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SHARED: Farewell To Africa’s Cassandra Adebayo Adedeji
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[Image: Adebayo_Adedeji_1986.jpg?w=912&ssl=1]
…S.K.B. Asante, described Adedeji as an “African Cassandra”: A visionary prophet who saw the future clearly, but whose truthful prophesies often went unheeded until it was too late. In the end, the Bank and the Fund reversed the large cuts in education and health spending that had decimated Africa’s socio-economic sector in the 1980s and 1990s. Debt relief also became fashionable over a decade after Adedeji had warned about the unsustainability of Africa’s $250 billion external debt in the 1980s.


Nigerian scholar-administrator, Adebayo Adedeji, who died on Wednesday April 25 at the age of 87, was one of Africa’s greatest public servants, policy intellectuals, and renowned visionaries of regional integration. I first met him at a conference at Harvard University in Massachusetts in 1993, where he chided a pestering audience member, telling him that he always knew the Harvard seminar to be very rigorous. I encountered him again in 2001, and by this time, he was much mellower, warmer, and less distant. He gave a wonderful keynote address at a conference in Abuja on regional integration in West Africa, and a year later in New York, delivered another masterful keynote that methodically demolished two international sacred cows: the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Adedeji was an independent and fearless thinker who spoke passionately and eloquently. When I moved to direct the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) in Cape Town in 2003, he joined the board, and, for over a decade, rarely missed a meeting, also lending his great wisdom and experience to countless policy seminars and book projects.

Adebayo Adedeji was born on December 21, 1930 and grew up in Ijebu-Ode under British colonial rule. This experience left a fierce anti-colonial mark on Adedeji, shaping his later professional exploits. His middle-class parents were farmers who worked on a cocoa and kola-nut plantation and left him in the care of a disciplinarian grandmother, “Mama Eleja” – an enterprising, shrewd, and determined fish-seller and indomitable matriarch. Even though she was illiterate, Adedeji’s grandmother pushed the young boy to study consistently. The precocious Adebayo was a child prodigy who responded well to the constant prodding. He attended Ijebu-Ode Grammar School as an early entrant. His farmer-father was also an important influence, encouraging Adebayo to study hard to become a doctor.

After completing his primary and secondary education in Nigeria, Adedeji studied economics and public administration at the universities of Leicester, Harvard, and London, eventually obtaining a doctorate in economics. He returned to Nigeria in 1958 to take up a senior post in the Western Region’s ministry of economic planning, serving under the tutelage of the renowned Simeon Adebo. A 30-year old Adedeji was widely recognised as a rising star, but also acquired a fearsome reputation among more junior civil servants.

In 1963, Adebayo – who had always described himself as a “reluctant civil servant” – left government service to take up an academic post at Nigeria’s University of Ile-Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). Four years later at the age of 36, he had earned the title of Professor of Economics and Public Administration. He transformed the university’s Institute of Administration into an effective training ground for both Nigerian and African public servants. In 1971, at the age of 40, Adedeji was appointed Nigeria’s minister of economic reconstruction and development by the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon. He would oversee the country’s difficult post-war peacebuilding efforts. Nigeria’s civil war of 1967 to 1970 had resulted in one million deaths and led to much destruction of the country’s infrastructure, particularly in the secessionist Eastern Region.

He collaborated closely with successive Organisation of African Unity (OAU) secretaries-general in Addis Ababa, and became a confidant and economic adviser to many African leaders whom he addressed at annual continental summits. Adedeji established a particularly close friendship with Julius Nyerere after he had delivered a series of lectures in Tanzania in 1971 in which he had indiscreetly declared to “Mwalimu” to have not met a single socialist in the country.


The fortuitous discovery of large oil fields propelled the country to become one of the world’s largest oil exporters. Along with other cabinet colleagues and powerful mandarins, Adedeji crafted and implemented five-year national development plans that called for rapid industrialisation and laid the foundations for much of the infrastructure that Nigeria still continues to rely on, though failing woefully to maintain. He also created the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) in 1973 to forge national unity. Adedeji had many entertaining anecdotes about tough cabinet meetings in which the hot-tempered General Murtala Muhammed would threaten the mild-mannered General Gowon.

His greatest feats were, however, in the area of regional integration. Adedeji was widely regarded to have been “the Father of ECOWAS”: the Economic Community of West African States. He had outlined a vision for regional integration in West Africa in the Journal of Modern African Studies in 1970, before turning theory into practice by 1975. While serving as Gowon’s minister of economic development, he convinced 15 other West African leaders to establish ECOWAS, following tireless “shuttle diplomacy” across the subregion. He captured these efforts in a memorable 2004 chapter “ECOWAS: A Retrospective Journey,” in which he described his painstaking efforts, surprisingly crediting Côte d’Ivoire’s president, Félix Houphouet-Boigny, with bridging West Africa’s historical francophone-anglophone divide. Adedeji also consistently argued that regional integration must be seen as an instrument for national survival and socio-economic transformation.

In 1975, he was head-hunted by the U.N. to lead its Addis Ababa-based Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). His 16-year tenure became the organisation’s longest and most dynamic: He converted the ECA into a Pan-African platform to continue his efforts to promote economic integration, leading to the creation of the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in 1981 and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) in 1983. The indefatigable Adedeji, who frequently worked 18-hour days, again acquired a fearsome reputation, insisting that one of two lifts at the ECA secretariat be blocked off for him on arrival at the office every morning to avoid having to wait. He collaborated closely with successive Organisation of African Unity (OAU) secretaries-general in Addis Ababa, and became a confidant and economic adviser to many African leaders whom he addressed at annual continental summits. Adedeji established a particularly close friendship with Julius Nyerere after he had delivered a series of lectures in Tanzania in 1971 in which he had indiscreetly declared to “Mwalimu” to have not met a single socialist in the country.

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The scholar-administrator established a reputation as a pragmatic economist more interested in solving problems than being constrained by ideological strait-jackets. Assisted by a formidable team of largely African economists, he used the ECA to launch the most sustained assault on the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) implemented from the 1980s by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Adedeji coined the widely used term “the lost decade” to describe Africa’s rapid decline in the 1980s, and argued against what he saw as the Bretton Woods institutions’ approach of “growth without development” and export-led integration of African states into the world economy on massively unequal terms. He stressed instead the need for Africa to use its own resources to promote greater intra-African growth by prioritising agriculture and regional integration.

Adedeji’s attempt to secure the Nigerian presidency after retiring from the ECA in 1991 proved unsuccessful, demonstrating that no prophet is honoured in his own homeland. In terms of historical stature, Adedeji will take his rightful place alongside such global figures as Argentina’s Raùl Prebisch and France’s Jean Monnet as the foremost prophet of regional integration on his own continent.


Adedeji led the development of Africa’s Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment Programmes for Socio-Economic Recovery and Transformation of 1989 and the African Charter for Popular Participation in Development and Transformation of 1990. He often challenged Africa’s “mindless imitation” of Western development models, and pushed instead for a human-centered view of development and integration. He thus championed the collective self-reliance and self-sustainability principles of his 1980 Lagos Plan of Action, which was adopted by the OAU, but left to gather dust on the shelves of African development ministries in the face of opposition by Western donors. The renowned Ghanaian political economist, S.K.B. Asante, described Adedeji as an “African Cassandra”: A visionary prophet who saw the future clearly, but whose truthful prophesies often went unheeded until it was too late. In the end, the Bank and the Fund reversed the large cuts in education and health spending that had decimated Africa’s socio-economic sector in the 1980s and 1990s. Debt relief also became fashionable over a decade after Adedeji had warned about the unsustainability of Africa’s $250 billion external debt in the 1980s.

After retiring from the ECA in 1991, Adedeji continued his regional integration and peacemaking efforts in Africa: He served on a committee to review the ECOWAS treaty in 1992; he was on another body to transform the OAU into the African Union (AU) in 2002; he was a mediator in Zimbabwe in 2002; he headed the Commonwealth team to observe Kenya’s election in 2002/2003; and in 2007, he chaired the committee which audited the five-year integration efforts of the African Union. Adedeji also established the African Centre for Development and Strategic Studies (ACDESS) as a policy think-tank in Ijebu-Ode which sadly became moribund.

His elevation to the Panel of Eminent Persons of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) in 2003 did not stop him from continuing to criticise the Thabo Mbeki-led NEPAD. His main complaint was that the plan was ahistorical and too externally dependent in abandoning the self-reliant integration principles of the Lagos Plan of Action, and in naively ignoring the failure of external donors to contribute substantive resources towards implementing past African-led development plans. Adedeji was the lead panelist of the South African APRM country review process which took place between 2005 and 2007. It’s report acknowledged the country’s political and economic progress, but criticised the slow pace of socio-economic transformation and growing inequalities, cautioning against the growing threat of xenophobic attacks in South Africa. Like the proverbial ostrich that buries its head in the sand, the notoriously thin-skinned government of Thabo Mbeki strongly objected to the report’s criticisms, arrogantly and irresponsibly dismissing the xenophobic threat as “simply not true.” This was one of the most painful moments in Adedeji’s career. He would, however, once again prove to be a Cassandra: In May 2008, 62 foreigners were killed in South Africa and 100,000 people displaced in horrific attacks against foreigners.

Adedeji was also scathing about Nigeria’s failure to fulfill its potential, noting in 2004 that: “No country that is confronted with a long period of political instability, economic stagnation, and regression, and is reputed to be one of the most corrupt societies in the world, has a moral basis to lead others. If it tries to, it will be resisted.” He turned down the chance to head Nigeria’s interim government after the annulment of democratic elections by the military regime of General Ibrahim Babangida in June 1993. Adedeji’s attempt to secure the Nigerian presidency after retiring from the ECA in 1991 proved unsuccessful, demonstrating that no prophet is honoured in his own homeland. In terms of historical stature, Adedeji will take his rightful place alongside such global figures as Argentina’s Raùl Prebisch and France’s Jean Monnet as the foremost prophet of regional integration on his own continent. May his soul rest in peace.

Adekeye Adebajo is the director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.

Initially published in Nigeria’s The Guardian.
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