The Guardian
Email YouTube Facebook Instagram Twitter WhatsApp

The famished land of the old emperor


Adebayo Adedeji

Most Africans put hope on Nigeria to redeem the image of the continent. That was why there was so much jubilation across Africa and the African Diaspora when Nigeria humbled Iceland during the remarkable match in Russia during the ongoing World Cup, the most talk about event on the planet now. When Nigeria in turn was kicked out by football superpower, Argentina, Africans were sour in defeat. We deserve to win, many of us believe, but for the foul temper and poor judgment of the referee. Our boys would be home soon with their heads held high. They did their best and made us proud. They carried the burden of Africa.

We are the African Super-Power and other Africans look at us with envy mixed with amazement. We are in every country on the continent and you know us because we walk as if we own every piece of Africa. Our claim is authentic. One in every African is a Nigerian. One in every six Black person in the world is a Nigerian. Therefore, if you live long in enough, it doesn’t matter in which country you are, you will meet a Nigerian. Some Nigerians are even claiming that they are descendants of ancient Jewry. The modern state of Israel would not agree. They tried to deport them. Trust Nigerians! Many of them have learnt to speak Hebrew. I would not be surprised if some of them create new genealogical lines tracing their roots to King David!

We were never shy to carry the burden of Africa and indeed, other parts of the world. In the 1960s, Nigeria formed the backbone of the United Nations Peace Keeping operation in the Congo during the crisis that attended the independence of that benighted land. Though our soldiers could not prevent the assassination of Prime-Minister Patrice Lumumba, we did help in restoring some normalcy to that country which was later to be dominated by the bestial regime of Field-Marshal Mobutu Sese Seko. The UN contingent was commanded by Nigerian Major-General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi. One of the officers who served there was the then Lieutenant Olusegun Obasanjo, who was destined to become Africa’s most famous military officer.


Since Obasanjo returned from the Congo, Nigerian soldiers have shed their blood for many countries, most of them in Africa. They have served under the UN flags in far flung territories including Lebanon and Sudan, General Martin Luther Agwai commanded the UN forces in Sudan, paving the way for the independence of Southern Sudan and arresting the menace of the rebel militias in that country. It was believed that the militias were sponsored by elements close to the Sudanese government in Khartoum.

Since its formation, Nigeria has been the backbone of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, and its peace keeping arm, the ECOWAS Monitoring Group, ECOMOG, which was once commanded by the likes of Generals Joshua Dongoyaro, John Shagaya and Adetunji Olurin. It was the ECOMOG that brought peace to Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire and Liberia. Former warlord and later president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, was believed to be the one sponsoring the civil war in Sierra Leone because of his interest in blood diamond. For this crisis, many Nigerian soldiers died on the soil of Serra Leone. When Taylor would not relent in his bloody adventure, President Olusegun Obasanjo engineered his timely retirement. He spent some years in exile in Abuja and Calabar. He is now spending his retirement years in a British prison.

It was not just the soldiers who are trusted to carry the burden of Africa. Nigerian diplomats, jurists, administrators have been entrusted with sensitive international assignments. Justices Daddy Onyeama, Taslim Olawale Elias, Bola Ajibola and several others have served on the World Court and other international judicial bodies. The late Justice Akinola Aguda was the first African Chief Justice of Botswana. He later served as the Chief Justice of the Western State and became the pioneer Director of the Nigerian Institute of Advance Legal Studies. Professor Adeoye Lambo was the Deputy Director-General of the World Health Organisation.

In 1983, President Shehu Shagari appointed one of the young Nigerians on the international scene, Emeka Anyaoku, as a minister. Anyaoku was a rising star at the headquarters of the Commonwealth of Nations, an organisation comprising former British colonies. When Shagari was toppled, Anyaoku, like all other ministers, was thrown into jail. The new strong man, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, later relented and freed Anyaoku who duly resumed his work in London. He was to rise to the pinnacle as the Secretary General of the Commonwealth. On the international scene today are the likes of Professor Agboola Gambari and former Minister of Finance, Mrs Okonjo Iweala.

However, none of these great men and women have been able to equal the aura of majesty and romance that attended Professor Adebayo Adedeji international years. In 1998, at the height of General Sani Abacha dictatorship, I had travelled through the famous NADECO route to reach Ghana where I boarded my flight to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. I was the guest speaker at the 50th anniversary of the Ethiopian Journalists Association. My host, as part of my tour of Addis, took me to the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, ECA, where Adedeji was the Director-General for 15 years. It was a sprawling complex, more imposing than the OAU headquarters.

When Adebayo resumed work in Addis Ababa 1975 as the United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, ECA, Ethiopia and Africa were in ferment. In Ethiopia, it was at the zenith of the new dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu Haile-Maria who had toppled the centuries old dynasty of Emperor Haile Selassie. With the death of Selassie in 1975, the 45-year old Professor Adedeji of economics was quickly nicknamed the emperor. He held court in the imposing complex of the ECA. To emphasis his stature as a man of universal relevance, African heads of state do drop in to visit him at his office after attending OAU summit. He was on familiar terms with many of them. They relied on his advice and suggestions to help them solve their country’s problems. Adedeji was larger than life.

He was born in Ijebu-Ode where he had his earlier schoolings before proceeding to the then University College, Ibadan, where he bagged a degree in economics. He had his masters at the University College, Leicester in the United Kingdom and his doctorate from Harvard in the United States. He worked with the government of the defunct Western Region before becoming a teacher at the nascent University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) rising to become a full professor at 36. After the resignation of Chief Obafemi Awolowo as the Federal Commissioner for Finance in 1971, the 40 year-old professors was appointed to replace him in the cabinet. He was made the Federal Commissioner for Economic Development and Reconstruction, a post he held until 1975 when he got the job at Addis Ababa.


After 15 years as the emperor of ECA, Adebayo retired home. Nigeria was decidedly different, more populous, possibly richer, more corrupt and its people certainly poorer. When he was serving under General Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria took itself seriously. The Five-Years Development Plan was taken seriously like the Holy Writ. The budgets were implemented to the letter. We fought a Civil War and when the war ended, Adedeji was the man in charge of reconstruction. We thought we were on the right path and the future look bright like old Lagos streets when street lights were working.

When Adedeji died April 25, 2018, he had seen enough of Nigeria since his Addis days. He knew the future had been deferred. His old friend, our father, Kabiyesi Sikiru Kayode Adetona, made him the Asiwaju (leader) of Ijebu-Ode. But the context of power had changed and there were new boys in the hood. Nigerians no longer take themselves seriously and few people take them seriously. Which other African country would continue to pay its parliament their criminal emolument when the national budget is delayed for six months? Which country in the world would remain almost unperturbed while its citizens are slaughtered daily in their hundreds by unknown Fulani herdsmen while the Commander-in-Chief wrings his hands like Pontius Pilate and ask the citizens to pray for deliverance?

Next Friday, July 6, Adedeji would be committed to Mother Earth in Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, where his story began 87 years ago. When he gets to headquarters, the emperor would have a lot of stories to tell about a potentially great country that is gradually sliding into chaos. He may also tell them the parable of the monkeys and the baboons dancing on the Plateau drenched in the blood of the innocent.

Receive News Alerts on Whatsapp: +2348136370421

No comments yet