Adebayo Adedeji: Farewell to Africa’s Cassandra
I first met him at a conference at Harvard University in Massachusetts in 1993, where he chided a pestering audience member, telling him that he always knew the Harvard seminar to be very rigorous.
I encountered him again in 2001, and by this time, he was much mellower, warmer, and less distant.
He gave a wonderful keynote address at a conference in Abuja on regional integration in West Africa, and a year later in New York, delivered another masterful keynote that methodically demolished two international sacred cows: the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Adedeji was an independent and fearless thinker who spoke passionately and eloquently.
When I moved to direct the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Cape Town in 2003, he joined the board, and, for over a decade, rarely missed a meeting, also lending his great wisdom and experience to countless policy seminars and book projects.
Adebayo Adedeji was born on 21 December 1930 and grew up in Ijebu-Ode under British colonial rule.
This experience left a fierce anti-colonial mark on Adedeji, shaping his later professional exploits.
His middle-class parents were farmers who worked on a cocoa and kola-nut plantation and left him in the care of a disciplinarian grandmother “Mama Eleja”: an enterprising, shrewd, and determined fish-seller and indomitable matriarch.
Even though she was illiterate, Adedeji’s grandmother pushed the young boy to study consistently. The precocious Adebayo was a child prodigy who responded well to the constant prodding.
He attended Ijebu-Ode Grammar School as an early entrant. His farmer-father was also an important influence, encouraging Adebayo to study hard to become a doctor.
After completing his primary and secondary education in Nigeria, Adedeji studied economics and public administration at the universities of Leicester, Harvard, and London, eventually obtaining a doctorate in economics.
He returned to Nigeria in 1958 to take up a senior post in the Western Region’s ministry of economic planning, serving under the tutelage of the renowned Simeon Adebo.
A 30-year old Adedeji was widely recognised as a rising star, but also acquired a fearsome reputation among more junior civil servants.
In 1963, Adebayo – who had always described himself as a “reluctant civil servant” – left government service to take up an academic post at Nigeria’s University of Ile-Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University).
Four years later at the age of 36, he had earned the title of Professor of Economics and Public Administration. He transformed the university’s Institute of Administration into an effective training ground for both Nigerian and African public servants.
In 1971 at the age of 40, Adedeji was appointed Nigeria’s minister of economic reconstruction and development by the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon. He would oversee the country’s difficult post-war peace building efforts.
Nigeria’s civil war of 1967–1970 had resulted in one million deaths and led to much destruction of the country’s infrastructure, particularly in the secessionist Eastern Region. The fortuitous discovery of large oil fields propelled the country to become one of the world’s largest oil exporters.
Along with other cabinet colleagues and powerful mandarins, Adedeji crafted and implemented five-year national development plans that called for rapid industrialisation and laid the foundations for much of the infrastructure that Nigeria still continues to rely on, though failing woefully to maintain.
He also created the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in 1973 to forge national unity.
Adedeji had many entertaining anecdotes about tough cabinet meetings in which the hot-tempered General Murtala Muhammed would threaten the mild-mannered General Gowon.
His greatest feats were, however, in the area of regional integration. Adedeji was widely regarded to have been “the Father of ECOWAS”: the Economic Community of West African States.
He had outlined a vision for regional integration in West Africa in the Journal of Modern African Studies in 1970, before turning theory into practice by 1975.
While serving as Gowon’s minister of economic development, he convinced 15 other West African leaders to establish ECOWAS, following tireless “shuttle diplomacy” across the subregion.
He captured these efforts in a memorable 2004 chapter “ECOWAS: A Retrospective Journey,” in which he described his painstaking efforts, surprisingly crediting Côte d’Ivoire’s president, Félix Houphouet-Boigny, with bridging West Africa’s historical francophone anglophone divide.
Adedeji also consistently argued that regional integration must be seen as an instrument for national survival and socio-economic transformation. In 1975, he was head-hunted by the UN to lead its Addis Ababa-based Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).
Prof. Adebajo is director, Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.
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