It would require a whole Festschrift to capture the essence of Professor Bolaji Akinwande Akinyemi, who turns 80, today, Tuesday, January 4, 2022. Academic, author, public policy expert, distinguished Professor, man of letters, senior citizen, Professor Akinyemi is a Nigerian icon, one of the diamonds that continue to shine luminously in the Nigerian landscape and whose engagements with his country and the international community, through his writings, and policy interventions confirm his genius, humanism and excellence. In 1975, he was a 33-year old Political Science lecturer at the University of Ibadan when he was appointed as the Director-General of the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs (NIIA,) Nigeria’s foreign policy think tank. Akinyemi brought not just youthful energy to the NIIA, he imbued the Institute with his exceptional brain power and intellection and left behind a legacy, upon which his successors, added their own blocks.
His reward was his retention in that position, over a period of eight years, by a total of three administrations: Murtala Muhammad, Olusegun Obasanjo and Shehu Shagari and his subsequent appointment as Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs by General Ibrahim Babangida. Akinyemi was a creative thinker coming up, at every turn with original ideas: the Concert of Medium Powers, the Black Bomb, Nigerian exceptionalism, the power school, and although many of his ideas were rigorously debated, he was never found wanting whenever he was dragged into the arena of intellectual pugilism. I recall his exchanges with the polemicist and poet, the inimitable Odia Ofeimun. Akinyemi argued for the authenticity of African identity and ideas, and the continent as a frontier for development. It was during his time as Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs that the Technical Aid Corps, (the TAC)) was conceived and established.
He has since through all seasons remained active in the public domain, an affirmation of his top credentials as a public intellectual, and as a symbol of how intellectuals can with the power of ideas forge a necessary link between the world of ideas and the world of action, between theory and praxis. In this regard, Akinyemi is a master of the art of tact, balance and ambidextrous navigation, as he cultivates the persona of an insider who is yet an outsider, a key player within the establishment at various times, and yet an activist for public good in defence of the masses. The former DG NIIA, and former Minister, during Nigeria’s turbulent years of transition from military rule to civilian rule, joined Nigeria’s Democratic Coalition and lent his voice openly to the struggle to save Nigeria. He remains fully engaged in public affairs, both locally and internationally, refusing to slow down. His capacity for work-life balance is also impressive.
In those days, he used to show up now and then at the Niteshift Coliseum, a night-club and entertainment centre, a stone-throw away from his Opebi residence, where he mingled with the young, and enjoyed the good life. He later joined us at The Guardian, on special invitation, as a Consultant to The Guardian Editorial Board. It was a pleasure working with him. These days, Professor Akinyemi has also been a major go-to person for us at Arise News TV for commentaries on international affairs. He never disappoints. Close to 50 years in the public arena, Professor Akinyemi has remained prodigious and intellectually formidable. I am tempted to say that they don’t make them like that anymore, but Professor Akinyemi himself would be the first to correct me on that score, because indeed what his generation has done is to inspire, amidst the rot that has enveloped Nigeria, a younger generation in academia and civil society, who continue to raise hopes about Nigeria’s future.
I have no doubts that Professor Bolaji Akinyemi is fully aware that there are implications to his attainment of the age of 80. I look forward to seeing him soon in his signature bow-tie and bespoke suit, to toast to his life and times and distinction. Happy Birthday, sir. Many Happy Returns.