Bolaji Akinyemi: Constructing, deconstructing Concert of Medium Powers author at 79

Bolaji Akinyemi

By Festus Adedayo

How did Bolaji Akinwande Akinyemi manage to pack so much academy, vivacity and public intervention into a life that rolls into 79 today? Could it be self determination to impact society, his luscious upbringing, facts of his environment or share luck? This interrogation comes to the fore when his strides as an academic, public intellectual, public servant and interventionist in weaning society from its slide are put at issue.

Born in Ifewara, today’s Osun State, upbringing-wise, the young Bolaji’s parent was the famous Reverend Canon J.A. Akinyemi, Principal, Ilesa Grammar School and Chairman, Ijesha Division of the Action Group party of the First Republic. The young Bolaji obviously had a great start in life. Being one of the elites of Ijesha land at the time, the elder Akinyemi, as principal of a foremost school in the Western Region, became the first Ijesha to become Member of the AG to get elected into the Federal House of Representatives and was in the House between 1959 and 1964. This was at a time when Ijesha land in today’s Osun State was predominantly National Council of Nigeria and Cameroun (NCNC), under the suzerainty of Nnamdi Azikiwe.
At this time, Ijesaland was unrepentantly conservative. Even when the S. L. Akintola rump of AG transmuted into the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) shortened into Demo, which was in an alliance with the Northern People’s Congress, (NPC) as against Awolowo’s (UPGA), which also went into alliance with Michael Okpara’s NCNC, Ijesa still chose to go demo. Canon Akinyemi and his believers in Obafemi Awolowo suffered for their choice. This choice of Ijesa during this time has been subjected to a measure of intellectual interrogation. S. A. Arifalo, one of the historians who did a ground-breaking work on the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, said that the name, suggested to the group by Professor Saburi Biobaku, one of the egg-heads of the movement and especially the Egbe symbol that the group chose – lamp with five wickets – could have been what alienated the Owa Obokun of the time and the people of Ijesaland from the Action Group. Arifalo stated that the five wickets symbolized the five-pronged aims of the Egbe which were Love, Charity, Concord, Friendship and Posterity. However, these aims were the Egbe’s about-turn rationalization. Initially, it said the five wickets symbolized the five prongs of Yoruba rulers, which the AG called the five “fingers of the Yoruba hand” to wit its most powerful traditional rulers – the Ooni of Ife, the Alaafin of Oyo, the Alake of Abeokuta, (sic) the Awujale of Ijebu Ode (sic) and the Oba of Benin. For this, the Egbe made a ritual sacrifice of five lambs. Some Yoruba Obas, among whom was the Owa, later complained about the exclusivity of the symbol which shut them out of reckoning, prompting the Egbe to make an about-turn to aver that the five wickets indeed symbolized the virtues, aims and objectives of the association earlier stated above.

Perhaps because of his father’s elitist status but ostensibly due to his precocious nature, the young Bolaji got admitted to the prestigious Igbobi College, Yaba and schooled there from 1955 to 1959. He also proceeded to Christ’s School, Ado-Ekiti where he was between 1960 and 1961 and thereafter to the Temple University in Pennsylvania, United States, from 1962-1964, Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Massachusetts, US, 1964-1966 and Trinity College of Oxford University, England, from 1966-1969, where he bagged his Ph.D. in Political Science at the age of 27 years.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that his father’s elitist background ensured that he got admission to one of the Ivy League universities, it couldn’t have ensured the very luxuriant academic peregrination that the then Dr. Akinyemi later garnered in subsequence. Among others, he became an instructor in the Politics of the Developing Nations in the North Eastern University, Boston, Massachusetts and further worked as follows: Visiting Professor in African Studies at the De Pauw University, Greencastle, Indiana; Visiting Professor of Political Science at the Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan; Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Ibadan. During this latter appointment, he and great scholars in Ibadan like Professor Bill Dudley, Peter Ekeh and others got the department its renown as Ibadan School of Political Science, the numero uno school where politics was taught, something akin to the London School of Economics. During this period too, Dr. Akinyemi stood out in his sleek saloon sports car on the campus and the periodic interventions he made on television, especially the WNBC/WNTV as a scholar dissecting issues of contemporary society was generally known and lauded.

The catapult to public reckoning for Dr. Akinyemi was in 1975, at the age of 33, when the Murtala/Obasanjo government appointed him the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA). That institute was as at that time the incubator of Nigeria’s public intellectuals and unarguably, her foreign policy development and formulation centre. The young Turks of the military then like the young Ibrahim Babangida, Joe Nineveh Garba and others used to regularly visit NIIA to drink from the brooks of its intellectual olfferings. That was when the gap-toothed Babangida noted the brilliance of the Ijesa-born scholar. Indeed, the period of Dr. Akinyemi’s directorship of the institute is held as one of its most verdant intellectual moments as NIIA effectively formulated Nigeria’s foreign policy interventions. Akinyemi conceived and incubated the array of interventions called “Dialogue” embarked upon by Nigeria during this period which ranged from the Nigerian – United States Dialogue (1978), Nigerian – Soviet Dialogue (1978) and Nigerian – Chinese Dialogue (1979).

There is no way the history of the military government, especially the Murtala/Obasanjo government’s robust diplomatic portfolio, would be written without Akinyemi occupying an octopodal space therein. Akinyemi effectively participated in the diplomatic maneuvers of that period and was later to serve as visiting professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, as well as at the Diplomacy Training Programme of the University of Nairobi, Kenya, in 1977. In 1979, Akinyemi also served as Regents Lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles. During this period and decades thereafter, he published so widely that it would be an abuse of space to recount them here. Of all of them, his 2002 book, Seagull: The Perception of Others, published by Macmillan Nigeria Publishers Limited, stands out as a great intellectual effort.
From the moment Akinyemi was appointed Minister of External Affairs by the Ibrahim Babangida government, it will seem that, for the larger Nigerian space, his gold fish lost its search for a hiding place. The world convoked its binoculars on him and his essence was thereby revealed in its minutest molecules. While minister, he was known and indeed stood out for his radical and against-method views about Nigeria’s external relations policies, many of which still stand out till today. He bailed Nigeria out from a spate of diplomatic embarrassments by offering his well respected views. During his time, he originated the Technical Aids Corps. The corps was formulated by him to intervene in the promotion of Nigeria’s image abroad and essentially, as a contributor to the Third World perception by the world. His hope was that the corps would change the mindset of an Eurocentric world, convincing them that the African development was a matter of when.

However, apologies to Walter Rodney, Africa was to demonstrate its genetic limitations and fascination for underdevelopment, which has landed her in this developmental cul-de-sac.
It was while he was Nigeria’s Foreign Minister, in 1987, that Akinyemi conceived the “Concert of Medium Powers” concept. In 1987, Bolaji Akinyemi, initiated the Concert of Medium Powers. It was an informal and flexible consultative organ. The idea was to have a regionally representative number of sixteen countries which would serve as regional powers. In this position, those countries exercised a huge amount of regional power, base and influence on the others. With these powers in their hands, the countries were then armed with enough bravura to act in concert, though in mediatory capacity, so that they could influence global conflict-situations in the world. More fundamentally, in this mould, the countries could also act as formidable bridges between varied, competing interests in the international circle in the international. With this power, the Concert would have enough influence to exert greater collective influence and respectability in the global system. Aftermath of it, as envisaged by Akinyemi, there would be greater peace in the world and security of the globe would be ensured. This would have taken peace and security from the exclusive grips of the super-powers, in concert with their allies.

Perhaps, Akinyemi’s most risky intervention or assignment on behalf of his fatherland was his decision to join forces with men and women who constituted the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), an organization put together to tackle the fangs of military autocracy under the infernal regime of General Sani Abacha. Risky because there were reprisals and they were indeed meted on those who chose that route. Many were killed and the means of livelihood of others were asphyxiated by the goggled General. These patriots were however resolved in fighting for democracy against the authoritarian regimes of men in khaki. At his return to Nigeria after the expiration of Abacha and calls for participation in the Fourth Republic by General Abdulsalami Abubakar, this writer was the reporter who covered his return in the Lagos home of Frank Ovie Kokori. Akinyemi was in the company of other NADECO activists and returnees which included the then ailing Commodore Dan Suleiman, Bola Tinubu, Tokunbo Afikuyomi, among others. Akinyemi had also served as Chairman of a body christened ‘The National Think Tank.’ This body was made up of informed Nigerians who had carved out renowned pedagogies in their chosen fields and in possession of sound analytical minds. They were saddled with the task of articulating and fashioning agenda for the country.

Of all those who fought for the abdication of military despotism, Akinyemi seems to have been one of the few who don’t bother about or are not funneled the spoils of their sweats. While many of his ilk have benefitted immensely from the proceeds of the fight, becoming governors, ministers and super-contractors, the professor seems satisfied with just sitting on the periphery and lending his thought once in a while. Worse still, many children of this generation may not know, nor generations before them remember, Akinyemi’s onerous contributions to the fumigation of autocratic blight from the Nigerian governmental space.
In spite of his advancing age, Akinyemi still makes out time to intervene in the public sphere to air his views on how to advance society. He writes fairly regularly to lend his opinions which most time verged on his wealth of understanding in knotty international matters for which he has globally acknowledged proficiency. He is one of those products of the gown-town dialogue which has benefitted Nigeria immensely.

Perhaps the most controversial issue that Akinyemi was embroiled in and which he probably hasn’t succeeded in totally acquitting himself of, was the call he made during the short-lived government of Nigeria’s Third Republic in 1993. He had called on the military to overthrow the legitimacy-challenged government of Ernest Shonekan. In a public call to that effect, Akinyemi articulated reasons why Shonekan must go and ostensibly to be replaced by another military regime. He was amply criticized for this correspondence which many reasoned was borne out of his long dalliance with the military. Explanations that Shonekan was not in charge of governance and that there was fear in the polity about the ills that the absence of his government’s legitimacy could wrought didn’t assuage those who called him out for being in unholy association with military despotism. It was this call that General Abacha, the then Minster of Defence, heeded and which later threw Nigeria into one of its darkest era.

Judging by the huge drawback and devastation that military rule has brought to Nigeria, socio-politically, especially with its unitarization of a federal Nigeria since 1966 and how Nigeria has been unable to revert to the constitutional status-quo of the First Republic, Akinyemi and his fellow participants in and allies to successive military rulers, who gave the juntas wings to fly, would have to bear accusations for what Nigeria is today. Was it that such intellectuals who surrounded the military conquistadors failed to offer advice or those pieces of advice were rejected? For instance, intellectuals who worked with General Yakubu Gowon, as well as other military rulers who administered Nigeria at a time of the plenty of petro-dollars, have ample queries to answer as to why they failed to, refused to or were afraid to stop the mentality of “the problem with Nigeria is how to spend money” attributed to Gowon. Looking back today, does Akinyemi think it was worthwhile for Nigeria to “waste” billions of dollars that would have been saved or utilized to get Nigeria and Nigerians a today, on fellow African countries, many of whom are ungrateful to and oblivious of such wasted largesse? I asked this because the well-respected professor gave diplomatic advice to military rulers as DG of NIIA and even as Minister of External Affairs. Observers believe that military governments’ failure to plan for today is one of the reasons why Nigeria is where it is now.

Again, it would be nice to hear the professor of Political Science and International Relations scholar what his impression of the Nigeria he toiled for, from his prime, had turned into today. Does he regret that his generation and ones before it are accused of being the precursors or harbinger of today’s rot? Does he believe them? Does he believe that there is hope for Nigeria, moving forward?

As Professor Bolaji Akinyemi clocks 79 years today, this piece reminds this generation and those who must have forgotten his interventions that the Ijesa-born scholar was a major pillar of Nigeria’s foreign policy; that he was also one of those who put their lives on the line to secure the democracy that the country currently enjoys today. Bolaji Akinwande Akinyemi is on the verge of booking his ticket for the octogenarian club.
Happy birthday, Prof.