Toast to a Seasoned diplomat at 70: Ambassador Olu Adeniji


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Toast to a Seasoned diplomat at 70: Ambassador Olu Adeniji

  1. 1. Toast to a Seasoned Diplomat at 70 By ‘Kayode Fayemi July is turning out to be a season of celebration. Last week, Nigerians and theworld paid tribute to a distinguished man of letters, our own WS on the occasion of his70th birthday and many came from far and near to celebrate this exemplar of publicservice. This week, the diplomatic community, friends and family will gather to celebratethe 70th birthday of another remarkable man, Ambassador Olu Adeniji, Nigeria’s currentForeign Minister. Some may wonder what the connection is between the two, since theyappear to be very different in character and temperament. After all, the former is anti-establishment and very public with his views, while the latter is conventional, self-effacing, and lives very much in the shadows. My intention here is not to draw forcedcomparisons between the two individuals, even if I can see several similarities in thevalues they hold dear. That’s a matter for another occasion. This occasion, however,offers us the opportunity to reflect on the critical role leadership plays in the direction offoreign policy and the practice of diplomacy. As a student of Nigeria’s foreign policy and a keen watcher of the ebbs and flowof leadership in our foreign policy establishment over the past two decades, it is possibleto argue that our foreign policy decisions almost always turn out to be a reflection of thebiases of successive leaders, although these sometimes coincide with the beliefs of theserving foreign minister. To illustrate this, Professor Ibrahim Gambari’s writings prior totaking over in the Foreign Ministry in 1984 had concentrated on strengthening thedomestic basis of foreign policy – a kind of ‘charity begins at home’ foreign policy, andthis clearly found favour in a government as insular as the Buhari-Idiagbon regime.Conversely, Ibrahim Babangida led a larger than life government and anything that couldenhance his profile on the world stage was always welcome, even if he cared little for thefine details of foreign policy making. His choice of a grand bargainer like ProfessorAkinyemi broadly fitted this search for grandeur and profile, given Akinyemi’s erstwhilepredilections with enhancing Nigeria’s profile in the international scene. Hence, hepromoted big initiatives like the Concert of Medium Powers, South Atlantic TreatyOrganisation, the Black Bomb and Technical Aids Corps, as vehicles for provingNigeria’s greatness. Of course, Akinyemi’s grand plans soon came unstuck with a leaderwho had no core beliefs. His successor, who had no track record in foreign affairs –displayed an aversion to Akinyemi’s grandiose expression of Nigeria’s exceptionalismand quickly found recourse in what he nebulously termed ‘economic diplomacy’, at atime of the infamous structural adjustment programme. Needless to say, all that we didwas pay lip service to economic diplomacy during the Nwachukwu era, if our balance oftrade record was any proof. The relevant point to make though is that these were foreign ministers with viewsand influence in policy-making, not just figureheads. As things began to deteriorate onthe world stage for the military dictatorship in Nigeria, the quality of the foreignministers also took a nosedive. Occupants of the office simply became ‘yes-men’ of theruling junta, with little or no desire to even promote any core beliefs. The situation 1
  2. 2. reached its lowest ebb when Tom Ikimi became the nation’s Foreign Minister. I oftenfound myself on the opposite side of Tom Ikimi as an opposition activist during thisperiod, especially at the annual OAU summits and he proved to be the best asset in ourwork. His fellow foreign ministers around Africa and the world roundly despised him andhe undermined any effort to reason with the junta he represented, even among reluctantsupporters of the opposition. Nigeria’s foreign policy establishment is still reeling from the damage Ikimiinflicted on the service in all his years as Head of the Ministry. Affable, but clearlylightweight Sule Lamido, who became Foreign Minister in 1999, used the first four yearsof our post-military rule tirelessly trying to repair this damage, but his impact was ratherhobbled by his own limited knowledge of the inner workings of the foreign policybureaucracy and his inability to overcome the perception of being a square peg in a roundhole, in spite of the best efforts of his image makers to correct this impression. Besides,influential outsiders always had a direct route to the Presidency and refused to deal withhim, often leaving the impression that he was a mere figurehead. On the few occasionsthat I saw him operate at CMAG, ECOWAS and OAU meetings though, he displayed agenuine mastery of his brief, even if he never quite gained the respect of his colleagues. In came Olu Adeniji in May 2003 and you may ask, what really has changed? Inassessing past Foreign Ministers above, I reflected on two contradictory tendencies thatseem to govern our foreign policy making in the past years. The first, being the view thatwe serve our core values best by perfecting governance at home, thereby serving as anexample and a beacon of hope for the rest of Africa, and the second tendency, being thebelief that our manifest destiny imposes on us an obligation to throw our weight around,be our brothers’ keepers around Africa at least, if not the rest of the black world. Myreading of Ambassador Adeniji is that he does not belong to either camp of thesecontradictory tendencies. Perhaps, having been in the system for the past four decades asa Foreign Service Officer, he has come to learn that this is a false divide to draw in aterrain that is not always cut and dried. For him, the motto would appear to be – neitheran isolationist nor an interventionist be! As a noted multi-lateralist, he seems to haveimbibed very well the lesson that Nigeria is safer and stronger when it is respected inAfrica, rather than feared, and that respect can only come from forging strong alliances inthe crucible of diplomatic persuasion under committed Presidential leadership based ondomestic legitimacy, not through hegemonic display of hollow power. Clearly, President Obasanjo’s commitment to foreign policy is not in doubt andhe has consistently sought to involve himself in the minutiae of foreign policy making ina manner that is unlikely to change. However, the stature of Ambassador Adeniji and hisdeep knowledge of the foreign policy establishment seem to have curbed theinterventionist proclivities of President Obasanjo in the foreign policy bureaucracy. Inturn, the Foreign Minister seemed to have worked out how best to do his job withoutlosing the benefit that the pan-African, internationalist credentials of the President bringsto bear on foreign affairs. Ambassador Adeniji combines three key attributes that seem toserve him well in this regard, apart from his unobtrusive approach. He retains anintellectual curiosity that is uncommon in many seventy year olds, always seeking theviews of younger colleagues on issues. His role in the formation of the African StrategicPeace Research Group (AFSTRAG) certainly demonstrates this quest for knowledge.The second is his familiarity with the inner-workings of the Ministry and the 2
  3. 3. unquestioning respect of Foreign Service officers that he commands. Third is his vastnetwork of international contacts, garnered in his many years of service in the UnitedNations. Nigeria has clearly benefited from all these attributes. Ambassador Olu Adeniji is roughly a year old in office, and the jury is certainlystill out on his performance in an institution that has suffered its own share of decadenceunder military rule. There can be no doubt however that he has restored a measure ofprofessionalism over politics in the Ministry – a pre-requisite for ensuring that it’s nolonger business as usual. As evidenced by the 65-45 per cent ratio he achieved in thechoice of our representatives abroad between career and non-career officers, despiteopposition from politicians, he has restored legitimacy to his leadership in the view ofcareer diplomats. With difficulty, he has also achieved greater coherence between theMinistry and the Presidency on foreign policy issues, but there is still a disconnectionbetween our values, interests and pronouncements. There is a lot more needed toconvince Nigerians that our foreign policy truly serves our best interests. As I watchedhim direct the affairs of the Executive Council of the 5th Session of the African UnionSummit in Addis Ababa two weeks ago, I was overcome with a rare sense of nationalpride and can’t help but recall my encounters with Mr Ikimi in the same forum yearsback. Ambassador Adeniji displayed the kind of soft power that is more endearing to all,even as he acted firmly but sensitively against truculent colleagues like the ForeignMinister from Gambia and Comrade Stan Mudenge of Zimbabwe. Yet after seventy years here, and over forty of these in public life and countlessachievements, Ambassador Adeniji is still work in progress, at least until he retires. It ismy hope that the next three years will see him make of our Foreign Ministry a model ofefficiency to the admiration of all around the world. I also hope he would conduct areview of our foreign policy principles, overhaul the foreign policy bureaucracy anddeepen the connection between our domestic values and our foreign policypronouncements. If anyone can do this, Ambassador Adeniji can. As he once told me in acasual conversation, he does not want to be a good Nigerian diplomat, nor a good Africandiplomat. All he wants to be is a good diplomat, period! If you put the same question toProfessor Soyinka and his place in literature, I doubt if the answer would be anydifferent. Happy Birthday, Sir! Dr ‘Kayode Fayemi is Director, Centre for Democracy & Development andSenior Visiting Scholar in African Studies, Northwestern University, Evanston, USA. 3