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Emeka Anyaoku: portrait of a skilled diplomat who graced Nigeria, Africa and the globe

A man on grey suit, listening attentively
Chief Emeka Anyaoku, a global icon with local roots. Photo by Jekesai Njikizana/AFP via Getty Images

Few Nigerians have distinguished themselves to their compatriots and the world so much and for so long as Chief Emeka Anyaoku.

The former secretary general of the Commonwealth represents the true essence of a public intellectual and leadership. He turned turned 89 in January 2022.

Born on 18 January 1933 in Obosi town, Anambra State, Anyaoku showed signs of leadership from an early age. In the mid-1950s he was a student leader at the University College Ibadan, where he studied the classics. He took an active part in the push for Nigeria’s independence from Britain.

He studied further in England and France. The young Anyaoku – aged 26 – then landed his first job at the newly formed Commonwealth Development Corporation in 1959. The organisation was created to facilitate the growth of private sector businesses in emerging economies.

This job set him on a diplomatic career path. And a lifelong association with the Commonwealth.

In 1962, two years after Nigeria’s independence, Anyaoku met Tafawa Balewa, then prime minister of Nigeria, in the West Africa regional office of the Commonwealth Development Corporation. The encounter translated into a job in Nigeria’s Foreign Service.

In April 1962, he was appointed personal assistant to the permanent secretary in the ministry of external affairs.

In 1963 he was posted to Nigeria’s permanent mission at the United Nations in New York . Thus began a successful international career as a diplomat.

The highlight was Anyaoku’s 10-year tenure as the secretary general of the Commonwealth. This was marked by a desire for a complete political and democratic transition in countries reeling from civil wars, coups and racial division.

He was particularly prominent in South Africa, where he forged an alliance with the African nationalist leaders in dismantling apartheid.

Anyaoku in international affairs

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 54 independent countries. They are united by their commitment to development, peace and democratic stability. The organisation initially comprised states that had been part of the British empire. But, more recently, any country has been able to join.

Anyaoku left the Nigerian foreign service to join the Commonwealth Secretariat as assistant director of international affairs in 1966. He would later become a director. By 1977 he was elected deputy secretary general in charge of international affairs and the administration of the secretariat.

Anyaoku was elected the third Commonwealth secretary general at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting on 24 October 1989.

This made him the first African to hold such a high-ranking position in an intergovernmental organisation. In 1995, he was easily reelected for a second five-year term.

In 1983 Anyaoku left the Commonwealth briefly when the administration of Nigeria’s President Shehu Shagari appointed him minister of foreign affairs. His stint was cut short by the military takeover of the government by Major General Muhammadu Buhari the same year.

Given its colonial heritage, the Commonwealth has been criticised as a post-colonial club with little relevance to global governance. Anyaoku initially viewed it as a neo-colonial instrument before committing to finding a decolonial niche for the organisation.

The excitement of his own country’s independence in 1960, and his diplomatic engagement during the 1967-1970 Nigeria-Biafra war, guided his foreign policy as secretary general. This was particularly evident in southern Africa and Southeast Asia.

Appalled by the 1960 Sharpeville massacre in South Africa, Anyaoku developed a close relationship with the African National Congress, then a banned liberation movement.

He was a consistent part of the negotiations for a democratic transition in the country. He never missed any opportunity to underscore the fact that the South African situation was significant in the development of a modern Commonwealth.

This contribution endeared him to Nelson Mandela. On becoming South Africa’s president Mandela afforded him the rare honour of addressing a joint sitting of the South African National Assembly in 1998.

Emeka Anyaoku was awarded the highest civilian honour in South Africa in 2008 – the Order of the Supreme Companions of O.R. Tambo: Gold. This was in recognition of his efforts in dismantling apartheid and the general struggle for freedom, justice and democracy on the continent.

His interventions were not limited to Africa. In Bangladesh, Anyaoku mediated between the then prime minister, Begum Zia, and the leader of the opposition, Sheik Hasina.

He was also prominent in Pakistan during a potentially destabilising disagreement between the then president, Farooq Leghari, and the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

The most challenging of his interventions was the crisis in his own country, Nigeria. This was after General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the 1993 presidential election. Chief Moshood Abiola had apparently won the poll. Anyaoku condemned the action of the junta in Nigeria.

Tensions also reached fever pitch when General Sani Abacha ordered the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa and other Niger Delta environmentalists. Anyaoku used the opportunity to develop general principles for the Commonwealth. It was on the basis of these that Nigeria was suspended. The suspension was lifted only after Nigeria’s return to democratic rule in 1999.

Anyaoku retired from his position as Commonwealth secretary general in March 2000.

Retirement years

Since his retirement, he has been a consistent voice of reason in Nigerian and international politics. He lives in Nigeria where he continues to contribute to critical national discourses and participates in cross-cultural activities.

The University of Liverpool bestowed an honorary doctoral degree on him in 1993. It describe Anyaoku as a

healer of international strife, a seeker after mutual understanding and a patient negotiator.

Indeed, generations of leaders in Nigeria and abroad found in Anyaoku an example for transformative leadership. His cross-cultural skills set was invaluable in navigating ethnic, religious and national divides.

For all his international achievements, Anyaoku remains close to his roots as the Ichie Adazie of Obosi – a traditional title he cherishes.

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