuba and Nigeria just a few months after Murtala Mohammed came to power.
Most African countries had gained independence by 1960. Not Angola. Colonised by the Portuguese since 1665, Angolans were being held as slaves on cotton plantations. When the African nationalist revolt erupted in early 1961, the Portuguese army in Angola numbered about 8,000 men, 5,000 of whom were African. The colonial forces responded brutally, and by the end of the summer they had regained control over most of the territory. The human cost, however, was enormous: more than 2,000 Europeans and up to 50,000 Africans died, and about 10 percent of Angola’s African population fled to Zaire.
By early 1962, the Portuguese army in Angola had grown to 50,000 and thereafter averaged 60,000 into the mid-1970s. About half of this expansion was achieved by conscription in Angola, and most conscripts
were Africans. The Portuguese established a counterinsurgency program of population resettlement throughout the country. By the mid-1970s, more than 1 million peasants had been relocated into strategic settlements, and 30,000 males had been impressed into service in lightly armed militia units to defend them.
The thirteen-year Angolan war for independence, in which three rival nationalist groups fought the Portuguese to a stalemate, ended after the April 1974 military coup in Portugal. At that time, the MPLA and the FNLA had an estimated 10,000 guerrillas each, and UNITA had about 2,000. Within a year, these groups had become locked in a complex armed struggle for supremacy. By November 1975, when independence under a three-way coalition government was scheduled, the MPLA and the FNLA had built up their armies to 27,000 and 22,000, respectively, while UNITA had mustered some 8,000 to 10,000.
Further complicating the situation was a substantial foreign military presence. Apartheid South Africa encouraged by western powers, notably the US and UK moved in fast with 4 to 5 thousand troops to support their puppets in UNITA. Portugal still had forces there and they numbered 3,000 to 4,000 by late 1975. Then Cuba came with some 2,000 to 3,000 troops to support the MPLA. Zaire was then under the corrupt dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko who willingly doubled as a CIA agent.
He sent between 1,000 to 2,000 Zairian regulars who crossed the border to aid the FNLA.
Murtala Mohammed was livid with anger at the coalition by US, UK, South Africa and Zaire to frustrate the emergence of MPLA as the ruling party in Angola. In a speech at the OAU extra ordinary summit in Addis Ababa to discuss Angola independence, he thundered that “Africa has come of age and gone are the days it bowed before the threat of any so called super power”. To show that he was not a joker, he took along with him mercenaries from the US and South Africa who were captured while fighting in Angola. Chained, humiliated and looking melancholic, the unfortunate prisoners were paraded before the world media before they were taken back to Angola where they faced a firing squad.
The effect of that speech and the ensuing drama on Nigerian youth was electric. As university students, we all poured out on the streets volunteering our services to go to Angola and fight for the freedom of our black brothers. “Angola, Angola” we screamed. Yours sincerely was one of the volunteers even though he had never fired a gun in his life.
It was a romantic wish, fired by the patriotic leadership of Murtala Mohammed. But the Cubans led by Fidel Castro took it a step further than we did. The Cuban foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla told me early this year he was in Angola to fight for its freedom and so was the Cuban Ambassador to Nigeria, Hugo Ramos Milanes. It is said in certain quarters that Cuba lost over 10,000 citizens in that fight.
With a population of less than 10 million at the time, this was a significant loss. As the foreign Minister told me, there is no family in Cuba today which did not lose a member in the Angolan war.
The sacrifice that paid off. On Angola, Cuba and Nigeria discovered themselves as soul brothers and contributed immodestly to its liberation. It did not only stop in Cuba; soon after Angola, Namibia and what used to be Rhodesia became free. Even South Africa became free from the shackles of evil minded racial bigots. Cuba must be given credit for its role in the final decolonization of the African continent.
Unfortunately, this appears not to be the case. Cuba since the revolution of Fidel Castro has made tremendous progress in areas of education, health, science, housing, transport, sports, research etc.
The poor country has made it’s progress in spite of the chocking economic and military blockade against it by the all powerful United States of America.
For all the attempts that have been made to muzzle the poor country, it has continued to offer its help to other poor countries; even to those that are not so poor (Nigeria) but have hopelessly mismanaged their resources. Cuba for instance has continued to carter for the educational needs of some Nigerians by way of scholarship. About 100 Nigerians have been trained under this scheme to be medical doctors.
It has committed enormous resources to start an anti malaria project in Rivers and has developed an extra modern eye clinic in Ekiti.
Cuba is willing to help but after the beautiful outing in Angola, the soul brother has gone back to its slumbering days. What else can you say about a country with the biggest economy in Africa but whose volume of trade with Cuba stands at a paltry $200,000?