44. Africa loses visionary and one of its great servants

Author: Prof Adekeye Adebajo
30 April 2018
Business Day

Nigerian scholar-administrator, Adebayo Adedeji, who died on Wednesday 25 April at the age of 87, was one of Africa’s greatest public servants. He was born on 21 December 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.

After completing his 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. In 1963, Adedeji left government service for Nigeria’s University of Ile-Ife. Four years later at the age of 36, he had become a full professor of economics and public administration, transforming the university’s Institute of Administration into an effective training ground for 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 following Nigeria’s civil war of 1967–1970.

His greatest feats were in the area of regional integration. Adedeji was widely regarded to have been “the Father of ECOWAS”: the Economic Community of West African States. While serving as a minister, he convinced 15 other West African leaders to establish ECOWAS following tireless “shuttle diplomacy” across the subregion. In 1975, he was headhunted by the UN to lead its Addis Ababa-based Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). His 16-year tenure became the organisation’s longest and most dynamic: he drove 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. He also became a confidant and economic adviser to many African leaders.

Adedeji used the ECA to launch the most sustained assault on the Structural Adjustment Programmes implemented from the 1980s by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Describing Africa’s rapid decline in the 1980s as a “lost decade,” he argued against 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.

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 sectors 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 efforts across Africa. 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 2001 New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) as too externally dependent, and naively ignoring the past failures of external donors to contribute substantively to African-led development plans. Adedeji was the lead panelist of the South African APRM country review process between 2005 and 2007. Its 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. The Mbeki government strongly objected to the report’s criticisms, arrogantly 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 consistently called for post-apartheid South Africa to “deconstruct” its colonially inherited political economy, and create an effective and equitable “developmental state.” In terms of historical stature, he 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.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is the Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.