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Farewell to a Pan-African peacebuilder

By Adekeye Adebajo
13 July 2022   |   3:40 am
Nigerian scholar-diplomat, Ejeviome Eloho Otobo, recently died in New York at the age of 70. He had retired in 2013 as deputy director of the United Nations (UN) Peace building Support Office after a distinguished career in public service.

Ejeviome Otobo

Nigerian scholar-diplomat, Ejeviome Eloho Otobo, recently died in New York at the age of 70. He had retired in 2013 as deputy director of the United Nations (UN) Peace building Support Office after a distinguished career in public service.  Otobo had served in the Office of the UN Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA); the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA); and the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). Before joining the UN, he had worked in the Nigerian foreign service as part of the elite policy planning staff, and had postings to Jakarta, Beijing, and New York. Two of his great mentors to whom he paid tribute in print were scholar-technocrats, Adebayo Adedeji and Olu Sanu, with whom he served respectively at the ECA and the Nigerian embassy in China.

A meticulous planner, Eloho left the foreign service to obtain his Master’s degree in Public Administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Massachusetts, specializing in Political Economy and taking courses at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He had earlier obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology at the University of Lagos. He wrote three books: Consolidating Peace: The Role of the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission (2015); Africa in Transition: A New Way of Looking at Progress in the Region (2017); and the co-edited African Development in the 21st Century: Adebayo Adedeji’s Theories and Contributions (2015). His triple legacy will thus be as a UN peacebuilder; a prophet of Africa in transition; and a patriotic Nigerian policy intellectual.

UN Peacebuilder
Otobo summarized his thoughts on the UN Peacebuilding Commission in a rich 2018 chapter I had commissioned him to write for The Palgrave Handbook of Peacebuilding in Africa. Setting out the great expectations that followed the establishment of the body he served as deputy head, Eloho concurred with the UN’s own 2015 review that the commission had not lived up to the initial aspirations of the international community after a decade of existence, due largely to a lack of resources and sustained support from the great powers. He assessed the body’s performance in the six African cases with which it had engaged: Burundi, Central African Republic (CAR), Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Otobo highlighted the innovativeness of the commission in supporting the Sierra Leonean government’s request to bolster its electricity sector as a way of sustaining peace.  He praised the dynamic role played by the chairs of the commission’s country configurations from small, but well-endowed European donor countries – Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland – who mobilized resources and effectively engaged international financial institutions.

Otobo further stressed the need for peacebuilders to prioritise advocacy, resource mobilization, and complementing other actors, rather than trying to replicate traditional development efforts. In his characteristically tactful way, Eloho called for “carefully designed and sustained improvements in performance”, urging the Commission to focus on “soft” issues such as transitional justice, inclusive political dialogue, and greater civil society participation in peacebuilding activities. This was the most nuanced peacebuilding essay I had read by Otobo who admirably detached himself from a body he had helped to pioneer in order to offer constructive advice to policymakers.

Africa in Transition
Eloho also wrote on African security and governance issues. His book, Africa in Transition – launched at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) in August 2017 – was described by The Guardian Nigeria’s news editor, Marcel Mbamalu, as “a bird’s-eye view, incisive and richly illuminating dissection of Africa’s epochal moments.” The study examines multiple transitions: from autocratic regimes to multi-party democracies; from civil wars to sustainable peace; from state-led economies to market-driven economies; from high carbon to low carbon economies; and from rural communities to urban settlements. Amidst Africa’s growing economic indebtedness and infrastructural deficits, Otobo consistently advocated effective security, rule of law, popular participation, and independent state institutions.

He remained a perennial optimist about the continent’s development prospects, pushing African leaders consistently to prioritise good education, sound institutions, and the effective use of technology.  He argued that Europe’s economic development had taken centuries to achieve, and that Africa must emulate the dynamic example of “Asian Tigers” such as Japan, China, and Singapore.

Otobo often analysed issues in threes, and his three trends retarding Africa’s democratic transitions were: coups, tenure elongation, and violating electoral outcomes.  He thus sensibly advocated that African regional bodies craft a normative framework for the use of force, following the Economic Community of West African States’s (ECOWAS) threat of force which successfully pressured Gambian autocrat, Yahya Jammeh, to leave power after losing elections in 2017. Otobo further suggested a range of sanctions, between the stages of mediation and the use of force.

“Detribalised” Nigerian
Born in the oil-rich Delta region, Eloho – a devout Catholic, married to Esther with whom he had four children – was a “detribalised” Nigerian. A patriot to the core, he spent much of his retirement years playing the role of the public intellectual who sought to provide policy recommendations in Premium Times, The Guardian, and This Day to cure his country’s ills. Many of his articles were co-written with Oseloka Obaze, a fellow Nigerian scholar-diplomat, with whom he had served in the Nigerian foreign service and at the UN.

The pieces offered policy advice to enable Nigeria play a leadership role on the continent, which Otobo felt was increasingly imperilled by widespread poverty, crippling indebtedness, and growing insecurity across the country. He persistently stressed that providing security to citizens was the main responsibility of the Nigerian government. The environmental degradation by foreign oil companies of his beloved Niger Delta was another issue on which Eloho wrote passionately.

One of the major issues he vigorously tackled was the controversial challenge of “restructuring” Nigeria’s federal system to work as a true federation rather than a de facto unitary state. As usual, he wrote dispassionately and fairly, respecting diverse opinions. Otobo did, however, criticize the opportunism of the country’s political class in supporting restructuring only once out of power, describing Nigeria’s political condition as akin to “a serial sufferer of strokes and heart attacks, emerging weaker after each episode.” He was a strong supporter of the idea of a “rotational presidency,” gently chiding me recently for not having written a full article on backing a southeast candidate for the 2023 presidency, but instead supporting the principle at the tail-end of a piece on sports and politics. I, in turn, often tried to goad Otobo to shed his diplomatic skin and be more forthright in “speaking truth to power.” He never gave up on the idea of Nigeria, arguing in a letter in his beloved Financial Times for national leaders of “competence, character, commitment and courage,” and expressing hope in the creative ingenuity of Nigerians.

Otobo was a director of the editorial board of Prime Business Africa and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Global Governance Institute in Brussels. He consulted for the African Union, the African Development Bank, and the UN, in retirement. Self-effacing and studiously polite, Eloho persistently offered evidence-based policy advice for transforming Nigeria, Africa, and the UN. He fervently believed in a sustained battle of ideas in which reason and logic triumphed over ignorance and superstition. In that sense, he was the ultimate Renaissance Man.

Professor Adebajo is a senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship in South Africa.