A Beautiful Mind: A Tribute by Axel Addy to Ambassador Chiedu Osakwe

Ambassador Chiedu Osakwe Chief Trade Negotiator & Director General Nigeria Office for Trade Negotiation

Not too many times in our lives do we encounter remarkable people who see something greater in us than we see in ourselves. But we are all better off if we are privileged to meet such earthly angels, because such encounters are almost never or often rare. 

It was early October 2012, my first of what would be many official trips to the frigid city by the lake, Geneva. I was a young and still uneasy about what I had gotten myself into as a newly appointed Deputy Minister of Commerce and Industry. I was representing my boss and accompanied by our IP Advisor and our Chargé d’Affaires. I was scheduled to deliver Liberia’s statement to the WIPO Assemblies, providing an update on the state of the implementation of the Intellectual Property Development Plan of Liberia. A series of meetings had been scheduled for me to meet key stakeholders that could support Liberia’s trade development agenda. One of such meetings was with the Director of Accession’s Division Dr. Chiedu Osakwe and his team.

I never knew what to expect with these meetings. I had briefing notes for each meeting prepared, but so far it all seem to be giving homework, this was the same for this WTO meeting. But something was special about this meeting. We sat in this meeting and listened to what we call in Liberia the “sweet tongue, or sweet muff,” of Cheidu. Little did I know that this first encounter would be the start of a long friendship, mentorship, brotherhood, and sometimes a fatherly or uncle like relationship as he guided me into a journey where bets were taken that the conclusion would be impossible, Liberia’s accession to the WTO.

I sat at the table and we all watched the most eloquent Nigerian I know exhibit the artistry of his command of the English language as he made a simple case, that trade is the true response to poverty in Africa. That the value of trade is grossly misunderstood and underestimated by African nations and mastery of trade would serve as the greatest vehicle for economic transformation. I hung on his every word like a student in his favorite class and left my first of many Cheidu’s lectures, with an awakening that motivated me to awaken the WTO accession process from its seven years sleep.

For the next four years, this would be my cause of focus, my nom de guerre. Colleagues and friends would refer to me as Mr. WTO, and the city by the lake would be my second home. I left that first lecture with a goal, prepare to deliver a call to action next December at the WTO Ministerial in Bali, to rally support for this cause. Through this journey, I had a dynamic Working Party Chair, lots of friends of Liberia supporting the cause financially and in kind and Cheidu, my mentor, my big brother; many times, his role changed to father and uncle as the political punches began to show face in Liberia up to the very last mile. 

I recalled discovering that there were elements that were against all the attention it was getting and decided to derail it quietly when it was at just the last mile for submission. I called Cheidu and said to him, I need your help in Liberia because there are forces intending on derailing this remarkable achievement that so many Liberians have worked on over the years. I said to him, these elements are much stronger than me, and if you and the Chair do not make it to Liberia, believe me, all this work and resources used to get this far would have been in vain. He agreed and he and the Chair landed in Liberia and after much fight was put on the Cabinet’s agenda to present to Cabinet and then went on to do same for the both houses chaired by the Speaker and the Pro Temp.

Cheidu’s and the Chair made the case, emphasizing the cause I truly believe in, a better trading Africa is a better response to development challenges in Africa. I recalled we had a funny moment, during his eloquent lecture to the joint meeting with both the house and the senate chaired by the Speaker and the Senate Pro Tempore; people were so mesmerized by his command of the English language that one of the officials turned to me and said “Axel weh you got this man from, he professor? Dammit, the pekin know book, he can lecture.” But Cheidu’s command of the trade issues and his strategic and eloquent response with such respect and dignity seem to command such a response for those in his audience. A meeting that was to last for an hour lasted over three, as he captivated the body of elected officials. To make a long story short, the visit worked and the combined house was on board and ratified the protocol on accession and probably more laws and protocols on trade and investment setting the stage to modernize the economy, more than probably any sitting legislature prior. Over twenty laws and protocols were ratified or passed by the legislature.

From my first encounter with him through the entire accession process, over 40 Liberians were sent abroad for training to build Liberia’s capacity on trade related issues. Till this day, one to two Liberians are studying and interning at the WTO on an annual basis, continuing that legacy commitment of building Africa’s capacity to use trade for development. Cheidu was my secret ‘weapon’ the big brother who said constantly to me, stay focused, and just get it done, all else are distractions. He was right there, during those long negotiations. He would host me on many occasions for dinners to lunches and at times with his lovely wife Ime who hosted our delegation along with my wife to encourage us.

The last time I saw my friend and brother, was in 2018 during the World Bank’s Spring Meeting. We caught up over dinner that evening where he told me about his new journey as the Chief Trade Negotiator and Director General of Nigeria’s Office for Trade Negotiation. He was very happy to be back home in Nigeria during this critical and momentous convergence of a cause he truly believed in – Africa uniting as a trading bloc under the new African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). This is where his deep passion lied, and where he put all of his energy. My last communication with him was to congratulate him when Nigeria finally signed the AfCFTA – his response “Thank you, my Brother Axel. It has been a long road.” I responded; I can imagine. Now the second phase of the real work begins. And his “Indeed!” His last words to me.

My friend and brother had been quietly battling cancer, and two days ago made his final curtain call. My erudite friend and brother was a blessing and a bright star on our continent. He inspired and empower many by his access, his actions and his altruism. He worked till his final end, on a lifelong commitment that the mastery of trade by African nations can graduate many nations out of poverty, that the world would be a better place with a better trading Africa.

I am sure he has a new audience captivated by his disarming charm and eloquence, putting smiles on so many faces in his oratorial narrations of journeys past. 

My dear brother, you fought a good fight, lifted many as you climbed, and left an indelible footprint in all of your encounters. Nigeria truly have lost one of its greatest unsung heroes. For the impact of his work is yet to come, but so so many more Nigerians for generations will benefit from the work of Dr. Cheidu Osakwe, the kind soul I was privileged to call friend and brother. He was a beautiful mind.

Rest brother, till we meet again. The Heavens celebrate your arrival.