Getting married to Arese was best thing in my life –Walter Carrington

| February 23, 2013 | 0 Comments

Walter Carrington

Former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington, speaks with BOSEDE OLUSOLA-OBASA on his personal life and devotion to advancement of human rights in America and Africa

Can you relive your first visit to Nigeria?

Yes, when I first came to Nigeria in 1959, the year before independence, I came with a group of students on a programme called the Experiment in International Living. We lived with families all around the country. We lived with a family in Lagos, Ibadan, Port Harcourt, Enugu and Kaduna. I remember that in Ibadan we went out to see this new university. I was absolutely impressed with it and was so proud to see such in an African country. It was such a modern structure and it impressed me very much. It was such a beautiful place. But when I returned about 40 years later, I remembered going off to Ibadan and driving on to the campus, and just seeing the place, I could not believe my eyes. Everything seemed to have fallen apart. Upkeep was poor, repairs not done. It disturbed me so much that this university that had been a source of joy was in great disrepair. Then I went to visit the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, very close to the university. There the grounds were well kept, it was just beautiful, and it looked like what the University of Ibadan should have looked like. There was no reason why there should have been that kind of mismanagement. It is just a waste of resources; I was very, very disappointed that I wept.

Isn’t it a coincidence that your wife studied at the same university?

Yes, she graduated from the University of Ibadan in the 80s. When we met and got married, I told her about what I saw before I met her. I usually teased her about what her university had become. In fact, we discuss it often. But I think that what happened to the university at that time was a metaphor of what was happening in the country generally. There was no culture of maintenance. A lot of money was being spent on all kinds of things, all kinds of structures but then, these were ill-maintained.

You served in the US Army, and studied law, which of those fueled the activism in you?

The United States Army enlistment was not a voluntary thing for me; I must clarify that. At that time in the US, they had to draft every able-bodied person into the Army including me. So when I finished from the law school, I was drafted into the army and I was there for two years. Then I started my law practice and was appointed by the governor as the commissioner of the Commission Against Discrimination, Massachusetts. By that appointment, I became the youngest commissioner the state ever had. I was 27 years old then. At the commission, we were in charge of enforcing laws against discrimination in housing, planning, education, and so on. It made me step on the toes of many powerful people. It was a very challenging but interesting duty for me.

So your activism started there

No, it started long before that. I began to exercise activism when I was in Harvard University in the 1950s. My mother was also involved in labour activities. My parents were divorced when I was very young but my mother kept in touch. Then my father was out on the West Coast and I was in California. My dad was an activist at that time, during the Second World War, while I was in junior high school, he was working at a ship building plant and he was disturbed by the fact that the blacks were being discriminated against. So he organised activities that caused the company to change its policy. He brought the case before the federal commission in charge of employment issues, in Washington. It was charged with seeing that blacks were not discriminated against in the plant. Years later, when I became commissioner against discrimination, I attended the yearly conference that brought such commissions from all states together, and remember meeting someone there. When I introduced myself saying, ‘I am Walter Carrington,’ he said, ‘No. you can’t be Walter Carrington,’ and ‘I say why not?’ He said, ‘Because when I worked at the federal commission, one of my first cases was brought by Walter Carrington,’ and I said, ‘that was my father.’ It was an interesting thing that my father had been so vibrant in activism and now I am here too. But my activism began when I was an undergraduate. We formed a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, I was the founding president. It was the leading civilisation movement in America that contributed to deliberations over the historic school desegregation cases. I was upset by the fact that they separated the black students from the white. Besides, the blacks in my class were so few. So we fought against the discrimination policy, to advocate against the non admission of more blacks. We were very active and that got me involved in other things such as political clubbing. I headed the largest political club at that time at Harvard University. I was also made one of the class marshals being the greatest honour that the class could give anyone. They actually elected three to be in charge of the affairs of the class. I earned prominent positions in all of the groups that I worked with as an activist so I came out of school with a real strong activist background. It became a platform for me nationally and internationally. As a result of my involvement with the NAACP, I became a representative of a national student organisation which brought together the heads of the various student organisations all over the country. That organisation was the American chapter of the World Assembly of Youth. It held its first conference in Africa in 1952 and I was elected as a member of the American delegation. We went to Senegal; that was two weeks after I graduated from Harvard University. So, I was off to Africa only two weeks after I completed my degree programme. That really began my activitism on the international platform.

Since activism runs in your blood, are your children in it too?

Our kids – a boy and a girl are also activists at heart in that they believe in the ultimate principle of service to humanity. They believe that whatever they are doing must be doing some good to mankind. Our son coaches younger people, while our daughter is into economic development; watching their parents’ life of service has been an inspiration for them. They believe that the satisfaction of service is greater than financial gains.

Why do you exhibit such great interest in Africa?

My African interest came earlier when I went to Senegal in 1980 as US Ambassador. I had an Uncle who worked with the Nigerian Railway Corporation; he returned to the State at the outset of the Second World War. He was living in New York those days and I would go and visit him and he would tell me scary tales about living in Nigeria. How that tigers were on the streets, but I later found out that there were no tigers on the streets in Africa except in the zoos. Shortly after the war, a lot of Nigerians were coming to the state to make pleas for independence. And some of them would come to my Uncle’s house and I would stay at the background and listen to their conversations. That really got me interested in Nigeria; that was the very first African country that I had interest in. Much later in life, the Peace Corp came along, I recall meeting President John Kennedy at a reception held for him in Washington; he was then head of the Peace Corp. He had heard about me, that I had been to Africa twice – to Senegal and Nigeria. He drafted me into the programme for African Peace Corps. I started as an Overseas Director for the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone. I lived in Africa for about 10 years – in Senegal for two years, in Tunisia for two years, in Sierra Leone for two years. After those six years, I went back to Washington. I was later asked to come and see how the Peace Corp members were doing during the civil war. As a matter of fact, when the civil war broke out, we had volunteers in the Mid West and there was concern that the Biafran Army was advancing towards the Mid West and so I was sent to evacuate our volunteers in that area. Interestingly, as I later learnt from her, at the very time that that was happening, my wife and her family were also trying to get out of the Mid West during the war. After we met and got married, we sometimes relive memories of the civil war and she often teased me asking why I didn’t evacuate her and her family when I came to evacuate the US volunteers. We just laughed over it; you know she was just a child then. Even after the Peace Corps, I became the Executive Vice President of the African American Institute. It was the major private organisation dealing with Africa; it was also handling the US government‘s graduate scholarship programme. So, I had cause to visit some universities in Nigeria to talk with people who wanted to come to the US for education. I also got involved with the likes of Nelson Mandela in trying to get American policies to accept African change especially with the Gen Sanni Abacha government.

Was Abacha’s regime challenging for you as Ambassador?

Oh yes, it was a big challenge. Firstly, when President Bill Clinton announced my appointment as ambassador, MKO Abiola had just won an election. I had met Abiola a couple of times; I had arranged a visit for him to the US. We had met at a conference that he organised about Africa, so I was excited to come to Nigeria. I thought I was going to have a good time because of my relationship with Abiola. But before I came here, Gen. Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida decided to annul the election. So, the question was ‘who would be taking over,’ there was a lot of concern in the US whether I should still come or not. It was finally decided that I should go ahead. When I came around in 1993, Ernest Sonekan was the interim president. As a result of the delay I had, I became the last ambassador to present my credentials to him. Just two weeks after I presented my credentials to him, Abacha took over government. I remember that I was the first ambassador to meet with him after he took over the office. He was in Lagos here and so I went to see him. That day, he wasn’t dressed in military uniform, he was wearing a Babanriga dress. He looked and sounded very humble and promised me while we spoke that he would not stay long in office. He said that he was going to hand over to Olusegun Obasanjo. I was optimistic hearing his words, I thought change would come. And of course change came, Abacha stayed on in office despite his promise to quit soon. Our relationship became worse and worse as time went by. For the last three years that I was here, my relationship with Abacha and his regime was strained.

What really upset you about his government?

The most traumatic one was the killing of Ken Saro Wiwa. We had made appeal to the Abacha government to spare his life. I was told to go to Abuja to make one last appeal on his behalf and as it turned out, I was in mid air when they were shooting. As I landed there I was told that Saro Wiwa had been killed. That was typical of the kind of stupid things that the Abacha government did. At that very time the Commonwealth conference was holding in London. At that conference, a lot of people were calling for strong sanctions against Nigeria because of Abacha. Mandela was at the conference, but he asked for one more chance for Nigeria, but when they learnt that Abacha had just killed Saro Wiwa despite entreaties, even Mandela said the sanction should be upheld. As a result of that killing, I was recalled to Washington and about 28 other ambassadors were recalled. That was the most traumatic; of course there were also constant shutting of newspaper houses and arresting of journalists. The second most traumatic experience was the killing of Abiola’s wife – Kudirat. That happened late in the period that I was here, it was a very traumatic incident.

How is it being the only surviving child of your parents?

It has been very touching. My parents had a boy and a girl. So I had a younger sister, but she is no more. I miss her very much. She was the person I have known all my life. I am her older brother by two years and she was always very supportive, she was an activist especially in the health field. She tried to fight for equality of health services, so that black people could get quality. She was very active in that and she stayed in our home town. I left her there and was gone for a long time. It is a great loss that she is no longer here with me.

You still keep tight schedule at 83

I am very fortunate that I have my wife (pointing at Dr. Arese Carrington) here who has kept me healthy. She is a Medical Doctor and Public Health Consultant. She is currently the Vice President of Africana Consultants. She previously worked as the Associate Director of the Harvard School of Public Health’s AIDS Prevention Initiative in Nigeria. This is a woman who has done more for Nigeria than most people know about. From the Abacha days and always, she ensures that I do the right and healthy things to keep fit. When we were here as ambassador, she proved to be indispensable in my being able to do the things I did, for which people applaud me today. She was always encouraging me to go on. Those Abacha days, when some Nigerian activists were thrown in the prisons, she went to visit their families, she was very outspoken and deserves a lot of credit for everything. I wouldn’t have been able to do all that I did without her.

How did you get hooked to your wife?

That is the most fortunate thing that happened to me. I met her during the very first diplomatic function that I attended when I came in as ambassador to Nigeria. Because when you arrive in a country as an ambassador, you are firstly restricted to your community until you present your credentials. So after I presented my credentials, I went to attend my first diplomatic function and saw this beautiful woman. I had gone there with a friend and I said to him, ‘did you see that girl.’ And the rest is history. It is true in my case, that most black Americans come to Africa to seek their heritage. I came and found my destiny.

Has anything about her ever turned you off?

No. Except that she is Nigerian and Nigerians are known for what they call ‘African Time’ but we black Americans also have what we call ‘Coloured People’s Time or CPT.’ Although, I don’t think it is as late as the African Time syndrome (speaking cynically). So that’s it.

What’s a typical day like for you?

I have a tread miller back home and I try to walk out on that three or four times a week. I do some lecturing. I am currently an associate with Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. At my age, I am still as busy as ever.

How do you relax?

As a kid, I loved to watch horseracing and got very enthused whenever my mother took me to watch the race. I am still very interested in horses and that was my attraction to the Race Course here in Lagos in the 1950s. Talking about how I relax, I must say that I have never really felt stressed. For some people, travelling could be stressful, but I can relax with it, I love travelling. We watch movies, we read books, especially now, I read a lot of eBooks. I try to live as stress free as I can, even when something bad happens. It is one of my guiding principles in life. I don’t allow things that are disturbing to stay on my mind. I insist on going to bed with a free mind, no troubles of any kind. That is a principle that I has kept all my life and that is why I can sleep anywhere and at anytime. I can sleep on the plane, on the train, anywhere. I can relax.

Looking back, do you feel fulfilled?

Yes, but I don’t think anyone has ever achieved all they wanted to. But you do what you can although the challenges are enormous. However, I feel fulfilled about the end of apartheid in South Africa, I feel fulfilled about the return of democracy to Nigeria, but there are still so many things that I wish I could still change around the world. So I am not going to sit back and watch. I am going to remain an activist for as long as I am physically able to. Youths must develop a sense of purpose early in life; they must stay guided by it so that eventually, it will give them a sense of fulfillment when they look back later in life.

Your current visit is in connection with the Carrington Youth Fellowship Initiative, what about it?

It is great to be back home, and I mean every sense of the word – home. I and my wife Arese have many treasured memories of Nigeria. I am honoured and humbled that the US Consulate General, Lagos attached my name to this most worthy initiative – CYFI. It is a programme to empower the Nigerian youth to make impact in their world. I am impressed and encouraged about the future of Nigeria seeing the projects implemented in the past one year by the outgoing CYFI fellows in sectors such as public health, education, civil liberties, university outreach and vocational training. My visit has afforded me the opportunity of meeting the awardees and I have spoken to them as well as to all youth in Nigeria that no one will come and build Nigeria for them. Now you have democracy, make use of it to make the country what you dream of. You may not end your days wealthy in gold but rather affluent in spirit with that satisfaction that when you had the opportunity to make a difference you took it. I am optimistic about Nigeria.


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