The Adebayo Adedeji Example


Professor Adebayo Adedeji, the towering intellectual, scholar, pan-Africanist, international civil servant and pioneer Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and Under-Secretary General of the United Nations (1975 -1991) died on April 25, 2018 at the ripe age of 87. He was buried on July 6, in his home-town of Ijebu-Ode in Ogun State. On July 7, the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) organised a symposium in his honour and memory in Lagos, with the theme: “Africa’s Development Agenda: Lessons from the Adebayo Adedeji years and policy options for the 21st Century.”

I was privileged to be one of the participants at this event, which included participants from across Africa – Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Senegal, Namibia, Liberia, Ethiopia, Cameroon – scholars, administrators, public intellectuals, economists, policy experts, who one after the other paid tributes to Professor Adedeji. There was a serving President in attendance- H. E. Hage Geingob, President of Namibia, and two former Presidents – Dr Yakubu Gowon of Nigeria and Dr. Amos Sawyer of Liberia. Professor Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, Governor of the County Government of Kisumu, Kenya, a political scientist and scholar, delivered the keynote address. Apart from the tributes, the symposium later focused during three different sessions on three big issues viz: Africa’s economic development, governance and the challenges of economic transformation in Africa and Adebayo Adedeji in the trajectory of public administration and development in Africa.

I want to commend Ms Vera Songwe and her team at the ECA for putting together what turned out to be a befitting tribute and a fruitful symposium. Out of all the events that have been organized in celebration of the passing of Professor Adebayo Adedeji, I find the ECA’s loyalty to him most instructive. On May 14, 2018, the ECA had in fact also held a lecture in honour of Professor Adedeji. Instituted in 2015, the Professor Adebayo Adedeji Lecture Series is a major annual event on the ECA calendar, and that international body has consistently celebrated him during his lifetime and now, after. There is an important lesson here for institutions and governments in Africa. We often find it difficult to remember, we forget too easily, and in the hot egoistic environment that Africa is, once a man leaves a position or organization, he is soon forgotten and pushed aside and his achievements are trampled upon by ambitious successors. In its various activities, the Economic Commission for Africa continues to prove that it is an institution that is driven by values, memory and ethics. By remembering and identifying icons and past memory for present constructions, we link the past with the present and erect new paradigms in the corridors of history.

What the Nigerian government has failed to do for Adedeji is what the ECA has done for him, by properly promoting him as an icon, and placing the right emphasis on his significance. In Nigeria, governments detest memory. They prefer to quarrel with the past. It is in part for this reason, I believe, that Nigerian government officials were conspicuously absent at the Adedeji symposium. There is yet another reason. As far as I can remember, the Nigerian government itself has not done anything visibly in honour of Adedeji except the release of a routine obituary statement by President Muhammadu Buhari noting Adedeji’s passing. A few government officials also showed up at his burial in Ijebu Ode on July 6, wearing resplendent agbada. They probably just knew Adedeji as that old Ijebu intellectual and had no real inkling about his place in history. Nigerian leaders love ceremonies, any ceremony that would give them an opportunity to wear fine clothes and shoes, take photographs, and pretend to be what they are not. But when it comes to a discussion of ideas, you won’t find them paying attention. The anti-intellectualism of not just Nigerian leaders but African leaders in general, with very few exceptions, is largely responsible for the crisis of mis-governance in the continent. A leadership elite that enjoys ceremonies and avoids ideas and intellection cannot summon the necessary capacity for the transformation of the continent. The silence, even in the South West, about Professor Adebayo Adedeji is not proportional to his greatness. It is scandalous.

In Nigeria, history is no longer a compulsory part of the curriculum, memory is short and emotions are more important than good reason, still, it is disturbing for an Adebayo Adedeji, dying at 87, to be unsung. And yet, he was in his life-time, one of Nigeria’s most prominent policy makers and ambassador on the international stage. Nigeria has been blessed with a number of international civil servants to whom present and future generations owe a debt of respect and gratitude. They include Simeon Adebo, Nigeria’s first Permanent Representative to the United Nations, his protégé, Professor Adebayo Adedeji, pioneer Executive Secretary of the ECA, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, also Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the UN, who was also one of the speakers at the Adedeji memorial symposium, Alhaji Uthman Yola, UN Under-Secretary General, and Chief Emeka Anyaoku who made his mark at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London as an official, and later as Secretary-General. There are others, many of whom also attended the Adedeji symposium, and who after retiring from service have been largely abandoned by Nigeria, whereas these are persons who should be properly de-briefed and given fresh opportunities in the governance and leadership process, considering their cosmopolitan experience and professional exposure and contacts. Adedeji suffered a similar fate, even if President Olusegun Obasanjo called him to service again in 2000 to help re-design the Nigerian civil service. He was for the most part, “a prophet without honour in his own home”; his ambition to become Nigeria’s President never got off the drawing table, but the international community embraced him and continued to make use of his talents and influence till he chose on his own to retire from active public service in 2010, when he turned 80.

For all his international accomplishments however, Nigeria, a country that no longer knows how to manage and appreciate its talents, made Adedeji in his early years. He became a Professor at the age of 36 at the then University of Ife, and was one of the leading lights of the then famous Ife school in economics, social sciences and public administration. At the age of 40, General Yakubu Gowon, shortly after the civil war, appointed him Nigeria’s Minister for Economic Development and Reconstruction. Adedeji was not only instrumental to the planning, design and implementation of the Third National Development Plan, he was at the forefront of the rebuilding, rehabilitation and the reconstruction of Nigeria after the war. Instructively, he was the first Director-General and Chairman of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme – one of the post-civil war national unity projects introduced by the Gowon administration. It was indeed not surprising that General Gowon, Adedeji’s boss, attended his funeral in Ijebu-Ode, and was also at the ECA symposium where he gave a good account of himself as an intellectual in his own right: he not only responded to barbs thrown in his direction by irreverent intellectuals, he painstakingly explained the policies of the Gowon years.

In 1975, Professor Adedeji was appointed the pioneer Executive Secretary and UN Under-Secretary-General in charge of the ECA based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In this capacity Adedeji came of age – not necessarily as the longest serving ECA Executive Secretary, but as a man of formidable impact, intellect and resourcefulness. He transitioned from being a distinguished national servant to a distinguished international civil servant. He built the ECA into an effective machinery for promoting the good interest and development of Africa and as a leading policy and research institution. Those who worked with him or came under his influence, attested at the Lagos Symposium, to his creativity, originality, pan-Africanism, abiding commitment to the future transformation of Africa, confidence, forceful personality and limitless capacity for hardwork. It was not all praises though. I got the impression that Adedeji was regarded behind his back, as an intellectual autocrat, who did not know how to accommodate crass incompetence or intellectual inadequacy.

He was respected and celebrated nonetheless for his distinction as a man of ideas, and for his commitment to African development and African issues. He was critical of the Western model of development and used the ECA as a platform for bringing an African perspective to bear on Western social science, and for seeking an alternative framework for African development and transformation. He led the search for Africa’s alternative framework for Structural Adjustment in the 80s. He also argued in various writings that Africa needed to be self-reliant and self-sufficient and for Africans to seek African solutions to African problems. He was also a renowned visionary and architect of regional integration and co-operation in the African continent, believing that the whole is stronger than its integral parts and that an integrated Africa would play a stronger role in the global space. His efforts led to the emergence of regional communities such as COMESA, and ECOWAS, and he is today, generally regarded as “the father of ECOWAS”, and the thinker and main mind behind the Lagos Plan of Action (1980), the Final Act of Lagos (1980) and the Abuja Treaty (1991). He was also the main architect of the Africa Peer Review Mechanism designed to promote the objectives of good governance and responsive leadership in African states. Adedeji was outstanding in generating knowledge, providing leadership for the younger generation, designing and defining imperatives for the future with the force of his intellect, personality, example and capacity to manage processes and achieve results.

This was the man who was buried in Ijebu Ode on July 6 and who was celebrated by the institution he helped to build on July 7 in Lagos. His legacy is unblemished because ideas do not die. It is regrettable however, that his vision of African integration is still a work in progress and a scandal, that his own country, Nigeria has so far refused to sign or endorse the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AFCTA) which he helped to conceptualize in the 80s. It may be right to argue that endorsement or mere signature does not guarantee expected outcomes, but perhaps principles matter. It is also disturbing that the African Peer Review Mechanism no longer complies with the original objectives. It has been reduced at best to a talk shop, and a pitiable praise-singing forum for negligent African leaders. The transformation of Africa remains a major task. Intra-African trade is a miserable 15%, foreign companies and portfolio investors largely dominate the economic space, the market is at loggerheads with governmental policies, poverty and inequality continue to thrive, and on top of it all, the continent suffers from a leadership crisis as sit-tight leaders change the Constitution and violate term limits.

The key take-away is that there is still a lot of work to be done to transform Africa, for the people’s good. S. K. Asante has described Adedeji as “an African Cassandra” and may be he is right. After his retirement in 1991, Adedeji established in his home town, an African Centre for Development and Strategic Studies (ACDESS) which soon became a watering hole for intellectuals and policy experts. With his retirement from active service at the age of 80, the Centre went into limbo. His children – 11 of them, the man was prolific in every department – should consider the possibility of handing over ACDESS and its resources including the proposed permanent site, to the Economic Commission for Africa, which definitely has the means to turn the centre into one of its major units across Africa, and thereby sustain the Adebayo Adedeji legacy.

Related Articles