How Akinyemi, Now 80, Radicalised Nigeria's Foreign Relations

Professor Bolaji Akinyemi 4

Professor Bolaji Akinyemi

Professor Bolaji Akinyemi picks his words in measured tones. He is cool, calm and confident. The debonair former External Affairs Minister turns 80 today, 4 January 2022. At this age, Akinyemi still loves his trademark bow tie. He dresses well. What is more, he is a great lover of nature as shown by the environment of his home in Opebi, Ikeja, Lagos. When this reporter and his colleague went there to interview him in the past, the well-maintained flowers, shrubs, trees and creepers which made us bend our heads as we entered his antechamber, were all breathtaking. That day, we (Elesho Richard and I) saw live antelopes, grass cutters, giant tortoises, peacocks and many ornamental birds.

Just as he decorated his home in garlands of flora and fauna, Akinyemi’s contributions to Nigerian diplomacy bedecked this country with a glorious diadem. There are key areas where he demonstrated this.

Akinyemi as DG, NIIA

First, when Akinyemi was Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) from 1975 to 1983, it was a glorious era when the Murtala Mohammed regime made Africa the cornerstone of its foreign policy.

In particular, Inamete Ufot Bassey, in his work, Foreign Policy Decision-Making in Nigeria, page 94, wrote that the NIIA is an organisation focusing on Nigerian foreign policy. He added that while Akinyemi “was Director-General, it was involved in promoting Nigerian-Angolan relations, among other things.”

Nigerian Institute of International Affairs

True. It was during this period that Murtala gave his enough is enough speech. On the 3rd of January, 1976, the American President, Gerald Ford, sent a letter through Mr Donald Easum, the American Ambassador to Nigeria, to General Mohammed. Many African countries also received it. Why should Uncle Sam dictate where Nigeria should pitch its tent in African diplomacy, especially as it concerned the Angola liberation movement? Mohammed would have none of that. He released the letter to the Nigerian media. Adrenalin boiled everywhere!

As Femi Soetan, a foreign affairs analyst put it, “Murtala’s federal military government…issued a strong response, calling the letter a ‘gross insult’ and basically telling the Americans to go to hell. This event triggered Murtala’s decision to attend the OAU conference in Addis Ababa and deliver his message to the world.”

Soetan went further: “On the 11th of January he gave a powerful speech, pulling no punches as he railed against the forces of neo-colonialism and imperialism aiming to keep Africans in poverty and strife. In his speech, he paid special attention to the ‘Pretoria-Lisbon-Salisbury’ axis (the governments of South Africa, Portugal and Rhodesia) and, to the United States of America that he claimed were interested in maintaining ‘white supremacist minority regimes’ in Africa. Just over a month later, Murtala Muhammed was dead at the age of 37, the victim of a failed military coup. One of the leaders of the coup had accused Murtala Muhammed of, among other things, ‘going Communist’.”

Below is Murtala’s speech, as published in Patrick F. Wilmot’s book, Ideology and National Consciousness (1980).


By Murtala Mohammed

Mr Chairman,

It is of great historical significance that the first extraordinary session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government to be held since the founding of the Organisation of African Unity twelve years ago, is being held on the liberation of Africa. Angola is merely the excuse being used by those who cannot reconcile themselves to the momentous victories of the forces of African nationalism, to assert their neo-colonialist ambitions on the Continent. Angola merely provides the occasion to recreate the nineteenth-century partition of Africa into spheres of influence where the predominant consideration will be the interests of the big powers without any consideration for the inalienable rights of the Africans. Let us, therefore, make no mistake about the problem which confronts us at this Session: it is not the question of: a simple disagreement, between Angolans requiring a simple solution in the African tradition. Rather, it is a much deeper danger of extra-African powers in collusion with the inhuman and obnoxious apartheid regime in Pretoria trying to frustrate the will of a people who, having sustained a heroic struggle against a most brutal colonialist repression, are on the threshold of glorious dawn of national self-determination. If the neo-colonialists succeed in Angola, then our hopes for South Africa will have been dashed.

General Murtala Mohammed

Mr. Chairman, the history of modern Africa is replete with shameless exploitation, brutalisation, repression and downright denial of the humanity of Africans. Side by side with colonialism which sought to deny self-determination for the African, there has developed that unique doctrine of apartheid. As the forces of African nationalism began their assault on the bastions of colonialism in Northern, Western and Eastern Africa, the forces of exploitation turned more and more on Southern Africa to make a last-ditch stand. An imaginary line beyond which Harold Macmillan’s ‘wind of change‘ would not be permitted to blow was drawn, to be sustained by the unholy alliance which came to be known as the Pretoria-Lisbon-Salisbury axis.

For years the OAU called the attention of the international community to the role of this axis in provoking a potential racial war in Southern Africa which would affect the peace and security of the entire Continent. We analysed the diabolical role of the various points in the axis and implored those whom we knew had influence to put the necessary pressure so as to minimise the unsettling effect of armed confrontation.

First, we called attention to the diabolical role of apartheid. The main elements of that criminal doctrine are too well known to this Assembly to necessitate my detailed analysis. Suffice it to say that the whole rationale behind this doctrine which the United Nations Organisation has aptly condemned as a crime against humanity is the perpetual subjugation of the Africans in order to create a paradise on earth for the whites. Thus the 4 million whites do not only control all the instruments of government, to the total exclusion of the 18 million Africans, they also inflict on the Africans a repression unparalleled in human history. The Africans are condemned to a life of misery, hunger, disease, in a land literally ûowing with milk and honey. They are no more than tools utilised by the white man in the interest of maintaining his high standard of living: as tools, they are made to work in the white man’s mines and farms to increase the white man‘s proût; as tools, they are discarded and sent to pine away and die in the so-called homelands when they are no longer able to serve as beasts of burden.

Mr. Chairman, when I contemplate the evils of apartheid, my heart bleeds and I am sure the heart of every true-blooded African bleeds. When we talk of these evils we are assured of the ‘sympathy’ of the Western countries, but when we call for sanctions to end this shame of Western civilisation, suddenly the glitter of gold in the form of high dividends becomes more convincing a consideration than the lives, the liberty and the well-being of Africans.

The Western Powers have bluntly refused to take any positive action either in the form of military or economic sanctions which will dissuade the regime in Pretoria from pursuing its criminal policy. Rather. they are encouraged to persist through increased investment. military collaboration and other forms of cooperation.
Little wonder therefore that the apartheid regime became so emboldened as to embark on foreign adventures outside the immediate confines of its territory. In order, to create a number of client states around itself. the Pretoria clique encouraged and sustained the rebellion of the white minority in Rhodesia against Great Britain. The Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Ian Smith and his fellow conspirators marked the formal extension of apartheid northwards and pushed further South Africa against African nationalists. For not only was Southern Rhodesia showered with economic assistance by apartheid South Africa, she was defended by South African forces working in close collaboration with the Portuguese colonialists. The international community looked helpless as the implementation of United Nations sanctions against the Rhodesian rebels was frustrated by South Africa and Portugal. Moreover. some Western powers, again under the pressure of powerful economic interests in their countries joined in breaking the sanctions, not caring for the effect of their actions on African sensitivities. The most notorious example of this open collaboration for the rape of Africa was the Byrd Amendment which permitted the importation of Rhodesian chrome into the United States. Once again, African weakness was exploited by a super-power which claims worldwide responsibility. but whose actions as far as the African Continent is concerned are motivated by no more than naked economic and ideological self-interest.

Having succeeded in installing a puppet regime in Salisbury, the South African regime had no qualms in exporting Apartheid into Namibia, an international territory whose trust territory status was terminated by the-United nations in 1966. Seen as another buffer zone to stem the nationalist tide from the North. Namibia became a pawn in the game of the South African racists whose grand design is a sphere of influence in Southern Africa that will embrace not only the dependent territories under the Lisbon-Pretoria-Salisbury axis but also the independent territories in the area. Were they not daring enough to raid Zambia and Tanzania under the guise of pursuing nationalist guerrilla forces?

Mr Chairman, so long as the fascist regime in Portugal was able to withstand the onslaught of nationalist forces in Mozambique and Angola, so long did the Apartheid regime and their economic backers feel secure. Thus, South Africa saw its fate intimately bound with that of the maintenance of Portuguese oppressive colonialism in these territories. However to their glory, the people of Guinea-Bissau under the PAIGC, the people of Mozambique under FRELIMO, and the people of Angola under the most active of the fighting forces, the MPLA waged a most determined struggle which ended in the collapse of the fascist regime in Lisbon. Thus not only the Africans in the Portuguese territories was liberated, but through the sacrifice of the African freedom fighter, the metropolitan Portuguese who had endured a most brutal and repressive regime in Lisbon was also liberated. The new Portuguese regime, faced with the realities of the situation, took the most sensible course and one by one, formula handed power to the peoples of the former territories.

AU (formely OAU) headquarters in Addis Ababa

Mr Chairman, confusion and panic were naturally thrown into the ranks of the racists of Southern Africa. With the collapse of a pivotal point of the Lisbon-Pretoria-Salisbury axis, apartheid was doomed to come face to face with revolutionary Africa. Part of the buffer zone having collapsed, the forces of freedom are the very doorstep of the racists and the apostles of apartheid. This is the crisis situation that has led South Africa to embark on the most daring adventure of all by blatantly sending an invading force into Angola. The intention is clear. It is to crush the most powerful and the most nationalistic of the Liberation Movements — the MPLA. Thereafter, the South African regime hopes to install a puppet government in Angola, and then turn their attention towards fomenting trouble in Mozambique The recent attempt at rebellion in Mozambique is instructive in this connection, Mr. Chairman. We cannot pretend that we are unaware of the machinations and conspiracies against our Continent by not just the racists of South Africa but even by those who pretend to be the friends of this Continent but whose sole interest is in what they can get out of us. The present Session of our Assembly provides a unique opportunity of reassessing who the true friends of Africa are.
Naturally, because of its strategic importance in the South Atlantic, because of its natural resources and because of the strength and dynamism of the MPLA, Angola has become an area of great interest. Strategically, there are those countries. including South Africa and obviously the United States who are frightened at the emergence of a truly nationalist government who will insist on the sovereign rights of Angola to control both its territory and the sea appertaining thereto. The hope of a foreign base to police this part of the ocean is inconceivable unless puppets are installed in power. Then there is the vast natural resources with which the territory is endowed, and which had hitherto been exploited by foreigners. Under a nationalist government that insists on the sovereignty of Angola over its natural resources, there can be no guarantee of cheap Angolan raw materials and energy to fuel and sustain the factories of neo-colonialists. The alternative, therefore, is to create confusion which in turn will result in a weak regime that will be teleguided from abroad as a reward for the assistance of helping that regime to come to power. Nigeria cannot accept such degrading and humiliating conditions for a people who have not been offered independence on a platter of gold but who have had to fight hard against a regime indirectly supported by those same countries that now seek to reap where they have not sown.

Let us not forget, Mr. Chairman, that in the era of the repressive colonial regime in Angola and other Portuguese territories, the same superpower that now sees red in Angola had the opportunity of building a store of goodwill for itself by espousing the cause on which its history rested. The anti-imperialist and anti-exploitation slogan which led to the American war of independence had: relevance in the Angolan liberation struggle which should have endeared it to successive administrations in the United States. This was not to be. On the contrary, the United States Government as well as the Governments of many Western countries saw the African struggle against imperialism as directed against Western interests. As long as Africa remain dependent, it is within the orbit of NATO countries and is available for exploitation to sustain Western prosperity while the Africans sink deeper into poverty. Rather than join hands with the forces fighting for self-determination and against racism and apartheid, the United States policymakers clearly decided that it was in the best interests of their country to maintain white supremacy and minority regimes in Africa. As far as we know, this is still the extant policy of the United States in Africa, an area, I may add, considered of the least priority as far as the United States, with a population of 23 million black people, is concerned. If Africa does in fact rank so low in United States concern, it becomes even more irritating that an American Administration should suddenly take upon itself to dictate to this august assembly how to settle an African problem. In the days before the opening of this Session, we witnessed a flurry of diplomatic activities on the part of the United States. Not content with its clandestine support and outpouring of arms into Angola to create confusion and bloodshed, the United States President took upon himself to instruct African Heads of State and Government, by a circular letter, to insist on the withdrawal of Soviet and Cuban advisers from Angola as a precondition for the withdrawal of South African and other military adventurers. This Constitutes a most intolerable presumption and a flagrant insult on the intelligence of African rulers.

We are all aware of the heroic role which the Soviet Union and other Socialist countries have played in the struggle of the African peoples for liberation. The Soviet Union and other Socialist countries have been our traditional suppliers of arms to resist oppression and to fight for national liberation and human dignity. On the other hand, the United States which now sheds crocodile tears over Angola has not only completely ignored the freedom fighters whom successive United States administrations branded as terrorists. she even openly supported morally and materially the fascist Portuguese Government. And we have no cause to doubt that the same successive Americans continue to support the apartheid regime of South Africa whom they see as the defender of Western interests on the African continent. How can we now be led to believe that a government with a record such as the United States has in Africa can suddenly become a defender of our interests?
It is in consideration of the unedifying role which the United States has played in the African liberation struggle that the Nigerian Federal Military Government took very strong objection to the patronising interest which President Ford suddenly developed in the Angolan situation. It should be made clear that African memory is not as short as the American Government thinks; we are intelligent enough to draw a distinction between foreign advisers from friendly countries invited by patriotic forces to assist in maintaining national sovereignty and defend the territorial integrity and those racist adventurers who take upon themselves to invade Africa countries in order to undermine their independence and exercise neo-colonialist influence.

This is the crux of the Angolan question. On the one hand, is the MPLA whose record in the struggle against Portuguese imperialism is impeccable and whose Government in Luanda has been recognised by 23 African countries. The Nigerian Federal Military Government being deeply convinced that the MPLA is the most dynamic, most nationalistic of all the movements representing the interests of the Angolan people, and convinced that it possesses the attributes of an effective Government, joined other African countries in according it recognition. It is the duty of this Summit Session to complete the process undertaken so far by individual Governments by unanimously according to the recognition bf our Organisation to the Government of the MPLA.

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On the other hand are the FNLA and UNlTA, which have forfeited their right to the leadership of the Angolan people by joining hands with neo-colonialist adventurers and racist soldiers of fortune, including the apostles of Apartheid, in a determined effort to destroy the sovereignty of Angola. After the moral and material support which Nigeria gave to the Angolan liberation struggle, the Federal Military Government cannot support any movement that seeks to hand the fruit of Angolan, indeed African labour, to the enemies of Angola and Africa. It is a mark of the disrepute in which the FNLA/UNITA front has thrown themselves by their unpatriotic association with the notorious subverters of African independence and the band of racists in Pretoria, that no African country has accorded them recognition.

Mr. Chairman. the Angolan situation is not unique in the stormy history of our Continent — a history which is mostly the making of outsiders. There is hardly any of our countries which, having emerged from colonialism to independence has not been subjected to subversion and other covert activities to promote instability. Such a situation of political chaos helps to keep our countries weak and underdeveloped to the delight of the neo-colonialist who can always point to the inability of the Africans to rule themselves much less rule the white minorities in Southern Africa. Yet, we know that peace is the most vital prerequisite for orderly development. As long as the neo-colonialists who pretend to be our friends succeed to set one section against another, they ensure thereby our continued dependence on them. We spend our meagre resources in maintaining and order, often to the advantage of the military-industrial complexes in the so-called developed world. The gap between them and us then grows even wider, we become even weaker and create greater conditions for the interference of the developed countries in our domestic affairs.

Another recent development has further heightened the danger of conscious sabotage of our independence by foreign powers. The monetary crisis has highlighted the vulnerability of the economies of the developed countries and the extent to which their prosperity has been built on our poverty. The lower the prices we were paid for our natural resources the higher the prices we have had to pay for the manufactures made out of the same natural resources purchased from us: The result of the world economic crisis has forced the developed countries to face the realities of the interdependence of the world economy rather than the erstwhile presumption by them that they sustained the world economy by themselves. The collapse of many supposedly buoyant economies has led to reactions which even found expression in threats to physically attack some developing countries to force down the price of their raw materials. Neither Europe nor America can endure a drop in its standards of living. But rather than make the necessary adjustments, it appears some developed countries cast around neo-colonialist eyes and once again long for the recolonisation of that Continent which is still endowed with much of the world’s untapped resources. The new weapon is no longer the Bible and the flag, but destabilisation and armaments. Africa, Mr.Chairman, should show its awareness of this new danger and see the Angolan situation not as an isolated affair but as part of the greater danger.

In this circumstance, Mr Chairman, this Assembly has before it a clear choice. It should endorse the MPLA as the only Government of Angola and invite its President, Dr. Agostinho Neto to take his place of honour among us. The Assembly should call upon the FNLA and UNITA to dissociate themselves from South Africa and lay down their arms and the OAU should use its good offices in consultation with the Angolan Government to effect national reconciliation of all the people of the country. This step is not without precedent. Nigeria recalls with tremendous pride and satisfaction the noble role which this Organisation plays during our crisis. The effectiveness of the role of the OAU rested on three key factors:

First the insistence on non-interference by foreign powers. Secondly, the firm recognition of the Nigerian Federal Government as the only Government in the country. Thirdly, the close collaboration between the OAU Commission and the Nigerian Federal Government.

The easy and unprecedented reconciliation which has marked developments in Nigeria since 1970 is as much a tribute to the enlightened policy of the Nigerian Federal Military Government as it is a justification of the sensible approach to the OAU to the crisis. It is worth recalling that those who are now seeking to dictate a solution on Angola to the OAU were the same ‘do-gooders’ and self-appointed keepers of the moral conscience of the world who condemned the OAU resolutions of 1967 and 1968 on Nigeria. They were proved wrong in  Nigeria, they will be proved equally wrong in Angola.

Mr Chairman, Africa has Come of age. It is no longer under the orbit of any extra continental power. It should no longer take orders from any country, however powerful. The fortunes of Africa are in our hands to make or mar. For too long have we been kicked around: for too long have we been treated like adolescents who cannot discern their interests and act accordingly. For too long has it been presumed that the African needs outside ‘experts’ to tell him who are his friends and who are his enemies. The time has come when we should make it clear that we can decide for ourselves; that we know our own interests and how to protect those interests; that we are capable of resolving African problems without presumptuous lessons in ideological dangers which, more often than not, have no relevance for us, nor for the problem at hand. Nigeria has come to this Assembly determined to co-operate with you, Mr.Chairman, and with all member, States to put a stop to foreign interference in our Continental matters. As an African nationalist of distinction, I trust that your wise guidance will direct our deliberations to fruitful conclusions of which our peoples will be proud. –

I thank you.”

Akinyemi As External Affairs Minister

General Ibrahim Babangida appointed Professor Akinyemi Minister of External Affairs in 1985. He originated the Technical Aid Corps (TAC), a program that sent Nigerian professionals overseas to engage in volunteer work. According to Abegunrin Olayiwola in his essay, “The Second Phase of Military Rule, 1983–1999”, published in Nigerian Foreign Policy Under Military Rule, 1966–1999, it was designed to “promote the country’s image and status as a major contributor to Third World and particularly African development”. At that time, Nigerian doctors, engineers, teachers and others were sent to help many African countries in terms of their manpower needs.

He also came up with the concept of the “Concert of Medium Powers”. Femi Aribisala, Chairman, Financial Nigeria International Limited, explained the concept in his piece, “Bolaji Akinyemi’s Concert of Medium Powers”:

“In 1987, Bolaji Akinyemi, Nigeria’s Foreign Minister, initiated the Concert of Medium Powers; an informal and flexible consultative organ, comprising a regionally representative number of sixteen countries which were regional powers, or which exercised a significant amount of regional influence. These countries were expected to act together in mediatory capacity in pressing global conflict situations as well as act as a bridge between competing interests in the international system.

The general purpose of the Concert was to enable its membership to exert greater collective influence in world affairs. So doing, it would ensure that questions of international peace and security would no longer be the exclusive preserve of the superpowers and their respective alliance systems. This would attenuate the level of distrust and suspicion in inter-state relations. It was intended, furthermore, to strengthen the faith in multilateral cooperation by addressing global problems, in the enhancement of international peace and security.

Akinyemi’s medium powers were neither exclusively Northern nor Southern; Eastern nor Western; developed nor developing; capitalist nor socialist, but an agglomeration of all these countries. The emphasis was on those countries which had tended to pursue a neutralist or independent foreign policy, drawn from the four regions of Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.”

In his position as Minister of External Affairs, Akinyemi headed numerous Nigerian delegations.  Among the delegations he headed were his country’s delegations to the United Nations General Assembly Session (1985), the Organisation of African Unity, Council of Ministers Session (1986), the Non–Aligned Foreign Ministers Conference (1986), the United Nations General Assembly Annual Session (1986), the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the Critical Economic Situation in Africa (1986), the Budget Session of the Council of Ministers of the Organisation of African Unity (1987), the Ordinary Session of the Council of Ministers of the Organisation of African Unity (1987), the United Nations General Assembly Session (1987), and to the Extra-Ordinary Session of the Council of Ministers of the Organisation of African Unity devoted to African debt (1987).

Another radical area from Akinyemi’s smithy was that in 1987, he stated his support for Nigeria developing nuclear weapons (black bomb). That is, “Nigeria has a sacred responsibility to challenge the racial monopoly of nuclear weapons.”

During the struggle for the actualisation of the June 1993 presidential election, won by the late Chief MKO Abiola, Akinyemi was at the barricades abroad. He and other kindred spirits helped to portray the Sani Abacha government as a bogeyman that the international community should ostracize.

Professor Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha, in his essay, Truth Spoken Before its Time: Professor Bolaji Akinyemi at 80! put it this way: “Outside government, Akinyemi forayed into national activism under the aegis of NADECO when the time came to challenge the fatal impunity of Maximum Ruler General Sanni Abacha. Sacrificing his comfort and safety he went on exile through the popular ‘NADECO route’, with all its hazards. The thrilling drama of a sudden exit from Lagos in full disguise, facilitated by coded actions and words and a small chain of helpers, to escape the murder squad of the Abacha days is a story for another day, forthcoming in his biography.”

Akinwande Bolaji Akinyemi, professor of political science who was Nigeria External Affairs Minister from 1985 to late 1987, was born in Ilesa, Osun State, on 4 January 1942. He attended Igbobi College in Yaba from 1955 until 1959, Christ’s School Ado Ekiti from 1960 to 1961, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States, from 1962 to 1964, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, US, 1964 to 1966, and Trinity College, Oxford, England, from 1966 until 1969.

He was a visiting professor at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva and at the Diplomacy Training Programme, University of Nairobi, Kenya, both in 1977. He was Regents Lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles, US in 1979, Professor of Political Science at the University of Lagos, from 1983 until 1985, and Visiting Fellow, St John’s College, Cambridge, England in 1984.
Akinyemi was Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) from 1975 until 1983. He married Rowena Jane Viney in 1970. They have one son and three daughters.
Akinyemi was appointed Minister of External Affairs by military leader Ibrahim Babangida in 1985.
President Muhammadu Buhari was one of the first Nigerians to congratulate Akinyemi at 80.

Buhari said: “Akinyemi’s foresight, steadfastness and diligence deserve commendation while appreciating his willingness to share his experience whenever the need arises. That is in the areas of shaping the electoral process for democracy, and playing a significant role in global dialogue with other nations, the UN, Commonwealth and African Union.”

As the scholar turns 80, the President prayed for good health and strength, especially in mentoring and inspiring younger scholars and leaders.


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