A tribute to Professor Austine S.O. Okwu at 92: A look at how a diplomat who signed up to serve his country ended up serving his own people.From a review of his book, In Truth for Justice and Honor: A Memoir of a Nigerian-Biafran Ambassador.
The relationship between Ghana and Nigeria had hit a new low by the time S.O. arrived in Ghana in 1961. Foreign ministers of both countries came close to fist fights. Nigerian politicians cried that Ghana-trained dissidents were planning to kick them out of power.
Kwame Nkrumah, the then prime minister of Ghana, was at the height of his power. Four years earlier, in 1957 – before any other African colony – Kwame and the Ghanaians had dethroned Britain. Now anybody who wanted to throw British rulers or native despots off their backs came to Ghana to learn from the masters.
If the ten days’ Man-of-War Bay training in Cameroon (before his two-year service as assistant divisional officer in Ahaoda, Nigeria) had infused mental toughness in Austine S.O., it was his ten months’ stay in Ghana that honed his diplomatic skills.
To men like S.O., each day presented an opportunity to showcase Nigeria – not only to the host country, Ghana, but to the world. Love of their country drove the Nigerian diplomats of the early sixties. Even when nobody was watching, they looked out for Nigeria’s interests.
Though designated as Head of Chancery, Austine took it upon himself to wonder why the estimated cost of building an oil refinery in Alesa elema, near Port Harcourt, Nigeria, was many times higher than a similar project in Tema, Ghana, where he served. Following his hunch, the new diplomat alerted the Nigerian Government, which prompted them to renegotiate for a better deal.
Repartee with the Prince
When Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip came to congratulate Ghana on their infrastructure, S.O. was among diplomats from other countries selected to meet the royal couple.
‘Folks from Nigeria,’ remarked Phillip, nodding his head multiple times and extending his right hand.
‘Yes,’ Austine acknowledged, ‘my apologies; head of mission Mr. Leslie Harriman couldn’t be here today.’
‘How is that working out, huh, you from eastern Nigeria, and Leslie from the western part of Nigeria?’ Prince Phillip asked.
A twinkle came over the face of S.O., as he locked hands with Prince Phillip.
‘If the English, the Welsh, and the Scottish can exist under British rule in spite of several wars, Nigeria, borrowing from you, can learn how to coexist,’ responded Austine.
Never before had the Prince been diplomatically challenged in that way. Quiet for few seconds, Phillip glanced at Elizabeth, before finally crushing Austine with a two-minute hand squeeze.
After S.O.’s successful repartee with the Prince, he celebrated making a royal impression by attending a semi-diplomatic fanfare that same night. He wore his favorite white caftan and matching pants. On his head he wore a tight-fitting domed hat, decorated with rose petals, leaving a three-month-old growth of black hair on both temples.
Kenneth Kaunda, the future President of Zambia
The crowd spotted Austine. Accra had been buzzing about the extended moment the new Nigerian diplomat had had with the royal couple.
‘You spent more time with the Royals than anybody else,’ said a short, fat-bellied, inquisitive fellow. His Senegalese accent rang out as he spoke.
‘I had to defend Nigeria,’ said Austine, as he continued to follow the train of guests. Close by, bottles of beer, cooked meats, jollof rice and gizzards strung on sticks lay on a wooden table draped with brown cloth.
‘Nice. I wish I were a fly hiding behind your hat, and listening to your conversation with—–,’ the Senegalese began to say. Before he could finish, someone tapped his left shoulder and he turned.
‘Meet a friend, Kenneth,’ the fat-bellied envoy said.
‘Kenneth Kaunda, from Zambia,’ said a coal-tarred youth, blinking rapidly.
‘Austine Okwu, Nigeria, Head of Chancery to the High Commission.’
The two men surveyed each other. They were like brothers of the same age, raised in different parts of Africa.
‘I know, I know who you are,’ replied the Zambian; ‘how can I get in touch with Nnamdi Azikiwe or Tafawa Balewa?’ A sense of urgency betrayed his youthful age.
Everyone wanted a piece of Nnamdi Azikiwe and Tafawa Belewa. The British had appointed these men to be the first President and the first Prime Minister of Nigeria.
‘Find a chicken,’ said Austine to the brother, ‘and tomorrow at 6 pm come over to the house. Don’t fail.’
Kenneth selected a crop of gizzards strung on a greased stick. He bit off the first gizzard and ground it between his right molars. Having given him time to swallow, Austine continued, ‘I’ve been reassigned to Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika. They want me to open a new Nigerian mission.’
‘But Ghana is the center of the African revolution,’ Kaunda argued.
‘My country believes in me, and this is going to be the first ever Nigerian diplomatic mission in East Africa.’
Kenneth Kaunda nodded in silence. ‘I wish I could also do something for my country to help them chase out the British colonialists. You really must put me in touch with Azikiwe or Belewa.’
End of Part II