The scholar and the diplomat extra-ordinary
When one thinks of a public intellectual and a diplomat extra-ordinary, the person to whom the mind races is no other than Professor Bolaji Akinwande Akinyemi. You look right, you look left and you concentrate the mind on the centre, the picture that hits you is that of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi. The image looms large for his untiring public intellectual engagement, public education and consistency. His weekly engagement on his YouTube programme, ‘thruMYeyes’ has reached Session 78. Two days ago, Prof. Akinyemi attained the octogenarian age of 80. The media has, predictably, been beside itself in excitement, celebrating the colossus since Sunday. The unrelenting Mr. COVID-19 has restricted the possibility of a huge gathering around accustomed comestibles in part celebration of an occasion of this nature. The Ijesa Society has, nevertheless, come to the rescue, organising a meeting through the instrumentality of the technological wonder that goes by the name Zoom. It is just as well; it corresponds with the celebrant’s temperament. The programme consists a lecture and book presentation, and the lecture is to be delivered by a former Minister of Foreign Affairs. Nothing else could have put Akinyemi in his elements than this kind of activity.
Akinyemi came into public reckoning prepared. When he burst into public consciousness, he began by writing a column in the Sketch newspaper at Ibadan in the early 70s. This was after he had wandered round the Western World acquiring all manner of qualifications to fortify himself. I cannot swear an oath on what influenced his decision to begin his public life with column writing. It was at a time the University of Ibadan giants, Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade and Prof. Billy Dudley, and some other egg heads dominated the Nigerian Opinion magazine, edited by Alade Odunewu, Allah-De, then Chief Executive, Magazine Division of the Daily Times empire. And from the University of Lagos, Dr. Ohobamu. A collection of the articles was later turned into a book: Nigeria 1965—Crisis and Criticism, edited by Aboyade, Dudley and J. O’Connell.
Akinyemi arrived at the University of Ibadan in 1971 and was there until 1975 when General Murtala Mohammed pulled him out and appointed him the Director-General of the National Institute of International Affairs, a position he held for eight years.
Akinyemi was born carrying with him great abilities waiting to be unfolded. He must have been told by his father as soon as he became capable of absorbing words of admonition— in the words of Hillarie Belloc: “Child! Do not throw this book about; Refrain from the unholy pleasure; Of cutting all pictures out! Preserve it as your chiefest treasure.” Such is the importance of books in the life of Akinyemi and he wasted no time in grabbing it with both hands till this day. He reads everything and anything in print, and in this age of digital publication, he does not miss anything in the social media. He has time for all he wants to do, he wants to read and he wants to write.
His father, Cannon J. Akinyemi, was principal of Ilesha Grammar School, and Bolaji showed promise very early in his life. He entered the Igbobi College, Yaba in 1955 from Standard Five as a bright pupil after passing the college’s entrance examination what would pass today as Primary Five. Primary school learning terminated in Standard Six as of the time. It was at a time secondary school was almost passing as the utmost educational level, and university was seen as a different and distant world entirely. When Bolaji Akinyemi finished at Igbobi in 1959, he went to Christ School, Ado- Ekiti, and another renowned college for his Higher School Certificate (HSC) examination. These were secondary schools that were regarded as Ivy League Colleges—greatly indeed breathlessly coveted. Numbered among these were King’s College, Lagos; Government College, Ibadan; St. Gregory’s College, CMS Grammar School, Lagos; Ijebu-Ode Grammar School, Ijebu-Ode; Ilesha Grammar School; Christ the King’s College, Onitsha; Government College, Ughelli; Methodist Boys’High School, Lagos; Olivet Heights, Oyo; BBHS Abeokuta; BBHS, Port Harcourt; Baptist Academy, Lagos; Baptist High School, Shaki; Molusi College, Ijebu Igbo; St. Finbar’s College, Akoka, Lagos, Queen’s College, Ede; Our Ladies of Apostles, Ijebu Ode; Muslim College, Ijebu-Ode; Methodist Girls High School, Yaba; Abeokuta Grammar School, Abeokuta; Aquinas College, Akure; Idia College, Benin; Egbado College, Ilaro; Offa Grammar School, Offa; and several more to which admissions were highly competitive.
At age 20, Akinyemi won a national essay competition, the award which earned him a tour of the United States. From then there was no stopping him. The tour opened his eyes to struggle, freedom, essence of scholarship and splendour. From Ado-Ekiti where he finished in 1962, he headed for Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States from 1962 to 1964; for his Masters degree, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, United States (1964 to1966) and Trinity College, Oxford, England, from 1966 to 1969. He did his PhD in barely two years. These were the glittering qualifications and exposure he tucked in his briefcase and which he brandished before the whole world whenever occasions called for it. The exposure gave him a unique sense of decency, confidence and daringness and prodigious output. One of the works, Policy and Federalism: The Nigerian Experience, was to sell him to General Murtala Mohammed, the then Head of State, who asked his Foreign Affairs Minister, Col. Joe Garba, to look for him and appoint him the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. He became director-general at 33.
At the time, hardly did anyone remember that the institute was there. But Akinyemi pumped oxygen into it, and injected it with energy tonic. The turn-around was dramatic and in consequence became Murtala Mohammed’s handy intellectual powerhouse. No one can forget in a hurry General Mohammed’s speech on Angola which signaled that the days of apartheid in South Africa were numbered. From then on Nigeria became one of the Southern African frontline states. Life was unceasingly driven into the struggle to free South Africa from minority rule and restore dignity to the Blackman. Dr. Dele Cole, then Managing Director of Daily Times, became a roving envoy granting television interviews in East Africa and Southern Africa, demonstrating that all hands were on deck to pull down apartheid. The combination of General Murtala Mohammed and Dr. Bolaji Akinyemi had lit the fire in the souls of Africans, West, East or South. Little wonder, after the death of Mohammed, General Olusegun Obasanjo kept Akinyemi in the saddle to keep the tempo and sustain the heat, and indeed ditto President Shehu Shagari. The NIIA library became a major centre for research in international affairs. Akinyemi was at the Institute of International Affairs from 1975 to 1983. He went back to academics in 1983 at the University of Lagos, Department of Political Science where he became a professor. Even in the years in-between, his expertise was in high demand. He was a visiting Professor at the Diplomacy Training Programme, University of Nairobi, Kenya, in 1977. The same year he was also a visiting professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. He was Lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles, United States in 1979 and Visiting Fellow, St. John’s College, Cambridge, United Kingdom in 1984. He was at the University of Lagos between 1983 and 1985 from where he was plucked by General Ibrahim Babangida to be his External Affairs Minister.
It was as Minister of External Affairs that he was even more able to unfold and spread his wings. He went from being an adviser and theorist on foreign affairs to being the practitioner of what he preached. It was in that office he had the opportunity to think outside the box. What with the introduction of the Technical Aid Corps to demonstrate Nigeria’s largeness, prestige, status and capabilities. The programme was aimed at organizing Nigerian professionals as volunteers to serve in African and Caribbean countries. The first batch of 50 professionals was posted the countries. Nigeria’s image was undoubtedly boosted with the programme which runs till this day. He flew the idea of Concert of Medium Powers, something to be slightly higher than the assembly of Non-Aligned Countries, but below the allied Western nations of the U.S., the UK, Germany, France and Canada. It was meant to be a committee of nations that could bark even if it would not immediately bite. And in the shadows was going to be Black Bomb, a euphemism for nuclear power. As Minister of External Affairs in Professor Akinyemi did we have our own Henry Kissinger of Shuttle Diplomacy fame. Like Kissinger, Akinyemi bestrode the world’s firmament, too, meeting world leaders. He led several Nigerian delegations to international conferences and summit meetings. He led the Nigerian team to the United Nations General Assembly in 1985. Organization of African Unity, OAU, Council of Ministers Session in 1986; United Nations General Assembly Annual Session, 1986; Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers Conference 1986; the United Nations General Assembly Special session on Critical Economic Situation in Africa in 1986; the Budget Session of the Council of Ministers of OAU 1987; and more, whether as it concerned the Organization of African Unity or the United Nations, ordinary or extra-ordinary sessions.
To demonstrate knowledge of, and familiarity with his turf, and passion for foreign affairs, he said to The Punch in 2019 when asked what Nigeria’s strategic interest there is keeping missions in countries such as Sri Lanka, Hungary, Poland, Vietnam and the like: “It is because they all have votes in the UN. When you intend to fight for a seat in the Security Council of the UN, these are the countries you are going to lobby. They cannot veto somebody’s application for membership. It is one state, one vote and your competitors probably have presence there. Even our competitors on the continent, like South Africa, have their presence in these countries you want to push into the background.” He has no objection to our country having about 120 foreign missions globally. He said Nigeria is the hope of Africa and the Black race. We cannot be hope of Africa by running a foreign service on pittance or by closing down embassies. Where to find the money? His response: “If the economy was genuinely bad, we would not be spending so much money on our Senators and members of the House of Representatives as we do at the moment. If the economy was genuinely bad, the NNPC would not be holding back funds meant for the Federal Government. So, I have no problem with sustaining vibrant foreign missions.”
Akinyemi had a keen sense of justice and fair play. A man with the courage of his convictions, with all his exposure he did not shun getting into the trenches to protest the annulment of June 12 election which Moshood Abiola won with absolute disregard to personal consequences. He was defending unifying factor which the election represented for the country evinced in Nigerians voting across ethnic lines and religious frontiers to vote Muslim-Muslim ticket and in Abiola beating Tofa, his challenger even in his local government area. He was a leader in the NADECO vanguard, speaking for the organisation from exile in the United Kingdom. When he was back home from exile, he was a strong member of Alliance for Democracy, AD regularly attending the party’s meetings at Ijebu Igbo country home of NADECO leader, Abraham Adesanya.
Akinyemi could also prove how domesticated he is in matters of family. He demonstrated this and his humanity and how he can be easily moved by adversity or calamity, when his younger brother, Major Akinloye Akinyemi was implicated in a coup plot in 1987. Prof. Akinyemi was never convinced his brother, a signal corps member fondly called Sergeant Carter had hand in the coup plotting. When Major Akinyemi died in 2012, he wept inconsolably.
In a country a jungle of concrete is the fashion that can lead to nothing but soullessness when kiddies cannot see squirrels except in books nor shout in excitement to their Moms about reptiles and birds on compound, Prof. Akinyemi stands apart. He prefers a jungle of plants; it is in the midst of this stands his modest house at Ikeja. It is a forest and enchanting rows of flowers beckoning and exuding soothing fragrance. Birds of different plumage fly all over the place, perching here and pecking there. Professor Akinyemi is a decent, polished fellow with his bow-tie as his trademark. He takes his religious conviction seriously which he uses to set standard for himself. At 80, he does not show any sign of slowing down. It is in activity the Law of Motion is observed and it is through and in the Law good health ensues and is maintained. At 80, we can only say: Happy and glorious birthday to a scholar and diplomat extra-ordinary, a citizen of the universe, refined and humble.