Friday, March 29, 2013

Obituary: Ashikiwe Adione-Egom, the motor-park economist, 1942-2003

By Chuks Isiugo

     Long before I met Ashikiwe Adione-Egom in 1987,  his name had preceded him. I  first encountered him through the numerous articles he wrote in The Guardian newspaper of Lagos in the mid-1980s challenging the military-backed, IMF- and World Bank inspired economic orthodoxies of the time, which later became encapsulated as the Structural Adjustment Pogramme (SAP). What they essentially said was that the market was supreme, and the ultimate regulator. So everything - health, education, infrastructure, the entire development process - had to be left to the market to determine. And whatever the market decided was God's will. Q.E.D.
     It was a convenient argument for someone with a fat wallet. Even more so when he was armed and had filled his pocket from the public coffers, as was the case with the soldiers then seized power under the leadership of Ibrahim Babangida. The argument was never won with logic but with the power of the gun and the weight of the Western powers who wanted SAP to impoverish Africa and continue the 500-year-long rape of the continent. Adione-Egom was one of those (along with Adebayo Adedeji of the UN Economic Commision for Africa) that railed against the callous argument. Thus he styled himself the motor park economist, who thought about the full ramifications of the harsh measures on the disadvantaged, even the touts in the motor parks.
     And when eventually I met him, the circumstances were somewhat dramatic and less than edifying. I had gone to The Guardian with an old friend to visit a common friend who was working then in the now defunct African Guardian magazine. At the reception we had  found no one, and while we waited a staff member came along. While we were asking from him the whereabouts of the object of our visit, along came another man dressed in khaki shorts pulled up to his belly, into which his shirt was tucked in. He wore socks that stopped just before his knees and a pair of shoes. The only thing missing was a helmet to complete to look of an old British colonial officer.
     It was Ashikiwe Adione-Egom. He glared at us while we made our inquiry and interrupted.
     "You guys should stop disturbing him, you didn't keep any receptionist here," he said.
     "But I'm not talking to you!" I shot back at him.
     "Then go! Then go!" He said, flailing his arms as he walked away, not waiting for my next response.
     My friend and I looked at each other and the man we had been talking to and we all burst into laughter.
      "Don't mind Ashikiwe," the fellow we had been talking to said to us. "He's a trouble maker."
     That was my first encounter with his eccentricity. Years later, when he had become familiar with my writing and sought me out, we became great friends. I never reminded him of that first encounter. It was not necessary and had been overtaken by events. I was always amazed by how much I learned from every conversation I had with him, no matter how short.
     Adione-Egom's main preoccupation was how the global financial system was rigged ab initio by being founded on the gold standard, a derivative of the global trading system created from the proceeds of the Atlantic slave trade. His argument was always that Africa and the global south would never find economic freedom unless they freed themselves from this system and founded an alternative financial system.
He spoke with a deep knowledge, having studied economics at Cambridge University and the best institutions of the the West and excelled. But he was like a prophet not reckoned with in his own country. He had the misfortune of being in Nigeria at a time of the most brutish anti-intellectualism, during the reign of military rulers from Muhammadu Buhari, Babangida and Sani Abacha, who decided that those with the requisite knowledge to move Nigeria (and Africa) forward were not needed since they were bent on putting the country in reverse gear (apologies to Fela Anikulapo-Kuti).
     So any intellectual who was worth the name had to brain-drain to other countries (often in the West), where their knowledge was appreciated and eagerly deployed. The rest put their knowledge to the service of the military in exchange for filthy lucre. Those who did neither became sidelined. And that became the lot of Adione-Egom. It was a difficult fate, devoid of material rewards. But Adione-Egom bore that fate with dignity and never for once stopped telling truth to power.
     In the last decade or so, his writing took a decidedly Christian, religious tone. His preferred name became Peter Alexander Egom. But the substance remained the same. It became a variant of the liberation theology pushed by Catholic priests in Latin America in the 1970s. Unlike the prosperity preaching of the Nigerian pentecostals that provides succour to the hearts of thieves and looters of public property in government since the 1980s, which justifies wealth and luxury irrespective of the manner of acquisition, Adione-Egom's economic theology was bottom-up. He argued against the economic philosophy of might-is-right and insisted that God's plan is that none of his children shall sit in the sidewalk and beg bread (to borrow from Bob Marley). It is a simple truth, so simple to be derided by those in power, but equally an enduring truth that would survive their reign, even though Adione-Egom is no more.

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