President Obama contemplates Mandela's decades imprisoned as a terrorist in Robben Island

President Obama contemplates Mandela's decades imprisoned as a terrorist in Robben Island

Obama "deeply humbled" on a visit to Mandela's prison cell in Robben Island while unashamedly keeping 166 detained without trial for 11 years

Perhaps some people might not see the parallels between the prison camps at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa but to former prisoners accused of being terrorists the irony of the US President’s visit to the latter couldn’t be starker.

President Barack Obama however, has more in common with ‘terrorists’ – past and present – than he cares to admit. (Perhaps we all do). During a recent visit to the Robben Island prison, accompanied by his family, former constitutional lawyer Obama declared that he and his family were “deeply humbled” after having walked into Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell and contemplating what life must have been like for the man once branded a “terrorist leader” by the west.

What Obama may not understand – or like to admit – is that the man he openly admires so much was only taken off a US terror list just 6 months before he took office as the President of the USA in 2009.

Nelson Mandela may be the most recognised and respected man alive today. That recognition and respect has more often than not transcended political, ideological and even religious concerns in a way that few others have. Even right-wing conservatives reluctantly express admiration for the lack of bitterness, magnanimity and inclusiveness shown by Mandela as the outcome of a struggle they originally ideologically opposed as well as the traditional support he enjoyed within the left-wing liberation movements.

It is not just being statesmen of African origin that Mandela and Obama have in common: both too have been recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. The irony may be lost again but the former received it for achieving equality and relative peace after decades of personal sacrifice entailing imprisonment and abuse, while the latter sacrificed the lives of thousands and continued the false imprisonment and abuse of others without any personal loss, other than the prelude to being ‘humbled’.

What may be less known is the views of suspects in the current US-led war on terror like those of Yemeni-American Imam Anwar al-Awlaki, the alleged Al-Qaeda ideologue who was killed in 2011 – along with his 16-year old son and one other US citizen– in a highly controversial extrajudicial drone strike ordered by President Obama.

At the end of a telephone interview with al-Awlaki in 2007, shortly after his release from detention without trial in Yemen, he asked me for two things: a copy of my book Enemy Combatant and Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.  The latter had been on my bookshelf for years so I sent him my copy and remember feeling optimistic that he would reflect on Mandela’s thoughts and experiences when trying to formulate his own. Though he felt uncomfortable elaborating al-Awlaki told me that FBI agents came to interrogate him in during his imprisonment in Yemen: 

“There was some pressure, which I refused to accept and that led to a conflict that occurred between me and them [FBI], because I felt that it was improper behaviour from their behalf. That led to an issue between me and them during the interrogation”.

I believe the effects of this interrogation adversley affected Anwar al-Awlaki and led directly to his collision course with the US.

After spending two solid years in solitary confinement in Guantanamo, once I suffered an anxiety attack. I was visited by US Navy psychiatrist who tried to console me by referring to the injustice suffered by Nelson Mandela at the hands of his apartheid captors. I don’t think he did irony either.

In reality though, Nelson Mandela was convicted by the apartheid regime of South Africa for leading the militant group Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) while his inspiration had come Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. However, Mandela was branded a terrorist not just by the regime that imprisoned him but by western leaders like Margaret Thatcher who referred to him and the African National Congress (ANC) as terrorists.

Despite announcing a few years ago that his party was wrong for labelling  Mandela a terrorist British Prime Minister Cameron eulogised the late Margaret Thatcher in parliament as a woman who “reminded us all why democracy must never give in to terror” – ironically referring to the fight against the IRA which included controversial measures like jury-free Diplock courts and internment without trial – following her divisive state funeral.

It’s not that they won’t negotiate with terrorists as both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair stated in the past, it just depends on who they are, if they’ve been sufficiently demonised, if they have political support on the ground or if they simply cannot be defeated. Cue US advocating official talks with the Taliban, office opening in Qatar and senior British military commanders declaring talks with them ‘were needed a decade ago’. Who knows, perhaps Mullah Omar may be in for a Nobel Peace Prize himself one day?

A couple of years ago former Guantanamo prisoner Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who had been the Taliban spokesman and ambassador to Pakistan in the years preceding and up to the 9/11 attacks, came to the UK for a visit. When I heard he was over I went to see him. He told me that after his release US Army commander General Petraeus came to his Kabul home to try and find a way to talk to the Taliban. Zaeef replied that he was no longer part of the group but that if Petraeus did want to locate them all he had to do was follow the trajectory of the missiles and shells they were directing at the Taliban everyday and he would eventually find them, waiting to converse in whatever language he understood. 

The circumstances may well be different but the principles are the same in the case of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness with their IRA connections and Nelson Mandela with his Spear of the Nation. ‘Terrorists’ can and always have been talked to.

But Mandela, despite his largesse towards his detractors saw through the hypocrisy of past leaders giving him advice on whom he should befriend.  “We are now being advised about Cuba by people who have supported the apartheid regime these last 40 years," he declared some years ago. "No honourable man or woman could ever accept advice from people who never cared for us at the most difficult times.”

Indeed controversy surrounding Cuba’s relationship still exits although in a way even Mandela, or Castro for that matter, could not have envisaged. Despite two Presidential promises to close the notorious Guantanamo prison camp Obama can feel humbled visiting Robben Island while still unashamedly keeping 166 men detained without charge or trial.

Nonetheless, it is easy to see why the idea of Mandela’s legacy is attractive to many. Perhaps Fidel Castro says it best: “If you want an example of a firm, valiant, heroic, serene, intelligent and capable man, this example, this man, is Mandela".

Thus, becoming Mandela-friendly by erecting statues outside buildings where parliamentary leaders once described him as a terrorist is not enough to rewrite Britain’s role in supporting apartheid, even if the great man did forgive them.  But to me Mandela will always be the man who simply stood up against the system and spent 27 years in prison for a cause certain countries did not support. Those same countries, albeit in different guises, now lead a new war – the war on terror on the Muslim world and Obama is their leader.

Before leaving Mandela's former prison President Obama wrote in the visitor’s book: “The world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island, who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit.” He must have been in a hurry as he forgot to add “unless you’re shackled in our cells.” But Obama doesn’t do irony.

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)