By Rafiq Raji, PhD
On 7 July, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) organised a symposium in Lagos for its former chief, Prof Adebayo Adedeji, who died on 25 April 2018 aged 87. In his prime, he was a colossus in academia and global diplomacy. The symposium was graced by Hage Geingob, President of Namibia and the only sitting head of state present. Observing President Geingob’s relaxed but active participation for a great part of the event, you could tell Prof Adedeji earned his respect. And there is good reason for that to be the case. Prof Adedeji helped establish the United Nations Institute for Namibia where Mr Geingob was the pioneer director. And according to an account by Prof. Adekeye Adebajo, director at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, the “scholar-diplomat” advised the Namibian government for some six years. Unsurprisingly, a grateful Namibia gave him honorary citizenship in 1997.
Former Liberian president Amos Sawyer and former UN under-secretary general Ibrahim Gambari also attended the symposium. Mr Sawyer recounted how former Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi credited Prof Adedeji with teaching him economics from the books he gave him; and how the cosy relationship between the two did not stop the then UNECA chief from criticizing the Zenawi government for its poor human rights record. The example shows how Prof Adedeji did not allow his emotions to cloud his judgement. On his part, Prof Gambari demonstrated the uniqueness of the man in being both “good and great”; a rare combination. On the Nigerian side, former military head of state, Yakubu Gowon, was probably the most highly ranked “government official” at the occasion, and perhaps the one that did his former minister of economic reconstruction and development the greatest honour. Mr Gowon stayed put for the entire event; from start to finish. Considering Prof. Adedeji went on to more interesting things long after his stint as a minister in Gowon’s cabinet, he clearly left an indelible impression on the former army general who described him as “a very practical and dynamic man who could hold his own in any place anywhere in the world.”
Unsung hero at home
Unfortunately, it did not seem like his death mattered very much to the Nigerian government of the day. Yes, a statement was issued by the government when he passed away. But there was not much that was done afterwards. Neither President Muhammadu Buhari nor his deputy Yemi Osinbajo graced the occasion. The governor of the host city-state Lagos did not attend either. Nor did any minister in the federal cabinet. Their absence is instructive. Here was a great man who laboured hard for his country and achieved international acclaim but yet after his death, he was no more than another citizen who kicked the bucket. Prof Adebajo, a Nigerian himself, notes the former UNECA executive secretary’s disillusionment with his country, writing thus: “Adedeji was…scathing about his own country Nigeria’s failure to fulfill its potential, noting in 2004 that: “No country that is confronted with a long period of political instability, economic stagnation, and regression, and is reputed to be one of the most corrupt societies in the world, has a moral basis to lead others.” In a profile he read at the symposium, Prof Adebajo also highlighted the failed attempt by the deceased great man to secure the presidency of his country. Incidentally, he had a chance to do so on a platter of not so shiny gold much earlier; in 1993, when he was offered the presidency of the interim government that Chief Ernest Shonekan eventually led in the aftermath of the annulment of perhaps Nigeria’s best presidential election yet in 1993.
Legacy lives on
Thankfully, Prof Adedeji’s work is beginning to outlive him. The recently signed African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is his brainchild, for instance. Prof Adebajo highlights his regional integration efforts thus: “[Adedeji’s] greatest feats were in the area of regional integration. [He] was widely regarded to have been ‘the father of ECOWAS.’ He had outlined a vision for regional integration in West Africa in the Journal of Modern African Studies in 1970, before turning theory into practice by 1975. While serving as Gowon’s minister of economic development, he convinced 15 other West African leaders to establish ECOWAS.” He would get a chance to convert his regional integration efforts to a pan-African one whilst at the helm of UNECA. In this regard, Prof Adebajo summarises: “His 16-year tenure became [UNECA’s] longest and most dynamic: he converted the ECA into a Pan-African platform to continue his efforts to promote economic integration, leading to the creation of the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa in 1981; and the Economic Community of Central African States in 1983.” The colourful pipe-smoking Adedeji wanted an Africa that was self-reliant and self-sufficient. His “Lagos Plan of Action” which was adopted by the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) envisaged an African Common Market by 2023. The 2018 AfCFTA is a vindication of his work.
It makes sense then that the best way to immortalize him is to do as current UNECA executive secretary Vera Songwe asserted. That is, to continue to work towards integrating the continent like he did during his lifetime. And this is what underpinned discussions at the symposium held in his honour by an institution where he clearly left an indelibly positive mark. Perhaps the panel that struck at the heart of Prof Adedeji’s passion was that by the eminent economists who reflected on Africa’s economic development agenda; its hopes, failures, opportunities and prospects. They catalogued the metamorphosis of Adedeji’s Lagos Plan of Action in 1980 to the signing of the “Abuja Treaty” in 1991 establishing the African Economic Community (AEC) which largely underpins the AfCFTA agreed in 2018. In the process, they highlighted some of the challenges that continue to weigh on Africa’s development. (Incidentally, the AEC which envisages an African Common Market by 2023 also seeks the consolidation of the continent’s political and economic policy frameworks into a monetary and fiscal union governed by a common parliament by 2034.) Like Adedeji, they advocated a localisation of the continent’s economic agenda, giving examples of how the blind adoption of Western ideas by past African leaders is largely for the continent’s relative under-development. His philosopy of self-reliance and self-sufficiency was echoed by renowned economics professor, Tamunopriye J. Agiobenebo, who advocated that Africa should use its own innovations and manufactures no matter how crude in order to attain self-reliance. Prof Olu Ajakaiye, another economics grandee and current executive chairman of the African Centre for Shared Development Capacity Building, a thinktank, bemoaned the African state of rulership and not leadership and prayed for the latter to free the continent from its seemingly retractable problems. On his part, Temitope Oshikoya, chief executive at Nextnomics, an economics consultancy, promoted Adedeji’s idea of the need for synergy between markets and governments to improve productivity on the continent. Lightening the mood on the keynote panel, economics professor Afeikhena Jerome recounted his first encounter with Prof Adedeji: “Who taught you? Which school did you attend?” Even so, Prof Adedeji was as sharp with his tongue on serious matters as he was with enjoying life. Friends and foes agree he was a truly extraordinary man.