Adieu Amos Sawyer

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In the serene but warm and beautiful atmosphere of Windeok, Namibia, I was with other colleagues on 18th February 2022 having a retreat of the Senior Leadership Team of our institution. I received a tacit text message from Addis Ababa that reads, “sorry, your friend is gone". Nervous and curious, I inquired who it was. The reply was quite dreadful.  "Your friend, Prof. Amos Sawyer has passed on". In shock, disbelief and awful sorrow, I gazed into the sky; my mind pondered, how could that have happened? Why Amos Sawyer? Why this beautiful soul? Why this role model? Many unanswered questions filled my thoughts as I wrestled with the mystery of life and its transient nature. 

Amos Sawyer is one of the most remarkable, outstanding and decent human beings I have ever come across. He was an Africanist per-excellence,  a rare leader, a political gem, an organic intellectual, and an unorthodox voice of change in a cesspool of fear and trepidation. Amos Sawyer exemplified what integrity could be. In and out of power, he displayed humility and decency in leadership. 

For those who may not know him, he was the former interim president of Liberia from 1990 to 1994, and served the Continent in various capacities including as Chair of the APRM Panel of Eminent Persons. 

In the stormy waters of the Liberian crisis in the early 1990s, Amos Sawyer stood tall and rose to the challenge of conflict and change. As Samuel Doe departed the stage, and the vaccum of power and leadership manifested itself, taking the country inexonerably into civil war, Amos Sawyer, with mass support from different constituencies and stakeholders in  the country and regional players, was unanimously chosen to lead Liberia in its very dark moments.  He knew the enormity of the task and the heavy burden that history had thrust on his shoulders, but he did not shy away from the responsibility. For four years, he shepered the ship of state in the midst of conflict, and steered the country away from what could have been the path of total chaos and destruction. 

After stepping  down in 1994, Amos Sawyer did what many leaders would not do. He returned to the classroom in the United States as a Professor of Political Science and continued his mentoring of the younger generation. He was a very passionate scholar, unabashedly devoted to the academic enterprise. Amos Sawyer was not prone to primitive accumulation; he lived a simple and decent life and cherished the values of honesty, integrity, discipline and decency. 

Although there is a generational gap between Amos Sawyer and I, that did not prove a hindrance to our friendship and interaction. Of the same academic discipline, we engaged in rich intellectual discourse and debate and he attended and presented papers in academic conferences.  He never wore the toga of a former head of state and he was open to criticism. Humility, which defines scholarship and intellectualism, was ever present in Amos Sawyer. 

When Adebayo Adedeji (former Executive Secretary of United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA)) passed away, a colloquium was organised in his honour by UNECA in Lagos, Nigeria  on 7th July 2018 with notable dignitaries like Yakubu Gowon, former military Head of State of Nigeria and Hage Ginghob, the current President of Namibia, amongst others, present. Amos Sawyer, in attending the colloquium decided to cater for himself like the other dignitaries. He flew in from the United states into Lagos for the colloquium, and decided to go and stay with a family friend in Victoria Island, Lagos. He came to the colloquium as an ordinary African citizen; no sirens or police escort – the usual pecks of power that former leaders enjoy. 

Amos Sawyer casualised power and made it as simple as it could be. He does not draw attention to himself and tried to play down his identity as a former President. He preferred to be known as an academic, a man of ideas and intellect and he believed in the power of ideas in liberating the continent. The easiest way to conquer human beings, group or nation is to conquer their minds. In his entire adult life, he traded in knowledge and ideas. He was one of the few of his generation who held the torch of scholarship till the very end.

Amos Sawyer spoke truth to power in a direct and candid way. At a regional conference on "Corruption and the Challenge of Economic Transformation in Southern Africa”  hosted by the Government of Botswana and organised by the African Union Southern Africa Regional Office, UNECA Southern Africa Office and the Botswana Anti-Corruption Commission in June 2018, in which he was the keynote speaker, Amos Sawyer diagnosed the ills of development in Africa, with the centrality of corruption. On the issue of executive corruption, he noted, “Misuse and abuse of executive power can immediately undermine the integrity of public institutions, frustrate public servants, and encourage hostility towards honest public servants and public institutions that try to do their jobs properly. The cascading effects of executive corruption can go all the way down to the lowest levels, allowing those who engage in petty corruption to grow comfortable in their actions.  Safeguarding the executive against corruption is absolutely critical to reducing corruption in governance of the state and promoting good governance in other sectors of society”.

Amos Sawyer was an incorruptible African, an organic intellectual who connected theory with praxis, and an amiable and decent soul. 

I have lost a big brother, a friend and a mentor. Africa has lost one of its best and brightest leaders.  I learnt a lot from Amos Sawyer, both professionally and in character. Integrity is the hallmark of human life. Amos Sawyer had it. As Warren Buffet said, "Look for three things in people. Intelligence, energy and integrity. If they don't have the last one, don't even bother with the first two". Amos Sawyer had it all. 

I will miss Amos Sawyer, his family would certainly miss him more, and the Continent will miss this amazing leader, a role model, worthy of emulation. Amos Sawyer, goodnight and goodbye. 

• Prof. Adejumobi wrote from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in his personal capacity.

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