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Celebrating Professor Bolaji Akinyemi at 80 – Diplomacy in the tales of five letters

By Dolapo Aina
06 January 2022   |   11:35 am
FIRST LETTER In celebrating Professor Bolaji Akinyemi at 80, Professor Monye, former Executive Secretary of the National Planning Commission, a former Special Adviser to the President on Performance Monitoring and Evaluation, and the Chief Policy Adviser to the Governor of Delta State, wrote from Asaba in Delta State, Nigeria. Akinyemi was just 33 years old…

In celebrating Professor Bolaji Akinyemi at 80, Professor Monye, former Executive Secretary of the National Planning Commission, a former Special Adviser to the President on Performance Monitoring and Evaluation, and the Chief Policy Adviser to the Governor of Delta State, wrote from Asaba in Delta State, Nigeria.

37-year-old Nigerian Head-of-State, General Murtala Mohammed, his 31-year-old ADC, Lieutenant Akintunde Akinsehinwa and 33 year old Director General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Professor Bolaji Akinyemi in Lagos, circa 1975. PHOTO SOURCE: PROF BOLAJI AKINYEMI

Akinyemi was just 33 years old then and a little-known Lecturer in the Political Science Department of the University of Ibadan. But Murtala Mohammed knew Prof Akinyemi, his brainpower, his belief and pride in Nigeria and his audacious ideas about a strong and resurgent Africa, and his insightful and novel ideas about diplomacy and its great powers. if rightly wielded.

The sheer power of ideas showed its immense force when the novel concepts of how the nation’s diplomatic chess game should be played, began to seep out from the Akinyemi-headed NIIA and enchanted the Foreign Affairs Ministry where a Lt. Colonel Joseph Garba was Minister. Today, the NIIA does not only enjoy robust respect but it ranks among the most highly regarded government-owned agencies.

Remarkably, Prof Akinyemi steered the course as the NIIA DG for eight long years (because the Shehu Shahari administration, which succeeded the Murtala/Obasanjo military administration retained him. Akinyemi steered NIIA to be a continuous intellectual cauldron where ideas sparked against ideas in the form of lectures, conferences, symposia, seminars, round tables workshops involving the most illustrious Nigerian and foreign incandescent brains and statesmen, including Presidents and Prime Ministers. Its library became an unqualified repository of research materials for post-graduate students, on issues political, economic, social, religious, cultural and security because NIIA researchers were churning out qualitative essays, journals and books with amazing speed.

Then in came the Gen. Ibrahim Babangida-led military regime in 1985 which appointed Prof Akinyemi, who began to teach at the University of Lagos, Akoka, Yaba, after his NIIA assignment ended, as Foreign Affairs Minister. It was a challenge for the teacher to practice what he preached. Immediately, he reinvented Nigeria’s diplomacy; imbuing it with a new-found but measured radicalism, a streak of economic diplomacy, unmistakable panache, intellectualism, as Nigeria assumed a new sense of national greatness and the duty to fight and conquer for Africa’s sake.

It is in helping Nigeria’s Foreign Policy to assume Africa as its centre-piece and making Nigeria play the role of Africa’s first Super Power and a global minor power with independent ideas that Prof Akinyemi affected the entire African continent and even beyond. Nigeria made its mark in the anti-apartheid struggles, assuming control of it as the undisputed African champion, a country whose position really mattered. Nigeria began to matter in African affairs. Through some inexplicable miracle, Prof Akinyemi’s brain conceived the idea of Nigeria, a West African country, becoming a frontline state involved in the anti-apartheid fight. And Nigeria actually became one, accepted by the entire world as such. This made a profound global impact, changed diplomacy in Africa and the UN, making Nigeria Africa’s undisputed leader and earned swagger rights for Nigerians.

He began this championing of dialogue as an alternative vehicle for foreign policy consultation while he was at NIIA. There, he organized and presided over the following: Nigerian-United States Dialogue (1978), Nigerian-Soviet Dialogue (1978), Nigerian-Chinese Dialogue (1979), Nigerian- Scandinavian Dialogue (1980), Nigerian-Brazilian Dialogue (1980), Dialogue on North-South, Dialogue with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (of Canada, 1981) and the Nigerian-Chinese Dialogue (1982). Unfortunately, African leaders now converge routinely, like school children, to listen to their “headmasters” in USA-Africa, France-Africa, Britain-Africa, Sweden-Africa, China-Africa summits, cap in hand.

Bolaji Akinyemi dreamed up the Technical Aids Corps Scheme, which radicalised the Nigerian Foreign Assistance Programme, in which Nigerians are serving in various capacities in over 50 countries in African, Caribbean and Pacific nations, telling the story of development and world history and politics from a strictly Nigerian viewpoint. It has been adjudged the most successful and radical innovation in Nigerian foreign policy.

At Christ’s School Ado Ekiti, in 1962, for his Higher School Certificate, a young Akinyemi won a nationwide essay competition jointly organised by the US Embassy and the Federal Education ministry. He toured the US for three months, aged 20.

Meeting legends include President John F Kennedy, Ralph Bunch, the Undersecretary General at the United Nations, Senator Albert Gore, (whose son, Al Gore later became US Vice President), New York State Governor Nelson Rockefeller, left an indelible experience on him. Also, Akinyemi spent just two years of post-graduate studies to earn a PhD!
As Professor Akinwande Bolaji Akinyemi turns 80 today, 4th January 2022, let us reflect on the life of this great African. A few exceptional persons have had consequential influences on their countries. An even much rarer breed, supreme in their careers, powered by superlative brains and energy, gifted with insights of how to affect the present and make it beneficial to their race, have influenced whole continents.

Mr Martins Oloja who is the Editor of The Guardian Nigeria wrote another interesting piece on Professor Bolaji Akinyemi.

I have listened to Professor Akinyemi’s seminal contributions at the Editorial Board of The Guardian where I have also served for years. There is therefore a sense in which I can say without equivocation that he is one of our brightest and the best in Nigeria. He isn’t a professor who lives on residual knowledge and influence. He reads and studies a great deal. He also listens to others so deeply.

When you ask him any questions, you will be delighted by his answers. He is a deep one, always “calling to the deep”. He is without any guile. If he isn’t familiar with any subtext, he will tell you point blank he isn’t at home with it.

Akinyemi, son of a famous principal of Ilesha Grammar School, the Reverend J.A Akinyemi (who hails from Ifewara) was born on January 4, 1942 in Ilesha, Osun State. He attended Igbobi College, in Yaba, Lagos from 1955 to 1959, Christ School, Ado-Ekiti, from 1960 to 1961, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, from 1962 to 1964, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, US, 1964 to 1966, and Trinity College, Oxford, England, from 1966 until 1969.

At 43, Akinyemi became Nigerian Minister of External Affairs in 1985 and held the job for two years before Major-General Ike Nwachukwu replaced him. His predecessor in that office was Professor Agboola Ibrahim Gambari who served during the military dictatorship of Major-General Muhammadu Buhari. Gambari is still serving in the presidency of Buhari as Chief of Staff. Akinyemi’s rise has been phenomenal. He obtained his doctorate degree at 27. At 33, he became the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. He became a full professor at 41.

Specifically, Akinyemi, professor of Political Science bagged his doctorate degree from the prestigious Oxford University in 1969. He was an instructor in the Politics of the Developing Nations in the North Eastern University, Boston, Massachusetts; a Visiting Professor in African Studies at the DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana; a Visiting Professor of Political Science at the Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

He taught as Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Ibadan and by 1975, had become the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs- the nation’s foreign policy development and formulation centre. As Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs for about a decade, he conceived of the idea of “Dialogue” to broaden the base of foreign policy consultation. He organised and presided over the following:- Nigerian – United States Dialogue (1978), Nigerian – Soviet Dialogue (1978), Nigerian – Chinese Dialogue (1979), Nigerian – Scandinavian Dialogue (1980), Nigerian – Brazilian Dialogue (1980), Dialogue on North – South Dialogue with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1981) and the Nigerian – Chinese Dialogue (1982). While at the Institute, he was a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva in 1977; Visiting Professor at The Diplomacy Training Programme of the University of Nairobi, Kenya; Regent’s Lecturer, University of California, Los Angeles, California in 1979. In 1983, he was appointed a Professor of Political Science by the University of Lagos, Nigeria and was also a Visiting Overseas Scholar at St. John’s College, Cambridge in 1984.

In 1985, he was appointed the Hon. Minister of External Affairs. During his period as the Foreign Affairs Minister, he was involved in negotiating the cease-fire in the Chad – Libyan, and in the Mali – Burkina Faso war. He conceived and moved the concept of the Concert of Medium of Powers — an idea which sought to bring together middle powers for the purpose of using their collective bargaining power to mediate disputes within the international system. He also introduced the Technical Aid Corps Scheme to radically restructure the Nigerian foreign assistance programme. The scheme is still thriving.
While serving as the Foreign Affairs Minister, he was the Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the United Nations Annual General Assembly Session, New York (1985); Deputy Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the Commonwealth Summit, Bahamas (1985); Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the Organisation of African Unity, Council of Ministers Session (1986); Deputy Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the Organisation of African Unity Heads of State and Government Summit (1986); Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the Non – Aligned Foreign Ministers Conference, Harare (1986); Deputy Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the Non – Aligned Summit, Harare (1986); Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the United Nations General Assembly Annual Session (1986); Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the Critical Economic Situation in Africa (1986); Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the Budget Session of the Council of Ministers of the Organisation of African Unity, Addis Ababa (1987); Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the Ordinary Session of the Council of Ministers of the Organisation of African Unity, Addis Ababa (1987); Deputy Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the Annual Summit of the Organisation of African Unity (1987); Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the United Nations General Assembly Annual Session (1987); Deputy Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the Commonwealth Heads of State and Governments, Vancouver (1987) and Leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the Extra – Ordinary Session of the Council of Ministers of the Organisation of African Unity devoted to African debt, Addis Ababa (1987).

After his ministerial assignment, the Centre for International Studies, University of Cambridge, England appointed him a Fellow of International Relations. He is also a Life Member of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, England. He has been a member of the following reputable bodies and institutions: the International Advisory Board of the Centre for Strategic Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, U.S.A.; International Institute of Strategic Studies Committee on Regional Security Studies; Academic Advisory Board, Candido Mendes University, Brazil; United Nations Group of Experts on Disarmaments and Development; United Nations Group of Experts on certain aspects of the Middle East; United Nations Institute for Disarmament Panel on South African Nuclear Capability; United Nations Organising Committee for United Nations Conference on Disarmament, Development and Security in Africa; Nigerian Government Panel on the History of Nigeria since Independence; Election Observer, Human Rights Group, Zimbabwe.

Akinyemi, a prolific writer, has written many books and contributed his publications to many reputed and recognised local and international journals.

Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University was brought to my attention by Chief Pius Odebiyi (the first editor of Central Bank of Nigeria’s Bullion Magazine of the late 60s) circa mid-2000s. The late Chief Odebiyi was one of the most connected Nigerians you would ever meet. He knew everyone from the late 60s to the 2000s and he had stories to tell of prominent Nigerians both alive and those who have passed on that you would not find in the pages of newspapers. Cousins to Fela Kuti and Wole Soyinka et al were just one of the tales one heard and knew about. A name that opened doors, which I realised is one of the best prized possessions one could ever acquire.

One day in the early 2000s, I was discussing international relations with Chief Odebiyi at his Alagbado residence (my second abode as his children were my friends and since ASUU were always on strike then or rather I had concluded my NYSC) and he mentioned Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, asked me to get him one of the books he wrote and published and he advised I paid a visit to Nigerian Institute of International Affairs on Kofo Abayomi street on Victoria Island, to get his exact office address. You see, Chief Odebiyi had a very good memory and remembered the exact area of Professor Akinyemi’s residence but could not remember the street. I went to NIIA and I was given the address. Days later, armed with an interesting letter I had composed, I made my way to the address, the letter was dropped and I was contacted to pick up my response. I returned and Professor Akinyemi’s personal assistance gave me an official headed letter and signed by Professor Bolaji Akinyemi. That would be my first interaction with Professor Bolaji Akinyemi.

I met him and his son years later at Nigerian Institute of International Affairs and I re-introduced myself. Since I had his number, I made sure to send him a birthday text on January 4. Some years later, I lost his number no thanks to those who pick phones or those who don’t return phones found in public places (but still had his email address).

Fast forward to 2020 and I wanted to do a report (which was published on August 27th 2020 and titled Technical Aid Corps: Nigeria’s Soft Diplomacy Since 1987) on the Technical Aid Corps (one of the finest diplomacy tools engineered by any country in the world and which was formulated in 1987 by Professor Akinyemi and his team when he was External Affairs Minister) but I realised I didn’t have his number anymore. I sent a mail and no response, so I reached out to another prominent media mogul Chief Dele Momodu who gave me the information I needed. This was how I was able to reconnect with the erudite and consummate Professor of International Relations in 2020.

Professor Akinyemi never fails to send one a message on Wednesday (a reminder with a Youtube link for his Thursday show titled “Through My Eyes with Professor Bolaji Akinyemi” where he dissects current international relations developments from an African perspective and he has recorded exactly seventy-eight episodes) and he never fails to send a message accompanied with a picture of lovely flowers every Sunday morning.

There are some elite and erudite elder statesmen and women who are of an old breed and their perspectives of how Nigeria and Africa evolved from the independence era till date need to be documented because they are elderly. I came to this conclusion in the late 2000s when I had unfiltered access to Chief Olusegun Olusola (Nigeria’s former Ambassador to Ethiopia in the 1980s and the man behind The Village Headmaster TV series of the early 1980s on State Television- NTA), always discussed with him at his residence in Surulere but never had the thought of interviewing him, till he passed away and it dawned on me during his burial at his residence in Ogun State where I met another mentor of mine, General Ike Nwachukwu (former External Affairs Minister who was Professor Bolaji Akinyemi’s predecessor).

This piece commenced with two articles of two individuals who know the celebrant from their respective perspectives. Putting this piece together, I called the celebrant on Wednesday, 5th January 2022 and an interesting and concise private conversation ensued. This piece is in celebration of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi at eighty years who several years ago responded to my letter to him about studying at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. On Tuesday, 5th of January 2022, after making a request for the search of the letter (which I knew I could not have thrown away and which Chief Pius Odebiyi informed me that when I do get it, I should frame it), a picture of the letter Professor Akinyemi which made me realise that professional goals are actually long journeys and one is glad to see these goals gaining form and materialising. The picture of the letter-headed correspondence which contains his response to me was sent to me by my sibling. The letter titled; letter of response was dated Saturday, November 5, 2005. More fruitful and healthy years ahead to Professor Bolaji Akinyemi.

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