By Bolaji Akinyemi

A former External Affairs Minister, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, says Nigeria must address the issue of structural instability.  Akinyemi spoke, last month, while delivering the 2016 Convocation Lecture of the University of Ibadan.  Extracts from the lecture:

The deconstruction of Nigerian world role would be dealt with later. The second issue is the open embrace of the exceptionalism by non-Nigerian officialdom. The third issue is the open embrace of this exceptionalism by the Nigerian public as evidenced by the title of the NAN story on the 2014 centenary event.


The physical attributes of Nigeria in terms of geographical size, population, size of the economy, and size of the army have had a profound impact on the development of the Nigerian exceptionalism syndrome.

Nigeria has a population estimated at about 185million (2015 est), It is about about six times the size of Georgia; slightly more than twice the size of California. It has Land boundaries totalling: 4,477 km, out of which the following border countries are: Benin 809 km, Cameroon 1,975 km, Chad 85 km, Niger 1,608 km and coastline is 853 km.

Even before the independence of Nigeria, there had grown up within the domestic political intellectual class and the international foreign policy elite a belief in the manifest destiny of Nigeria to play an exceptional role in world affairs. At a time when the Nigerian political class should still be focusing almost exclusively on seeing the struggle for independence to a successful conclusion, foreign affairs had already started to carve a niche for itself in the consciousness of the Nigerian elite.

There was a consciousness among the Nigerian elite of an acceptance that Nigeria had a crucial role to play in world affairs in the post-independence period. What motivated or spurred this consciousness in the first place? There were four operational factors that under-laid this consciousness. The first factor was the early independence of Ghana which became what was perceived as a genuine African voice on the global stage.

This was in spite of the fact that Liberia and Ethiopia had been independent African states much, much, earlier than Ghana. But neither the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Sellasie, nor the President of Liberia, William Tubman, had the flair or vision of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Nigeria felt that this was an affront to the role which should have been reserved for Nigeria because of her mega size.

•Professor Bolaji Akinyemi
•Professor Bolaji Akinyemi

The second factor was the activist foreign policy pursued by Ghana. She practically hit the ground running on cold war issues and on Pan-Africanism. If Ghana had achieved independence and kept out of the international limelight, Nigeria would not have felt the urge to stake out foreign policy positions long before independence. But Nkrumah was not the quiet one. He was the stuff that revolutionaries were made off.

As if responding to Dylan Thomas burgle command “do not go gentle into that good night,…rage, rage against the dying of the light”, Nkrumah came out raging against the international system. He teamed up with Pandit Nehru of India, Abdel Gammal Nasser of Egypt, and Sukarno of Indonesia in forming the Non-aligned Movement. On the African continent, he launched a blitzrick of ideas and institutions, summoning a Conference of Independent African States (1958) and an All African Peoples’ Conference (1958).

The first open manifestation of the exceptionalism syndrome, however, in an indirect way arose out of a conflict with Ghana, a portent of what was to come. But the conflict was germane to the theme of exceptionalism to the extent it involved a dispute over who could legitimately claim to speak for Africa.

The date was December 1953, when Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (then Gold Coast) convened a West African Nationalist Conference in Kumasi, Gold Coast to which all Nigerian political parties were invited. Only one, the NCNC led by Nnamdi Azikiwe consented to attend. In 1958, after the independence of Ghana, she convened a Conference of Independent African States to which Nigeria was not invited as she was not yet independent.

But Nkrumah announced that he would come to Nigeria to consult so that he could present Nigerian views at the Conference, a plan dismissed as “an egregious insult for the Prime Minister of a small country like Ghana to essay to be Nigeria’s spokesman at a conference of all African countries”

Even though Nigerian leaders were focused on achieving independence for their country, an event which took place in October 1960, something must have prodded the Nigerian government not to wait for that independence before launching Nigeria into the Pan-African conundrum. The occasion was the second Conference of Independent African States which was held in Addis Ababa in June 1960. Nigeria was not entitled to attend the conference as she was not yet independent. And so, why was Nigeria invited? And why did Nigeria accept the invitation.?

Perhaps the answer to both questions lay in one of the issues Nigeria raised at the Conference, and that was the issue of leadership in Africa. Maitama Sule, the Nigerian Minister of Mines and Power, who led the Nigerian delegation in addressing the Conference said that Nigeria would not tolerate someone “who thinks he is a messiah with a mission to lead Africa”

Under normal circumstances, the colonial authorities would have sought to dampen such delusion of grandeur on the part of Nigeria. But there is sufficient evidence that on the contrary, they either fueled it or inspired it.

For example, on the eve of Nigerian independence, Senator John F. Kennedy, then a Presidential candidate, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa extolling Nigerian independence as “an event important not only to the nation of Nigeria, or the continent of Africa, but to the world…” This act was unique. And this was due to the Nkrumah factor.

Ghana became independent in 1957 and the President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah launched an activist foreign policy in Africa and in the world which the Western powers perceived as a challenge to their interests. Thus began a frantic search for an appropriate response to counter Nkrumah’s influence. Part of the strategy that was adopted was to encourage Nigeria to be assertive in its foreign policy, not by adopting the ideological overtones of Nkrumah’s foreign policy but by posing alternative visions.

In 1961, Prime Minister Balewa paid an official visit to the United States, a few months after independence where the proverbial red carpet was rolled out. He was received in the Oval office and addressed the United States Congress, a priviledge extended to only 112 personalities since 1874. John F. Kennedy even attended a return dinner hosted by Balewa for him. During the visit, Kennedy told Balewa that “Nigeria’s development and leadership were of the greatest interest to the United States”

The first issue to address is to deconstruct the concept of Nigerian exceptionalism. Various terminologies are used by analysts when illustrating this issue. Such phrases include “African Leader”, “Black Power”, “Leadership Role in the World”. At times, the terminology could even be misleading as a mischievous interpretation could lead to some talk of pretentious claim to world leadership. My own deconstruction of Nigerian exceptionalism is this.

A rational analysis of Nigerian elements of power in comparative terms, in comparison to the power status of other African states, justify an assertion that Nigeria was entitled to lay claim to leadership in West Africa, and to share leadership roles with Egypt and South Africa in the rest of Africa. The second issue is that the objective of Nigerian exceptionalism which was to use the leadership of Nigeria to leverage the status of Africans in the Diaspora was not clearly articulated at the beginning, and is still not articulated with clarity.

At independence, Nigerian GDP was US$4.2billion while Ghana was US$1.22biliion. Nigerian population was 45.2m while Ghana was 6.65m and Ethiopia was 22.2m. For Nigeria, Life expectancy in 1960 was 37.2 years, while Ghana was 45.8 years and Ethiopia was 38.4 years.

The GNI/per capita for Nigeria was US$100, while Ghana was US$190 . By 1981, Nigerian GDP was US$61.7billion while Ethiopia was US$7.325billion. By 1984, Nigerian GNI/per capita was more than double that of Ethiopia. From this data, it is not irrational to conclude that the expectation that Nigeria was capable of a leadership role in Africa was a reasonable one.

Increasingly, or at least from the 1970s onwards, the international community and the United Nations, had constructed a universal security construct based on regional systems which turned regional powers into support pillars of the international security system. It is in this sense that regional powers came to be regarded as world players. It is in this sense that Nigeria being a regional power in the ECOWAS sub-region and by extension in Africa, could be regarded as a world power.

Another contributory factor to this exceptionalism syndrome can be located in what I will call the aspirational messianic Pan-Africanist school. Earlier in this lecture, I have made reference to the impact of history on man’s psyche. The “never again” ruthless response of the Israelis to the Palestinians lies buried in the Jewish psychological response to the Holocaust.

No exhaustive study has been done on the effect on the Black race of the slave trade. But this much we know. The hurt is deep, and unlike the effect of the holocaust on the Jewish race where it has not resulted in bottom-of-the-pile status for Jews, slavery for Blacks has resulted in permanent underdog status for Blacks all over the world.

Hence there has been a deep felt need for a cataclymistic development that will impact in a volcanic eruptive effervescence on the status of the Black race in the world. They have not only bought into this vision of Nigerian exceptionalism but it has become a Black vision embraced by Blacks all over the world.

This is exemplified by the FESTAC syndrome. FESTAC in English translates in full into WORLD BLACK AND AFRICAN FESTIVAL OF ARTS AND CULTURE. Even though Senegal was the first to host the first Festival, there must have been more than a symbolism in the fact that Nigeria was declared the “star country” at the Dakar Festival and was asked to host the Second World Festival, after which none has been held.


























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