Heart of Arts

Bolaji Akinyemi: The Don of Public Affairs


This is the pre-interview analysis on the interview with Professor Bolaji Akinyemi happening live on Sunday, August 13, 2023. You can join us via Zoom: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81404232638


Bolaji Akinyemi: The Don of Public Affairs  

Toyin Falola

Focus is an often-romanticized characteristic among the human race. As powerful as the human brain is, there are piles of motivational messages with the sole aim of helping humans do away with distractions and focus on their end goal. Among those piles of messages is the notion that venturing into more than one thing at a time is a huge impediment to focus-based excellence. This notion is lodged within sayings like, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” a proverbial message that teaches contentment and the need to have undivided attention for one’s mission.

However, we have seen over the years that this message has been lost on a larger percentage of the human race. For one, variety is the heartbeat of existence in any given human society — it makes people tick and give them reasons to wake up each day and go about their duties. This variety is the ability to live their lives for more than one thing; to have a purpose yet have passions and hobbies. To take variety out of human society, to restrict people to a single way of life and to ask them to make their attention undivided for a single purpose could render life undesirable for many.

This variety has been at the core of Professor Bolaji Akinyemi’s life trajectory, making him an accomplished and fulfilled elder statesman. More often than not, happenings in countries like Nigeria prove a wide gap between the town and the gown — so much so that what seems to be the analyses and academic considerations of issues is a far cry from what eventually is the reality of the people. This phenomenon made the term “armchair critic” popular, a seemingly condescending name for someone that deals more with the theoretical provisions of happenings in the country with little to no experience in active political leadership. The term has often served as an easy way out for politicians to attempt to silence their critics by implying that expectations, analyses, and considerations do not align with the reality of the people and the political landscape.

The gap — between theory and practice, town and gown, scholars and politicians, expectations and reality — makes it a rare occurrence to have someone belong to both worlds in Nigeria, save for seeing scholars participate in the politics within the academic community. It is either one who leads a productive life by contributing to the betterment of our society through their work in the academic field or one who takes the challenge of serving the Nigerian state in different leadership capacities. To opt for either of the two is far more common than seeing someone lead both lives.

As uncommon as it may seem, many people have had their fair share of contributions within the Nigerian political and academic landscapes. It is of this order that Professor Bolaji Akinyemi belongs. Professor Akinyemi’s exploits as a professor of “applied” political science have made him a trans-generational reference within the Nigerian political and academic landscapes. This is why I’ve chosen to regard him as the don of public affairs — an academic that has stayed relevant and in the spotlight through his academic contributions and political commitment and service to the Nigerian state and people.

For someone that has led an excellent life in the public spotlight, the earliest years of Professor Akinyemi’s life did not start with an ambition to serve the country politically. This is not unexpected since the early days of post-independent Nigeria were filled with part-time politicians, people with other careers besides politics. Politics then was an aside, not a lifelong aspiration that one prepared for from their cradle like it is seen nowadays where even primary school students campaign and contest for prefectship positions.

What started as a passion for studying medicine soon translated into a career in a research-intensive study in international affairs, law and diplomacy, and philosophy — where he obtained two Master’s degrees and a Doctorate, respectively. Professor Akinyemi’s life has always been about variety, which also came to the fore in his studies.

As a prolific academic, Professor Akinyemi’s career started at the University of Ibadan. His excellence in teaching also saw him take up several teaching-related roles at the North Eastern University, DePauw University, Kalamazoo College, Nigeria’s University of Lagos, the University of California, the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Kenya’s Diplomacy Training Progam at the University of Nairobi, and St. John’s College in Cambridge, among other roles. If there is anything to speak to Professor Akinyemi’s excellence in teaching, it is how he got several appointments, sometimes concurrently, to impart knowledge. His excellence in teaching was also greatly influenced by his first-hand experience in the field and how that gave life and practicality to the theories and concepts he discussed in his classrooms.

But far from being an excellent teacher, Professor Akinyemi is also a prolific scholar and researcher whose love for and belief in Nigeria’s success was his biggest arsenal, helping him make several meaningful strides both in the academic community and as a politician. The books he is best known for are those he wrote as commentaries on the Nigerian state. Notable among those commentaries are his works on: The British Press and the Nigerian Civil War: The Godfather Complex; Angola and Nigeria: A Study in the National Interest; Nigerian Exceptionalism: Nigerian Quest for World Leadership; Nigeria: The Blackman’s Burden; A Farewell to Policy; Nigeria and the World: Readings in Nigerian Foreign Policy, and Foreign Policy and Nationalism: A Nigerian Experience. Most of these were books he wrote in the decades he served the Nigerian state as a foreign policy analyst.

As a public affairs guru, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi’s first service to the Nigerian state was as the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs during the regime of General Murtala Mohammed. That period is touted as one of Nigeria’s best periods, foreign policy-wise, and that feat could not have been achieved without the immense inputs of the Institute that Professor Bolaji Akinyemi chaired. As Director-General, he championed Nigeria’s focus on dialogue to forge stronger foreign policies and make international ties. The work rate of the Institute under Professor Akinyemi’s leadership was unprecedented, seeing to the organization of several dialogues, including the Nigerian-Chinese Dialogue, the Nigerian-United States Dialogue, the Nigerian-Soviet Union Dialogue, the Nigerian-Brazilian Dialogue, the Northern-Southern Dialogue, and the Nigerian-Scandinavian Dialogue, among several other dialogues and interventions.

The years that Professor Akinyemi spent in the Institute of International Affairs saw him commit intellectual resources to revamping the Institute and repositioning it as an organization of repute among federal-owned agencies in the country. Aside from the dialogues that the Institute facilitated, it saw an astronomical increase in its research output, so much so that successors of Murtala Mohammed retained Professor Akinyemi as the Director-General of the Institute.

Years later, this illustrious and hardworking spirit manifested when Professor Bolaji Akinyemi was appointed the Nigerian Minister of External and Foreign Affairs, succeeding Ibrahim Gambari in office. His tenure as a minister during the Muhammadu Buhari regime. At a time when war was ravaging some African states, Professor Akinyemi’s efforts successfully registered Nigeria as a force to be reckoned with and a big sister to other African states, especially in the country’s peacekeeping negotiations during the Chadian-Libyan and Malian-Burkina Faso wars. He was also a vocal Nigerian minister who steadfastly led Nigerian delegations to world conferences and UN assemblies—counting many who were more committed to and believed more in the Nigerian cause than Professor Bolaji Akinyemi is rare.

Akinyemi’s exploits are for ages; his expertise and in-depth commentaries are still being studied and reimagined. To have encountered Professor Akinyemi would be to have met one of the most patriotic Nigerians. Even though he is no longer in active service to the country, he has stayed relevant through his commentaries and contributions to the Nigerian political space, and his work remains a relevant source of reference in the academic community.

In the Yoruba Alade’s proverbial cottage, one is refused the choice of having one’s cake and eating it — that is, eating both yam and pounded yam. However, if life were Alade’s proverbial cottage, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi would have had a taste of two sides and excelled in both. He also added asaro to it, eating not just the yam, pounded yam, and porridge. Three men in one! He is a Nigerian worthy of recognition and celebration, and it is with pleasure that I introduce him as our guest on the next edition of the Toyin Falola Interviews.

Join us on August 13, 2023, and we will touch on topical issues with one of the most profoundly gifted Nigerians alive.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

5:00 PM Nigeria

4:00 PM GMT

11:00 AM Austin CST


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