Professor Bolaji Akinyemi at 80: Brilliant and magnificent
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.
Prof Bolaji Akinyemi, scholar, prolific author, essayist, diplomat, totally Nigerian and proud of it too, and remains optimistic that Nigeria has all the ingredients for greatness, and should arise from the gutter, and give Africa reasons to be proud, belongs to this latter group.
Not many people’s hopes would have been bolstered when in 1975 Gen. Murtala Muhammed appointed Akinyemi the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA).
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.
Exhibiting an unusual belief in the town-gown relationship that should exist between the universities and their communities, Prof Akinyemi had the rare habit of inviting business moguls, top civil servants, military officers, and others of diverse backgrounds to the Political Science departmental Week at the University of Ibadan. While many disdained such invitation, some Army officers including Murtala Muhammed and Olusegun Obasanjo (when they were Colonels and Brigadiers) routinely attended. Also, Murtala Mohammed, Obasanjo and Bolaji Akinyemi were independent members (who paid annual membership fees) of NIIA.
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. But things were totally different before Prof Akinyemi became its DG. Then, it was in the backwaters, inconsequential, unproductive, devoid of ideas and yes, slumbering.
An authority as credible as Joseph Garba himself testified thus in his book, Diplomatic Soldiering: “There was the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs which had sadly been on death’s door virtually since independence. Soon after my appointment as Commissioner, I received a pre-empt order from Murtala Mohammed to appoint Bolaji Akinyemi the new Director-General. I wondered who Akinyemi was and Murtala Mohammed showed me a book entitled Policy and Federalism: The Nigerian Experience and told me he was the author. Henceforth, its research staff could examine a myriad of problems, which I would present to them in an unceasing stream, and write position papers accordingly.
I found the Institute responsive and effective, additionally because it provided a forum for foreign dignitaries. With all this energy and commitment around, morale was high. People looked forward to a new policy and to restructured institutions to launch it. When Angola, our first challenge came, we were ready”.
And since that Angolan challenge came in January 1976, and an enchanting Murtala Mohammed delivered his remarkable “Africa has come of Age” speech as a result, Nigeria’s diplomacy became truly “born again”; remoulded, vigorous, result-oriented, purposeful, and imbued with a newfound urgency and self-belief. 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.
To back that up, he made it a must that any country that needed Nigeria’s support for a cause must critically dialogue with Nigeria and Nigeria’s interest and gain must be agreed upon. 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.
Some of his ideas failed to gain traction in other nations. The Concert of Medium Powers, which attempted to rally some countries as a buffer against the then Super-Powers, the USA and USSR, failed to fly. Hubris kept a country such as Sweden from seeing Nigeria, whose entire earnings lagged behind what Sweden garnered from just two sources, Volvo Company and ABBA music records in the 1980s, like a mate in anything, let alone its leader in the Concert of Medium Powers. Also, even Nigerians did not really understand what Akinyemi meant when he called for us to build the Black (nuclear) Bomb with some $50 million. But to Akinyemi, it was more than an ego trip and might be the only thing to stop a “racially one-sided large-scale annihilation of man”, as he put it, “in a moment of madness”. Akinyemi has always explained that even a bully treats a person with a lethal weapon with caution and respect. He still believes in the Black Bomb even today just as he wants the country to send a Nigerian into space. Obviously, his Afro-centric ideas and independent-mindedness have cost him dearly; the West never saw him fit for appointments into multilateral organizations.
Nigerians know that the bow-tie loving gentlemanly Prof Akinyemi studied and later taught in respected universities, including Oxford and Tuft’s famed Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy. He has authored over 13 books and countless essays. He came into the world fully equipped with maximal brainpower. When he reads about the controversy over some leader’s First School Leaving Certificate (or the lack of it) which comes from a nationwide examination, he must wonder why the controversy because even he, Prof Akinyemi, does not have one. He is one of the few Nigerians, who in those days were adjudged bright enough by some committed teachers and were encouraged to take entrance examinations into the secondary school from Standard Five, instead of Standard Six. He passed, of course.
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! Yet, this obvious gentleman took to the trenches, as a NADECO member when the need arose to oppose military despotism. He suffered exile! This was where I first came in close contact with this great African.
As one would expect from this kind of group fighting a discredited government, NADECO-abroad was a very lean organisation. Led by Air Commodore Dan Suleiman, it had the commitment and participation of eminent Nigerians such as General Alani Akinrinade, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, Ambassador Raph Uwechue, Chief John Oyegun, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, Chief Raph Obiorah, Pastor Peter Obadan, and Senator Tokunbo Afikuyomi. As the Secretary of this group, I always looked forward to our weekly meetings that held at private premises, off Edgware Road in London, because of the regular incisive presentations by Professor Bolaji Akinyemi.
Looking back at that struggle, I cannot but acknowledge that Akinyemi’s knowledge of world affairs and how he deployed his vast global contacts shaped my basic understanding of how diplomacy works. Till this day, I have continued to enjoy the benefit of the personal relationship that I cultivated with the great man, during that struggle. Professor Akinyemi still finds time to send weekly best wishes to me, every Sunday morning. I count myself truly very privileged!
Prof Akinyemi bristles with ideas. He has advised our leaders to appoint academically gifted strategists as National Security Advisers and forwarded certain names of suitably qualified persons able to view national security from an all-things-considered point. Unfortunately, they have always seen national security from the narrow prism of prevention of coups and so have routinely appointed Military Intelligence officers, serving or retired. Now, Akinyemi himself has been touted as the best NSA Nigeria ever had.
One of his ideas has not only borne fruit but has resulted in the big boys and girls of the oil industry, who own oil wells and are awash with petro-dollars. Once, on a plane from the US, a Nigerian working for a foreign oil giant recounted how oil companies cap “marginal“oil wells whose productivity had declined considerably or were producing crude oil and a larger than normal percentage of other undesirables such as gas or water and just move on. Prof Akinyemi suggested in a memo that Nigerians be allowed to operate the marginal oil fields and a new business sector opened for Nigerians.
Professor Akinyemi is not tired of pushing the frontiers of knowledge in foreign policy issues. At the last count, his weekly Foreign Policy Clinic on Thursdays – “Thru My Eyes with Prof Bolaji Akinyemi” has recorded about 80 sessions on YouTube. When I listened to him in one of the sessions analyse the withdrawal of the US armed forces from Afghanistan, I was overwhelmed by the depth of his knowledge of foreign policy. I recommend this weekly program to those interested in understanding world issues.
As the Professor turns 80 today, Nigerians should remain grateful to this man of ideas and action who helped raise Nigeria’s prestige globally. And though he has seen some of his bright ideas go to waste, his belief in Nigeria’s ability to not only become great but gain respect for Blacks everywhere remains unshaken. This is surprising for an important post in the roadmap to Nigeria’s greatness he produced, resulted in the establishment of the National Think-Tank; “it has gone the way of other big ideas”, he said in an interview with Sam Omatseye. But he added: “My fate is wrapped around this belief in the future. It makes me look like a fool. A third of the country is under the control of brigands, and I cannot travel to my village without my heart in my mouth. (But) one great man will bring believers to himself and Nigeria will achieve her manifest destiny”.
I think of Prof Akinyemi at 80, not as a lion in winter, crouching, doing nothing except ruing the past. No, instead I see the noble, sagacious, fierce and warlike Ulysses that Lord Alfred Tennyson celebrated in his poem of the same title saying: “Come, my friends, ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
My wife and I join other Africans and the rest of the world in wishing Professor Akinwande Bolaji Akinyemi, a most memorable and happy birthday.
• 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.