Anyaoku: 90 Garlands to a Global Statesman 

By Olusegun Adeniyi

In his memoir, ‘Audacity on the Bound: A Diplomatic Odyssey’, the late Ambassador Olusola Sanu tells a compelling story of our country in the years preceding independence and the years after, from the perspective of a diplomat. He detailed the critical roles played by George Dove-Edwin, John Ukegbu, Sam Ifeagwu, Adedokun Haastrup, Isa Wali, Olu Adeniji, Emmanuel Odogwu, Akporode Clark, Emeka Anyaoku and others in the first set of what is now a vanishing generation. But I recall that in the eighties at the Department of International Relations, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Anyaoku was the reference point for many students given his visibility as one of the most notable Africans on the global stage at the time. Interestingly, I had just graduated in October 1989 when he became the Secretary General of the Commonwealth in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. In a remarkable election that pitched him against a former Australian Prime Minister, Malcom Fraser, the Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) voted overwhelmingly in Anyaoku’s favour. And in that role, he was central to the resolution of many crises in the last three decades of the 20th century. 

For instance, Anyaoku was involved in the process that led to the release from prison of the late Nelson Mandela, the independence of Namibia and Zimbabwe and ultimately, the dismantling of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Between 1 November 1991 and 17 November 1993, Anyaoku undertook eleven trips to South Africa in the efforts to break the deadlocks in the protracted negotiations that eventually culminated in majority rule. But even though he acted as Commonwealth Secretary General, his interest went beyond the call of duty.   

As a junior officer in the Nigerian Permanent Mission to the United Nations, Anyaoku had first met the late African National Congress (ANC) former president, Oliver Reginald Tambo in 1963. From that time, the duo became close friends. Tambo would later introduce Anyaoku to his Personal Assistant, Thabo Mbeki who succeeded Mandela as South African President. It is a testimony to how much Anyaoku was revered for the critical role he played that he was given the rare honour to address a joint session of the South African National Assembly in 1998 by then sitting President Mandela who remarkably wrote the foreword to Anyaoku’s personal memoir and another foreword to Anyaoku’s authorized biography by a Canadian journalist, Phyllis Johnson. 

In the first to Anyaoku’s memoir, ‘The Inside Story of the Modern Commonwealth’, Mandela wrote: “I am well aware of the need to avoid exaggerating the role of the individual in history. On the other hand, history is replete with examples of individuals intervening in situations and making all the difference. Emeka Anayoku’s intervention in South Africa’s transition from apartheid to non-racial democracy was a decisive contribution which history, if properly nursed, will come to acknowledge.” 

Before I get to Mandela’s second and more personal reflection on Anyaoku, let me also acknowledge that I have had the privilege of close interactions with the highly revered diplomat who treats me like a son. Since he returned to Nigeria almost two decades ago, I have benefitted from his intellect and generosity of spirit. In his strict adherence to discipline, Anyaoku was one of the first to arrive the venue (before the slated 10am) when I presented my book, ‘Against the Run of Play: How an incumbent president was defeated in Africa’ in Lagos in April 2017. And he stayed till the end. Three weeks ago, he called to inform me about his birthday and that he would be hosting a select audience for lunch to mark the occasion. He said he would appreciate my presence. He followed up by sending, through courier, a non-transferable invitation card to me in Abuja. Regrettably, I could not make yesterday’s lunch date in Lagos, but I sent him a congratulatory message. 

I cannot say more for Anyaoku than what his friend, the late Mandela wrote in Phyllis Johnson’s ‘Eye of Fire’, after recalling how they first met at Pollsmoor prison in May 1986 at a period Anyaoku was Commonwealth Deputy Secretary General and had visited South Africa as a member of the Eminent Group. “In what has grown to be a warm personal friendship, two qualities of the Chief have consistently struck me: his unwavering commitment to democracy and justice; and his quiet personal style for achieving these objectives. Never seeking the limelight for himself, Emeka Anyaoku’s most enduring strength is his ability to win the trust of different peoples, at different times, and in different places” Mandela wrote. “Master of quiet diplomacy, the Chief also brings to the international arena that great African tradition of consensus building that has positioned him in a key role as a builder of bridges across peoples and nations.” 

We are fortunate in Nigeria to be blessed with remarkable human capital of Anyaoku’s stature. While he and a few others in his class may have helped to shape our past, we need them even more desperately now that we are literally challenged to reinvent our nation through the process of democratic renewal. I wish the Ichie Adazie of Obosi happy birthday, long life, and good health as he joins the elite Nonagenarian Club.

Related Articles