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Akinyemi and the loneliness of exile

By Dare Babarinsa
06 January 2022   |   3:48 am
Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, who turned 80 on Tuesday, January 4, is a theoretician of power who tries to inhabits his theories.

Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi

Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, who turned 80 on Tuesday, January 4, is a theoretician of power who tries to inhabits his theories. In 1969 after he returned with a doctorate degree in political science from Trinity College, Oxford, he was employed by the University of Lagos to teach political science. While he was a student in the United States, first at Temple University, Philadelphia and later Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, he was a member of a student delegation that visited the White House where he had the rare photo opportunity with the young President John F. Kennedy. He lived through the gale of Black Power protests in the United States and had come to believe in the concept of national power and national pride. He was a proud scholar. He is still a proud scholar.

The University of Lagos (UNILAG) was being piloted when Akinyemi joined by a world-class historian, Professor Jacob Ade-Ajayi, who had many eminent scholars on its faculties including the likes of Chike Obi and Ayodele Awojobi. However, in the field of political science and law, the pre-eminent giant was Professor Teslim Olawale Elias, the first Nigerian Attorney-General and Minister of Justice who served the regime of the late Prime-Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and was invited to serve in the same post by the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon. Elias was conservative, pro-British and was held in awe as a scholar of great erudition and profundity. He was the founder and first dean of UNILAG’s Faculty of Law, a job he combined with his ministerial assignment.

Akinyemi founded a new body on international relations to challenge the status quo as represented by the illustrious Professor Elias. He invited fellow scholars and top public servants to join. Among those who joined was a young military officer, Murtala Muhammed, who once served as a divisional commander during the Nigerian Civil War but became the Director of Army Signals and later Minister of Communications. On July 29, 1975, General Yakubu Gowon was toppled and was replaced by Muhammed. The time has come for Akinyemi to put his theories into practice.

Muhammed appointed him the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, our country’s foremost institution for the foreign policy incubation. It was there that Akinyemi discovered his mettle. He was just 33, dashing, confident and painstakingly handsome. He was in tandem with Muhammed frenetic pace on foreign policy even when he ruffles some important diplomatic feathers. He provided the intellectual framework for Nigeria’s new activist role in Africa epitomised by our romance with the radical Dr Agostinho Neto’s Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in the Angolan Civil War. He remained in that office even after Muhammed was assassinated in the abortive coup of February 13, 1976.

He moved back to the University of Lagos in 1983 where he was noted as a cerebral professor with deep insight into global politics. But national politics and policies would not leave him alone. In 1985, General Ibrahim Babangida toppled his old friend, General Muhammadu Buhari in a palace coup and he made Akinyemi his Minister for External Affairs. Akinyemi was a minister for only two years, yet he remains arguably the most significant occupant of that office since Dr Okoi Arikpo. His lucid grasp of foreign policy and his innovativeness brought Nigeria global acclaim. His idea of Concert of Medium Powers was considered grandiose and not implementable by the conservative denizens of Foreign Affairs. His Technical Aid Corps (TAC) has survived despite various mutations.

He left Babangida government in 1987, to be replaced by the ultimate Nigerian polyglot, Major General Ike Nwachukwu, a former military governor. Akinyemi has left power, but power would not leave him. His keen insight and his social conscience would ensure that he maintain interest in Nigerian affairs. Despite widespread skepticism, Akinyemi endorsed the transition programme of General Babangida. He wanted to be President of Nigeria on the platform of the military-sponsored Social Democratic Party (SDP). The second party was the National Republican Convention (NRC). Akinyemi lost to Chief Moshood Abiola during the race to pick the presidential ticket of the SDP. His involvement was to change his life and ours.

Abiola won the presidential election of June 12, 1993, but his victory was voided by the Babangida regime. Babangida was forced out of power in August 1994 and was replaced by Chief Ernest Adegunle Shonekan, former Chairman of UAC plc and well-known boardroom czar. The Shonekan government was a strange apparition; brought into being neither by the bullet nor the ballot box. Akinyemi joined the throng calling for the resignation of Shonekan, asking that he should yield his office to the duly elected President-presumptive, Chief Abiola. At the height of that crisis, Akinyemi wrote an open letter, published in all national newspapers, asking the military to intervene. Few days later, General Sani Abacha struck. Instead of a new dawn of democracy, Nigeria had entered the twilight and darkness of dictatorship of the worst kind.

Akinyemi found himself at the epicentre of the struggle for the validation of Abiola’s victory at the June 12, 1993 election. When the opposition National Democratic Coalition (NADECO) was formed in the Ikeja home of the late Major-General Adeyinka Adebayo, Akinyemi was one of the signatories to its first proclamation. Soon, the old general could not run in tandem with the radical rhetoric of the NADECO leaders and the movement moved to the Victoria Island home of Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu, a former military governor of Lagos State.

It was in one of the earlier meetings in Kanu’s house that it was decided that Akinyemi should go into exile as the roving ambassador of NADECO. He could not return home that night for the Abacha goons were waiting for him. He headed into exile and soon surfaced in the United States later to be joined by the likes of Kanu, Commodore Dan Suleiman, Chief Anthony Enahoro, Dr Amos Akingba, Lt General Ipoola Alani Akinrinade, Dapo Olorunyomi and several others.

Though he had served in several capacities since returning from exile in 1998, I believe that Akinyemi’s greatest contribution to Nigeria is his role in the defeat of military dictatorship and the enthronement of democracy. When his brother, retired Major Akinloye Akinyemi, was arrested and charged with coup plotting by the Abacha regime in 1995, I believe it was an attempt to hurt Akinyemi who was then safely in exile. Akinloye was my friend and he visited me several times in TELL. He had been out of the army for at least seven years before he was again arrested, tried before a secret military tribunal and sentenced to death. The two brothers were to meet again in 1998 after Akinyemi returned from exile and Akinloye was freed from prison. He died in 2012.

We await Akinyemi’s memoirs about those interesting years of exile and bitter struggle against military rule. On his return from exile, Akinyemi was admitted into the inner circle of Afenifere, the mainstream political and cultural movement, which later endorsed the formation of the Alliance for Democracy (AD), as its official political wing. Akinyemi and his exile colleagues; Akingba and Akinrinade, formed a triumvirate of consequence within the Afenifere leadership structure.

In 2000, Akinyemi was made the leader of a monitoring team to access the performance of AD governors in the Yoruba states of Lagos, Ogun, Osun, Oyo, Ekiti and Ondo. I don’t know what happened to the report of that visitation.

Members of the triumvirate found it difficult to compete or comprehend the corps of traditional politicians and their military-trained successors, who were now dominant in Afenifere and preferred the traditional pitch battles against fellow comrades instead of the modern sparing in ideas that people like Akinyemi, Akingba and Akinrinade would have preferred.

No wonder none of the AD governments offered any of them any substantial assignment. None of them was made pro-chancellor of any university or the chairman of any state company. Instead, they were treated with respect and reverence like ancient ancestors and then left severely alone.

It is no wonder that even now at 80, Akinyemi still seems like an exile, out in the cold from the sanctum of power. He remains a genius of towering capacity and deep insight who has been rarely used by his own people. Yet no one has a better insight to our struggle against military rule than Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, the theorist and practitioner of the modern act of statesmanship. Congratulations sir and happy birthday. We are waiting for The Book.