DECONSTRUCTING CONSCIOUSNESS SERIES
INTERVIEW 001- AFRICA HAS COME OF AGE SPEECH (DELIVERED BY GEN. MURTALA MOHAMMED, AT THE OAU SUMMIT, ADDIS ABEBA, ETHIOPIA, 11th January 1976).
There was a consciousness about Nigeria’s role in Africa, in the 70s. A strong notion that Nigeria had a leading role to play in Africa, and that her actions influenced Africa’s destiny for good and for bad. Tafawa Balewa, Murtala, Yakubu Gowon all displayed different levels of this consciousness, which was best articulated in ‘the Africa has come of age speech’ delivered by Gen. Murtala Mohammed at Addis Ababa, in 1976. This was a speech very much ahead of its time..
Where did the consciousness about Nigeria’s role in African politics emanate from?
Amb. Adeniji: I think it emanated from Nigeria’s size… Nigeria had a bigger role to play in Africa and Nigeria’s leadership embraced that calling consciously or unconsciously. The culmination of this at that time was displayed by Murtala Mohammed ..
T. Kogbe: who probably, more than any other leader, really drove it..
Amb. Adeniji: The point really is that Murtala Mohammed, like today’s Buhari, wanted to concentrate on Nigeria’s development, internally and he wasn’t going to get mixed up in foreign policy. However, he felt it was Nigeria’s destiny to play a leading role in Africa and that culminated in that speech, which I alone wrote. And I had only…
T. Kogbe: a few days…
Amb. Adeniji: (laughing) No, one day! I had only one day to write it.
T. Kogbe: Did you have a chat with him before or did you just get a phone call…
Amb. Adeniji: No, I got a phone call to come to Dodan Barracks and I went there. A phone call from Obasanjo who was also his deputy, asked me to come to Dodan Barracks, I didn’t know what it was about. It was only when I got there that Obasanjo told me that he wanted a speech. I told him I had an appointment that day to go and discuss a building loan (laughter).
Amb. Adeniji: I had gone to the Bank Manager and he had turned me down. He asked me where I had the land. I replied, Ikeja. “If you had it in Victoria Island or Ikoyi, we would have considered you, but Ikeja …”.
Amb. Adeniji: I was coming back from the meeting… and I was in charge of the Africa desk at the time… I think. Anyway, I had nothing to do with OAU. So when I saw Murtala. He said, Nigeria has a manifest role to play in Africa… the Summit was coming up and Nigeria had to play a major role, that’s why we had to be well represented and to rally Africa round..
He said, “Let’s discuss Angola..” he had some ideas of what he wanted Nigeria to say (about the situation there). And they had decided Nigeria will be represented at the summit and had received 3 or 4 drafts of speeches, but they were not, from his point of view, good enough. He wanted me to try my hand on a draft that Nigeria will deliver.
T. Kogbe: Did he know he was going (to the Summit) at the time?
Amb. Adeniji: No. They had decided that since he didn’t want to be involved that Obasanjo would go. And they had called on the likes of Bolaji Akinyemi and several others to submit drafts… which I didn’t know about at the time. He then said, well try your hand.. Even though, I have written off you guys at the foreign office, you are all too conservative ..
So I went back to my office, and, fortunately my secretary was still there, so I called her and dictated to her.
T. Kogbe: from the top of your head…?
Amb. Adeniji: Yes (I was a young man then), my brain was still sharp… Anyhow, when I finished I took it to Obasanjo at 7 o’clock in the evening, I decided I couldn’t do more than this..
T. Kogbe: In the time you had?
Amb. Adeniji: Yes, I had written about 13 pages. So my view, quite frankly at that time, was that I got carried away by the idea that Nigeria had a manifest role to play, and if I had my way I would have suggested to him that he (Murtala) should personally go (to the summit), but that was beyond my remit.
I was just to submit a draft.
I took the draft to Obasanjo’s house, which is where Anyaoku now lives, not far from here. By a great coincidence the Bank Manager I had seen, one, John West, from UBA, was at Obasanjo’s house. I was so disappointed that I didn’t retain his name after the appointment, (the wife of a friend had made the appointment)..
I took the draft to Obasanjo who introduced us. It was only after that I realized that this was the man who had rejected my application.
I went home and forgot about it. The following day I got a call from Obasanjo’s house saying Murtala wanted to see me. So I went to see him and Obasanjo said to me, “Mr Adeniji you are depriving me of a trip to Addis..”. I asked him how?” and he replied, “the decision had been taken that I would go but when Murtala read your draft he said”, “Obas this draft is too good for you to go and read, you won’t place the right emphasis.” Obasanjo didn’t know what he was talking about, he said, “too good for me to read?” Murtala then asked him, “you read the speech, what did you think?” Obasanjo replied, “yes I read it, but it was like any other draft”.
Murtala said, “No, it was not like any other draft” ”This has a boom, punch” (he was bubbling with radicalism), “this is what I want to tell all these imperialists”. And this is what I am going to say…
T. Kogbe: Based on the draft you wrote?
Amb. Adeniji: When people come to discuss the speech, or when I have the opportunity to revisit it, I agree entirely with what you said at the beginning, “It was ahead of its time!”
M. Siollun: Murtala railed against racism and said his “heart bleeds” about “the evils of apartheid”. What is behind the extraordinary turnaround where Nigerians and other foreigners are now being attacked in South Africa?
Well that’s why I said that in a sense, the speech was ahead of its time. The vision of Africa as a union of states where anyone could live anywhere, this was early 1976! Far away from the date which was bandied around for the Union of Africa, in year 2000. Everything was fixed for 2000.
T. Kogbe: which has come and gone.
M. Siollun: Murtala said that Africa is “no longer under the orbit of any extra continental power”. Is that true today?
We had thought that by now Africa would have found its way and would not rely on any other country, for anything except normal trade and diplomatic interactions.
M. Siollun: The tenet of Murtala’s speech was that Africa does not need to import foreign ideologies. Is multi-party democracy the best political model for Africa today?
That’s the question we posed ourselves, but we are going back to the fact that multi-party democracy à la west is the best. After the Angola experience we slid backwards and all the progress we thought we would have made at the time was not realized.
Portugal’s role as the colonial power in Angola was being emphasized and Portugal with the support of South Africa did not want to give up power. There were two parties at the time: one pro-America and the other a pro-Cuban party..
T. Kogbe: the American’s won in the end?
Amb. Adeniji: Now we can say that the Americans won, but at the time, the force of Murtala’s delivery swayed popular support in Africa for Neto (Agostinho Neto was the first president of Angola, and led the pre and post independence struggles against Portugal, through his party, MPLA-Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. He allied with Cuba/USSR).
M. Siollun: Why were the 1970s leaders like Obasanjo and Murtala so virulent in their opposition to Apartheid?
The whole of Nigeria was virulent against apartheid not just the leadership.
M. Siollun: What would have happened had Murtala ruled all the way to 1979? (had he not been killed in 1976)
Well, Nigeria’s role which Obasanjo tried to continue did not quite have the same punch. I think if he had been alive, he had the force, and the support of the military… Obasanjo had to look behind his back always in judging how far he could go… and his deputy, Yar’Adua wasn’t that sure that that path was the right path and the kind of argument he wouldn’t have raised with Murtala, he was willing to raise with Obasanjo, so sometimes many people wondered whether Murtala would have been able to sustain the pace, and some people drew the conclusion, that it was a good thing that he died when he died, as he might have been too radical..
M. Siollun: Had Murtala been alive until the 1990s, would he have run as a civilian president like his military colleagues such as Buhari, Babangida, and Obasanjo?
I don’t think so… He would have quietly gone back to Kano… He would have been a Mandela before Mandela…
M. Siollun: Who were the key architects of policy in the 1970s military regimes; the soldiers or the civilians, such as Permanent Secretaries?
In the case of foreign policy, it was one of those things. I don’t know who suggested my name… but Obasanjo told me years after that I had a reputation of being the most versatile, in terms of writing, of the young people in the foreign office and if they wanted to rehabilitate the ministry of foreign affairs or articulate foreign policy they should call one, Adeniji. He himself didn’t know who Adeniji was.
T. Kogbe: that was your first meeting with Obasanjo?
Amb. Adeniji: …though Murtala I knew because our children used to play together. His wife, Ajoke and my wife were childhood friends, and our kids used to play together. Murtala used to bring his children over, but he would never enter.. he never entered… I knew him and he knew me.
T. Kogbe: but not professionally?
M. Siollun: Why did Nigeria take such an active role in pan-African and pan-black initiatives such as FESTAC?
Well, because, as you said at the beginning, successive Nigerian leaders also accepted the view that Nigeria had a manifest role to play in Africa and this was the period of de-colonisation, so if Africa had to be liberated totally, Nigeria will have to play a role because of its size and its weight.
M. Siollun: Murtala Mohammed initially favoured a political system with no political parties. Could that have worked in Nigeria as it did in Uganda?
No I don’t think so…
M. Siollun: Would a “no party” system have removed the ethno-regional rivalries from Nigerian politics?
Again, I doubt it, because from the beginning, Nigerians believe very much that each region has to be led by its own leader,
T. Kogbe: And that was the idea from even before independence?
Amb. Adeniji: Yes, at the time… we are talking about a decade after independence, Nigeria’s regionalism had already been consolidated.
M. Siollun: What socio-political reforms does Nigeria need most urgently?
Nigeria needs a leadership, the kind of leadership provided by the type of Murtala Mohammed
T.Kogbe: A visionary autocrat
Amb. Adeniji: There was an article on the Singaporean leader, Lee Kuan Yew.. we need that mold of leadership.. I doubt if the Western system can really work.
M. Siollun: Does Nigeria need a 3-tier system of government and two-chambers in the National Assembly?
Nigeria, I believe would need…
This presidential American system is not working because it is too expensive. To start with, for Nigeria its very expensive to run, and when you combine it with Nigerian corruption and the tendency to acquire billions, People are coming from nothing and they want to go to Z.
T. Kogbe: What did the speech do for you as a career diplomat?
When they came back from Addis, Murtala called me and said, “Mr Adeniji the sky is your limit, if you decide to stay in the Foreign Service. In fact, its about time you went out of the country as an ambassador. Where do you want to go? I replied, just like that?!!!
The only thing I said to him was I wouldn’t want to displace anybody, this was 1976, I don’t believe in shifting people every year, even those who had gone out ahead of me. I wanted to stay in Nigeria for another two years, and in any case I asked for time to think about it.
T. Kogbe: So Murtala died..
Amb. Adeniji: Yes well, Murtala died and Obasanjo remembered (Murtala had told him about our conversation…). He said, “whenever you make up your mind, let me know”. Amazingly enough, the man who had refused my loan application, a few days later sent his secretary to tell me to come back. That was the first tangible thing I got (laughter).
It was also the beginning of my being able to “pick and choose” which mission I wanted to serve in, some people look at my career and say,“He went from Vienna, and then to Geneva and from Geneva to Paris”..
And of course, Obasanjo didn’t forget. Much later on he called me and asked me, “would you like to be my foreign minister”.
T. Kogbe: Is there any divine reading to the speech?
Amb. Adeniji: I think it was a normal day in the course of diplomatic service. The only divine intervention was the fact that I had been posted to New York before then and in New York you got involved in everything.
T. Kogbe: The whole world met at New York…
Amb. Adeniji: Exactly.. I was in New York when the Angola thing was unfolding, so when asked for a speech on Angola, I knew a lot about the situation and knew what I wanted to say. I had the material but never thought I would need to use it so early.
T. Kogbe: That’s all for now. Thank you, sir.
Original Interview concept series: Temitope KOGBE, Livingstone Studio ©
Conducted by: Temitope KOGBE, Livingstone Studio ©
Research and Script: Max Siollun and Temitope KOGBE, Livingstone Studio ©