The Third Mainland Bridge in Nigeria, one of three bridges from Lagos Island to the mainland
After years working for big institutions, one nuclear engineer asks: How do we change our thinking about what is power, what is the future, and how those relate?
N Square network member Bukola Jejeloye has a unique perspective on the tangle of global challenges facing humanity and how we might address them—including the threats posed by nuclear weapons. A nuclear/electrical engineer and international lawyer by training, Bukola has spent his career applying these disciplines to his work for the United Nations, the African Development Bank, and other storied global institutions especially in Africa. Now based in Nigeria, he currently advises public and private organizations through Offline Diplomat LLC, a firm that he founded. In this interview with N Square network weaver Lyndon Buford, Bukola talks about his upbringing in Nigeria, his perspectives on nuclear disarmament and on N Square, and why he thinks we could be on the cusp of significant systems change that moves us all into a better future. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Q Let’s start with your background. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
A I was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. But in my culture we do not say you are from where you are born or where you live. It’s really where your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are from. So, I am from a village called Iludun-Oro in mid-west Nigeria. I have been going there often since I was a child. But I was raised in Lagos and went to elementary school there. For high school, I attended the Air Force Military School in another part of midwestern Nigeria in a city called Jos. That experience really shaped me as a person, because I was the first in my immediate family to be so far away from Lagos and because I was part of this military school experiment. There were an equal number of children from each state in Nigeria in each class. Talk about Nigerian diversity. I got to meet folks from all over the country for the first time, all different cultures. Our training was equally academic and military.
It was a very tough environment, to be frank. It was not easy for 10-year-olds to be dropped in the middle of nowhere. So it was not a spoon-fed environment, but it was also a very interesting place to learn and grow. In that period, Nigeria was being ruled by the military. There was that worldview in the institution that “power is really in the hands of those with weapons.” That was the view of the country I lived in then and that was the view of the education I was getting in military school.
Q That’s very young to be introduced to that worldview, and to have to think about weapons and their meaning. What happened after military school?
A I spent a couple of years at home because the military government had shut down all the universities. That’s when I got really interested in international literature and cultures. It expanded my view of what I wanted to do and what I wanted to see. I yearned to get out of the country and to further my education elsewhere. I chose the US because Nigeria had already been inundated by American TV and entertainment. I had the feeling that the US was truly the global melting pot.
I started off studying aerospace engineering at San Diego State University. But after two years in San Diego, the itch of wanting to see the world more was hitting me. Also my major was too much like civil engineering and I didn’t find it exciting or interesting. I heard about this strange foreign land called Northern California and transferred to UC Berkeley. The culture shock for me from Southern to Northern California was greater than the shock from Nigeria to Southern California, if you can believe that. My interest was in chemical engineering because I loved chemistry at San Diego University. Luckily for me, UC Berkeley is the only school I know of where the chemical engineering department is under the school of chemistry rather than the school of engineering. From there, I thought nuclear studies looked interesting as a subsidiary of chemistry, so I ended up in nuclear engineering.
Q How did you end up at MIT, and then in law school?
A I went to MIT to study nuclear engineering and technology and policy. But whenever I was in policy discussions, I noticed that the lawyers always seemed to be more respected; they seemed to own the room and I wanted to be one of those people. So, after MIT, I went to Columbia Law School. Everybody thought I would study nuclear law, but I was more interested in human rights and public law. The Columbia program was broad enough that it allowed me to dabble in everything. I studied and worked in patent law. I also worked in international law and studied quite extensively Islamic law, Germanic law, and Japanese law.
Q Did you ever practice nuclear engineering, or did you transition across to law before practicing?
A At MIT I was in a graduate assistantship program where I worked with an electrical power company in Japan. Basically, I had to come up with a nuclear power plant risk assessment in case of an earthquake/tsunami. One thing that really struck me was that the biggest stakeholders in the work I was doing around the nuclear power plants was the public, but the public was not invited into the discourse of policymaking around nuclear power. So they face the consequences and the results of the policies that have been made, but they are not informed about what led to the policies. They are not allowed to bring in their voice on the future direction they wanted to go. That was rather striking to me.
“AT THE END OF THE DAY WE’RE STILL NO BETTER THAN HISTORIC SO-CALLED BARBARIANS IN THE WAY WE POSSESS AND WIELD POWER.”
Q After law school you worked for the African Development Bank in Tunisia, the African Union in Somalia and Ethiopia, ECOWAS in Nigeria, the World Bank in Washington, DC, a private company in Senegal, and the United Nations in Kosovo and New York. That’s quite a lot! And then you make the leap from development and humanitarian affairs to becoming an investments principal at Skoll Foundation. Why?
A I was working with all these structural organizations, the big ones, created at the end of World War II, the Bretton Woods institutions. It was always about structural power—who has the power, which country you are representing, which family you are representing, who you are being used to represent. In all my professional life, what I have seen is that no matter how much grammar we utilize, or how intellectual we seem, at the end of the day we’re still no better than historic so-called barbarians in the way we possess and wield power. Because otherwise, how do you explain the United Nations, which is supposed to be there to keep global peace? Yet all its Security Council permanent members are the biggest arms dealers, and the biggest nuclear weapons proliferators. Since World War II, the nuclear bomb has been very central to the idea of who is powerful and who gets to control global security.
So cynicism began to creep into my life. And yet, I also became a parent. Having a child was one of my greatest achievements. I chose to have a child on my own and that gave me new life, gave me new vigor. Then, a couple of years later, COVID happened. There were a lot of issues coming up that were just overwhelming for me. I decided that I needed to be amongst optimists—people who feel that they can still change the world, even if it looks like it can never be changed. That was what led me to join the Skoll Foundation.
It was very enlightening to be amongst this group of optimists. When I joined Skoll, Bruce Lowry, now the VP of investments, who came from Skoll Global Threats Fund, said, “You know, we have a portfolio of nuclear organizations.” And I was like, “Hey, those are my people, hahaha.” I was very interested in seeing how nongovernmental bodies were trying to make change in the nuclear space because I’d been amongst governmental bodies and engineers and technocrats who were nonchalant and felt they knew best because they were in charge of all these nuclear weapons.
Q And that’s how you became involved with N Square.
A N Square was part of Skoll Foundation’s nuclear nonproliferation portfolio, and I was just fascinated with the organization. I loved the focus on creating future leaders who think differently and on creating diversity by bringing in voices that have never been called on or listened to in the nuclear space. Bringing in artists, bringing in economists, bringing in speculative writers. When I got involved with N Square, I was really encouraged, because N Square was trying to engage the system as it exists, but it was also creating a path for bringing nonlinear, nontraditional thinkers to this space.
N Square also introduced me to futurism—and suddenly I was going out of my own skin, thinking about what the future could look like. How can we try and set the space for future generations? As a realist, I can see that nobody’s going to give up their nuclear weapons as long as nuclear weapons give them power. But how do we not think of a future beyond that? It is not as if Earth was created with nuclear weapons. We invented them. So if we invented them, we can disinvent them or we can invent something else. And that is where I see futures coming into play. You can dream of the world and not be worried about the powerful institutional and structural blocks that are in place.
“IN THE FIGHT TO CHANGE THE STRUCTURE OF THE WORLD, AND IN THE FIGHT TO MAKE THE WORLD BETTER, I THINK NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT MIGHT BENEFIT IN THE SENSE THAT THE WHOLE NUCLEARIZATION OF THE WORLD WILL BECOME COLLATERAL IN THIS BATTLE FOR GLOBAL CHANGE.”
Q You’ve also become involved in Horizon 2045, an initiative led by N Square, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and Rhode Island School of Design. A core feature of Horizon 2045 is looking at the ways in which global threats are interconnected. What do you see as the promise of looking across threat areas, versus looking at the nuclear threat in isolation?
A The Horizon 2045 initiative offers a framework for dealing with the whole world of global threats we have. It’s not just about nuclear threats. How do we deter all of these global threats? If we can look at it holistically, the nuclear weapons industry is a piece of the puzzle, but not the whole picture. Because of the work I do now, mostly in international relations, I find that the whole idea of trying to confront nuclear disarmament directly is almost a non-sequitur—we’re not going to go anywhere with that if we’re trying to meet it head on. But indirectly, I feel like it can be dealt with—if we do not think about nuclear disarmament or nonproliferation as a source but rather we think more about how we want to change the world we live in more broadly. How do we change the structural systems that we created post-World War II? How do we change the whole thinking of what is power, what is the future, and how those relate?
Q We’re seeing more and more people question or reject the whole underlying structure or philosophy that the system is built on, which you must see as promising.
A The existing systematic power structures we have are very good at holding on to power. The whole nuclear industry, from my point of view, is really tied into the military industrial complex, which is tied into capitalism at the end of the day. If you are aiming for nuclear disarmament, that means you are going against western economic power, because that economic power is backed by a lot of powerful missiles. So if you really want those nuclear missiles to go down, that means you’re telling the capital markets that, hey, you need to go down also. And what are the chances that that will happen if you do that directly?
The generation before me went through World War II; their worldview was pumped into my head. But with the younger generations, many are refusing to accept and believe in the structural system that we’ve created and propped up. I’m talking about structural systems that you and I were educated in. We were told that believing in these systems is what it means to be educated, what it means to be civilized. And I think there is a critical mass of young people who are like, “No, screw that! (Pardon my French). I do not accept your idea of what it means to be rich. I do not accept your idea that I need a means to start an organization before I can deal with something. I will march on you, even if you kill me. I’m trying to create alternative institutions that are not based on these foundations.”
So in the fight to change the structure of the world, and in the fight to make the world better, I think nuclear disarmament might benefit in the sense that the whole nuclearization of the world will become collateral in this battle for global change. The nuclear weapons system is a component of the all-war machine. So if we can change the system, if we change the idea of what it means to be powerful, we change the gatekeepers, and we move them out. Then we can turn all our nuclear silos into amusement parks or museums maybe (just imagine).
Q In your opinion, is nuclear disarmament possible?
A I mean, anything is possible in the world we live in. Anything is possible, as long as it is made of protons, neutrons, and electrons. But in my limited knowledge of this space, is it possible in the near term? No. But that is why I’m so grateful that I live in these times. I live in a period where there are so many outliers happening compared to the generations before me. I remember when I was in college in the ‘90s and we were talking about how the computer will not advance. Nobody would have thought that it would all be on our phone. And this has taken less than 20 years.
So is it possible? I believe so. Now, how is it going to be possible? I am wary that it will be through negotiations and discussions, because power is never given up. It has to be taken. A lot of change comes because of events that are beyond our control, events that we do not think possible. But usually when we need to survive, we innovate. So yes, it’s possible in that sense. Is it desirable? It depends on who you ask.
In my heart as a person, yes, I would desire it. I feel like the idea of what it meant to win in the 1940s, and the idea of what the related future meant, are keeping us from moving forward. The nuclear generation believed that their ideas were the way the world should go on forever. Nuclear weapons were a tool for them to do that. We need to devalue the need for nuclear weapons. So, yes, I do desire a nuclear-free world. I desire it for my kid and for younger and future generations. I do not want them to live in a world of nuclear weapons game theorems. But I feel like nuclear weapons are the tip of the iceberg.
At the same time, we need to be really careful about how we go about imagining and building new systems of the future. We should imagine systems that are more equitable. But at the same time, that is not how it’s been in the past. And so where in this world do we account for the reality of ongoing post-colonial injustice, ongoing inequity, and ongoing power imbalances? So, in one sense, we can imagine an idealized version of the future. And in another sense, we must also stay keenly aware of and be responsive to historical and political realities. How do we address these injustices as we work to build that bridge to the future that we want to see?
Q What do you think would be different about a nuclear weapons-free world?
A I do feel that it will free up a lot of resources that are being used to maintain the nuclear weapons system. And when those resources are freed up, we can imagine what we can get up to as human beings and what we can make of our world. People will not be able to hold their own people hostage because they have a red button. There are some megalomaniacs right now that the world keeps tolerating because they have red buttons. If we do not have nuclear weapons, we will not be under the constant threat that World War II could come back again. Nuclear weapons are a very powerful tool that can be very symbolic. If we as human beings can give up nuclear weapons, it shows that we are looking forward to a better future. Disarmament will be a signal of a new and less deadly global order. Hopefully it is a better one.
Second photo: Credit Zouzou Wizman (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)