Professor Bolaji Akinyemi (left), on his first official visit to the United Kingdom after his appointment as Nigerian Foreign Minister, with Kayode Soyinka, then London Bureau Chief for Newswatch magazine.

NIGERIAN DIPLOMACY AT ITS BEST: PROFESSOR BOLAJI AKINYEMI AND AMBASSADOR GEORGE DOVE-EDWIN ON MY MIND

By Kayode Soyinka*

Professor Bolaji Akinyemi (left), on his first official visit to the United Kingdom after his appointment as Nigerian Foreign Minister, with Kayode Soyinka, then London Bureau Chief for Newswatch magazine.
Professor Bolaji Akinyemi (left), on his first official visit to the United Kingdom after his appointment as Nigerian Foreign Minister, with Kayode Soyinka, then London Bureau Chief for Newswatch magazine.

At the time in 1984 when the Dikko case was still unresolved, British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, famously known as the “Iron Lady”, decided to extend an olive branch to Nigeria. She, in September of that year, sent her Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, to Lagos.

The visit had been approved by the Nigerian Military Head of State, General Muhammadu Buhari, after a goodwill mission to Lagos by Sir Geoffrey Howe’s personal representative, Sir Roger du Boulay. General Buhari had decided that Sir Geoffrey’s discussions while in Nigeria were to be kept at the level of Permanent Secretary. Six or Seven ministries were represented under the chairmanship of Ambassador George Dove-Edwin, Permanent Secretary in the External Affairs Ministry.

It was the start of a serious diplomatic gambit to normalise relations which had broken down between the United Kingdom and Nigeria immediately after the Dikko Kidnap. But shortly before Sir Geoffrey arrived in Nigeria, a change of government had occurred. The new regime had yet to appoint a Minister for Foreign Affairs, since there was still no Cabinet. However, on the advice of Dove-Edwin, General Babangida, the new Head of State, named an Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) member, Air Vice-Marshal Larry Koinyan, to act as Sir Geoffrey’s host.

Dr. Bolaji Akinyemi, a professor of international relations in the department of political science at the University of Lagos was announced as the new Nigerian External Affairs Minister. Professor Akinyemi had been the Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) in Lagos since the regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo. He was on his way to Cambridge University to take up a fellowship when his ministerial appointment was announced by General Babangida.

A belated and well-deserved appointment, Professor Akinyemi abandoned Cambridge to respond to the national call. In fact, he had, before the announcement of his appointment, accepted an invitation to the dinner for Sir Geoffrey and Lady Howe. But following his appointment as Foreign Minister, Akinyemi called Dove-Edwin for advice as to whether he should attend.

As both had some reservations, Dove-Edwin undertook to consult. He spoke to Gray Longe, Secretary to the Government, who advised strongly that Akinyemi kept away as he had not been sworn into office. Dove-Edwin then arranged for Professor Akinyemi to meet Sir Geoffrey. The meeting took place in Dove-Edwin’s house on the following morning, where the new Nigerian Foreign Minister and the British Foreign Secretary had an unpublicised meeting for one hour.

Sir Geoffrey’s visit to Nigeria lasted 30 hours. The gambit paid off handsomely for Britain and Nigeria. Relations improved and the way was paved for the exchange of High Commissioners to replace those who were recalled at the height of the Dikko Affair.

Excerpts from Diplomatic Baggage: MOSSAD & NIGERIA: The Dikko Story, by Kayode Soyinka. Published in 1994 by Newswatch Books Limited, Lagos.

*Kayode Soyinka is Visiting Scholar at Wolfson College, Cambridge University.Piece is culled from his LinkedIn page.

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