By: Godknows Igali

Rt. Hon. Chief Emeka Anyaoku, one of Nigeria’s best and most celebrated ever, entered the hallowed chamber of the eldest living patriarchs as he marked his 90th birthday anniversary on 18th January, 2023.  Homebred from Nigeria’s premier University of Ibadan, which by all standards, stands out as a leading centre of learning and incubation of knowledge, Anyaoku is today, one of greatest human minds from the African continent,  acclaimed global diplomat, administrator and traditional authority.

As expected, for such a personality who has attained the apogee of human accomplishment, the world’s greatest and strongest greeted his  ripe age with the kindest of words.  Worthy of note was the congratulations from Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, who for one has a good record of regularly appreciating Nigerians who have made imprints on such occasions.  In this case, he poured encomiums on Chief Anyaoku, whom the country has honoured in various ways.


From the early days when the University of Ibadan, then a College of the University of London, opened its doors to young Nigerians, Anyaoku was among the primal minds who found themselves in the halls of the premier institution to seek knowledge.  He enrolled to pursue a degree in ancient studies, also known as Classics, though nowadays appears little known, is actually an inter-disciplinary work that covers the history of Western European knowledge and civilisation.

This programme in the Faculty of Arts was considered as an elite degree in the days of colonial rule, when such branch of scholarship offered graduates telescopic knowledge needed for great work of public administration.  The study of classics at Ibadan was, therefore, a foundation for most of those who came to start the Nigerian bureaucracy and such elite services as the diplomatic corps.  The idea was to imbue the students, most of whom were clearly exceptional, with great analytical and critical thinking skills by creating a clear synergy between ancient and modern culture and civilisation.  Even more robust was the fact, and perhaps till date, that it also focuses on the communication abilities of its graduands.   Anyaoku and his colleagues left Ibadan, fluent not only in the highest diction of English, but in Latin and adept in philosophy, literature, and ancient history.

The Faculty of Arts of Ibadan, of which he was part, had some of the greatest names with a flair for English language and expression in French and Latin.  It had some of the most brilliant persons ever produced in Nigeria, and in the struggle for intellectual ascendancy, it was easy for colleagues to recall that Anyaoku stood out.  

The world over, several leaders and great thinkers such as Carl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, W.E. Dubois, American broadcaster, Ted Turner, and several of the British Prime Ministers, including Boris Johnson, all followed the path of study of Classics.  In Nigeria, besides Anyaoku, some of the early students of classics in Ibadan include Gamaliel Onosode, as well as Amb. J.T.F. Iyalla, Amb. B.A. Clark, Amb. Edward Martins, Amb. T. Omatsone, all of whom made their marks in the diplomatic field as well as writers Christopher Okigbo, Isidore Okpewho, and administrators J. A Kadiri, P. O. Ogundele.  Not the least, in contemporary times, present Governor of Edo State, Godwin Obaseki.

Although the Classics School in Ibadan had produced many persons in national service, Chief Anyaoku stood out as its best ambassador ever. With such a robust background, it is no surprise that from when he graduated in 1958, he rose to become the very best in the world of diplomacy and international statesmanship.  In particular, he was the first black man ever to fully head a major international organisation when he got elected as the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.


Having literally conquered the world like the case of the great Napoleon Bonaparte, Anyaoku returned to his own base in Obosi in present-day Anambra State of Nigeria to hold the exalted title of Ichie Adazie.  No doubt, among several African groups, chieftaincy titles have always been recognised as parts of the highest levels of traditional recognition of any given person.  Particularly within his Igbo ethnic group, such titles as Ichie Adazie are reserved for privileged elders of most significant reckoning and human accomplishment.   This position is not only of great prestige but great influence, and in the greater Igbo worldview places him as the highest index of what is referred to as Nze within the “Ozo” Cultural Society.  Ozo Society membership implies that the holder of that title is to some extent regarded as a living spirit and a moral conscience of society. 


Chukwuemeka Eleazar Anyaoku was born on 18th January, 1933. His hometown Obosi is at the heartland and epicentre of many aspects of Ibo cultural renaissance and identity.  The people of Obosi historically and culturally are very close to the Nri and Igbo Ukwu cultural epicentre of Igbo history, religion, and traditions. Unarguably, these are central places of African civilisation, well-known in the world of historiography and archaeology of prized finesse dating back to the 9th century.

His family background, expectedly, coloured his growth and progression in life.  His own father, who was known as Emmanuel Chukwuemeka Anyaoku, was sufficiently educated and attended the CMS School in the metropolis of Onitsha, where he was raised by Rev William Blankett, one of the most famous missionaries of the Church Missionary Society, then in the area.  Later in life, the senior Anyaoku became a Catechist. Catechists are Christian religious teachers whose duties are to help teach members of the church on issue of doctrine and how to nurture the spiritual life of persons at places where full-time priests are not available. 

His own mother, Cecilia, was also from one of the elite families in Obosi from a quarter known as Ugbogu.  From his maternal side also was the Rev. Ekpunobi, the first person from that part of Nigeria to become a priest and played the key role in raising his mother.   It was against this background that Anyaoku grew up with very strong Christian ethos of faith and piety from both sides of the family. 


Young Anyaoku was sent to attend primary school at the regional town of Umuahia, which is today, capital of Abia state, and was a major railway and agricultural market centre at the time.  Umuahia was mostly an agriculture-based town, strong in trading in such agricultural produce as palm oil and palm kernel, yam and cassava, and related light agro industries.   As was the expectation, on completion of his junior elementary, he was moved to CMS Central School in Agbor, which today is in Delta State, where he came out in flying colours.  From there, he moved to Merchants of Light Secondary School in the town of Oba on the outskirts of Onitsha, which was closer home.   Founded in 1946, with Anyaoku among its early students, this school, which was one of the first established educational institutions of its kind solely for boys, has always been known for its high disciplinary standards.   The founder of the school, Dr. Ihediora Oli himself had worked for the colonial educational system in some of the best schools in the old Eastern Region before deciding to build a world-class centre of excellence.  He gave it the motto “Omnes unum sumus” which translates as “We are all one”.  This was intended as a means of inculcating the spirit of abiding friendship, teamwork, and mutual forbearance among the young minds, strong virtues, which in no small ways impacted Anyaoku’s life

Anyaoku was a member of the second set in the school admitted in 1949 and stood out throughout his school years, especially in debating, English Literature, and Mathematics.  When they sat for the Cambridge School Certificate, he made the spectacular result of Grade 1, scoring A in ten subjects. Much later, the school attracted several great Nigerians and West Africans such as Prof. Bernard Oramah, current President of Afrexim Bank, Prof. Peter Onwualu, former DG, Nigeria Medical Research Council of Nigeria, and Onoche Anyaoke, former Group Executive Director, Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).  In terms of its faculty, such great names as Prof. Chinua Achebe, Prof. J. O. C. Nzeilo, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, all populated its classrooms. 

Interestingly enough, on completion of his secondary education, Chief Anyaoku went on to teach such difficult subjects as Mathematics, Latin, and English, for which he had always stood out.  This formed the background to his going to Ibadan to continue with his classics study. 


Not too many meander with ease between the walls separating bilateral and the much complex multi-state diplomatic settings. Interestingly, Anyaoku did so, from the foundation days with great panache and success.

On completion of his undergraduate studies, as one of the outstanding students, Anyaoku had many choices.  First, he was to join several of his colleagues from Ibadan who were picked to form the core of the new Nigerian Diplomatic Corps, which was established in 1957 as part of the Prime Minister’s Office. Another option was to join the colonial civil service, which was preserved for the very best from all the colonies.  With little choice at his disposal, he was headhunted into the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC).  The CDC, which was founded by the colonial government in 1948, was to accelerate economic and social development of the colonies and as a joint financial institution through investing in equity and other forms of funds. 

In the course of work, however, the young Anyaoku became closely acquainted with Nigeria’s first and only Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (1912-1966).  It was an enduring happenstance in 1962, that at the time when he was on the entourage of his principal, then Chairman of CDC, Lord Howick of Glendale, that the Prime Minister who was a trained teacher turned politician, impressed on the young, witty Anyaoku to join the Foreign Service of Nigeria which was directly under his purview.  He was subsequently recruited into the Diplomatic Corps and placed at par with his erstwhile Ibadan classmates with whom he had been relating in the course of work at the CDC.  So, in terms of career, he lost nothing.  Hence, in the annals of Nigerian Diplomatic history, Chief Anyaoku is rightly counted as one of the pioneers. 

In diplomatic service, perhaps as it is in other high public sector offices, the very best in the system are often posted to the office of the Permanent Secretary or equivalent which have the duty of running the administrative machinery and also vested with policy direction.  Therefore, on recruitment, Anyaoku was immediately picked as the Special Assistant to then Permanent Secretary.  By coincidence, at the time, negotiations between the hitherto contending “Casablanca” and the “Monrovia” groups were heightened towards the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).  The egghead that Anyaoku was, became directly involved with this matter, thereby shuttling between Addis Ababa and Nigeria until the organisation was founded in May 1963, a laudable testimonial to his national and continental service.   The OAU has since transmuted into the African Union in 1999.

As a high flyer, his services were again needed at the Permanent Mission of Nigeria led by Chief Simeon Adebo (1913-1994).   The famous Nigerian lawyer who was Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1962-67) before becoming Under Secretary-General of the United Nations had asked for one of the best from the service to be sent to New York.   The search for a round peg again landed on the much sought-after young officer, Anyaoku. 

At a time when the Nigerian representation in such bodies was very lean, his position as the Alternate Permanent Representative to serve on the very powerful Anti-Apartheid Committee was very exposing.  He was particularly involved in setting up a Trust Fund to assist the defence of political detainees in the obnoxious apartheid system at the time.  Anyaoku was also very outspoken against the white minority government of then Prime Minister, Ian Smith of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

While in New York and with involvement in some bilateral activities, Anyaoku became conversant with the work of the newly established Commonwealth Secretariat which was different from the CDC from where he had crossed over into the national diplomatic service.  This new body, the Commonwealth Secretariat, was a political institution that was formed to strengthen the bonds and facilitate cooperation between member countries of the Commonwealth of Nations.  Actually, the Commonwealth of Nations was formed in 1926, but its leadership remained amorphous, and the institutional structure was rather fluid.  This continued until 1965 when the Secretariat was established as a primary organ of this body, with the headquarters in Marlborough House, London.  The mandate of the Secretariat was robust and expected to operate as a multilateral political body as different from the CDC, which was a British government developmental institution targeted at bilateral intervention in former colonies of the United Kingdom.

With the setting up of the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1965, the newly-appointed pioneer Secretary-General, Sir Harold Smith of Canada during a visit in November to Nigeria had indicated interest to assemble a team of crack young minds from around the former British empire to help him set up the Secretariat.  He was also quoted to have insisted on doing that “to make nonsense of the racist” tendencies that still existed at the global scene. With such expressed desire, on the Prime Minister’s instruction, the then Nigeria Foreign Minister, Chief Jaja Wachuku, sent in names of some “young” officers, among which was the cerebral Anyaoku then in faraway New York. 

Many things in nature had always worked in favour of Chief Anyaoku. So, he took advantage of the opening of a position of Assistant Director to move into the Commonwealth Secretariat as one of its pioneer staff. The rest of it was his steady rise within the establishment of the organisation to become Deputy Secretary-General in 1977. By 24th October, 1989, during the Commonwealth Heads of Mission Summit at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,. he was elected as the 3rd Secretary-General of the organisation, the first from the African continent, and was re-elected for a second five-year term from 1995 at the 1993 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Limassol, Cyprus.  In this capacity, he was the main contact between the organisation and the Heads of State of at least 54 countries at the time.  It would take another 20 years before another person of colour, current Secretary-General, Baroness Patricia Scotland, would be elected to the position.


Anyaoku’s career at the Commonwealth Secretariat was multifaceted and dealt with all manners of issues.  From internal policies to such issues as fight against apartheid, intra-commonwealth cooperation, and the provision of capacity for the realisation of the mandate of the organization.   Of particular note is the fact that he played a major role in the fight towards the dismantling of apartheid and, indeed, the independence of South Africa in 1994.  With hindsight, his almost monthly visits to South Africa on the mandate of the Commonwealth and the accompanying negotiations with the then apartheid government sounded the death knell for that system of governance.  Besides that, he was also involved as a Commonwealth Observer in democracy and peace-building in several countries and particularly in unravelling the imbroglio of military rule in Africa and on the Asian continent  Not the least were his efforts to restore democracy in Nigeria and end military rule and the heady days of the fight for the institution of human rights. 

Anyaoku played a major role in the committal of the death sentence on former President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo after an earlier kangaroo court trial by the government of General Abacha.  Still in Nigeria, he also played a major role along with other international statesmen such as Kofi Annan to work for peaceful electoral transitions, leading to the emergence of the current Fourth Republic.  In the past, not forgetting the home front, for a brief period, he returned to accept an offer by President Shehu Shagari as Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in his short-lived second term of the Second Republic.  After the military coup of 31st December 1983, he returned to the Commonwealth Secretariat to continue his career; underscoring the fact that he was available for national service whenever needed.    However, on retirement from the Commonwealth, he also yielded to the call to serve as Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee on International Relations, which functioned until 2015.


Chief Anyaoku has so far lived out the words of Benjamin Franklin that “great lives never go out, they go on” and he seems poised to still go for many more years. The Nigerian nation had severally conferred on him the high national honour of Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON) and Commander of the Order  of the Federal Republic (CFR). On the world scene, Anyaoku was awarded many high accolades around the world,  most prominent being by the British Crown and Trustees of the prestigious honours established by the Empress, Queen Victoria in 1896, with the highest degree of knighthood  – Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order  (GCVO). For home country, such lives, which show up intermittently, are perpetual reminders to succeeding generations as he has shown, that arriving at the pinnacle is not achieved by micro wave leap but “exerting marathon of purpose, passion and patience”.  Even at 90, Ichie Adazie continues to beam as an emblem of inspiration of service to humanity.  In several ways, he is a national treasure who must be celebrated by all to continue to be the light of hope of a nation that can reinvent itself and be the beam to all of Africa, the black man and indeed humanity.  

Congratulations to the grand old man, the Rt. Hon. Chief Emeka Anyaoku, Ugwumba Idemili, Ichie Adazie Obosi.

Chief Anyaoku lives in Ikoyi, Lagos, with his wife, Omooba Bunmi Anyaoku.

Igali, an award-winning writer, is a retired Ambassador and Fellow, Historical Society of Nigeria 

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