Professor Bolaji Akinyemi has just got enrolled as a member of the octogenarian club and Nigerians are, appropriately, celebrating this man of ideas on various platforms. Many men make the rigorous trip to 80 years and are quietly celebrated by their family and friends in lunches and dinners and faith-based gatherings where thanks are given for God’s guiding hand and grace on the celebrant. Prof. Akinyemi’s contributions to Nigeria’s development span the space of diplomacy, international relations, foreign policy, domestic affairs, especially on the Nigerian condition, political science, scholarship and the world of ideas.
Akinyemi was born on January 4, 1942, just as people in various parts of the world were uttering words of encouragement to each other on the birth of a new year while the bombs of the Second World War were dropping in various parts of the world. It was a good time for a man who would grow into a global citizen to be born so that he could experience, as he grew up, the intricacies of a complex and coldly imperfect world he would dissect in his scholarly exertions. He was born to a father who was a school principal, so his path to good education was paved early: Igbobi College, Yaba, Christ’s School, Ado Ekiti, Temple University, Pennysylvania, United States, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, Massachussets, USA, and Trinity College, Oxford, England.
With such intimidating antecedents in education, it was no surprise that he grew to become a scholar of significance who became a professor of political science at age 41. Seven years earlier, General Murtala Muhammed, who had just overthrown General Yakubu Gowon’s government, saw Akinyemi as a fit and proper person to give muscle to the dynamic foreign policy he dreamt of for Nigeria. He made him the director-general of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) at the young age of 33. When young people complain today of being excluded from the governance of the country at the decision-making level, they need to be reminded that, if they wash their hands well, they can eat with the elders too. Akinyemi ate with the elders because he washed his hands well. And at the NIIA, he proved that he was ready for the job, that he was there not just to fill a chair, he was there to generate ideas for the consumption of decision-makers. With a clearheaded intellectual agility, Akinyemi threw into the foreign policy basket a battery of new ideas.
One of them was the introduction of bilateral dialogue for foreign policy consultations. In 1978, we had one with the Soviet Union called the Nigerian-Soviet Dialogue; the one with the Chinese came a year later. Three of such dialogues were held in 1980 with the United States, Scandinavia and Brazil. In 1982, another one was held with China. The effect of these dialogues was an improvement in the understanding of the perspectives of these countries, which enabled Nigeria to articulate and formulate appropriately suitable foreign policies for Nigeria’s smooth interaction with them. Another innovation of the Akinyemi tenure at NIIA was the introduction of a town-and-gown forum called the Nigerian Forum. From this forum emerged a bi-monthly publication called Nigerian Forum.
Its editorial board was headed by the director-general and was made up of some eggheads in the foreign policy space and some journalists. Two of Nigeria’s leading journalists Dr. Stanley Macebuh of the Guardian and Alhaji Turi Muhammadu of the New Nigerian were also members of the editorial board. Even though the forum discussed mainly foreign policy issues, it sometimes sank its teeth into national affairs in direct recognition that the vibrancy of a country’s foreign policy comes from its domestic policy. In fact, the Nigerian Forum of November/December 1981 was on what it called “The Mood of the Nation.” This was based on a seminar it held on August 24, 1981, to assess the direction in which Nigeria was headed. The seminar was a verbal dissertation of the Nigerian condition and its journey to nationhood. It was a reflection of the unsettling urgency for answers to our multiple questions of nationhood that had remained, and still remain, unanswered. This seminar was a product of Akinyemi’s vividly inventive mind.
Akinyemi was appointed Minister of External Affairs by President Ibrahim Babangida in 1985 and he stayed in that position until 1987. For those two years Akinyemi made significant policy recommendations. One of them was the eminently successful idea of a Technical Aid Corps. That programme, which involved sending Nigerian professionals overseas to engage in volunteer work, was designed to “promote the country’s image and status as a major contribution to Third World and particularly African development.” Many Nigerians on the programme were so useful that the countries in which they served retained them as permanent employees. In 1987, Akinyemi advocated for Nigeria to develop what came to be called the “black bomb.” He said that Nigeria had a responsibility to challenge the “racial monopoly of nuclear weapons.”
For a nation that was still struggling to feed its hungry citizens, the idea, though remotely attractive, was too controversial for implementation. It died a natural death and was buried in a shallow grave. No one has had the courage to resurrect it since then.
Akinyemi also threw into the pot the idea of the “Concert of Medium Powers.” This was supposed to be a forum for some 16 countries of medium strength to band themselves into a force that could be a counterweight to the superpowers in world affairs. The idea was very attractive for analysts who believed that the world needed a third force that could be transformed into a stabilising force for the world, which was dominated then by the United States and the Soviet Union. The idea died in its embryo when Akinyemi exited the office in 1987.
During those two exciting years, Akinyemi brought respect to Nigeria’s foreign relations because it was driven by ideas, dialogue, intellectual erudition and political realism. It is a big pity that his tenure was brief and you cannot fail to ponder what Babangida was looking for in a foreign affairs minister. It is alleged, but I have no proof, that Akinyemi’s departure was because on his opposition to the Federal Government’s involvement in matters of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), matters that polarised the country, unfortunately. That incident has, till this day, divided the country into hostile religious camps. By the way they behave today, the leaders of the different religious sects appear to be struggling for the installation of theocracy as Nigeria’s government, instead of a democracy.
Akinyemi, always impeccably dressed in well-cut suits and watermelon coloured bow ties, has been involved in other national endeavours. In August 2007, President Umaru Yar’Adua appointed him into the Electoral Reform Panel, which was headed by the diligent Justice Mohammed Uwais. That panel produced an excellent report but, unfortunately, those excellent recommendations have been studiously ignored by all our governments. Reason? The reforms, if implemented, would kill election rigging and who among the ruling elite wants election rigging dead? None. You can see the silly games that they are playing today with the Electoral Act Amendment Bill, reducing our democracy to a joke or something close to it.
Akinyemi was also at the 2014 National Conference playing his part as a stabilising deputy chairman to the chairman, Justice Idris Kutigi, a former Chief Justice of Nigeria. That conference produced more than 600 transformational recommendations but, as is customary with Nigeria, those recommendations are gathering cobwebs somewhere while Nigeria weeps daily in the search for a way out of the present debilitating quagmire in which we are.
Akinyemi is not a rabble-rousing activist but he is a citizen concerned with what concerns Nigeria and he would not stand and stare. When Nigeria was staggering to its grave under General Sani Abacha, he enrolled as a vocal and active member of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), a forum that was fighting for the recovery of the soul of Nigeria. When the government started gunning down opponents of its dictatorship, Akinyemi went on exile abroad and continued his patriotic activism from there. Today, Akinyemi holds no office, elective or appointive, but he remains a fountain of ideas because he needs no office for the validation of his ideas. A staggeringly successful diplomat, Akinyemi is a man of his convictions. He is neutral in nothing and he is monumentally self-confident. Even though he is a paragon of upper society, he remains disarmingly friendly and humble.
But even though he is humble he does not suffer fools gladly. As a person, he has an inbuilt sense of social grace and the right measuring rod for propriety. At 80, he still sounds and looks like a long distance runner just hitting his stride. He remains a man with a dazzling leap of logic in the expression of his ideas. Ideas run the world but Nigeria is hostile to new ideas. That is why we are stuck in the conservative past while the excrutiating problems of the present overwhelm us. Every society is dynamic. Ours is static. Society’s dynamism is a function of ideas, not rigidity, not regimentation. The only thing that is constant is change.
Akinyemi, a man of great ideas has been an apostle of change. If some of his ideas have not borne fruit in the public space he is not to blame. He is innocent. Nigeria abhors change, the right kind of change.