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Crucial roles of American and British ambassadors

By Eric Teniola

A NAME that was missing during the ceremonies that had to do with those honoured on the June 12 Presidential 1993 election was Mr. Walter C. Carrington.

He was the American Ambassador to Nigeria between August 10, 1993 and October 7, 1997. Married to a Nigerian, an Edo woman, Arese Ukpoma(60), a medical doctor, Mr. Carrington played  a crucial role after the annulment of the presidential election. He was a thorn in the flesh of the government of General Sani Abacha and the reign of terror that attended the annulment. Mr. Carrington, a black American  spoke in bold terms of how  the hope of the black man could be manifested if Nigeria could succeed as a great nation.

At a time, he was seen more or less as the leader of opposition to the then government and he offered no apologies for his role. Till he handed over to Mr. William H. Twaddel, he was no doubt a man of courage. It is not unusual for the British High Commissioners and the American ambassadors in Nigeria, to play crucial roles in the destiny of the country. Having served in the Federal Government, I know that the British and American diplomats have  at diffeent times defined the directions which this country  should take. They have played that role and  will continue to  no matter what.

In the calculation of hermajesty’s government, Nigeria is still a British colony. As for the Americans, Nigeria is a trading partner and an important African country.

On January 16, 1966, the British High Commissioner in Nigeria, Sir Francis  Cumming-Bruce could have prevented the coup that brought Major General Johnson Thomas Umanakwe Aguiyi Ironsi(1924-1966) to power. At that time, the British troops deployed to protect the Commonwealth leaders who converged in Lagos to discuss the issue of Zimbabwe, were still around on the high seas. Sir Bruce was waiting for the  then Prime Minister, Sir AbubakarTafawaBalewa (1912-1966) to contact him for Military assistance so as to quell the insurrection by the Army.

Some of the Ministers of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa notably Dr..K.O, Mbadiwe, Chief Richard Akinjide, Alhaji Maitama Sule, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, ShettimaAli Mongonnu, Alhaji Bukar Dipcharima Alhaji Abdul Razak and others contacted him but he wanted a written note from Sir Balewa himself. But at that time, Sir Tafawa Balewa had been assassinated. Following the medical trip of the non-executive President, Dr. Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe (1904-1996) to the Caribbean Island, the highest government official around then was the Senate President, Dr. Abyssinia Akweke Nwafor Orizu (1914-199) from the royal family of Nnewi in Anambra state, who did not make  the request. When Balewa’s Ministers approached Sir Cumming-Bruce persistently to do something, he told them there was nothing he could do.

A few months later, that is on July 30, 1966, the same Sir Bruce and the American ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. Albert Matthews were at Ikeja cantonment when the Northern troops were debating whether or not  Northern Nigeria should break away.  For three days during that period, Nigeria was without a leader and there was apprehension in the country. Before then, the Head of State, General Aguiyi Thomas Ironsi was missing and the most Senior Military   Officer, Brigadier Babafemi Olatunde Ogundipe (1924-1971) gave an order to a sergeant in the army and the order was disobeyed.

So the Northern soldiers then met at the Ikeja cantonment to decide on the next line of action. Among those who visited the Northern military officers then were the Chairman of the Federal Public Service Commission Alhaji Sule Katagum, the head of the Northern  Region’s civil service Alhaji Ali Akilu, MuktarTahir( a relative of  Lt-Col Murtala Muhammed, the Chief Justice Sir Adetokunbo Ademola and several civil servants and permanent secretaries including Alhaji Musa Daggash (Defence), Abdul Aziz Attah (Finance), B.N. Okagbue (Health), M.A. Tokunbo, Eneli (both Establishments), Allison Ayida (Economic Planning), S.O. Williams (Works), Solicitor-General Booyamin  Oladiran Kazeem, Phillip Asiodu, Ibrahim Damcida, H. A. Ejueyitchie, Yusuf Gobir, Anirejuoritse, Ahmed Joda and BubaArdo. Police participants included the Inspector-General of police, Alhaji Kam Salem, Commissioner of Police Theophilus Fagbola, and  the head of the Special Branch Alhaji M.D. Yusuf.

Some others not physically present participated by telephone (including the military governor of the Mid-West Lt-Colonel David Ejoor and the former Northern Region Governor Sir Kashim Ibrahim). Other Northern officers (including from other locations) filtered in and out after the debate began. The  military participants according to Mr. Max Siollun present included Lt-Colonel Murtala Muhammed, Majors Martin Adamu ,Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma,Shittu Alao, and Musa Usman, Captain Joe Garba, Lieutenant Malami Nassarawa, D.S. Abubakar, Paul Dickson and Lt-Col. Yakubu Gowon. Although Lt-Colonel Gowon knew that Aguiyi-Ironsi was dead, this information was consealed and the public was simply told that Aguiyi Ironsi was “missing”.

The British and American ambassadors, Sir Francis Cumming Bruce and Albert Matthews made it clear at the meeting that both the British and United States governments would oppose the breakup of Nigeria. They both threatened that both governments would not give aid to any part of Nigeria that decides to secede.  Throughout the Civil war, that was the stand of both the British and American governments even when some notable countries including France, Gabon, and Cote de Ivoire recognized Biafra. If Britain and America had acted otherwise, I am sure Nigeria would have ceased to exist as a nation. From Independence till  date both countries are still prominent in the affairs of Nigeria. That is the bitter truth.

Since Independence to date, the following have served as American Ambassadors to Nigeria- Mr. Joseph Palmer, Mr. Elbert G. Matthews, William C. Trueheart, John Reinhardt, Donald B. Easum, Stephen Low, Thomas R. Pickering, Thomas W.M. Smith, Princeton Nathan Lyman, Lannon Walker, William Lacy Swing, Walter C. Carrington, William H. Twaddel, Howard Franklin Jeter, Donald K. Steinberg, John Campbell, Robin Renee Sanders, Terence P. McCulley, James F. Entwistle and the incumbent, W. Stuart Syminton.

The following too have served as British High Commissioners to Nigeria- Antony Head, Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce, Sir David Hunt, Sir Leslie Glass, Sir Cyril Pickard, Sir Martin Le Quesne, Sir Sam Falle, Sir Mervyn Brown, Sir Hamilton Whyte, Sir Martins Ewans, Brian Barder, Christopher MacRae, Thorold Masefield, Sir Graham Burton, Sir Phillip Thomas, Sir Richard Gozney, Robert Dewar, Andrew Lloyd, Sir Andrew Pocock and the incumbent, Paul Arkwright.

Although the media, highlights the events of what happens in various countries but the cables sent by diplomats to their home countries count more. It is these cables that the home countries rely on before they take decisions on foreign countries.

It is in the light of these that I welcome the new British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Wendy Campbell Laing from Zimbabwe whom I understand will resume in November at the peak of our campaign for both the Presidential, National Assembly and Gubernatorial elections. Married to Mr. Clive David Bates, she has worked in United Nations mission in Somalia and also worked in Botswana. She  has been British High Commissioner to Zimbabwe since 2014. I do not know what role she played in the eventual downfall of Mr. Robert Mugabe last November but I understand in Harare that Ms Laing an Economist, is regarded as a “trouble shooter.” And never underrate the power and influence of a diplomat especially the British and American diplomats. Their power and influence go beyond what we imagine. Ms Laing is most welcome and I wish her a happy stay in Nigeria.


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