By Sam Akpe
We never met closely; until 2014. Even then, there was no handshake; no one-on-one physical interaction; just an ordinary “good morning, Prof” without expecting a response. That is understandable: I do not possess the credentials that make me eligible to establish and maintain such rapport with him. In other words, no situation—official or personal—has brought us into a close manifest relationship. But somehow, I have always, from a safe distance, admired the content of his persona — first, his surplus intellectual carriage; and second, what psychologists call magnetic personality.
When I woke up this morning to realise that this great thinker and diplomat, Professor Akinwande Bolaji Akinyemi, is 80 years old; I could only shout: Wow! That’s a princely age for a man who must live long because we still need him here. It is not within my competence to write a tribute of any kind in honour of this man—far from it. What you are reading is simply an attempt at reflecting on my not-too-distant encounter with him in 2014, I’m sure Prof—if he ever gets to read this—would be wondering rhetorically: “who on planet earth is this distraction on my birthday!”
A few years ago, somebody allowed me a glance at a book entitled: Secrets of Personal Magnetism, written by William Michael, and published in 1967. I was not quite interested in the publication until I read something on page two, which took me to page three. It was about people who possess certain tangible and intangible qualities that set them apart from others. The author even used examples of certain Biblical figures whose stories, told in choice, inspirational words, occupy more space in the sacred book than others. He mentioned Jesus Christ as the greatest example of such mysterious characters of the Bible.
Michael went ahead to state that even in ordinary, less spiritual situations, for example in the ancient Greece, there were examples of men (and perhaps, women) of distinction such as “Phidias, Plato, Aristotle, and many others” who have today become historical human institutions. He further explains that it was not as though their works were finer than those of other skilful sculptors, seasoned writers or notable philosophers of that era. Yet, they stood out and still stand out among their contemporaries who have long been forgotten. Such men are few. I believe Professor Akinyemi is among the few Nigerians who fall within this category of humans. He has greatly dominated his environment.
Here are a few sentences I can recall from Michael’s great book: “Always, in any group of persons regardless of his rank or station in life, there is one individual who seems predominant. Sometimes, this is not very plainly marked; at other times it is very definitely discernible. This superior being may be a scholar, a soldier or the lowliest labourer. He may be dressed exactly as his companions, say the same words they say, make the same gestures they make; yet for some reasons he appears to be subtly different from them. He seems to be surrounded by an aura of some strange power which separates him from his fellows, leaving him one of them, yet in some mystic way, towering above them.”
Doesn’t that sound like the person of Professor Akinyemi? Pardon me if your opinion is different, because I hardly can make a complete, befitting sentence about him. As Michael explains “everyone has at some time on his experience met persons whose achievements or knowledge in specialised fields seemed to merit the attention of the public; but who were incapable of attracting attention to the merits of their work. Others, perhaps having far less ability, are acclaimed, sought after, praised for their meagre achievements.”
He concludes that to have achieved or “earned their great fame, the few who are thus exalted by their fellowmen must be possessed of some extraordinary power — some characteristic which has brought them and their work to the attention of the masses. It is this quality, which we call the magnetic personality.”
The totality of this insight is that there is always something about someone that takes him or her out of the crowd. The outstanding features could be physical or invisible. It could be the way someone talks—his word combination and flow of ideas—the style of his writing or the depth of his thoughts expressed in his or her poems. Someone may have a bushy, meticulously kept white hair as we see in Professor Wole Soyinka, or a manageable all weather round stomach; which we have consistently observed in President Olusegun Obasanjo; even as a military man.
As already observed, it was in 2014, at the National Conference called by President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, that I first had what could be erroneously described as a close encounter Professor Akinyemi. Of course, before then, his name, in public space, was synonymous with excellence. On a personal note, he is one of the two Nigerians whose love for bow-ties cannot be explained. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a picture of Prof adorning another version of neck-tie other than the bow type. This must be one of those attributes that magnetises people about him.
When Professor Akinyemi speaks, the richness of his vocabulary and the confidence he exudes are unmistakeable. What would you expect of someone who has passed through Temple University in Philadelphia, United States of America; Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Medford, in Massachusetts; and Trinity College, Oxford, in England? He covered all these academic grounds in less than ten years.
Then he started teaching what he studied. From Geneva where he was a visiting professor of international studies, he moved to Kenya in Nairobi. From Africa, he returned to the United States where he taught at the University of California; then surfaced at the University of Lagos in 1983 and also served as Visiting Fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge. He has been Minister of External Affairs and Director General of the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs.
While at the 2014 National Conference, occasionally, I found myself in his office to consult with Conference personnel attached to him; on certain issues. I never met him because I had no reasons to. As a Conference staff, hired as a rapporteur but sent to the media and communications office, I had no direct business with Prof, who was the Conference Deputy Chairman. One day, an opportunity to say good morning to him came when I had something to do within the periphery of his office and I saw him step out. He looked in my direction while surveying the environment. I greeted him with a bow. I assume he responded. Yes, he did. He obviously made my day.
During the Conference, Professor Akinyemi was the peacemaker extraordinaire. Whenever tension mounted over any unresolved issue, while everyone talked, he would maintain a dignified outlook; thinking of the way out. At the same time, he would be searching for any solution-carrying face among the 492 delegates. By the time he finally speaks, Prof would not only calm the nerves, he would come with an answer; or call someone he believed was capable of doing so.
That was how he identified Fola Adeola and Atedo Peterside—the two bank proprietors—who individually proposed unimaginable solutions and pulled the Conference back from the precipice; when the issue of percentage voting almost crashed the national conversation before it started. Permit me not to go further on this till another day. But the point here is that Professor Akinyemi was a stabilising influence at the Conference. I can only imagine what would have happened if he wasn’t sitting next to the Chairman, the late Justice Idris Kutigo.
As a tested and trusted diplomat, Prof’s intervention in knotty issues was needed throughout the Conference. I usually loved to hear that deep voice of his that drags joyfully at peacetime but accelerates when you take a joke beyond the confines of decency. Prof enjoys a good laugh. His smiles do not come cheap. When he raises his voice, it is for instruction, not in annoyance.
I am not supposed to write this long essay about someone I know next to nothing about. My desire was to simply say happy birthday to Professor Akinyemi, as he clocks 80 years today. The world waits to celebrate more of his birthdays. Prof, in the eternal words of Norman Vincent Peale, I urge you to “live your life and forget your age,” because as once captured by Nicky Gumbel, “today is the oldest you have been, and the youngest you will ever be. Make the most of it!” Happy birthday, Sir.
Sam Akpe is a Journalist, writes from Abuja