By Wikipedia’s account, Colin Luther Powell was born on April 5, 1937, in Harlem, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan, to Jamaican immigrants, Maud Ariel (née McKoy) and Luther Theophilus Powell. His parents were both of mixed African and Scottish ancestry. He was raised in the South Bronx, New York. This immediately reveals the disadvantaged nature of the birth of Colin. At that time in history, it was bad enough to be black in America and was certainly worse to be the son of an immigrant from a poor, predominantly black country called Jamaica. During the period of his birth, blacks in America were not allowed to vote or be voted for. They were not even allowed to mix or intermarry freely with people of other races. Blacks were regarded and treated as second class citizens.
But Colin Powell did not allow his ancestry or pedigree determine who he was and who he would be. He set out with a dream of doing what he loved and which he was pretty good at – soldering. He was educated in the New York City public schools and received a bachelor’s degree in geology from the City College of New York (CCNY). He also participated in Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at CCNY and received a commission as an Army second lieutenant upon graduation in June 1958. He was a professional soldier for 35 years. By the end of his adult life, he had become an American statesman, diplomat, and four-star general who served as the 65th first African-American United States Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005. He served as the 16th first Black United States national security advisor from 1987 to 1989 and as the 12th youngest first African-American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, the highest military position in the Department of Defense.
This outstanding man with a humble beginning in America became so great that soldiers of all races under his command were more willing to die in obedience to the orders of Colin Powell more than they were willing to die in love for the American flag. The fairy tale story I first heard about Powell as a young man in Africa was that he was the commander of some troops that were in a plane when the plane developed problems. He made sure that he helped all his soldiers parachute out of the plane before he left the plane. He was willing to die for his men and officers. With all his strength and prowess as a military man, he was always reluctant to sanction wars. This is why he was regarded as a reluctant warrior. This is totally in line with the philosophy I so much cherish that it is good to have strength like the giant but it is tyrannical to use it like the giant. Little wonder Powell won numerous US and foreign military awards and decorations. His civilian awards included the highest civilian award in the US, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (twice), the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Citizens Medal, and the Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award. He was married to Alma Powell for 58 years.
Powell, who was treated for blood cancer, multiple myeloma, that affects the immune system, as well as Parkinson’s, died from complications of COVID-19 on October 18, 2021 at the age of 84 years. President George W Bush, under whom he served as the Secretary of State, said that “Powell was a great public servant who was such a favorite of Presidents”. President Joe Biden declared that “Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat. He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all. Having fought in wars, he understood better than anyone that military might alone was not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity. From his front-seat view of history, advising presidents and shaping our nation’s policies, Colin led with his personal commitment to the democratic values that make our country strong. Time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else — in uniform and out — and it earned him the universal respect of the American people”. His family called him “a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American”. Yes, Powell was a distinguished and trailblazing great African-American and Nigerians have a lot to learn from him.
The first lesson to learn from the lifetime of Colin is directed to the younger generation to the effect that you can be anybody you want to be if you are able to overcome the primordial sentiments against you through excellence. The foundation for excellence is finding out early in life what you are talented to do and what you are passionate about doing and doing it with integrity, dedication, diligence, determination and discipline. Colin attended public schools and made poor grades in the University but he found out that he was talented in soldering and loved it so he enlisted in the army. Immediately his country detected in him the strongest warrior of his generation, nothing could stop him, not his black colour or low grades in the University. Obviously, you don’t need high grades to fight wars, you need courage and strength and he had them. He ended his career in the army with the highest rank in US military and the first Black man to occupy such position. The excuse that someone is marginalised in Nigeria because he is Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Tiv etc, does not apply to men with spirit of excellence. Nobody has ever marginalised me as an actor or Gani Fawehinmi as a Lawyer or Ngozi Okonjo Iweala as an administrator. Ngozi’s case is even more peculiar. She is Igbo, married to Igbo, black, Nigerian and a woman, yet today she is occupying the highest trade office in the world, Director General, World Trade Organisation. Learn from Colin and stop looking at the odds against you which you cannot change, look at the opportunities before you which you can grab with your two hands and excel.
Colin was a good follower. He was a great public servant who was such a favorite of Presidents. He was a favorite for Presidents because he was diligent, law abiding and not corrupt. He obeyed the laws of his country, profession and was selfless in carrying out his duties. He was humble and humane. We must learn in Nigeria to obey the laws of our country voluntarily. This is the classical definition of being civilized. The followers always shout on top of their voices that we have problem of leadership but they often forget that leadership in a democracy flows from followers. If the followers get their acts together, it reflects on the type of leadership that will evolve. The best training ground for being a good leader is being a good follower.
Colin was a great leader because “time and again, he put country before self, before party, before all else”. Even when he made a mistake like pushing faulty intelligence before the United Nations to advocate for the Iraq War, he took responsibility and called it “a blot on his record”. This is the greatest lesson Nigeria leaders should learn. Nigeria is yearning for leaders that are selfless and who will put Nigeria first before anything else. In Nigeria today, a lot of leaders are selfish and very clanish. They steal government money with reckless abandon. They even steal what they don’t need. Some of them are sent to jail abroad because of stashing away money they don’t need abroad while their kinsmen are languishing in poverty at home. Nigeria has no business being poor if it has good leaders who will put the country first.
Some of these clanish leaders even openly boast that they are first of all members of their clan before being citizens of Nigeria as if Nigeria is in competition with their clan. Colin Powell put America first and as he was fighting for the greatness of America, he was lifting up the greatness of his race, family and people. If Nigeria is great today, every Nigerian will be great irrespective of his tribe but if Nigeria is down, every Nigerian is down irrespective of the success of any of its component units. It’s even a greater shame to these leaders to come out openly to admit that separatists are fighting for their people meaning that they are not fighting for their people as they should do that necessitate separatists to fill up the gap they created by their own incompetence. Some of them have even become spokespersons for bandits and even threatened the end of Nigeria if bandits are deservedly treated as terrorists. Colin Powell had put his Republican party aside many times for the sake of America. He endorsed Barack Obama, the Democratic Party candidate for President in place of John Mccain, the Republican candidate and refused to support the Presidency of Donald Trump, dubbing him a liar. Colin Powell was the true hero of America first. Nigerian leaders should borrow a leaf, irrespective of their religion, ethnicity, class or political party.
Colin Powell was a good husband and family man. His family called him “a remarkable and loving husband, father, grandfather and a great American”. Nigeria cannot be great if the family unit collapses. This is a great lesson to all Nigerians, especially the celebrities. There’s no virtue in divorce. Though conflict is inevitable in any human organisation, and sometimes divorce is unstoppable, there’s nothing to celebrate about it. Celebrating it will make more people think there is no harm in such a misadventure. Children born in such marriages sometimes suffer psychological problems. Colin Powell was married for 58 years free of scandals, separation or divorce. As a human being, he may have disagreed at times with his spouse, Alma, but nobody heard it, because he appreciated that the institution of marriage, someone’s spouse and correspondences between spouses deserve some respect and confidentiality. Some spouses and celebrities have even gone a step further in irresponsibility by recording their intimate sessions and carelessly allowing it to be released to the entire world. We must all realise that devil is a bad paymaster. Despite the fame of the moment, the pay day always comes and the harvest is always unsavoury to the unrepentant.
We join the millions around the world in extending our condolences to the family and friends of Colin Powell and thanking God for blessing the earth with such role models like Powell. May his soul rest in peace and may his memory be a blessing. All Nigerians have something to learn from the lifetime and lifestyle of Colin Powell, which can be summarised in the phrase “mission accomplished”.