Talk about eminent political leaders in Nigeria and Jaja Wachuku’s name comes at the top of the list. His significant mark in the political history has made him an epitome of Statesmanship that has not gone unrecognised. However, much is not known about the role he played in saving the life of Nelson Mandela during the Rivonia Trial.
In 1963, Nelson Mandela along with 12 other ‘controversial’ South African politicians were arrested and convicted for sabotage after being found in Liliesleafarm Farm in Rivonia where they had been hiding for two years. At the time, Nelson Mandela had been listed as a terrorist by the U.S. government after evading the police and going into hiding since 1961.
Mandela became more radical while in prison and admitted to sabotaging, but pleaded innocent to every other charge. At the trial, Mandela gave a three hour I Am Prepared to Die Speech and was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1964.
At the time, Jaja Wachuku was working as the first Minister of Foreign Affairs in Nigeria after serving as the first Ambassador and Paramount Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations. Through his excellent showcase of work ethics, he had gained considerable fame and respect in the United Nations as well as established strong relations with presidents of the United States between 1960 and 1963.
Wachuku, who believed in what Mandela stood for and believed that he was wrongfully sentenced, intervened during his trial through the United Nations and South African government. Through Jaja Wachuku, Nelson Mandela and the 12 other political leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment instead of the death penalty.
Jaja Wachuku was born on January 1, 1918, to King Josaiah Ndubuisi Wachuku of Ngwa-Land in Eastern Nigeria which is populated by the Igbo tribe of Nigeria. His mother, Queen Rebecca Ngwanchiwa Wachuku is also widely known for her role as a woman’s right activist and wealthy landowner years before she married into royalty.
Jaja Wachuku was an intelligent man who gained several scholarships and prizes during his school years. Born into an affluent home, he received the best of education in Nigeria, Ghana and Angola until finally leaving Africa for Ireland for further studies where he successfully graduated as a lawyer.
His most distinguished awards were a high school scholarship in Lagos and becoming the first African gold medalist Laureate in Oratory of Trinity College, Ireland. He was called to the Irish bar in 1944.
From 1944 to 1947, Jaja Wachuku worked extensively in Ireland working closely with fellow Africans to elevate the social status of Africans working in Europe. He gave lectures on various topics affecting the African in Europe and represented diverse African students and associations on several international platforms. He also continued his education specialising in Criminal and Constitutional Law.
Identifying the pressing need for independence for Nigeria, Jaja relocated to his home country in 1947 and immediately got involved in governance and politics after being elected as a member and legal advisor for the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons. He then set up the New Africa Party to help institutionalise Pan Africanism and the need for independence in Nigeria.
He became the first Nigerian Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1959 and was appointed the first Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations when Nigeria gained independence in 1960 after successfully helping Nigeria gain admission into the United Nations. He also served as Minister of Economic Development, Foreign Affairs and Aviation until the 1966 coup.
Jaja Wachuku is recognised as a statesman with many responsibilities placed in his care. He never complained about his numerous roles but instead performed them diligently. He was recognised and rewarded for his hard work both locally and internationally.
He married Rhoda Idu Oona Onumonu in 1951, and they had five children together. Jaja Wachuku retired from politics but was very active during the Biafra War helping in the struggle of the Igbo people and in Nigeria’s Second Republic where he worked closely with the Nigerian Senate.
He passed away on November 7, 1996, after a short illness at the age of 78.
He has been featured on magazines such as Time Magazine which described him as a “Pride of Africa”. In 2010, he was posthumously awarded the Golden Jubilee Independence Anniversary Award for his dedication to Nigeria and its governance by Goodluck Jonathan, the then president of the country.