I have not quite found a way to manage my mobile phone, that ubiquitous affliction of the modern age. I used to leave the damned thing on with the volume at full blast round the clock. When it became too much of a nuisance for my wife to bear, I began to put it on silent mode, but still left it on 24/7.
Whether it is at full blast or silent, however, my ear never fails to pick up even the slightest sound of an incoming call or message when I’m awake. In a way, I’m wired to the phone. It was this sense of wiring that drew me to my phone when it popped a text message at 12.40am on Friday.
I rolled over and checked the one-liner: “Adefuye is dead!” I was dizzy with shock. I didn’t have to figure out which Adefuye it was because I knew only one: Professor Ade Adefuye.
His obituaries have described him as Nigeria’s ambassador to the United States. Rightly so. But he was also Nigeria’s ambassador to Jamaica, with oversight for Belize and Haiti; and, before that, deputy high commissioner to the UK; and, before that, deputy director at the Commonwealth for 14 years.
But I knew him before he was posted to the US, which turned out to be his most high-profile appointment – and his last – before he passed away on Friday. He was my teacher and friend, and what a great teacher and friend he was.
I have always loved history, especially African and Black history, for its great lessons, wisdom and follies, but hated it just as much for teachers who forced me to cram dates that made many exams a nightmare. That changed when I took a minor course in history under Adefuye at the University of Lagos nearly 30 years ago.
Yes, dates are important, he would say, but dates don’t make history; people do. In a world where our past, as Africans, has been shaped largely by western narratives of who we are, we’ll have to do more than cram dates to deal with the present and change our future. To preserve and promote aspects of our culture and literature that we should be proud of, we must never forget who we are – the mother of ancient civilisations to which human progress can never fully repay its debt of gratitude.
In the ensuing clash of civilisations, our endeavours must speak to a present and future of hard work, collaboration and confidence that will earn respect and secure our place, the place of the Black man, in the modern world.
Not that he wore Negritude on his sleeves. He just believed in a life of equality, respect, purpose and responsibility. In him, I see reflections of Obaro Ikime, Ikenna Nzimiro, Bala Usman and Toyin Falola, high priests and curators of the African heritage.
Yet, when I picked up my phone on Friday morning, I wasn’t thinking of African history, Negritude, equality or such heavy lifting. I was thinking of Adefuye, the man I spoke with briefly about one month ago after President Muhammadu Buhari’s July visit to the US.
I had called him to ask how the visit went and if there were still grounds to suspect that those who could not wait to see his back might edge him out soon. They said he was former President Goodluck Jonathan’s man and could not be trusted to serve Buhari, as if a president equals a country.
He laughed a knowing laughter and said he had done more to stage his own orderly exit than his predators could ever hope to undo in two lifetimes of conspiracy. He didn’t put it exactly that way, but I got the message.
Adefuye is a veteran of many wars. He arrived at his post in Washington in 2010 in a headwind following the arrest of the Nigerian, Farouk Mutallab, who had tried to attack a US airline over Detroit with a bomb in his pants. That attempt set off a firestorm of restrictions and screening procedures, the most humiliating of which was “pat down” of the most intrusive kind, reserved for Nigerian travellers.
Nigeria came close to being classified as a “terrorist” country, eight months after Adefuye assumed office. He fought back.
He took on John Campbell over his controversial book, “Dancing on the Brink;” tackled Ted Cruz for saying there was a shortage of Nigerian email scammers because most of them had been hired to implement Obamacare; squared off with John McCain over his scathing slurs on Nigeria, and withstood the blackmail of a few US-based Nigerian journalists who tried to smear him.
I suspect one of his toughest wars was the battle to get the US to back Nigeria’s war on terror in the country’s North East. The US Congress had used reports of high-level corruption and human rights abuse in the Nigerian military to restrict how far President Barack Obama could go in providing support for the war. As the war dead mounted, pressure increased on the US to act.
Adefuye was caught in the middle. Inside sources told me he had several meetings with leading US Congressmen and the White House and finally secured a window. Obama reportedly told him that he would be prepared to lean on Congress if the Nigerian government, then under Jonathan, could show evidence that it was prepared to investigate the allegations of corruption and abuses.
For months, Adefuye worked the phones and went back and forth between Washington and Abuja, trying to get Jonathan’s commitment. He met a brick wall, an attitude that made you wonder and wonder. With some light now shining on the way the war was conducted – generals amassing toys while the troops were dying at the warfront – it’s not very difficult to see why Abuja gave Adefuye a hard time.
Yet, it would never be said that he offered less than his best for his country. He built bridges on the bilateral front, taking on hot topics like regional security, good governance, institution building and electoral reform. He was impatient with red tape and cut right through to offer sincere help wherever he could.
With him, knowledge, passion and a zeal for service and country came naturally. Adefuye was a simple, decent man with a large heart, and a sense of humour that was always there.