Former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington, recently passed on. The ambassador had celebrated his 90th birthday on July 24, barely a fortnight before his death. He was a good example of a foreign envoy, who was almost a native. His Nigeria-born wife, Arese, who announced his demise, did not elaborate on the cause of his death.
To Nigerians who remember the annulment of the June 12 election in 1993 will always remember Mr. Carrington, first, because, he wanted to prevent it, and after the deed was done, he realised it was a great wrong in need of atonement. Carrington was a historical figure. He was less thought of as ambassador than essentially as a civil rights leader who went beyond the call of duty, stood by the people when they needed his support. In the last few years he looked so full of life. Hs death is therefore a shock.
Carrington’s parents were immigrants from Barbados. He attended Hancock School and Hale School in Everett, Manchester, Massachusetts, USA and he was elected vice president of his class throughout his four years in predominantly white Parlin Junior High and Everett High School. He graduated in 1948 and found himself one of the four black boys in Harvard University where he formed the first Harvard chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). He attended the NAACP Convention and met the Black American revolutionary lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, who later became a justice of the Supreme Court. He also met Clarence Mitchel.
Carrington was elected into the NAACP Youth Council which went on a delegation to Senegal. He graduated from Harvard as Alpha Phi Alpha Big Brother and met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at Boston University. He attended the world Assembly of Youth. He entered the United States Army before he enrolled in the Harvard Law School. At age 27, Carrignton was appointed commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. He went into private legal practice with the law firm, Naples, Carrington and Roland. He organised for John F. Kennedy and served in the Peace Corps eventually becoming the Peace Corps Director for Africa.
In 1980, Carrington served President Jimmy Carter as Ambassador to Senegal. In 1981, he was named the director of International Affairs at Howard University. He also taught at Marquette University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Washington College from 1990 to 1991. He acted as consultant at the Joint Centre for Political and Economic Studies. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Carrington Ambassador to Nigeria.
In 1993 after General Sani Abacha’s seizure of power in Nigeria and the re-imposition of military rule, the general jailed trade unionists, proscribed newspapers and magazines, hounded ‘troublesome’ leaders, incarcerated civil society leaders and banned their organisations, But he could not do anything to Walter Carrington.
Abacha hired public relations firms in Washington DC to shore his image abroad. It did not help. He enticed one US senator to come over to do some whitewash. It didn’t work either because Walter Carrington knew the truth and was not afraid to speak up. We now know he (Carrington) warned former President Olusegun Obasanjo that he would “definitely”be arrested on his return to Nigeria from Copenhagen, as the former Nigerian president confessed in his tribute in honour of Carrington last week. Carrington had also offered him asylum in the US. Chief Obasanjo ignored the warning. He is probably alive today by sheer providence. Ken Saro-wiwa and others were not as lucky.
Nigerians gave Carrington a native name, Omowale, which translates into “the child who returned home.” To many Nigerians, he was more than just a favourite son-in-law by virtue of his marriage to Arese. He demonstrated the progress that was possible if only Africans and Black Americans recognised the bond between them. Carrington saw and nurtured it. That bond is what led him to do for us what a brother, not just an ambassador, would do.
Carrington received several national honours in his life including the Officer of the Federal Republic: the most famous street on Victoria Island, Lagos, is named after him. We commiserate with his family and friends on the irreparable loss.