He easily qualifies to be addressed as a super diplomat having successfully served the country for 35 years in that capacity. From Cotonou, the capital of Benin Republic, where he started, to duty tour of five Nigerian diplomatic missions, to opening Nigeria’s High Commission in Namibia, serving as ambassador to Japan and France, Ambassador Edward Abiodun Aina has seen it all. He was formerly the Special Representative of the President of ECOWAS in Conakry, Guinea. A former Assistant Executive Secretary to the African Liberation Committee, a position which helped him to build a rich network of contacts like the African icon, Nelson Mandela, three weeks after he walked to freedom, tells Stanley Nkwazema, how he started out and how has a ‘village boy’, who later became a Fellow of the War College, undertook several discreet overseas assignments for Nigeria and helped to restore peace, democracy and good governance in Guinea
Journey Through the Early Days…
He is a village boy from Odo Ere in Yagba West Local Council Area of Kogi State. He is a thoroughly localised lad who outgrew his boundary of birth and rose to the top of his career. He tells his own story:
“I was born 2nd of January, 1947. I can only talk about myself, having lived in the village. I went to primary school in the village called Sudan Interior Mission primary School but I completed my primary education in Odugba, a nearby town. I was trekking to school every day, four miles in the morning and four miles in the afternoon. My aunt’s husband gave us bicycle which I and my cousin used, occasionally. We were about 18 to 20 from our village.”
He had gone to Provincial Secondary School, in Okene, after his primary education and he sat for his West African School Certificate in 1965.
An incident nearly derailed his quest for secondary education. Since he was not on scholarship, he was asked to pay 25 Pounds Sterling as tuition, which was a challenge to his mother.
“I was not told that my father died when I was a child so I did not know my father nor had the privilege to see his picture. The assessment was at the Native Authority level. So my own Yagba Native Authority assessed me and asked me to pay 25 Pounds Sterling. On the main day, January 4, 1961, we were lucky to be picked up by an open van from the Native Authority to take us from Egbe to Okene but we stopped at Isolo to sort out our fees and I was asked how much I had. I told them one pound. They asked for my assessment and I said 25pounds but my mother only had a pound. An Uncle I did not know who was in London got to know and intervened. I had seen him before when he visited Nigeria in 1958. In February 1961, he sent 25 pounds which gave me a credit of one pound. My mother was in Lagos so I wrote to her to break the news and to let her know that I had a credit of one pound because of what she paid and also told her the things that I wanted to buy and the prices. She wrote to say I should go ahead. For that, I remain grateful.”
Her mother, Madam Comfort Aina, is still alive aged 95.
Aina speaks of one Engineer James Eyitayo Ogungbemi. He worked with the NNPC and, according to the diplomat, he is presently working with Sahara Petroleum.
“We were classmates in primary school and we became students together at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria from 1968-1971 when we finished. He was the closest to me. I happened to be one of the indigent students in ABU without scholarship, either federal or state. We had to rent a house in Samaru Hostel and slept on the same bed. After a year, I got a scholarship with the French Government which gave me a relief for one year.”
“I have two brothers from the same mother. One is Reverend Julius Bamidele Odofin and the other one a banker, Philip Ajibola Odofin. Jimoh Odofin became my stepfather but he passed on in 1992 when I was Nigeria’s Ambassador to Namibia. My mother is still very sharp and answers telephone calls. She is a disciplinarian but not that she was beating me; she is focused and tender. She would tell you what she wanted you to do for her. I learnt to do what was right. She was an illiterate in the sense of what we call the Western education today. She would ask me to sit down when I was in primary school after the school hour and opened my books and asked what I was taught in school. So being an illiterate, yet she was helping me to review my school work. She knew what a cross was, so she will take my book and count how many crosses and tales I had on the book. So there was no deception. My mother’s integrity was uncompromising. She impacted that to me.”
Path to a Glistering Career…
Aina’s first job was teaching with a missionary school called the Sudan Interior Mission School in Egbe, just close to his village after his Higher School Certificate, HSC. He tells the story of the job.
“I did not apply for the job. I had my boyhood friend, Williams Adeyemi, in the school. We went together and while he was looking at the notice board, the then principal, Paul Henley, was passing by and he introduced me to the principal and he asked if I did not want to teach? I said not yet. I have been studying for seven years and needed to relax. He said if I wanted, I could have a teaching job in the school. I went back home and had a second thought, knowing well that the university would not resume till September. I went back the next day and took the job offer. I was there until October. I almost did not go to the university because the first scholarship that Kwara State offered was for only 90 students. I was interviewed but not offered. It was devastating and because of that I resolved to continue teaching. My younger brother, Julius Odofin, was with me and he had been successful in his final exams. So I thought I should work to sponsor him. One day, I received three letters from my secondary school mates and the contents were similar. The letters said I was not the only one without scholarship as there were many others in the school. It was on a Saturday. I reflected and called my brother to tell him. I told him so that when I finished I can sponsor him to any level. I did not want my students to know that I was leaving because we were so close. When I got to the motor park, the bus going to Kaduna was just about to leave, so if I had gone to the classroom, I wouldn’t have met the vehicle. In the same bus, were many of my classmates who paid for my transport fare. I was being paid 24 Pounds Sterling which was something. They were taking some small percentage as tax. By the time I finished from Zaria, the school offered me a job again but I have already resolved that I would not teach again. I graduated as a French Honours.”
How Providence Paved the Way
Ambassador Aina believes the generosity of people cannot be over-emphasised. He had 36 Pounds Sterling the day he arrived at the university but he believed God was with him. According to him, from Tudun Wada to Samaru, he paid but there was a passenger who asked if he was going to the university and he said yes. When they got to the gate, he showed Aina the place and helped him to carry his big box to the Hostel Superintendent’s office.
“The Superintendent gave me a meal ticket for three months. That was a miracle. My close friend, James Ogungbemi, was ejected from the room in the afternoon which was then allocated to me. When we met that same day, he asked for my room. He smiled and told me that it was the same room he was ejected from that morning. Anyway, we still had the room and slept on the same bed. History was to be my major but French accidentally became my major. Along the line, the Federal Government came up with the idea of bursary award and Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the Finance Minister then, but I was lucky and got the scholarship. I had already gone to Senegal for one year. I was happy that it was Senegal I was sent to not Europe because of indigent status. Incidentally, for the year abroad I had already been listed to have gone with General Babatunde Akinola, a former Director of Military Intelligence to France for the year. But when we got to the French Cultural Centre I saw that my name had been crossed with a pencil and the name of the late Tor Tiv was inserted. I was happy to go to Senegal because it was Africa. By the time I came back, the bursary award had materialised which covered hotel and feeding. One of my lecturers took interest in me and gave me money to cover transport.”
The Twists and Turns
He was offered an appointment in the Federal Civil Service. Interestingly, he had applied to the Federal Civil Service and passed his application through the Head of Department, one Prof. Walton. But another drama was to play out. Some of his course mates he gave forms and filled them got acknowledgments but he did not get any acknowledgment. He was worried.
“So I went back to Prof. Walton who asked me to fill another form. I was still waiting for reply when we got information that the Federal Civil Service was coming to conduct the interview in the school. We were asked to fill fresh forms. Fortunately, the emphasis was that the area I wanted was Ministry of Information and the second Foreign Affairs. The interesting background was that my senior then, Ambasador Jones Ajayi, was from the same village with me and he was my senior in secondary school. I was in Form 1 and he was in Form 5. We met at the university and he was a year ahead of me and he studied French. When he graduated, he got into the Ministry of Information and three months after, he was posted to France. So I was inspired to make information my first choice; not because I wanted to be posted to France, but that I would be posted abroad. I got to the departmental library and was just settling down when a classmate of mine said we should go to the place where the interview was going on. We were just close to the place when my name was called. It was one Mr. A.O. Fadaka who conducted the interviews. At the end of the interview, the students before me were told the places they would report to, but I was not told anything. I asked him about my placement and he asked if I had been to any country outside Nigeria and I said yes. I am the one being interviewed, but I did not know the implication of me interviewing my interviewer and I did not know who he was at that moment. He said from the documents he had including my assessment in the university, and with the establishment of Federal Government Colleges, there was prospect for me taking on teaching subjects I rejected his offer of a teady job. I resolved to relocate from the departmental library to the main library where no one would disturb me. I was in the main library when someone came and said congratulations. He said I had been taken to External Affairs. It took me 30 minutes to overcome the shock.”
Ambassador Aina assumed duties June 22, 1971. He had finished from Zaria and had his oral interview on Friday 18th of June 1971. From there, he went to Lagos. Contrary to some expectations, Aina’s first salary was not that massive. But it was enough for him to get by. It was 60 Pounds Sterling and when they deducted the tax, he would be left with 54 Pounds Sterling.
“My first posting was Cotonou, Benin Republic. I did not want to fly. When I was going to Senegal, I told my mates in the airplane that I thought we were in the wrong plane because our luggage was still on the ground. We landed in Cotonou without our luggage and we had to get in touch with the Nigeria Embassy. Next day we were back in Lagos and went to the Cultural Centre and they took us back to the airport. I did not want to fly so I went to Cotonou in a diplomatic car.”
Marriage, Cultural ‘Suicide’ and Mother’s Reaction
Aina married a woman from the eastern part of the country in the present day Anambra State. They met while he was in diplomatic service. From Cotonou, Benin Republic he had gone to Congo and they were in the same office there. One thing led to the other and they agreed to marry. “My mother was at the wedding in Kinshasa and never opposed it. She is a lovely woman, tender and caring. I have four children: three beautiful ladies and a man. I served five countries: Benin Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Namibia as the first High Commissioner of Nigeria in 1990. Then later I was in Japan when General Abubakar was Head of State and then France which was my last posting.”
Serving Africa in Tanzania
Ambassador Aina was Assistant Executive Secretary African Liberation Committee. It was an African Union Organisation, OAU, outfit established immediately OAU was created in 1963, as a strategic step for Africa’s liberation. The full name was Coordinating Committee for the Liberation of Africa. He takes up the story:
“Nigeria as the founding member of the OAU, because of her policy, determination, commitment, was a founding member of the African liberation and was also allowed to produce an executive member. I was not the first to be there but the fourth person and did eight years there. It was the outfit that coordinated and worked out strategies and rendered assistance to the liberation movement in Africa. Any liberation movement had to be recognised by the OAU before being offered any assistance.”
On Your Mark, Go!
“Professionally, I do not think I will say I have faced any challenge because we have rules and regulations and modality,” Ambassador Aina stated.
“One of the challenges I had during the service which perhaps influenced my attitude to life was my posting cycle. From the first posting out, on time track you have on your mark, get set and go. My postings missed the second step. My own was on your mark, go. I was to go to Cotonou and my supervisor called me and said ‘Do you know you have been posted to Cotonou? The head of admin will give you the details.’ I went there and they said they had sent telex to them in Cotonou and I could go anytime I wanted. That was partly why I went by road. Again, a letter came and said I was cross-posted to Kinshasa to arrive there not later than the 30th. And I said the Permanent Secretary just left here and he did not say anything. I had to go immediately. My daughter’s first birthday was advanced by 24 hours to enable me travel. We had rules and regulations which said we should take Nigeria Airways and I was not used to things of that nature. I had to cancel my holiday in the United Kingdom with the family in order to respond to the call when I was appointed ambassador for the first time. We had what we called the Observer Mission but when it became high commission of Nigeria. I also had a tough assignment in Guinea when I was appointed Special Representative of the President of the Commission in Conakry between 2007 and 2010. Indeed , I played strategic roles towards restoration of peace, security , democracy and good governance in Guinea and observed the election in Zimbabwe in 1980; Benin in 2006 and 2016; Democratic Republic of Congo in 2007 and 2011; Guinea in 2010; Sierra Leone in 2012; Ghana in 2013 as well as Mali and Sao Tome and Principe in 2014.”