Grown-up Nigerians, and Igbos in particular, know the loving intensity with which Professor Austine S.O. Okwu did his job as a Nigerian diplomat between 1961 and 1967. Fearless and outspoken, on several occasions he stood up for Nigeria, challenging and fending off her detractors.
Although not as widely known as it should be, Austine Okwu had a guiding hand in the pottery of African unity and the formation of the Organization of African Union, the OAU. At least this was my understanding on reading a subsection of his book, In Truth for Justice and Honor: A Memoir of a Nigeria-Biafran Ambassador.
If the interpretation stands, then such a revelation in my understanding of African history (which, candidly speaking, is next to nil), must for the sake of posterity be pursued to conclusion.
Discussion over the phone being quickly ruled out, I arranged to see the Professor at his house to clarify certain elements, especially the OAU aspects of the book.
He suggested Saturday, 2 pm, and I agreed.
When I arrived, parked my gray Honda next to the curb and swiveled my head over my shoulder, the Professor was warming up on the front deck under the New Haven, Connecticut sun rays.
When you ascend a kola nut tree, an Igbo proverb reminded me, get all the nuts you need because trees of kola nut caliber are seldom climbed. In prompt agreement I changed my mind, deciding to extend the interview to accommodate the Nigerian-Biafran civil war era.
He led me through the front door to a small foyer. To the right was a mid-size living room, appropriately furnished for a ninety-two year old retired diplomat and his wife, and bearing witness to countless gifts from loving relatives and well-wishers.
‘Anselm, my dear, please take a seat,’ he said, leading me further into the heart of the living room.
Beckoning me was my favorite sitting location, the middle segment of a three-seater black leather sofa against the wall by the window. On a sturdy brown table in front of me, I placed a copy of the book and the latest versions of my corrected articles, Part I and Part II.
The Professor sat on a single sofa to my right. As we talked he frequently cleared his throat. “I am not feeling well today; I have been in bed all day. If I hadn’t promised, I would have canceled. But I love to see you. Once we are done, I will get back to bed. But I am happy to see you, my son Anselm.”
Did you take any medicines, I inquired?
“I do not like medicine, unless, of course I get sick. My body will heal itself. I am doing better. Will you take ginger ale or water?”
“No, Prof. Thanks.”
Both of us avoid food and soda like middle-aged men avoid discussing ageing. We went on uninterrupted.
I had not made a written list because the questions were hot in my brain, like freshly baked meat pie out of an oven.
“Ask any question you want,” he said, reading my mind. My brain mulled, considering how to begin.
Some men do solicit questions only to frown when a hard one is thrown. Not Professor Austine Okwu. Because he loves to teach, he relishes questions of any difficulty. Naturally the caption ‘Saving the OAU’ in his book led the barrage.
Saving the Addis Ababa conference and the OAU
‘Do you really believe that you had a hand in the formation of the Organization of African Unity, OAU? If so, how come your name is not in all the African history books? Many men became legendary for doing far less… ‘ A mutual guffaw erupted to fill the last words.
‘I did not say exactly that in my book’, countered Austine, his guffaw yielding to a smile and ending with clearing his throat.
‘But that was my conclusion after I read the passage many times over.’
‘Find the page in the book where I talked about my contribution to the OAU.’
On his insistence, I seized the book from the table, turned hurriedly to page 136 and read over the sectioned captioned, ‘Saving the Addis Ababa conference and the OAU.’ The essential sequence of the section is laid out below.
Emperor Haile Selassie
African States were divided into two ideological camps, mainly by their approach to fighting their common imperial enemy. One camp favored dealing with the oppressors with kid gloves. The other camp wanted the imperialists gone forthwith, without delay. ‘A divided Africa is a devil’s launching pad,’ said Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, and he called a meeting to unite the two warring camps, a total of thirty-one independent States. Julius Nyerere smelt an opportunity.
Julius Nyerere, Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, May 1963
President Nyerere, from the ‘kick the oppressors out now’ camp, saw the Emperor’s meeting as a good opportunity to bring in freedom fighters from areas of Africa still under colonial rule. He called a meeting of all diplomats serving in Dar es Salaam, a total of ten African heads of mission.
‘Tell the leadership of your countries,’ said Nyerere, ‘to allow freedom fighters to be part of the May meeting.’ For emphasis Nyerere repeated, ‘Our brothers who are still fighting colonial oppression must come to the meeting.’
Diplomats did what diplomats usually do; listen, take notes, and keep mute. Say thanks for the time spent, the food eaten, and friendship built and then report back to their home country.
All but one nodded approval at Julius Nyerere’s directives. Soon enough the lone dissenter spoke. ‘Inviting the freedom fighters, Mr. President, may set off a Pandora’s Box and scuttle the meeting,’ opined the young Nigerian diplomat. Forthwith, Nyerere signaled an aide to detain S.O.
Austine S.O. Okwu detained by President Julius Nyerere
Challenging senior diplomats after hours at local restaurants is brave enough, but dissenting with an African Head of State at a conference is always an error of judgment. Unless, of course, your name is Austine, in which case innate tact, guts, and shrewdness clasp your decision making muscles.
Alone in detention, Austine was in a quandary. Did my magic charm work? And if it did why did they detain me?
‘Your position once more on the freedom fighters and the Addis Ababa Conference, Mr. Austine?’ asked the President.
‘I foresee problems, Mr. President. Inviting the favorite freedom fighters to the meeting would mean that other Heads of State would invite their own favorite freedom fighters, some of whom are fighting rival Heads of State. These actions may scuttle the Addis Ababa meeting.’
With one hand cupping a narrow chin, Nyerere contemplated how a fragile conference could burst into flames. Two possible outcomes: Risk ruining the meeting or risk disappointing the freedom fighters.
He huddled with a confidant. After a few minutes ticked by, he emerged and capitulated.
‘Thank you, Mr. Okwu,’ said the President, ‘you are a true African patriot, and your judgment may well have saved the Addis Ababa conference.’
Memos went out to the other diplomats: freedom fighters’ attendance is off the table. The Addis Ababa conference went on, the two rival camps came together and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was born.
So did S.O. really save the OAU?
Having reached some resolution on the OAU matter, our dialogue examined events surrounding the Nigerian-Biafran civil war, 1967-1970: Was Kaduna Nzeogwu really an Ibo? Did Austine meet the legendary Aguyi Ironsi? Did the Igbo condemn the January 1966 coup that ended the life of the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, and many iconic northern leaders? Why did the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Harold Wilson, not lean on Northern Nigeria to stop the civil war? Did the Yoruba tribe speak up against the war? From where did the fear of Igbo domination of that era come? And so forth.
All my questions and the Professor’s answers will be presented in the fourth part of my article.