In the long arc of any country’s history, many men and women hold offices and titles in public life. In Nigeria, that is the claim to fame of many such personalities. But if their value addition, individually and collectively, had been significant, our country would have been in better shape than it is today.
For few have transcended “being” to “doing”, leaving behind indisputable, inspirational legacies. Few have the capacity for ideas – a deep, reflective intellectual mind as a basis for policy actions, decisions and recommendations that create the kind of impact that outlives them. Even fewer still can reinvent themselves after office and remain relevant long after they have been has-beens.
Akinwande Bolaji Akinyemi CFR, Professor of Political Science, Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs from 1975 to 1983, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nigeria from 1985 to 1987, Member of the Justice Mohammed Uwais Electoral Reform Committee in 2007, and Deputy Chairman of the 2014 National Conference, is one of such men.
Born in llesha in today’s Osun State on January 4, 1942 the son of a famous school Principal father, the Rev. James Akinyemi, Bolaji Akinyemi turns 80 today. My task here, as a younger friend for whom he was a role model in my teenage years, and as a citizen who has known him for 32 years, is not to recite his long and illustrious curriculum vitae. It is to interpret that CV and its owner, to give my view of why and how Bolaji Akinyemi accomplished the feats he did and what they mean for Nigeria, Africa, and the black race, and why he still commands strong public influence and attention long after he left public office.
This man’s knowledge of the world is encyclopaedic. He was nothing short of Kissingerian in his impact on Nigerian foreign policy at a time when our country still had a strong presence in world politics. That impact, in a relatively short period of two years as foreign minister, was no accident. Although he previously headed the NIIA for eight years and so was already well known in foreign policy circles, preparation and hard work met opportunity and, combined with a keen intellect and strong worldview, created an eventful career in foreign policy.
After secondary school at Igbobi College in Lagos and Christ’s School, Ado Ekiti, Akinyemi obtained his bachelor’s degree in political science at Temple University in Philadelphia, the USA, in 1964. At the time, America was neck-deep in a cold war with the communist Soviet Union, the Vietnam war was raging and America’s controversial deployment of its troops to the Asian conflict was becoming a foreign policy quagmire. The civil rights act and voting rights act had been passed in quick succession as monumental breakthroughs in political rights for black Americans in the Lyndon Johnson presidency. These events formed a momentous backdrop for a serious African student of the world and the place of his race in it.
He went on to graduate school at the prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, where he obtained the master of arts in law and diplomacy (MALD) in 1966. The Fletcher School was founded in 1933 as a joint cooperation between Tufts University and Harvard University. Its powerful network of alumni includes heads of state and government, diplomats, intelligence operatives, and heads of multinational business corporations. It is a pedigree that opens doors in world capitals. I know. Inspired by Akinyemi’s impact at NIIA and the ministry of foreign affairs, and with his support through a letter of recommendation that helped me win the Joan Gillespie Fellowship, I also took a master’s degree at The Fletcher School in 1992 and joined the United Nations service immediately afterward. My appointment later in life as a professor on the faculty of The Fletcher School in 2015 after my tenure at the Central Bank of Nigeria was something that gave Akinyemi a lot of pride. More than many, he understood its particular significance.
Akinyemi went on to study at the University of Oxford from 1966 to 1969, bagging a doctor of philosophy (D.Phil) at the age of 27. He met and later married his wife Rowena Akinyemi, a British citizen. On returning to Nigeria and becoming a lecturer and later senior lecturer in political science at the University of Ibadan, his television interviews and newspaper articles caught the attention of military officers such as Murtala Mohammed and Ibrahim Babangida. In 1975, when Mohammed became head of state after the coup that toppled Yakubu Gowon and pursued a more assertive foreign policy, he tapped Akinyemi for the post of DG of the NIIA.
As the foreign minister under the military presidency of Babangida Akinyemi established the Nigerian Technical Aid Corps scheme that exists to this day. Under the scheme, Nigerian professionals provide technical expertise and manpower to other developing countries. This is a more advanced version of the American Peace Corps. It is a classic and practical projection of “soft power”, known to be effective in achieving international influence.
Perhaps Akinyemi’s most profound conceptual foreign policy initiative was that of the concert of medium powers in world politics, with Nigeria as a key actor in this group of states. The concept was that 16 regional powers, countries that, based on economic, diplomatic, and other factors in international relations were considered medium powers would act proactively to promote stability and conflict resolution while at the same time serving as an informal counterweight to the dominance of the great powers that were and remain permanent members of the UN security council. The concert also would serve to project Nigeria as a global power beyond Africa and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa at the time. It would deal with cross-cutting issues. With its initial exploratory meeting held in Lagos in 1987, the concert, later dubbed the Lagos Forum, was to include countries such as Austria, Brazil, Mexico, India, Malaysia, and Sweden.
However, perhaps because Akinyemi initiated the concert of medium powers late in his tenure in office, the ambitious idea did not survive his exit from the Babangida cabinet. This was unfortunate. Had the initiative grown to become fully established, Nigeria would have been better positioned to have become one of the emerging market economies (instead of a frontier market) that Brazil, Mexico, India, and Malaysia indisputably became. We would have been better placed to have eventually become part of the BRICS countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, making it BRINKS. And we would perhaps have a seat at the table of the G20 medium economic powers from which we are absent. South Africa is, again, the only African country that is a member. Bolaji Akinyemi saw tomorrow in the context of the world and Nigeria’s potential place in it.
Akinyemi’s contributions in the domestic political arena have also been significant. Through no fault of his, however, Nigeria’s destructive national political culture, which has short-circuited our development, rendered his similarly weighty contributions in this arena stillborn for the most part. The forward-looking recommendations of the Uwais panel on electoral reform were never implemented. The momentous report of the national conference convened by Goodluck Jonathan gathers dust in the archives. The “bow-tie diplomat” and “professor of significance” as he has been described by commentators, also played a central role in the struggle against the dictatorship of Sani Abacha. He was a member of the national democratic coalition as one of its vocal members in exile.
Bolaji Akinyemi remains a sought-after public commentator today, alongside his role as an elder statesman. Smartly, apart from the occasional newspaper interview, he now deploys a mostly visual medium. “Through My Eyes”, his video and television series on world affairs, is a must-view for anyone interested in international affairs. From the victory of the Taliban in conflict-ridden Afghanistan to the life and death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, from the role of sports in international relations to the implications of the rise of China as a world power, Akinyemi’s brilliant insights into world affairs do not disappoint.
Can we rediscover and rekindle, on a large scale of public policy, debate, and understanding, Akinyemi’s erudite understanding and interpretation of the world? Especially in a time when technology has made the world a truly global village but sovereign imperatives of national interest still reign? The age of COVID-19 and the politics of vaccine production and distribution, as well as travel bans, provide an opportunity for such reflection.
In the long line of Nigerian foreign ministers, Bolaji Akinyemi remains a remarkable figure by virtue of the sheer brilliance and influence of his intellect. I consider him to be more of the realist school of international relations – the world as it is and how our country can gain competitive advantage, not the world as it ought to be. As the late international relations scholar Hedley Bull who taught at Oxford and my Ph.D. alma mata at the London School of Economics argued, we live in an “anarchical society” of states.
Akinyemi understood and sought to advance Nigeria’s destiny as the biggest black-race country in the world. Our domestic politics hold the key to Nigeria’s future. Its brokenness wastes the brilliance of many men and women in our country. We must therefore return to the leadership of persons with ideas such as Akinyemi. Would that he was as successful in politics as he was in diplomacy. Nigeria would have fared better. But he has led and is still living, a life in full.
Cheers to him @80.
By Mohammed Farouk