By Niyi Akinnaso
When Ambassador Walter Charles Carrington died on Tuesday, August 11, 2020, various actors embodied in him died simultaneously—the Lawyer; the Activist; the Africanist; the Democrat; the Diplomat; and the Humanist. All of these actors were at work when Carrington was the United States Ambassador to Nigeria between 1993 and 1997, a position to which he was appointed by President Bill Clinton.
Carrington’s ambassadorial tenure in Nigeria coincided with two significant turning points, one in his own life and the other in the life of the nation. On a personal note, it was during the very first diplomatic function, which he attended as ambassador, that he met Dr. Arese Ukpoma, an intelligent and impressive physician and public health consultant, who later became his wife. Of Arese, Carrington wrote: “Many Black Americans go to African to find their heritage. I went and found my destiny, when a few weeks after arriving in Nigeria I met my wife, Arese, a medical doctor. Through all those traumatic times, she was at my side in spite of the potential risks to her and to her family.”
However, while Carrington’s personal fortune was being enriched by getting married to Arese, Nigeria’s democratic fortune was being diminished as Carrington assumed duties just as the most democratic presidential election recently held in the country was being annulled by the military government. The ensuing military dictatorship of the late General Sanni Abacha would coincide with, and indeed subsume, Carrington’s entire 4-year ambassadorial tenure in Nigeria.
It was a trying period, which brought out the worst in Abacha, who not only stifled democracy but also killed and maimed its advocates. The same period, however, simultaneously brought out the very best in Carrington: It was not only his diplomatic expertise that glowed; his Africanist, activist, democratic, civil right, and humanist credentials were also on display (see Ayo Olukotun, Carrington and the unfinished task of democratisation in Nigeria, The Punch, August 14, 2020).
In this brief tribute, I provide an outline of how Carrington became who he was, focusing on his Civil Rights and Africanist roots, and how he turned out to be a gift to Nigeria at a crucial time in her history.
Carrington’s African roots are not in doubt. His mother, Marjorie Irene Hayes, was an African-American, while his father, Walter R. Carrington, was a Black immigrant from Barbados. As a youth, Ambassador Carrington’s activism was honed by his mother, who became an activist as she worked as a waitress. So did his sister, Marilyn, who advocated equitable health care for minorities, notably, Blacks and women. Carrington himself once recalled that even in their mother’s final years, she still had the presence of mind to encourage him to make picket signs for an ongoing protest by waitresses.
Another source of inspiration for him was the group of friends he kept, including Martin Luther King, Junior, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and our own Wole Soyinka. Although Carrington was drafted into the Army and was serving in far away Germany, he kept in touch with King and supported his non-violent civil rights protest. Such a protest, he wrote to King, “gives more people a sense of participating in a cause than any other technique I know of.
Yet another source of inspiration for his activism was the plight of Blacks not only in the United States but also in their homeland in Africa to which his career took him. Although Carrington was truly a sociological anomaly in all the schools he attended, including Harvard University, because he was one of a handful of Black kids, he neither assimilated nor was he assimilated. His fascination with his African roots won’t let him. As an undergraduate, he founded the Harvard chapter of the leading Civil Rights movement, the National Association for the Advancement Coloured People, and became its Youth delegate.
Moreover, while practicing law in Boston, he served on the three-member Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and became, at age 27, the youngest person to be appointed a Commissioner in the state’s history.
It was his activism with the NAACP that first brought him in 1952 to Africa, which he referred to variously as “the land of my fathers” and “the continent of my ancestors”. He would visit Africa again in 1959 on a cross-cultural exchange programme. That visit allowed him his first taste of multicultural Nigeria as he lived with families in Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, Port Harcourt, and Kaduna.
However, it was Carrington’s appointment as one of the first overseas Country Directors of the Peace Corps in 1961 that cemented his historic relationship with the continent of Africa. He served 10 years in the Corps, directing programs in Sierra Leone, Tunisia and Senegal and rising to the position of Regional Director for Africa. It was his distinguished service in the Peace Corps that later earned him a place as executive vice president of the Africa-American Institute and as a member of Africare.
His relationship with Africa also prepared the way for his appointment as Ambassador, first to Senegal under President Jimmy Carter and later to Nigeria under President Bill Clinton. It was in Nigeria that his ambassadorial contributions were most memorable, because he chose not to sit on the fence or cozy up to the military dictatorship.
Carrington made it clear that he was on a mission to help achieve the fulfillment of America’s expectation of a return to democratic rule. Accordingly, he worked alongside Nigerians to fight the annulment of the presidential election, won by MKO Abiola; military dictatorship; and human rights abuses. He offered the American Embassy as a sanctuary for victimized activists and even visited MKO Abiola in prison alongside Jesse Jackson, another Civil Rights leader.
It is not the case, however, that Carrington overlooked Nigeria’s deficiencies. Just as he spoke truth to power, so did he to the people. In a lecture he gave in Lagos in 2017, titled Nigeria and Africa in a Changing World, Carrington decried the failure of Nigerian and other African leaders to fully realize their countries’ potentials. This failure, he emphasized, has earned Africa scorn, rather than respect, on the international stage. He expressed disappointment in the leaders’ inability to advance their peoples’ life chances, despite enormous human and material resources.
As many actors during the struggle have suggested, Carrington’s heroic intervention in Nigeria’s democracy and sociopolitical development deserves more than naming a street after him.