By Azubuike Ishiekwene
I have not quite found a way to manage my mobile phone, that ubiquitous affliction of the modern age. In a way, I’m wired to my phone and it was this sense of wiring that drew me to my phone when it popped a text message at 12:40 a.m. on Friday.
I rolled over and checked the one-liner: “Adefuye is dead!” I was dizzy with shock. I didn’t have to figure out which Adefuye it was because I know only one: Professor Ade Adefuye.
His obituaries have described him as Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States, and rightly so. He was also Nigeria’s ambassador to Jamaica, with oversight for Belize and Haiti; and before that, deputy high commissioner to the U.K.; and before that, deputy director at the Commonwealth for 14 years.
But I knew him before his U.S. post, which turned out to be his most high profile appointment – and his last – before he passed away on Friday. He was my teacher and friend, and what a great teacher and friend he was.
I have always loved history, especially African and Black history, for its great lessons, wisdom, and follies, but hated it just as much for teachers who forced me to cram dates that made many exams a nightmare. That changed when I took a minor course in history under Adefuye at the University of Lagos nearly 30 years ago.
Yes, dates are important, he would say, but dates don’t make history — people do. In a world where our past, as Africans, has been shaped largely by Western narratives of who we are, we’ll have to do more than cram dates to deal with the present and change our future. To preserve and promote aspects of our culture and literature that we should be proud of, we must never forget who we are – the mother of ancient civilizations to which human progress can never fully repay its debt of gratitude.
In the ensuing clash of civilizations, our endeavors must speak to a present and future of hard work, collaboration and confidence that will earn respect and secure our place, the place of the Black man, in the modern world.
Not that he wore Negritude on his sleeves. He just believed in a life of equality, respect, purpose, and responsibility. In him, I see reflections of Obaro Ikime, Ikenna Nzimiro, Bala Usman, and Toyin Falola, all notable Nigerian historians and sociologists and curators of the African heritage.
Yet, when I picked up my phone on Friday morning, I wasn’t thinking of African history, Negritude, equality, or any such heavy–lifting. I was thinking of Adefuye, the man I spoke with briefly about one month ago, after Nigeria’s new president, Mohammadu Buhari, visited the U.S. in July.
I had called Adefuye to ask how the visit went and if there were still grounds to suspect that those who could not wait to see his back might edge him out soon. They said he was former President Goodluck Jonathan’s man and could not be trusted to serve Buhari, as if a president equals a country. He laughed a knowing laugh and said he had done more to stage his own orderly exit than his predators could ever hope to undo in two lifetimes of conspiracy. He didn’t put it exactly that way, but I got the message.
Adefuye is a veteran of many wars. He arrived at his post in Washington in 2010 in a headwind following the arrest of the Nigerian, Farouk Mutallab, who had tried to attack a U.S. airline over Detroit with a bomb in his pants. That attempt set off a firestorm of restrictions and screening procedures, the most humiliating of which was “pat down” of the most intrusive kind, reserved for Nigerian travelers.
Nigeria came close to being classified as a “terrorist” country eight months after Adefuye assumed office. He fought back, and didn’t stop there. He took on John Campbell over his controversial book, Dancing on the Brink. He tackled Senator Ted Cruz for saying there was a shortage of Nigerian email scammers because most of them had been hired to implement Obamacare. He squared off with John McCain over his scathing slurs on Nigeria, and withstood the blackmail of a few U.S.-based Nigerian journalists who tried to smear him.
I suspect one of his toughest wars was the battle to get the U.S. to back Nigeria’s War on Terror in the country’s North East. The U.S. Congress had used reports of high-level corruption and human rights abuse in the Nigerian military to impede how far President Barack Obama could go in providing support for the war. As the war’s casualties mounted, pressure increased on the U.S. to act.
Adefuye was caught in the middle. Inside sources told me he had several meetings with leading U.S. Congressmen and the White House and finally secured a window. Obama reportedly told him that he would be prepared to lean on Congress if the Nigerian government, then under Jonathan, could show evidence that it was prepared to investigate the allegations of corruption and abuses.
For months, Adefuye worked the phones, commuting back and forth between Washington and Abuja trying to get Jonathan’s commitment. He met a brick wall, an attitude that made you wonder. How could a government that was truly sincere about receiving help in the losing war against Boko Haram be lukewarm about committing to clean up its fighting force?
With some light now shining on the way the war was conducted – generals amassing toys while the troops were dying at the warfront – it’s not very difficult to see why Abuja gave Adefuye a hard time.
Yet, it would never be said that he offered less than his best for his country. He built bridges on the bilateral front, taking on hot topics like regional security, good governance, institution building, and electoral reform. He was impatient with red tape and cut right through the bureaucracy to offer sincere help wherever he could.
With him, knowledge, passion, and a zeal for service and country came naturally. Adefuye was a simple, decent man with a large heart and a sense of humor that never left him.
Azubuike Ishiekwene is a member of the Editorial Board of the World Policy Journal. He is also a board member at the Paris-based Global Editors Network and the Managing Director of Banc & All.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]