FOLLOWING the official acknowledgment of Chief MKO Abiola as winner of the 1993 Presidential election and the proclamation of June 12 as “Democracy Day,” former United States Ambassador to Nigeria Walter Carrington figured prominently practically on every roster of persons deemed worthy of being officially honoured for their momentous contribution to the struggle to re-establish legitimate rule in Nigeria.
Carrington’s tour of duty coincided with a period when all the things Nigerians said could never happen in their country happened time and again, routinely. There was, first, the contrived confusion in the run-up to the presidential election, the capstone of a transition that had been eight years in the making. Then the annulment; then Ernest Shonekan’s Interim farce, and then the infernal Sani Abacha.
In that time of tyranny, Carrington never flinched from speaking truth to power; he never shied away from identifying with the democratic yearnings of the Nigerians. Until his death last week at age 90, he stood as a pillar of inspiration as Nigeria faltered and stumbled on its journey to democracy and development.
It says a great deal about his faith that we would get it right that he spent much of his final years in Nigeria. He had come to Nigeria as the representative of a foreign power that recognised and admired Nigeria’s great potential but also felt curiously ill at ease with prospect of that potential translating into actuality. He never shared his country’s ambivalence, however.
Carrington pined for a Nigeria that would take its place as one of the world’s leading nations, a spiritual home to Black humankind. The tributes and the outpouring of grief that followed his passing bear powerful testimony to the respect and affection he commanded among the attentive audience.
Among my many interactions with him, one in particular clings in my memory. It was the Fourth of July reception in 1997, marking the 221st independence anniversary of the United States, an account of which had appeared in this space.
Even for a time of year when the skies parted without ceremony and seemed in no hurry to close, the rain that fell that Friday morning was unusually heavy. And it threatened to wash out the most eagerly awaited event on the diplomatic calendar.
Then, it lifted just as suddenly as it had begun. The clouds dispersed, and bright sunshine suffused the landscape. A cool, crisp wind wafting across from the sea that provides a stunning backdrop to the official residence of the Ambassador of the United States dissolved the muggy heat of the preceding days. Nature in its mysterious ways had turned a looming washout to a soothing prelude.
By 4:30 p.m., the grounds thronged with guests. Virtually everyone who was somebody, thought he was somebody or aspired to be somebody was there. Stewards in their starched, snow-white uniforms drifted with clockwork precision from one cluster of guests to another, offering trays of tantalizing snacks. Other stewards followed with cocktails.
In groups small and large, long-lost friends and comrades and colleagues carried on animated chatter about – what else – the latest barbarities that Sani Abacha and his confederates had visited on the people, the general hopelessness to which they had sentenced their compatriots, and the indifference of an international community held hostage by Foreign Minister Tom Ikimi’s gangsta diplomacy.
Free at least for the moment from fear of being abducted, kidnapped, disappeared, mugged, or killed in a drive-by shooting, they compared notes, reviewed strategy and tactics, and contemplated the way forward.
Not a few secret and not-so-secret agents of the Abacha regime had infiltrated the reception in one guise or disguise, but it was easy to keep them at bay or avoid them altogether.
All too soon, it was time for the main event.
Carrington took his place at the podium. One step behind him stood his elegant Nigeria-born wife, Arese. To his right, a United States marine stood at ramrod attention, cradling the Stars and Stripes.
On the occasion of his country’s independence anniversary, Carrington began, nothing would be more fitting than revisiting the circumstances that had led British colonies in the New World to renounce foreign rule way back in 1776, and the very words that had inspired and sustained the struggle unto victory.
Whereupon he began to read in that resonant and sometimes haunting baritone, the storied text of the (American) Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with rights that, among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among them, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter it, and to institute a new government.”
The authors of the Declaration never held these propositions to be truths, of course, much less self-event truths. Theirs was a slave society. Even today, America has to be reminded that Black Lives Matter.
But in that place and at that time, the lofty ideals of the Declaration counted for much more than its contradictions.
A hush fell upon the assembly.
“All experience has shown,” Carrington continued, his voice precisely modulated, “that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while the evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long line of abuses and usurpations evince a desire to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such a government, and to provide new grounds for their future security.”
It was as if time itself and indeed all the elements stood still, The only thing astir was that haunting, almost taunting, baritone, projected far and wide by the public address system and the wind.
But Carrington was only warming up.
“The history of the present king is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States. . .
“A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. . .”
The hush had deepened with Carrington’s rendering of each line of the litany of woes residents of the American colonies suffered during British rule. But virtually every line reflected the barbarities the loathsome General Sani Abacha and his regime were visiting upon the Nigerian public.
By the time Carrington was done, the atmosphere had taken on an unsettling resemblance to the proverbial calm before the raging storm. The assembled guests looked nervously at one another, shook their heads in sorrow and sighed deeply in despair and unspoken rage.
If Carrington had ended this command performance by saying nothing more electrifying than “Eminent sons and daughters of Nigeria, the future of your country lies in hour hands,” I suspect that most of the guests would have yanked off their ornately embroidered apparel and fancy suits and stormed Bonny Camp and Kam Selem House. And the revolution would have begun in earnest.
Abacha never forgave Carrington.
His propagandists put it out that Carrington was embittered because the regime had refused to grant him a lucrative oil concession. If he had ever made such a request, they would have used it to destroy him.
Abacha sent his goons to invade a private residence where a reception was being held for Carrington on the eve of his departure from Nigeria, claiming “intelligence reports” that an armed robbery was in progress in the neighbourhood. When the guests relocated to another venue, the regime’s goons followed them there and dispersed them.
The regime celebrated Carrington’s departure at the end of his tour as signal achievement of Tom Ikimi’s gangsta diplomacy.
Today, Abacha and his enablers are justly held in loathing abhorrence. But Walter Carrington stands splendidly venerated.