BY CHARLES KUMOLU
IN his 2001 best seller, entitled: Spiritual Leadership, where he encouraged leaders to follow God’s design for success, Henry Blackaby pointed out: “Society longs for statesmen but it gets politicians.”
The British evangelist further elucidated his position thus: “Statesmen are leaders who uphold what is right regardless of the popularity of the position. Statesmen speak out to achieve good for their people, not to win votes. Statesmen promote the general good rather than regional or personal self-interest.”
Indeed, the import of the statement resonates in Nigeria-a nation that suffers acute shortage of statesmen and as well long for statesmen with same measure.
With the sheer elevation of partisanship over statesmanship in the past and present, the country hardly qualifies for a nation of statesmen.
In spite of this, men of somewhat unparalleled credibility and vision could still be identified albeit not in plenitude in the country.
Prof Bolaji Akinyemi is one of such, who have remained as objective as possible in their involvement in the various historical interplay inherent in Nigeria’s march to nationhood.
His unambiguous understanding of the dynamics that drive national conversation, rightly positioned him as one of the nation’s leading lights even as he inches toward the octogenarian club.
At 74, Akinyemi, whose appointment as the Director-General of the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs, NIIA, came at the young age of 33, radiates reason and logic in his judgments regarding the country’s socio-political evolution.
And that is not accidental. After all, American novelist, Pearl Buck, succinctly, observed: ‘’When good people in any country cease their vigilance and struggle, then evil men prevail.”
Perhaps, it is the fulfillment of such immortal injunction that had seen the sustenance of Akinyemi’s interventions in national narratives.
An attestation to his untiring plausible submissions to nation-building was evidenced in the recent authorship of a piece entitled: The New Country We Need.
In the serialised article, Akinyemi, among other things, played up the recurring ethnic dynamics that threaten Nigeria’s corporate image and regretted that such differentials pose existential threats to Nigeria. “That Nigeria is a multi-ethnic state is a fact that cannot be denied. The following are the most populous and politically influential – Hausa and Fulani 29%, Yoruba 21%, Igbo (Ibo) 18%, Ijaw 10%, Kanuri 4%, Ibibio 3.5%, Tiv 2.5% (Nigeria Fact Sheet, United States Embassy). It is counterproductive for anyone to deny his or her ethnic identity. But admitting one’s ethnic identity is one thing, while asserting that identity to the detriment of other ethnic identities is the problem. In other words, assertion of an ethnic identity is ethnicity and is acceptable. But a behaviour based on an assertion of one’s identity as if that is the only identity in a multi-ethnic state is ethnicism and unacceptable,” he had submitted.
He added: “The net effect of my submission is this: while admitting that Nigeria is a multi-ethnic state and that its boundaries are artificial, that should not pose existential threats to Nigeria. I am not saying that they could not because obviously, they can and have posed existential threats in Nigeria and in other places in the past. But it is like fire. It can cook, and it can burn.”
That was vintage Akinyemi, who desires a new and more functional Nigeria, where the key ingredients of good governance are not in deficit.
As the head of the NIIA, the prof. of political science, who was born in 1942, championed dialogue as an alternative vehicle for foreign policy consultation.
He organised and presided over the following: Nigerian-United States Dialogue (1978), Nigerian-Soviet Dialogue (1978), Nigerian-Chinese Dialogue (1979), Nigerian- Scandinavian Dialogue (1980), Nigerian-Brazilian Dialogue (1980), Dialogue on North-South, Dialogue with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1981) and the Nigerian-Chinese Dialogue (1982).
From the various national assignments he undertook, Akinyemi, who was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs by former Head of State, Gen Ibrahim Babangida,retd, in 1985, boasts of an unwavering passion for service.
This yet to be rivalled drive that saw him being a handy resource person each time stringent solutions are needed for contentious national questions, conspicuously domiciles in his speeches, seminal works and even media interviews.
Strengths, weaknesses of governance
An encounter with him would surely make any student of history long for further engagements, as a result of his expansive knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of governance.
As Minister of External Affairs, Akinyemi brought his provoking scholarly prowess to bear through policy actions at a time when the dynamics and complexities of global politics required men of his calibre to promote Nigeria’s stance on international affairs.
Till date, some of the structures and frameworks he put in place testify to the indelibility of his footprints in the nation’s foreign service.
Of note is the Technical Aid Corps, TAC, a programme which sends professionals overseas to engage in volunteer work among the interdependent nations of the world.
TAC is designed to promote Nigeria’s image and status as a major player in global affairs, particularly the African continent which had been the centre piece of the country’s foreign policy.
He was also credited to have initiated the Concept of Medium Powers, aimed at maximizing the potentialities of Third World countries. A direct offshoot of that was his support for Nigeria to consider developing nuclear weapons.
Such proposal, which he described as the black bomb, connoted that Nigeria had a sacred responsibility to challenge the racial monopoly of nuclear weapons.
He was the leader of the Nigerian delegation to the United Nations Annual General Assembly Session, New York (1985); deputy leader of the Nigerian delegation to the Commonwealth Summit, Bahamas (1985); leader of the Nigerian delegation to the Organisation of African Unity, Council of Ministers Session (1986); deputy leader of the Nigerian delegation to the Organisation of African Unity Heads of State and Government Summit (1986); leader of the Nigerian delegation to the Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers Conference, Harare (1986); deputy leader of the Nigerian delegation to the Non-Aligned Summit, Harare (1986); leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the United
Nations General Assembly Annual Session (1986); leader of the Nigerian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the Critical Economic Situation in Africa (1986); leader of the Nigerian delegation to the Budget Session of the Council of Ministers of the Organisation of African Unity, Addis Ababa (1987); leader of the Nigerian delegation to the Ordinary Session of the Council of Ministers of the Organisation of African Unity, Addis Ababa (1987); deputy leader of the Nigerian Delegation to the Annual Summit of the Organisation of African Unity (1987), among others.
Display of uncommon bravery
During the regime of the late Gen Sani Abacha, when the state of the nation nudged agents of change like him to proceed to the trenches, Akinyemi, alongside late Pa Anthony Enahoro, Bola Tinubu and Dan Suleiman, among others, formed the National Democratic Coalition, NADECO.
Through the display of uncommon bravery in the face of the worst dictatorship in Nigeria’s history, Akinyemi braved the odds to ensure that civil rule was enthroned.
His role in that era also came as a mixed bag to those who thought that he was unlikely to stand up against the military-an institution he had served in some capacities before then. But that was the typical Akinyemi, manifesting his eternal conviction that there isn’t any known alternative to democratic governance.
Of significance was the stabilizing role he played as the Deputy Chairman of the 2014 National Conference. Whenever matters were headed for the rocks, Akinyemi brought his understanding of diplomacy to bear.
The same astuteness saw him alerting Nigerians to the grave dangers ahead of the 2015 general elections, insisting that some people were bent on dragging the country down the path of implosion.
Akinyemi, who did that through a letter, dated December 16, 2014, to former President Goodluck Jonathan of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and General Muhammadu Buhari (retd) of the All Progressives Congress, APC, went down memory lane, pointing out that the conditions that preceded the post-election violence of 2011 were still prevalent.
Consequently, he lamented that his intervention was totally ignored, resulting in the death of many in the ensuing post-election violence. The man, who headed the NIIA for eight years, attended Igbobi College in Yaba from 1955 to 1959 and Christ’s School, Ado Ekiti from 1960 to 1961. Coming out on top in an essay competition organised by the United States, (US) Embassy and Nigerian government earned him a three-month stay in the US.
A lifetime meeting with President John Fitzgerald Kenethy at the age of 21 was the high-point of that voyage to the US. He was also at Temple University, Philadelphia Pennsylvania, from 1962 to 1964.
Between 1964 and 1966, he attended Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tuffs University, Massachusetts and Trinity College, Oxford, England from 1966 to1969.
Akinyemi is a known prolific writer with 13 books to his credit in addition to many articles published in both national and international academic journals
In recognition of his erudite contributions, Akinyemi was honoured by his colleagues with three books: Perspectives on Nigeria’s National and External Relations: Essays in Honor of Prof. A. Bolaji Akinyemi; Nigeria and the World: A. Bolaji Akinyemi Revisited and Perspectives on Contemporary Nigeria, Essays in Honour of Professor A. Bolaji Akinyemi, CFR.
Turning 74 at this time when the desire for a more functional nation is so momentous, places a huge burden of responsibility on him.