A Fireside conversation with Prof Bolaji Akinyemi
By Femi Olugbile
There was no fire crackling, nor was there a need for one, this tropical Sunday evening, though the sea wind that blew in through the window from Okun Aja whistled gently as it rustled the curtains and reached the skin under your light clothing.
It was an internet event, streamed live worldwide, another instalment in the long-running ‘Toyin Falola Interviews’. These were intimate discussions hosted by the Historian Professor Toyin Falola. They generally featured accomplished personalities from various sectors of society, talking about their lives, their work, and, inevitably, about Nigeria, and about Africa.
Professor Bolaji Akinyemi held court like some royal liege lord of ideas, sitting comfortably in a plus white leather chair. His girth had expanded from what it was in his active years, but he still had an imposing presence, with his trademark red bowtie.
In your mind, this was the most brilliant, most colourful, most significant Minister of Foreign Affairs Nigeria had ever had. The aura of authority he carried about him was in sharp contrast with the persona of the most recent occupant of the post in Nigeria, in whose eight-year tenure the nation was treated to the agony of a man who was clueless and colourless, where he was supposed to be the embodiment of the country’s power and vision.
In his experience, averred Akinyemi, intellectuals got a better hearing from stern-faced military rulers than they did under some civilian governments. That drew some comments when it got to the question-and-answer segment, and he was forced to explain he was not making a pitch for the military but merely describing his personal experience. He had flowered under Yakubu Gowon, and been appointed to head the NIIA under Murtala Mohammed, during the era when Nigeria took its most activist stance as a ‘Frontline Nation’ in the Liberation and anti-Apartheid struggle in southern Africa.
‘General Murtala Mohammed always joked that we had captured Joe’ he remarked with a wry smile, referring to Joseph Garba, the tall, imposing soldier who was Foreign Minister in those halcyon days. As Akinyemi told the story, ideas were churned out fast and furious from upstairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where the eggheads held sway. The ideas were sent downstairs to the Minister, and he loved them, and lapped them up.
You had admired Joseph Garba, though you never met him. The picture of Joe Garba in Zambia, handing a Nigerian gift of money to Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who was at the time thought to represent the true face of African struggle in the land that would later become Zimbabwe, lives with you to the present day.
Towering over a diminutive Muzorewa as the two posed for a ceremonial photograph, Garba said,
‘I will now hand over the cheque over – ‘
Some intrepid newspaper columnists in Lagos had gently poked fun at the soldier for several days afterwards for his two ‘overs’.
The Akinyemi interview spent some time on his glory moment on the world stage as Foreign Minister to Ibrahim Babangida.
There was discussion on his ‘Concert of Medium Powers’.
And it was impossible not to be reminded of his controversial notion of ‘The Black Bomb’.
Did he stand by the pitch he made for ‘The Black Bomb’?
He had no regret. It was racist for some to think only people of their race were sufficiently responsible to control a nuclear bomb, he said.
He had intended the ‘Concert of Medium Powers’ as a neutral aggregation of medium powers, driven by Nigeria, not beholden to East or West. Even Switzerland, not normally known as an activist nation, had shown interest.
But wasn’t BRICS doing what the ‘Concert’ had intended to do?
BRICS was not the neutral body he had envisaged, averred Akinyemi. BRICS included Russia and China, and South Africa, which was vociferously anti-American. Perhaps another block could be formed, even now, more neutral, less compromised.
The talk went in all manner of directions, and there was never going to be enough time to cover all the ground.
Take the issue of endless strikes by ASUU.
The rain started beating the University community, he said, with the Udoji and Adebo awards, when government harmonised the pay of academics with civil servants. One of the solutions was to go back and uncouple the ungodly ‘harmonisation’.
Inevitably the coup in Niger came up, and someone wanted his view.
The West African community needed to strengthen its charter with stipulations concerning good governance and a specific disavowal of leaders changing the Constitution to perpetuate themselves in power or carrying on the sort of shenanigans in Guinea and even the strange drama concerning the opposition in Senegal. In return coups must be strictly forbidden and resisted.
The questions came thick and fast.
What about the new scramble for Africa’s mineral resources by West and East? What about the view that Uranium was what all the Western World’s bellyaching over Niger was about? Was it feasible to truly integrate West Africa by somehow getting the francophone countries to get rid of the CFA and the yoke of French neo-colonialism? If that happened, said the questioner, would West Africa not become a truly great economic and political block? What about the old Nkrumah dream of Africa itself as a nation? What about the old and much criticised Mobutu notion of ‘Black Africa’, in practical recognition of the ambivalence of Arab nations who claimed Africa when it suited them, but revelled in an Arab identity that was often supercilious to Africans?
There were a great many questions, and not enough time to answer them all, as Akinyemi continued to speak into the night, the measured cadence of his words seeming to at once challenge and inspire his audience.
Soon it was time to call it a day.
Toyin Falola gave a vote of thanks. The audience, from Lagos to Philadelphia, went back to their lives.