Walter Carrington: The Ambassador Who Refused to Stay Silent in the Face of Tyranny

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In this tribute, Demola Ojo honours a former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, the late Walter Carrington, who passed away last week at 90 years

One of the most prestigious streets in the upscale Victoria Island axis of Lagos is named after a former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, the late Walter Carrington, who passed away last week at 90 years, which invariably means it is one of the most important streets in Lagos, and by extension, Nigeria. And for good reasons too.

Walter Carrington adopted Nigeria as his own country, and the country reciprocated, adopting Carrington as its son. Carrington was so enmeshed in the Nigerian culture that he took a Nigerian wife, Arese. As an African-American, it was pretty natural for Carrington to assimilate. But this is not as easy as one would expect.

While the descendants of Africans forcibly transported across the Atlantic centuries ago yearn to have a connection with the Motherland, the unpalatable reality is that it hasn’t always been practical to do so. Economic realities are among the inhibiting factors, in tandem with a paucity of information on Africa in the United States.

Carrington was among the rare breeds that probably saw themselves as African first, despite being American. It was probably by design rather than chance that his official assignments as ambassador were to Africa. Senegal, then later, Nigeria. These turned out ideal opportunities for him to embrace his roots. He served as the US ambassador to Senegal from 1980 to 1981 and was later appointed by a former US President, Bill Clinton, in 1993 as the ambassador to Nigeria, where he remained until 1997.
However, his deep ties with Nigeria went further back in time as he had lived in three Nigerian cities since the late 1960s.
Carrington had an illustrious career across both the academia and the diplomatic services, as well as a lifetime lived in service of humanity, and especially the Black race.

Born July 24, 1930, in New York City to an immigrant father from Barbados, Carrington was raised in a predominately Italian-Irish community and was vice president of his class throughout his four years at the predominantly white Parlin Junior High and Everett High School.
Graduating in 1948, Carrington became one of four black students at Harvard University. There, he founded the first Harvard chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.
He was the first student elected to the National Board of Directors of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People).
A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, 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.

In 1952, Carrington was elected the NAACP Youth Council delegate to Senegal. Carrington organised for John F. Kennedy in 1960. In 1961, he came to Africa as one of the first overseas Directors of the Peace Corps, eventually becoming the Peace Corps director of Africa.
In 1967, he had the responsibility of evacuating young Americans as Biafran troops were advancing towards Benin. He then served as executive vice president of the African American Institute from 1971 to 1979 and was also a member of Africare.

In 1980, Carrington served President Jimmy Carter as Ambassador to Senegal. In 1981, he was named director of the Department of International Affairs at Howard University. He also taught at Marquette University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Washington College and from 1990 to 1991 acted as a consultant at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
President Bill Clinton appointed him US Ambassador to Nigeria in 1993 and he arrived in Lagos a few months after the annulment of the June 12 election, subsequently opposing the abuses of Nigerian Head of State, General Sani Abacha.

He criticised Abacha’s regime, and campaigned vigorously for a return to democracy in Nigeria. Carrington rallied the diplomatic corps against the regime’s abuse of human rights and brutalisation of Nigerians, especially critics and pro-democracy activists. He went beyond diplomatic limits in the engagement of the Abacha regime and the struggle for military disengagement and enthronement of democratic government.
Although his tenure ended in 1997, Carrington showed interest in the affairs of Nigeria till his last days on earth.
From 1997 to 1998, and again in 1999, Carrington worked as a fellow of Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute. He was also a MacArthur Fellow in 1998. In 2004, he was named the first African American Warburg Professor of International Relations at Simmons College in Boston.
In 2014, alongside his Nigeria-born wife, Arese, he was winner of the City of Lifetime Human Rights Award, a sort of crown on the lifelong struggle for human rights.

In 1991, Carrington published Africa in the Minds and Deeds of Black American Leaders (with Edwin Dorn). In 2010, he published A Duty to Speak: Refusing to Remain Silent in a Time of Tyranny, a compilation of his speeches supporting democracy and human rights in Nigeria during the Sani Abacha military dictatorship.
According to a statement signed by his wife, Arese Carrington last Wednesday, “It is with a heavy and broken heart but with gratitude to God for his life of selfless humanity that I announce the passing of my beloved husband, Walter Carrington, former US Ambassador to Nigeria and Senegal.

“He passed away peacefully, surrounded by loved ones at the age of 90 years old on Tuesday, August 11, 2020. Further announcements will be made shortly. Walter was a loving husband, father, grandfather, cousin, uncle, friend and in-law.
“Ralph Waldo Emerson said. It is not the length of life but the depth of life. Walter was fortunate, his life had both length and depth.”