Deservedly described as one of Nigeria’s most outstanding intellectuals of contemporary times, former Foreign Minister, university teacher and public servant, Prof Bolaji Akinyemi, turned 80 years of age on Tuesday 4th January 2022, barely three days after the New Year. Since then, a rhapsody of public discourse on his footprint in the narration of the Nigerian story, especially in the country’s foreign policy arena has continued to re-echo. He has carved out for himself a special place in national annals as a theoretician who had the courage to put into practice, when the opportunity lurked, his radical foreign policy models; reshaping for good, Nigeria’s global standing.
Appreciating the Ijesa idealism
The celebration of Akinyemi’s birthday was anchored mostly by the leadership of his Ijesa descendants association in a manner deserving of a greatly worthy son. An ancient people and indeed one of the distinct sub-groups of the Yoruba ethnic nationality, the Ijesa claim direct descent from the progenitor of the Yoruba race, Oduduwa. Indeed, their traditional ruler known as Owa Obokun and the royals easily trace their origin to Owa Ajibogun, who actually was a direct son of Oduduwa. The founder of Ilesha, their main town, Owalusa was a great grandson of the warrior, Ajibogun and settled in their current location about 1350.
During the infamous Yoruba wars (1789-1880), which followed the collapse of the Oyo Empire, the Ijesa people produced some of the greatest warriors of the time. As a matter of fact, they were the most noticeable in the alliance which was formed with the people of Ekiti, also in South-West Nigeria which became known as “Ijesa-Ekiti Parapo”. In modern times, the Ijesa people are acclaimed for their adept commercial prowess, pursuit of knowledge and scholarship. The Ijesas are amongst greatly respectable Nigerians such as Amb. Dapo Fafowora, who was one time Nigeria’s representative at the United Nations; Justice Kayode Eso, once of the Supreme Court of Nigeria; Justice Omorunde Ilori, former Chief Judge of Lagos State; Ralph Aregbesola, former Governor Osun state (now Minister of Interior); Pastor Enoch Adeboye of the Redeemed Christian Church of God; and Pastor William W. Kumuyi of the Deeper Life Bible Church. Others are Prof Ibidapo-Obe, Former Vice Chancellor, University of Lagos, Prof Wale Omole, former Vice Chancellor, University of Ife, Prof. Isaac Adewole, former Minister of Health and Vice Chancellor, University of Ibadan; etc.
The son of an cleric and educationist, Archdeacon (Rev) J A Akinyemi, the young Bolaji grew up against this ambience of strong group identity, self-pride and over-arching drive for excellence. Although his father was of Anglican denomination, Prof Akinyemi, interestingly attended the Methodist Church’s premier school in Nigeria, Igbobi Grammar School, 1955 to 1959 for much of his Secondary education.
American Activist Training
He proceeded to the United States to attend Temple University, Pennsylvania 1962-1964 and later went on without a pause to the foreign policy hub, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts, University of Massachusetts. Akinyemi therefore, received his academic formation in some of America’s most vibrant institutions where foreign policy incubation was atop. This was in an age of Cold War realpolitik and detentè in which interstate relations were conducted within the prism of hard-nosed geo-strategic thinking and game theories.
From its foundational vision in 1933, Fletcher School, which is affiliated to Harvard University, had maintained a posturing as the meeting point between foreign policy theory elucidation and preparation of human capacity for diplomatic service worldwide. At Fletcher, Akinyemi’s generation of students sat under the tutelage of several towering academic personage on whose intellectual prowess lied America’s post Second World War Domino style deterrent foreign accent. Such accent of policy to which he was inducted and seemed to have stuck was ultra nationalist and full of vim and vigour. Akinyemi later proceeded to the conservative Oxford University in the United Kingdom for his PhD in 1966. But this did not seem to have tempered his earlier kinetic and mettlesome orientation in the practice of foreign policy and global politics.
Academic and Diplomatic Activism
Later in his academic sojourn, in 1977, Akinyemi took up position as a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland and also taught Diplomacy at the University of Nairobi, Kenya. In a somewhat effervescent academic career, he shortly returned to the United States, taking up teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1979. From there, he came back home to join the Political Science squad at the University of Lagos, from 1983 until 1985. This he did while combining continuous academic work as a Visiting Fellow, at St John’s College, Cambridge, England.
Akinyemi’s appointment, at a relatively young age as the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs (NIIA) in 1975 provided him the much-awaited platform to unleash his seemingly caged academic prowess. Although the NIIA had existed since 1963 as a foreign policy think-tank for Nigeria, it had been ensconced to mostly research and publications. From the time of Akinyemi’s arrival at NIIA until he left there in 1983, the country’s then ruling military elite, turned mostly to the institution for foreign policy input. This, of course, was to the chagrin of no few at the mainstream Ministry of External Affairs under whose purview such matters right belonged
Debonair Foreign Policy Principal
Akinyemi’s career pinnacled and perhaps marked a fulfilment of life’s dream when he was appointed as the Nigerian Minister of External Affairs in 1985, straight from being Director-General of the NIIA. In a manner akin to a tsunami, he assumed work at 23 Marina street Lagos, which then housed the Foreign Office, bursting out with his trapped ideas and conceptual thoughts on giving the Nigerian Foreign Policy a total paradigm shift. This shift in three years focused more on making Nigeria to have its place in the comity of nations as the leading voice of the Black and African people. While not departing from these established norms, as Africa being the centrepiece of Nigeria foreign policy, what Akinyemi did was to give each of thematic issues practical expression.
In line with his geostrategic postulations, Akinyemi interpreted power equations in the international system to mean actual matching of rhetoric and diplomatic niceties with action. First step he took was to give a new dynamism to the Ministry’s Policy Planning Unit and infusing it with some of the best the system had to offer. That department therefore became, as should rightly be, the nerve centre for the incubation, sprouting and nestling of all manners of ideas.
Amongst others was the idea of proper articulation of the Nigerian Development Assistance Policy to African, Caribbean and Pacific nations. Akinyemi’s thoughts were that if the western countries could extend technical assistance around the world, then Nigeria had to do with same within these same countries. This is especially for States which were the actual targets of the inner ring of the country’s foreign policy.
Under his watch, a new concept in the disbursal of Nigeria’s grant-in-aid programme which focused on long-term benefits to Nigeria was developed. He contrived a policy of deploying Nigerian technical expertise rather than merely disbursing financial resources to them. In other words, a core of Nigerian professionals each of whom will be an “Ambassador” were to be deployed to beneficiary countries to help them overcome the challenges of science and technology, judiciary and legal reforms and other specialized aspects of national life. Most of the affected experts were posted into the educational sector where young minds were being nurtured in the recipient countries. This gave birth in 1987 to the Technical Aid Corps (TAC) Programme, which has continued to survive during the past 33 years. As expected, the presence of such Nigerian professionals in the various countries has greatly helped to boost the image of the country in manners in which a traditional diplomatic apparatus would have been unable to bring about.
Another major policy plank under Akinyemi, was the so-called Concert of Medium Powers. This was to be a coming together of what in foreign policy circles is referred to as “emerging powers”, as different from the first tier great powers. In other words, Akinyemi reinvented and gave home grown currency to the ideas of 16th century Italian thinker Giovanni Botero who had postulated that the global scene is always comprised of: Great powers which at his time were empires, Medium powers and small powers.
Medium powers as defined by that medieval philosopher and practicalized by Akinyemi are the countries with “sufficient strength and authority to stand on their own without need for help from others”. In this category therefore, Akinyemi thought of the likes of Austria, Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey. Of course, his expectation was for Nigeria to take the lead, hence this group was also called the “Lagos Forum”. Notedly, this appeared like a tall ambition. But while it lasted during his period as Minister, created sufficient global attention and, perhaps, even panic as the group was expected to periodically hold consultations and take common positions on various global fora. This was precursor to such global fora as present D-8 and BRICS nations; of which potentially critical stakeholders such as Indonesia, Nigeria, Mexico and South Korea and Turkey still remain shut-out.
A typical son of Ijesaland, commonly stubborn to altruistic self convictions, Akinyemi was unperturbed by some of the controversies which bubbled from his effusive ideas. He also determined that Nigeria’s respect within the global community will be diminished without requisite defence capacity. He therefore advanced, in a very robust manner, the need for the country to acquire Nuclear Capability. Leveraging on his strong influence within the ruling military autocrats of his day, his idea seemed to have been taken seriously within the paraphernalia of government.
Politics and State building
Outside matters of external relations, at the height of military rule of the 1980s and 1990s, Akinyemi, along with other political scientists/historians such as Prof. Sam Oyovbaire, Dr. Tunji Olagunji, Prof. Akin Osuntokun, Prof. John Amoda, Prof. Humphrey Nwosu, and Prof. Auwal Yadudu, were part of the intellectual forte that played various roles in trying to format a return to democracy and a democratic norm for Nigeria. They provided theoretical framework for the various experiments, political conferences, constitution writing, and the like. Although most of his colleagues stayed away from actual participation in partisan politics, Akinyemi had the courage to present himself in various partisan political activities during the Third Republic in 1993, which sadly was short-lived, following the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election which was won by Chief M.K.O. Abiola (1937-1998).
In his unending service on country, he was in 2007 appointed by former President Umaru Musa Yar’adua as a member of the Electoral Reform Committee headed a one-time Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mohammed Uwais. Similarly, the exquisitely cultured scholar and pan Nigerian, was again in 2014, under immediate past Nigerian Leaders, Dr Goodluck Jonathan, recalled to take office as Deputy Chairman of the National Conference which he conveyed that year. The 492 member Confab made far reaching recommendations to better the Nigerian polity and democratic evolution. Regrettably the far-reaching recommendation of both efforts, remain “oputarized”; a sarcastic euphemism coined by Nigerian jurist, Justice C. Oputa to describe well articulated public policies which end up in relegation.
The world of international relations as complex as it may seem to be, has been kept alive by the adroitness of the various geopolitical designs which states and lately non-state actors unleash into the system. This obviously needs high level of intellect, strong analytical skills and great presence of mind of those who drive the foreign policy of nations. Above all these, attributes is the fundamental place of nationalism, patriotism and integrity. Like many other academics such as American Diplomats Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright or their British counterpart Paddy Ashdow, Jeffery Howe, Nigeria’s own Akinyemi stands tall as a man of great ideas. His commitment to nation and national prestige was incomparable. He was unapologetic in his display of nationalism and the pursuit of national honour, prestige and advantage. He therefore stands out as one among former Nigerian public figures whose policies have stood the test of time. Hence, the TAC programme as well as his postulations on Nigeria’s defence capability are still being implemented in various ways.
Rather than retire to the plodding quietness of life in these after-years, Akinyemi still remains active and full of energetic pursuits in knowledge cultivation and public welfare. On a weekly basis, he runs his online discussion programme “Through my Eyes with Prof. Bolaji Akinyemi”, now in its 82nd session in which discussions on international issues are enthusiastic and lavish.
Our prayers as expressed through the many tributes in the past four weeks are that Prof. Akinyemi will live for many more years in strength and health to do what he does best; that is fighting for what will ever make Nigeria more appreciated globally.
Amb. Igali is Pro-Chancellor and Chairman of Council, Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA).