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An Afternoon at the NIIA (I)

As another working week draws to a close, my thoughts are turning on the interesting interplay between individuals and organisations. Some folks have this leprous touch; anything they touch gets contaminated and inevitably, regression sets in.

By contrast, some have the Midas touch and in the process they push forward the momentum of societies and institutions. Unfortunately, Nigeria has experienced much of the former situation. It is good to know, however, that there are exceptions to this dismal scenario.

We had, for instance, the Lateef Kayode Jakande years of governance in Lagos State. Most people still yearn after those glorious years. He was a veritable apostle of positive governance. Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that there were no governors before and after Jakande.

At the national level, the same messianic dynamic can be seen. Murtala Mohammed came in very briefly and left all of us wondering about what could have been, in terms of the potentials which could have been consummated by this under-achieving country of ours.

As I reflected along these lines, one institution that usually engages my mind is the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA). For those who can remember, the NIIA was an intellectual watering-hole for Nigeria’s foreign policy elite.

This writer can easily testify to this hallowed status of the NIIA. This was in view of my double-sided relationship with the institute in the early years of my career. Initially, I covered the institute’s activities as a young staff-writer for Times International – a publication in the stable of the then revered and hegemonic Daily Times.

I subsequently moved on to the Editorial Board of Daily Times proper, and I was still preoccupied with the NIIA on the platform of reports and analyses. Those were the days! But I had to bow out in the wake of the infamous Second Republic when the locusts took over the political space. In the course of time, I joined academia.

On this particular platform, I crossed over, so to say, to being a more active participant in the activities of the institute. In this context, I served as discussant and paper presenter at various activities organised by the institute.

For those who know, these were done in the immediate aftermath of the Bolaji Akinyemi years. It will be recalled here that during the Akinyemi years, the place was buzzing and pulsating with activities. It was the place to be.

Such indeed was the Midas touch of a Bolaji Akinyemi who served as director-general during those golden years. At that point in time, the influence of the institute was of a very high order. Its voice was very visible in Nigeria’s foreign policy aspirations and calculations.

I remember vividly here the well-crafted dialogues between the institute and various countries. I also remember the publications of the NIIA like: the Nigerian Journal of International Affairs, the Nigerian Forum and the Bulletin of Foreign Affairs.

There was also the Press Library. This was a resource centre that catered to the needs of budding and experienced researchers alike. It could also have helped that at that point in time, the institute, housed on Victoria Island, was really in the midst of the diplomatic community. This was because the capital was then in Lagos.

So central was the institute to the country’s foreign policy under Bolaji Akinyemi and his immediate successors that Stanley Macebuh coined from his fine pen a newspaper article, titled ‘Bolaji Akinyemi: Of Men and Institutions’.

The piece was essentially a tribute to the management of the institute under the leadership of an Akinyemi. However something happened in the post-Akinyemi years. Decay set in. If one may be allowed to put it politely, the NIIA became a ‘very very’ Nigerian institution.

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Everybody still knew where it was, but nobody wanted to go there again. It will be pointless to dwell on the intrigues, counter-intrigues and the mindless politicking, which virtually took over the place.

This much was clear however: scholarship and the vibrant visibility, which the institute had in its glorious years had taken a back seat.

However, and at the risk of sounding too optimistic, it looks as if the NIIA is about to regain its groove under the new leadership of Prof. Eghosa Osaghae, a former vice-chancellor of Igbinedion University, and, to boot, a well-regarded scholar, who is steeped in the authentic Ibadan tradition.

For those in the know, this is another way of saying that the new director-general of the NIIA has professorial gravitas.

Dear reader, these and more were some of the thoughts that engaged my mind, as I headed for the NIIA in Victoria Island to attend one of its new programmes: The Ambassadorial Forum.

Let me also confess here that I had also been nudged in this direction by Prof. Femi Otubanjo, a seasoned scholar and fellow member of the Floreat tradition. It was he who urged me to attend the programme.

This time around, the Hamlet of the Ambassadorial Forum was Mr Wendell D. Landro, the High Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago (T & T) to Nigeria. Incidentally, though I had never been to T & T, I knew a lot about the country. This was courtesy of books by some of its writers. And this is what I have always believed.

Even without visiting a country, once you are familiar with the country’s literature, it is as good as visiting the place. T & T happens to be the natal base of famous writers like V.S Naipaul and C.L.R James.

From these two authors, one of whom ended up as a Nobel Laureate, I had picked up plenty of notions and impressions about T & T. I knew, for instance, that cricket, like in much of the Caribbean, was a fad – something of a national passion in fact. It was an integral part of life there. It was also the land of the calypso.

Moreover, education is taken very seriously in this Caribbean country. Some of its elite schools were part of the hold-over from its colonial heritage. I also knew that the country had oil, and in the process, I wondered why the country was not a member of OPEC.

To be continued on Monday.

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