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Outspoken Nigerian Envoy to Washington Dies Suddenly

Just days before he was slated to head home, the Nigerian ambassador to Washington died suddenly Thursday.

US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (L) speaks Nigeria's ambassador to the United States Ade Adefuye attend a meeting in Abuja on August 15, 2013. Wendy Sherman said the United States was ready to help Nigeria "develop a multi-faceted strategy" to contain the Boko Haram violence, but warned that a military crackdown alone would not work.      AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI        (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (L) speaks Nigeria's ambassador to the United States Ade Adefuye attend a meeting in Abuja on August 15, 2013. Wendy Sherman said the United States was ready to help Nigeria "develop a multi-faceted strategy" to contain the Boko Haram violence, but warned that a military crackdown alone would not work. AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigerian Ambassador Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, Abuja’s outspoken envoy to Washington, died Thursday, just days before he was slated to leave his diplomatic post and head home. He was 68.

Adefuye, a retired professor of history, was appointed ambassador in 2010 by then-President Goodluck Jonathan. Over five years, he earned a reputation in Washington as a zealous and fearless advocate for Jonathan’s often-shaky administration.

Newly-elected President Muhammadu Buhari, who defeated Jonathan in March, asked Adefuye to resign — even though a replacement had not yet been named. Yet Buhari and Adefuye had a professional working relationship, and collaborated when Buhari visited Washington in July, a visit that State Department deputy spokesperson Mark Toner on Friday said highlighted “Adefuye’s skill as a diplomat.” Adefuye had earlier served as Nigeria’s envoy to Jamaica.

J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, worked closely with Adefuye throughout his tenure in Washington. One of Adefuye’s most notable accomplishments as ambassador, Pham told Foreign Policy, was “the establishment of strategic dialogue between the U.S. and Nigeria.”

“There are ambassadors who are here years, and pass on, and no one notices that they were ever here,” Pham said. “That certainly wasn’t the case with Ambassador Adefuye.”

Pham also echoed Toner, who said Adefuye’s role in the U.S.-Nigeria Bi-National Commission helped lead to mutual cooperation between the two countries.

The commission was designed to increase dialogue between Washington and Abuja, and track progress on issues ranging from transparent governance to climate change.

Toner said Adefuye helped build the commission into “a collaborative forum that has resulted in progress on issues critical to Nigeria’s and the United States’ shared future.”

Adefuye served as ambassador to Washington during a particularly tense period for Nigeria. Jonathan’s administration was under intense international scrutiny for its continued failure to contain the rise of Boko Haram extremists in Nigeria’s northeast — a major factor in his failure to be reelected in March. Adefuye often advocated for his government during difficult political periods, through the end Jonathan’s final term in office, and he did so fervently.

Last fall, Jonathan’s administration loudly criticized Washington’s refusal to provide certain military assistance to Nigeria due to human rights allegations against Abuja’s military forces. Adefuye often used his perch as ambassador as a megaphone to broadcast Nigeria’s frustration with the U.S. In a November speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, Adefuye accused the Obama administration of not doing enough to counter the group.

“There is no use giving us the type of support that enables us to deliver light jabs to the terrorists when what we need to give them is the killer punch,” Adefuye said then. “Boko Haram is Nigeria’s equivalent of ISIS.”

Shortly after that speech, the Nigerian government canceled a U.S. program to train Nigerian troops to fight the extremists. That training program remains a point of contention between the countries, although Buhari is expected to reinstate it eventually as part of a push to better diplomatic ties between the two countries.

At the time, such criticisms were widely considered as mere rhetoric by Jonathan’s administration. But, surprisingly, Buhari  repeated some of those sentiments during his July speech in Washington, claiming a U.S. arms ban “[u]nwittingly, and … unintentionally…has aided and abetted the Boko Haram terrorists.”

Despite his differences with some in Washington, Adefuye’s reputation as long-winded and argumentative will be remembered mainly as a desire to defend Nigeria. Even at public events, Adefuye never seemed concerned about speaking his mind.

Pham recalled one occasion where Adefuye was “furious” with him for hosting an event on Nigerian security and inviting former U.S. Ambassador John Campbell to speak. Adefuye disagreed with some of Campbell’s views and “wasn’t shy about saying literally to my face what he thought about my hosting Ambassador Campbell to give his analysis.” Adefuye even wrote a lenghty word take-down criticism of Campbell and published it in a Nigerian newspaper, Pham said. Campbell did not respond to a phone call Friday.

To the outside eye, these reactions might seem over the top. But for Adefuye, it was just part of the job.

“Ambassador John Campbell was saying critical things he had every right to say by experience and learning and background,” Pham said. “But Adefuye felt he had to push back.”

Photo Credit: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

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