Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi, visionary intellectual @ 80
Prof. Akinwande Bolaji Akinyemi is a colossus who has bestrode Nigeria’s political landscape for over four decades, since 1975, when he made national debut with his appointment as Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) Lagos. He was aged 33. The dynamism of his eight year tenure (1975-1983) brought NIIA into national prominence as a Think Tank.
As the Ilesa, Osun State born professor of political science turns 80 on Tuesday, January 4, 2022, (DOB Jan. 4, 1942), it offers an opportunity for an insight into this scholar who has remained relevant for 46 years in discourses on socio-economic cum political affairs of the Nigerian state. This makes him an intellectual marathoner. Many of his contemporaries have lost breath and fell off the public affairs track. What is acknowledged as his sustaining power is the intellectual fecundity he brings to analysis of public issues and his unfazed confidence in postulating innovative but controversial doctrines.
Serving as Minister of External Affairs between 1985 and 1987 during the regime of military president, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida provided him an opportunity to project his ideas at the international level. He had proposed the Concept of Medium Powers whereby some key developing countries, including Nigeria, Brazil and India, are to constitute intervening powers to reckon with in their various regions such that the so-called Big Powers will not have free reign to stomp over those regions at will. Prof. Akinyemi’s genteel mien belies his steely disposition as a power hawk and his belief in Nigeria’s manifest destiny as a power Nation not only in Africa but in the world. This informed his advocacy in 1987 as Minister of External Affairs, that Nigeria should be a nuclear power by developing what he dubbed the Black Bomb. For him, there should be no racial monopoly of nuclear capability. He initiated the Technical Aid Corps Scheme under which Nigerian professionals were sent to other African countries and the Caribbean to provide needed services in those countries with Nigeria paying their stipends. This is projecting the Nigerian flag and altruistic presence in those countries, a form of Soft Power.
Bristling with ideas, Akinyemi also advocated that strategic institutions like the diplomatic service and the intelligence agencies should be manned by the brightest – first class brains – people of high intellect, as is the practice in the United Kingdom and the United States. These ideas bred strong opposition to Akinyemi by the establishment people in the Ministry of External Affairs and the intelligence agencies who saw the professor of political science as an interloper trying to impose intellectual aristocracy on their organisations.
Perhaps, Akinyemi’s pedigree and persona create an unintentional projection of arrogance which irks many. He had attended Ivy League secondary schools in Nigeria – Igbobi College, Lagos and Christ School, Ado Ekiti – and universities abroad – Temple University, Philadelphia and Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, both in the U. S., topping it with a PhD of Oxford University, England in 1969. In terms of persona, Akinyemi’s unhurried nature, in his walk and in the measured cadence the way he speaks, is often interpreted by many as having a whiff of aristocratic aloofness and condescension which do not sit well with some and taken as dismissive or outright offensive by others. I will cite two instances. When I met Prof. Ibrahim Gambari in Washington D. C. in the mid 1980s, the Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari and Minister of External Affairs in Gen. Buhari’s regime as military Head of State, had narrated how he was treated in an ungracious, rather dismissive manner by Akinyemi, even as his predecessor in office. The Nigerian ambassador to the U. S. then, Ambassador Ignatius Olisemeka told me how Akinyemi, during his visit to U. S. as External Affairs Minister, did not show courtesy to him. He was miffed and pointedly noted: Bolaji was classmate of my younger brother. I had related these two instances to Akinyemi who shrugged off Gambari’s remark but felt Olisemeka was being over sensitive because he had no reason to be disrespectful to him. I see the Akinyemi (43) – Olisemeka (53) spat as a clash of egos – a perceived cocky, assertive young Minister in nuanced contention with an equally assertive, distinguished and supremely confident Super Diplomat!!! Ambassador Olisemeka later became Minister of Foreign Affairs (1998-99)
Akinyemi, as an advocate of Nigeria’s ‘Exceptionalism’ sees Nigeria as the major power in Africa and apparently related with African countries from that vantage power position. This inference is drawn from my encounter with a Foreign Minister of Angola when he came to address a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington in the mid 1980s where I shared the high table with him. After the event, I wanted an exclusive interview with him. But the minister went into a tirade about how Akinyemi wanted to impose on Angola and that he was happy when he was removed from office. What gratified though, was that Akinyemi must have projected Nigeria’s power enough for the minister to show respect by stopping his aide from barring me in taking the elevator with him. “He is from Nigeria, we cannot stop him,” he had instructed. I felt good.
Much of Akinyemi’s views on major issues are contained in his Convocation Lecture titled: Nigerian Exceptionalism – Nigerian Quest for World Leadership, delivered at the 2016 Convocation of University of Ibadan on November 16, 2016. In that 222-page lecture, he had decried the profligacy of Nigerian leaders, particularly state governors; the cheap access to Presidential Villa Nigerian leaders grant to foreign businessmen many of whom he considered as Looters and the self denigration whereby African leaders get sheepishly herded to attend summits with some countries, citing the example of French Summit with African leaders. It is measure of the kindred spirit and nationalistic disposition of Akinyemi and Olisemeka that both resent the self denigration of the office of President of Nigeria by successive occupants. For instance, Olisemeka, who spoke at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) Course 11’s 30th reunion programme in Abuja in January 2020, had wondered why President Buhari should diminish his office by meeting with Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, instead of the Queen herself. ‘’Don’t we have any shame as a black people, as a black race for a Head of State going to see Prince Charles’’, the former minister pondered, stressing ‘’it was time the President of the biggest country in Africa stop attending every summit he is invited to’’. This was almost two years ago, January 2020, yet the self denigration continues as President Buhari joined other African leaders to honour the recent summit summons from Turkey for a jamboree in Ankara !!
Dr. Patrick Dele Cole (PhD, Cambridge) in a write-up titled: “Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi and visions” published in the Vanguard newspaper of August 4, 2020 had attested to Prof. Akinyemi as a prodigy. He had described the former External Affairs Minister as “an international colossus,” adding “I was in utter awe of him and his intellectual prowess.”
Akinyemi is a visionary intellectual in the mold of Dr. Henry Kissinger, the celebrated former U. S. Secretary of State (1973 -1977) in the heady days of Super Power Cold War in the 1970s whose visionary Shuttle Diplomacy thawed U. S. -Soviet Union and U. S. -China frigid relations. Just as ‘Henry, The K’, as canonised by the adulating American press, remains relevant as a consultant in international relations, even at age 98 (DOB May 27, 1923), the prognosis is that Nigeria’s own visionary Prof. A. Bolaji Akinyemi at 80, will remain similarly relevant in the years to come.
Dr. Olawunmi, a mass communication scholar, is a former Washington Correspondent of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) and Fellow, Nigerian Guild of Editors.