We were all shocked by the news of the demise of Dr Obadiah Mailafia, Nigeria’s foremost public intellectual, academic, central banker, national and international public servant and lately, a voice against the low-key genocide against the minorities of the north central states. He was said to have developed malaria-like symptoms (but not Covid-19 because he was fully vaccinated, and tests showed he was negative) about a week ago and was taken to the hospital. He never recovered and was pronounced dead, Sunday morning at the University of Abuja teaching hospital in Gwagwalada. Insinuations from his family suggest he was so shabbily treated by the hospitals he was taken to and it was as if they were there to supervise his demise rather than treat him.
Born 64 years ago, Dr Mailafia quickly distinguished himself by graduating top of his class at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria. After working at his Alma mater for some time, he won a federal government scholarship to France to study Economics and Public Administration. He subsequently proceeded to Oriel College at Oxford where he bagged a DPhil in Economics in 1995.
He taught at various British universities until 2001 when he moved to the African Development Bank where he served as Chief Economist and supervised many projects in agriculture, infrastructure, power and education. He was reputed to have drafted the concept note that was later adopted by the board of the AfDB, leading to the establishment of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), an exclusively African peer to peer mechanism for holding leaders accountable to help reduce poverty, empower women and put Africa on a sustainable path to development. Sadly, like everything African, after the initial fanfare that greeted its launch and after some tepid attempts to hold leaders accountable, the mechanism has all but disintegrated as sit-tight leaders have shown no appetite for accountability.
In 2005, the Obasanjo administration recalled him from the AfDB to serve as deputy governor of the Central Bank in charge of economic policy, where he oversaw monetary policy, economic policy, research and statistics and liaison with regional and international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. He was on the team that worked to successfully negotiate Nigeria away from its debts to the Paris Club in 2006.
Of course, the moment Obasanjo left in 2007, the rapid Nigerian malaise that often frustrates brilliant and honest people from serving in the public sector set in leading to his exit from the bank in 2007. He was soon back to his international forte, serving as the Chief of Staff to the 79-member nation of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group based in Brussels, where has was involved in the management of €22 billion of EU funding for ACP countries under the 10th European Development Fund (EDF) and €31.5 billion for the 11th European Development Fund covering the years 2015–2020.
He was on the board of several companies and advised hedge funds, international and private equity funds and investors on emerging markets risks and opportunities. This is besides his role as a newspaper columnist to several media houses in Nigeria, a public intellectual and radio/TV commentator.
I only got to know Dr Mailafia personally in 2016 when I was working as his Editor for his incisive Monday, later Friday, column “Wealth of Nations” in BusinessDay. It was a delight to always read his thoroughly researched, incisive and deeply intellectual pieces every week. I’m always at a loss as to how he is able to combine research for his articles and his other public and international engagements and still churn out excellent pieces every week not only for BusinessDay but also for other outlets. It wasn’t long before we developed a personal relationship where he became like a mentor, urging me to improve my craft. It was also there I saw first-hand the vile nature of our public institutions always at war with honest and brilliant individuals who dare to call attention to the wanton corruption and mismanagement of our common patrimony. On more than one occasion, the CBN – the same institution he served with so much distinction – will write inane hack pieces with fictitious names in response to his critique of our monetary or fiscal policies and use their patronage powers to force it on journalists to give their hack pieces “urgent and wide publicity”.
It wasn’t long before Dr Mailafia began to butt heads with the Buhari administration not so much for its catastrophic mismanagement of the economy but for a totally different reason – the low-key genocide being perpetrated against ethnic minorities in the north central states of Platueau, Nassarawa, Gombe, Kaduna and Benue states by so-called Fulani herdsmen who are never identified, arrested or made to pay for their crimes. Besides his very public advocacy, Dr Mailafia actively collaborated in a series of research that systematically documented the thousands of people lost to the herdsmen genocide and the role of the Buhari government in silently encouraging and covering up the killings. That report by the International Committee on Nigeria: “Nigeria Silent Slaughter: Genocide in Nigeria and the Implications for the International Community” made it to the highest echelon of the international community and is the basis of renewed pressure by Western countries on the Buhari administration to put a stop to the killings.
That made Dr Mailafia a hated and marked man. Besides being hounded all the time by the Department of State Services (DSS) there were many futile attempts to question his integrity by trying to rope him into decisions taken at the CBN when he was deputy governor, but which was not under his remit. Most recently, he has had to be moving from one place to another to evade security forces and hoodlums sent to intimate or assassinate him.
What I could not understand however, was his decision not to go on a brief exile considering the forces arrayed against him. He could have been infinitely more useful to the people and the cause he was fighting for being alive. But a defiant Mailafia declared in 2020 that he was prepared to die for Nigeria and the struggle to liberate his people. That is exactly how he went, being a victim of Nigeria’s decrepit healthcare system that kills rather than treats. Adieu to a mentor, an intellectual giant, an international polymath, an honest and decent human being and a man who deeply cares for his people and the fate of his country and the African continent!