By Kayode Fayemi
The Scottish philosopher and essayist, Thomas Carlyle (1795 -1881), must have had men like Walter Charles Carrington in mind when he postulated the ‘great man theory’ contained in the book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History. Carlyle argued that history can be explained through the lenses of the impact of great men, or heroes; highly influential and unique individuals who, due to their natural attributes, such as superior intellect, heroic courage, or divine inspiration, have a decisive historical effect. In sum, we can understand the trajectory of societal evolution and progress by examining the legacies of great men and women whose life paths corresponded with significant epochs in our history. The dear departed, an American of African descent, was one whose life straddled the struggles of both the Civil Rights movement in the United States of America, and the struggle for democracy and development in Africa.
He was one of a group of young Americans on a cross-cultural exchange programme who came to Nigeria in 1959, the year before the country’s independence, and lived with families all around the country in Lagos, Ibadan, Port Harcourt, Enugu, and Kaduna. Unbeknownst to him, that would be the first chapter of a lifelong association with Nigeria that would have him making a generational impact on the lives of over a hundred million Nigerians and finding destiny and love.
Walter Charles Carrington was born on July 24,1930, to Walter Randolph Carrington Snr. and Marjorie Irene Hayes Carrington who would later move from his birthplace New York to Everett, Massachusetts, where Walter Carrington Jr went to high school and started developing a capacity for debate, oratory, and political engagement. This got him elected as Vice President of his class that had 500 students of whom only five were black.
They that would be great are sometimes prepared by fate. Walter Carrington had a path that prepared him for the unique challenges he would take on. He left Harvard with a Bachelor of Arts (A.B.) degree in 1952 and got drafted into the US Army in 1955. On leaving the Army, he went to Harvard Law School, and got his J.D. degree in 1958 and set up a legal practice in the state of Massachusetts where as a 27-year-old, he would be head of Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination.
In going through this route, he was equipped with training and experience on issues related to the legal system, the military, and advocacy. This would serve him when he came back to Nigeria in 1993 as the US Ambassador to Nigeria in the wake of troubles arising from the country’s military government annulling the June 12, 1993 election that was won by the late Chief M.K.O. Abiola, GCFR.
On his return to Nigeria, Walter Carrington would find a love that would add colour to the rest of his mortal existence. It was almost like fate had decided to feed his soul and spirit to prepare him for the tasks that were to come. Early on in his return to Nigeria, he met Dr. Arese Ukpoma, the woman who would become his wife and partner to the end. Dr. Arese Carrington is an accomplished medical practitioner and administrator who would become a driving force who stood with her husband as he intervened on behalf of the Nigerian people. She did not just encourage him, Dr. Arese Carrington also went as far as visiting the families of activists that the Abacha regime had put in prison. This was a dangerous thing to do under a brutal dictatorship. Theirs was a love so beautiful to behold; a love that never failed.
Walter Carrington’s second coming had him meeting Nigeria during a significant political unrest and he did an excellent job to clearly communicate America’s position on democratic principles and human rights. He firmly made it plain that the expectation of the US Government was a return to an elected civilian government and the provision of freedom to the Nigerian people.
Walter Carrington stood on the side of Nigerians at a time when the Nigerian Government itself appeared to be hostile to its own people. Some notable figures in the African American community would end up being enticed to support the Abacha administration, but Walter Carrington stayed loyal to the Nigerian people he had decided to see as his family. He cast his lot with the Nigerian people and their demands for a democratic system of government. He provided support to the opposition, the human rights and pro-democracy activists and Abuja despised him for it.
They despised him so much that they would send armed police officers to disrupt a send-off organised for Ambassador Walter Carrington when he was recalled by the US Government. Armed police stormed the occasion, threatened to shoot guests, and ordered all foreigners, including the Ambassador to leave at once.
The send-off was moved to a different location and upon his departure, and he got to the US to continue being a voice for the Nigerian people. He helped push to get the street where Nigeria’s UN Mission and New York Consulate are located named after the assassinated Kudirat Abiola who is rumoured to have been killed on the orders of the government.
The pressure helped bring about the emergence of a democratically elected Nigerian government that recognised his contributions by naming the street where the US embassy and consulate are sited after him. Walter Carrington Crescent is the location of key diplomatic missions and is appropriately named after the greatest foreign diplomat in Nigerian history. But Walter Carrington was much more than a foreign diplomat. He was fondly called ‘Omowale’ (the son who came home) by the National Democratic Coalition chieftains and showed himself to be a worthy Omoluabi.
The term “Omoluabi” translates to, in English, “a-child-born-by-God.” It basically implies that the individual was born by the deities and prepared by fate itself for great things. An Omoluabi is a person with outstanding competence and character that has borne the burden of a society’s struggles and aspirations gracefully. It is a title reserved for those who have shown themselves strong and reliable enough to be revered pillars of society.
When Walter Carrington came in 1959, he visited the University of Ibadan, loved it, and was confident that the school would stand comfortably with the world’s best universities in the future but when he returned as Ambassador in 1993, he was saddened by what the university had fallen to. In his words, “I could not believe what I saw. In 1959, on the eve of independence, there was so much great hope and now with the 50th anniversary, I hope to be able to come back to celebrate, but I think the theme of it should be a new beginning.”. We owe it to the likes of Walter Carrington to do our best to make Nigeria succeed. The sacrifices of Walter Carrington and others show that Nigeria’s success is not just for Nigerians. Like Walter Carrington, we must be selfless and steadfast defenders of democracy, and freedom who overlook class differences and personal convenience in the fight for the establishment of a democratic culture. Like Walter Carrington, we must support those who speak and stand against oppression and manipulation. Walter Carrington made the American Embassy a place of refuge. We should make our own institutions and hearts places of safety for those who seek to uplift Nigeria. The sacrifices made by the likes of Walter Carrington are a key reminder to Nigerians at all levels that we owe the world a successful Nigeria with a culture of democracy that gives people the freedom to feel free to have their own ideas, form political parties, assemble and generally have their human rights respected. People from different parts of the world have invested generously and even put life and limb at stake for our sake. It would be inexcusable for us to let insouciance, greed, malice, or tribalism keep Nigeria from fulfilling its potential.
Walter Carrington was a great man who saw the seed of greatness in us and went out of his way to help put us on our path. He grew up in an America emerging from the throes of slavery and he was moved by the similarities of the struggles Black people in Africa and America face in the search for development, freedom, and fulfilment.
“Most Black Americans come to Africa to seek their heritage. I came and found my destiny.” In doing so, Walter Carrington helped set the biggest Black nation in the world on the path to its own destiny and we will forever be grateful.
Adieu, Walter, a true American hero!
Dr. Fayemi, CON, is Governor of Ekiti State.