Back in the days and decades when Nigeria and Africa had a stronger presence and influence in world politics, a 57-old Nigerian made global history in 1990 when he was elected Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations, the 56-member-state international organization of mostly former British colonies with member countries in all the world’s continents – Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand etc). The Nigerian-born diplomat, Eleazar Chukwuemeka Anyaoku CFR, by then already a 34-year veteran of the London-headquartered Commonwealth Secretariat where he rose through senior ranks to be elected Deputy Secretary-General in 1977, had just defeated Malcolm Fraser, former Prime Minister of Australia, to clinch the the ultimate leadership of the organization of which the Queen or King of England is its ceremonial head. He thus became the first-ever African to head a universal (as opposed to regional) international organization. Kofi Annan of Ghana, Anyaoku’s close friend of many decades, was to be elected Secretary-General of the United Nations seven years later in 1997.
It was the ultimate leadership triumph for a man who was not just an accomplished diplomat, but one of impressive personal character, values and interpersonal skills. As well deserved as his historic elevation was, however, it wasn’t just Anyaoku’s fight alone. Competing with a former Head of Government of a rich, advanced and influential Western country such as Australia was bound to put Nigeria’s robust diplomatic machine of that era to the test, for Anyaoku was Nigeria’s official candidate for the post. General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s Military President, and his Foreign Minister Maj. Gen. Ike Omar Sanda Nwachukwu deployed all appropriate weapons in what was to become a bitter contest because Prime Minister Fraser felt entitled to the role. Nigeria won. Anyaoku won.
I had never met Anyaoku at the time, but followed the global drama through television and the newspapers. But he was already a big inspiration for me as I, as a 27-year old young man, plotted my path into the future. Anyaoku and my now-late father, Isaac Moghalu, had been colleagues in the Foreign Service of Nigeria in the 1960s. Anyaoku had served at the Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations in New York, while my father was at Nigeria’s Embassy in Washington DC. Unbeknownst to me, I would, more than a decade later while I was a senior official in the UN system based in Geneva, Switzerland, make his personal acquaintance in my own right. Thus began a mentoring relationship and friendship in which this great man’s wisdom and experience has added so much value to my life.
Emeka Anyaoku is a man of the world in its widest physical and symbolic sense. But he also is a man of his roots. He hails from Obosi in Anambra State, where he was born on January 18, 1933, and has for more than 40 years held the traditional title of Ichie Adazie of Obosi and member of the Ndi-Ichie (Royal cabinet) of Obosi Kingdom, as well as the Ugwumba Idemili. Indeed, when he ultimately retired from the Commonwealth in 2000 after two terms as Secretary-General, he declined an offer from the late Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom to live in the UK and receive a knighthood, and returned straight to Nigeria, where he has lived in Lagos ever since. But, given the level of confidence and respect the British royal family had for him, Anyaoku was not only conferred with the high British national honor of Grand Commander of the Victorian Cross (GCVO), he has also since held uniquely prestigious roles to which he was personally appointed by the Queen, including his membership of the Board of Trustees of the nearly 300 year-old British Museum. He served as President of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) from 2001-2011, and was succeeded in this role by Prince (now King) Charles of the UK.
Anyaoku studied Classics at the University College Ibadan, graduating in 1959. He joined the Commonwealth Development Corporation in Lagos immediately upon graduation. Anyaoku made a good impression on Tafawa Balewa when he accompanied his British boss at the CDC to a meeting with the Prime Minister. On Balewa’s advice, Anyaoku joined Nigeria’s Ministry of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in 1962. He got married the same year to the love of his life, Bunmi Anyaoku (née Solanke) , who comes from a leading Yoruba family in Abeokuta. The late banker and corporate board guru Gamaliel Onosode was Anyaoku’s best man at the wedding, and they remained life-long friends until Onosede’s death some years ago. Mrs. Anyaoku has for many years held the traditional title of Ugoma Obosi and Idemili.
At the Foreign Ministry, young Emeka was first appointed Personal Assistant to the Permanent Secretary, Ambassador Francis Chuka Nwokedi, the Nnewi-born mandarin who, in 1956, had become the first indigenous Nigerian to be appointed a Federal Permanent Secretary by the colonial government. Anyaoku worked hard, including assisting Nwokedi in the historical task of the establishment of the Organization of African Unity. Impressed by the young man’s competence, Nwokedi posted him in 1963 to Nigeria’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, where Chief Simeon Adebo was Nigeria’s Permanent Representative. Anyaoku joined the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1966 as Assistant Director of its International Affairs Division. It was onward and upward from there. International organizations are extremely competitive workforces. Merit is respected. Mediocrity rarely survives. For an African to succeed to senior ranks, let alone become the ultimate boss, signals not just good fortune, but also character, performance and track record.
As Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Anyaoku led the organization’s work and had a great impact in the global fight against Apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. He intervened successfully in constitutional, political and security crises in several Commonwealth countries including Bangladesh, Kenya, Pakistan, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and many others. Anyaoku initiated the practice of appointing Commonwealth Election Observers in member countries. He was instrumental to the norm-setting Harare Declaration in 1991, which set out clearly and reinforced the core values of the Commonwealth of Nations, including a strong commitment to human rights, and the organization’s responsibility to be concerned with the internal affairs of its member countries in appropriate situations. These principles ultimately led to the suspension of Zimbabwe, and later on Nigeria under the Sani Abacha dictatorship, from the Commonwealth.
In the case of Nigeria, the country was suspended following the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa by the Sani Abacha dictatorship. That he was a Nigerian national who was the CEO of the organization made this an undoubtedly difficult time for Anyaoku. And yet, he was in no doubt that he had to uphold his oath of office and the principles of the entity he had been elected to serve all its member countries. The ice thawed after Abacha’s death, as his successor Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar committed to a return to democracy, paving the way for a readmission of Nigeria as a member of the Commonwealth.
As a Commonwealth diplomat, Anyaoku also mediated in the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960’s, visiting the war zone in Biafra at great risk to his personal safety and meeting with the Biafran leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu to sue for peace. He later facilitated then Secretary-General Arnold Smith of Canada’s establishment and appointment of a Commonwealth International Court-Martial Tribunal in Trinidad and Tobago in 1970, with then Colonel Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma of Nigeria as the Tribunal’s President. The Tribunal tried military officers who had attempted to overthrow Trinidad’s democratic government.
In October 1983, after he was reelected to a second term in office, President Shehu Shagari invited and appointed Emeka Anyaoku as Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. A patriotic response to a call to national duty turned out a close shave. A military coup terminated Nigeria’s democracy on December 31, 1983 and installed Gen. Muhammadu Buhari as Head of State. Anyaoku had been Foreign Minister for all of three months. The replacement process for his successor as Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General had already gone far. It was a reflection of Anyaoku’s reputation that the Buhari military government itself re-nominated him back to his former position, and he was unanimously reelected as the organization’s Number 2 with the strong support of his former boss, then-Secretary-General Sir Shridath Ramphal of Guyana.
Since his retirement as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, this global statesman has served Nigeria in part-time voluntary roles. He has declined every invitation to engage in partisan politics when many consider him as someone who could have been an ideal President of Nigeria. In between numerous international engagements, Anyaoku has served as Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Council on Foreign Relations from 2000-2015, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Orient Petroleum, Chairman of the Anambra State Elders Council, and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Obafemi Awolowo Foundation.
The legacy of Anyaoku’s outstanding leadership of the Commonwealth redounds at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, where the university established the Emeka Anyaoku Professorial Chair, and similar recognitions in various countries. Few leaders have received 34 honorary doctorate degrees from top universities around the world. He holds the highest national honors of Cameroon, Lesotho, Madagascar, Namibia. Trinidad and Tobago, and South Africa. He has also written several books including The Inside Story of the Modern Commonwealth. Regarding Nigeria’s future, the elder statesman believes firmly that a fundamental constitutional restructuring of our country is essential and inevitable.
As Chief Anyaoku’s life elevator opens on the 9th floor, I salute a great man who has been an inspiration to me and many others. Nigeria is left with too few of his kind. Ninety cheers to Ichie Adazie Obosi. May you tarry longer in the land of the living as your “flight” is much-delayed at the “departure lounge”.
Moghalu, a former senior United Nations official and ex-deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, is the president of the Institute for Governance and Economic Transformation (IGET), a public policy think tank.