Oluyemi Adeniji: An Accomplished Diplomat, Compassionate Leader and Mentor


Olufunso Olumoko

I received the news of the passage of Ambassador Olu Adeniji, a former Nigeria’s Foreign Minister, with utmost sadness. Of course I knew he hadn’t been enjoying the best of health in his later years but I had hoped this icon would, characteristically, keep soldiering on but the Almighty God Knows best.

Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji was a first class professional not only among the first generation but in the annals of the Nigerian Foreign Service. From his distinguished career which started in the very early 60’s to his retirement in 1994, Ambassador Adeniji consistently shone like a bright star! He distinguished himself in the various positions he held at Headquarters of the Ministry including those of Regions, International Organisations which he capped by being appointed as Director General(equivalent of Permanent Secretary) in 1992.

On external representation, he had an outstanding career as Nigeria’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Offices in Vienna and Geneva as well as being Ambassador to France. In the course of his career, he distinguished himself as a foremost expert in Multilateralism, Disarmament, Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Conference Diplomacy and Negotiations. His expertise, in particular, on UN matters was so widely acknowledged and respected that immediately on retirement, the United Nations system not only made him a Consultant on Disarmament matters, he was also made member of a number of Advisory Boards on Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

The then U.N Secretary General (Kofi Annan) appointed him first as his Special Representative and Head of the U.N Mission in the Central African Republic (MINURCA) and later as his Special Representative and Head of the U.N Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). Towards the end of his tenure in Sierra Leone, President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed him as a Foreign Minister. Thus, Amb. Olu Adeniji had the rare honour of being a Foreign Service Officer not only to serve as Permanent Secretary but also as a Foreign Minister (also like Amb. I.C. Olisemeka)!

In the course of his service both to Nigeria and internationally, Ambassador Adeniji was noted for the following characteristics – top notch professionalism, disarming ambience, empathy and compassion, exemplary leadership and mentoring. Both as Permanent Secretary and Minister, Ambassador Adeniji was concerned about the general welfare of his staff – their remunerations, promotion and incentives. I was one of his Special Assistants when he was the Permanent Secretary. I recalled that he set up Committees to review, among other things, the Foreign Service Allowances, Funding of the entire service and Postings. Principles matter a lot to Ambassador Adeniji and he was not one to sacrifice principles of social justice, equity and fairness on the altar of what he reasoned to be ill-advised policy or in obeisance of any political authority. This was amply demonstrated when he was a Minister of Foreign Affairs and he was required to retire a number of very senior Officers for no other reason but to carry out a so-called “reform” agenda. Of course, as a top-notch professional, who knew his onions, Ambassador Adeniji stood on principle that he could not retire senior Officers over whom the Ministry had invested long years of training and who possessed huge experience. It did not matter to him that he was reshuffled at the earliest opportunity but he stood his grounds. Such was a clear demonstration of one of the sterling qualities of this unassuming technocrat!

To further appreciate the worth of Ambassador Olu Adeniji, I would narrate some few personal experiences I had with him as my boss. My first external posting was was to the Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations in Geneva in July 1978. I was then a fledgling First Secretary and a complete tiro in multilateral diplomacy. The very day I reported for duty at the Mission, Amb. Adeniji whisked me off in his car to the UN to commence my duties at the Committee on Disarmament as the Desk Officer for Disarmament in the Mission. After making his interventions in what sounded esoteric to me, he left to attend another important UNCTAD meeting in another area of the vast UN building. Trouble started for me when the other delegates at the meeting started reacting to my Ambassador’s intervention and continuously glancing at me for a response. Of course, I didn’t understand what they were talking about, disarmament being a very technical issue. But I quickly gathered my wits around me and took the floor and told the meeting that my delegation had listened to their reactions and would report appropriately to my Ambassador. That was my first “baptism of fire” in multilateral diplomacy. While in Geneva, among others, I learnt three valuable lessons from Ambassador Adeniji that stood me in good stead throughout my career. These were:

Learn to think on your feet

Familiarize yourself thoroughly with your conference/meeting documentations

In multilateral diplomacy, procedure is (if not in some instances more) as important as the substance.

Years after, in the course of my diplomatic career, the professional towering reputation of Ambassador Adeniji was widely acknowledged and saluted. I recall after a robust defence of a Nigeria’s draft resolution that was adopted at a Board of Governors meeting of the IAEA in Vienna in 1987, an old British Ambassador walked up to our delegation and asked two questions that had remained indelible in my memory. He first asked “there used to be a formidable Nigerian Ambassador, very active and brilliant at meetings of this Board some years back, he’s smallish in stature but, I can’t now recall his last name but its Olu something”. When I retorted “Olu Adeniji” his face brightened and he said “that’s him”. Then he asked “where are these Nigerian U N diplomats trained? Because you are all so smart and defend your positions brilliantly” What this British Ambassador didn’t know was that we went to no special school but we had hands-on training by our highly experienced and outstanding Ambassadors like Olu Adeniji!

Ambassador Adeniji was cerebral, a profound thinker and negotiator. He grasped the concept, substance and nuances of complex subjects as Disarmament, Arms Control and Nuclear negotiations with ease. He was a hard worker. He read voraciously and wrote copiously. At debates, in various fora of the UN on diverse subjects such as trade, inhumane weapons, International humanitarian law, health, labour, refugees etc. Amb. Adeniji was a pleasure to behold as he adroitly marshalled his points and deftly counter-argued the opposing delegations and make proposals until a consensus was reached! He was also an author.

He had encapsulated his thinking and visions in many publications including two definitive works: “Essays On Nigerian Foreign Policy, Governance And International Security” and “ The Treaty Of Pelindaba”. While he was Foreign Minister, he focused as a foreign policy tool, the concept of “Constructive and Beneficial Concentricism” basically aimed at, without being mercantilist, making “the Nigerian as the ultimate beneficiary of Nigeria’s foreign policy endeavors…….”.This concept ensured that during his tenure as Foreign Minister, as much as possible, materials and personnel were sourced from Nigeria. That other countries, in particular, African countries, in return for Nigeria’s goodwill and generosity should provide conducive environment for Nigerian-owned business to thrive in their countries. His tenure witnessed the expansion of Nigeria’s business concerns like banks, petrol stations, insurance companies in some African countries.

From the foregoing, it could be seen that Nigeria has indeed lost a rare gem. Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji was a colossus and would be sorely missed not only within his immediate diplomatic and the UN communities but in the Nigerian public service at large. Whether as a Foreign Service Officer, an Ambassador/Permanent Representative, an International Civil Servant or a Cabinet Minister, Ambassador Adeniji represented and projected Nigeria professionally and brilliantly and left indelible marks on whoever and wherever he touched. He was simple, unassuming, compassionate and empathetic. He was simply a decent human being. I console the beautiful family he had left behind-his lovely wife, Auntie Bunmi and his accomplished children, Yemisi, Segun and Femi. May the illustrious soul of Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji rest in perfect peace.

–Olufunso Olumoko, mni, was Ambassador of Nigeria to Thailand