Omowale at 90: A Tribute to Walter Carrington

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In this piece, Adedayo Akinwale highlights former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington’s contributions to the struggle for the enthronement of democracy in Nigeria as he celebrates his 90th birthday today

Former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington, needs no introduction in Nigeria. The seasoned diplomat who turns 90 today, though a patriotic American, is an African at heart, who loves Nigeria with passion. A fearless diplomat, Carrington played a major role in helping to enthrone democracy. At a period that has been described as the dark days of the Nigerian nation, he stood firmly on the side of Nigerians fighting for justice and seeking an end to military rule.

Following his appointment in 1993 by President Bill Clinton as US Ambassador to Nigeria, he arrived in Lagos a few months after the annulment of what was regarded as the freest and fairest election ever held in Nigeria.

No doubt, the annulment of the election caused great unrest, regional and tribal resentment, which finally led to the General Ibrahim Babaginda regime handing over power to a civilian interim President, Ernest Shonekan.

Carrington arrived just in time to be the last diplomat to present his credentials to the new president before General Sanni Abacha removed Shonekan in a bloodless coup two weeks later.

During the four years he served as Ambassador of the United States to Nigeria, Carrington was an outspoken champion of human rights and advocate of Nigeria’s return to democratic rule.

In spite of threats to his person and family, Carrington continued to call for the end of military rule throughout his tour in Nigeria and after returning to the United States.

In speech and deed, the retired diplomat fearlessly confronted the regime of Sani Abacha, urging the United States to impose stricter sanctions on his regime. When Chief Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, winner of the June 12 Presidential Election, and several other pro-democracy activists were arrested and detained, he constantly called for the release of political prisoners and when his calls went unheeded, he provided comfort to the families of the detained.

Carrington, an uncommon diplomat, openly identified with the persecuted citizens of Nigeria rather than with the unelected military cabal which persecuted them. Few, if any, foreigners have so consistently identified with the aspirations of the Nigerian people as did this illustrious African-American.

It was due to his fearlessness and his unapologetic campaign for rights of Nigerians and indeed blacks that he was christened Omowale – a Yoruba name that means “the child who returned home.” After his tour of duty in Nigeria ended, Carrington continued to remain involved, doing his best to enable the country to return to democratic rule.

Upon the restoration of civilian rule in 1999 and in appreciation of his contributions to the struggle for democracy in Nigeria, the area in Lagos on which American and a dozen other diplomatic missions are located was renamed “Walter Carrington Crescent.”

The Carrigntons with Asiwaju Bola Tinubu, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, former Governor Rahman Mimiko and former Governor Babatunde Fashola

In 2003, President Olusegun Obasanjo conferred on him the national honour award of Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR). While in 2010, former Governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, hosted a State banquet in honour of Carrington’s 80th birthday. Human Rights groups and Pro-democracy activist also put together a book of tributes to celebrate his birthday.

Also, in 2011 the United States consulate in Lagos established the Carrington Youth Fellowship Initiative (CYFI).

The Carrington Youth Fellowship Initiative (CYFI) is a dynamic youth-based initiative launched in 2011 by the U.S. Consulate General, Lagos. CYFI brings together Nigerian youth of exceptional vision, skills and experience to design and implement projects that have a positive impact on Nigerian society. Carrington, is a champion of civil liberties, democracy and closer ties between the U.S. and Nigeria. CYFI fellows are committed to putting the ideals of Walter Carrington into practice.

Before Carrington cut his diplomatic teeth, his involvement with Africa began more than 50 years ago as a member of the United States delegation to an international youth conference in Senegal. A few years later, in 1959, on the eve of Nigeria’s Independence, he led a group of students on a program called ‘The Experiment in International Living’, where they spent a summer living with Nigerian families in Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, Port Harcourt, Kano and Kaduna.

On that occasion and on subsequent visits when he was an official of the Peace Corps he met many of Founding Fathers of the country.

Carrington started his diplomatic carrier in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter appointed him as Ambassador to Senegal. At the end of his meritorious service, President Abdou Diouf conferred on him the national award of Commander in the Order of the Lion.

Born in 1931, the retired diplomat was a civil rights activist during his university days at Harvard University. Carrington was the first student elected to the National Board of Directors of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). A graduate of Harvard College (1952) and Harvard Law School (1955), Carrington practiced law in Massachusetts and served on the three-member Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination becoming, at the age of 27, the youngest person to be appointed a commissioner in the state’s history.

While there he was in charge of the case which led to the Boston Red Sox, the last remaining all white Major League Baseball Team, hiring their first black player.

He returned to Africa in 1961 as one of the first overseas Directors of the Peace Corps. In 1967 he had the responsibility of evacuating the young Americans as Biafran troops were advancing towards Benin.

After the Peace Corps, Carrington’s professional career continued to revolve around Africa. He became a highly respected American specialist on Africa and America’s policy toward the Continent.

In the 1970s, as Executive Vice President of the African-American Institute in New York, he oversaw programs that provided scholarships to hundreds of Nigerians for study in the United States. He served as publisher of the Institute’s magazine, Africa Report, which was then the leading publication on African affairs in the United States. He reported on Nigeria’s post-war efforts of reconstruction and rehabilitation.

Carrington later taught African Politics and American Foreign Policy at several universities in the United States. He has written and lectured widely on Africa and on the status of African-Americans in the United States and hosted a television series, ‘The African World’. He has worked on African issues as a top staff aid in the U.S. Congress and at the leading African-American think-tank, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, DC.

His academic teaching and administrative experience has included Visiting Professorships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), Simmons College, Washington College and Marquette University, where he has taught courses on U.S. Foreign Policy, Islam in Africa and African Politics. At Howard University he created and developed the Department of International Affairs which oversaw the University’s international endeavors.

A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Council of American Ambassadors and the Association of Black American Ambassadors, Carrington has served on the Board of Directors of several development agencies including Africare, TransAfrica, Appropriate Technology International, the International Development Conference, International Voluntary Services and Private Agencies Cooperating Together (PACT).

In 1994 Ambassador Carrington was selected by the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine as one of the 100 most distinguished living graduates of Massachusetts’ public and parochial schools.

His Nigerian born wife, Arese, is a medical doctor, international public health consultant and human rights activist. They met in Nigeria and got married during his tour of duty as US envoy in 1995.

The two of them are joint recipients of the 2014 City of Newton Lifetime Human Rights Achievement Award.

A collection of his Nigerian speeches, ‘A Duty to Speak: Refusing to Remain Silent in a Time of Tyranny’, was published in Nigeria in 2010 and launched as part of his 80th birthday celebrations. Carrington is working on his memoir and a book on Nigeria under military rule.

Fully aware of the difficulties the country still faces, he continues to look forward to a stable Nigeria that will eventually harness its potential and take its place as one of the great countries of the world.

As Omowale celebrates his 90th birthday today, his contributions to the struggle for the enthronement of democracy in Nigeria will remain indelible. Happy birthday Omowale Walter Carrington!