A tribute to Professor Austine SO Okwu in 92: A look at how a diplomat who signed up to serve his country ended up serving his people. From a review of his book, In Truth for Justice and Honor: A Memoir of a Nigeria-Biafra Ambassador.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the British were tired of ruling Nigeria. For governance, they had divided the country into regions, provinces, and divisions. Near the date of his departure, there was a long list of services to deliver to the locals.
The Ahoada interview
In 1958, Austine SO was one of several young men who applied for a senior service position. As he sat down to fill out the job application form, he thought about what the fortune teller had predicted about him. How in November, or perhaps December 1924, she would not descend from the womb until a relative, vehemently opposed to British-type upbringing, made an exception and promised the divinity that she would be allowed to follow in the footsteps of the whites. and sent to school.
Weeks passed and some applicants, including Austine, were invited to Enugu, in eastern Nigeria, to face a civil service commission headed by Mr. Félix Iheanacho.
“State your name, date of birth, and place of origin,” asked the lead interviewer.
“Sir, I am Austine Okwu, I was born in November, perhaps December 1924, in Egbu Owerri.”
“Young man, make up your mind, choose a month and a date,” said another interviewer.
“The birth record did not exist when I was born and my parents did not go to school.” It is not unusual considering the time, and the questioning continued.
“How can you help maintain law and order in the division?”
SO walked to the edge of the wooden chair where he was sitting, leaned on both shoulders and with wide eyes said: “The problem is twofold. First, good policies often turn bad with their inhumane executions. Second, even bad policies could be turned into good ones through humane interpretation and implementation to help the community. The collective well-being of the governed ”, he continued,“ is the most important reason for governance ”.
Dragged from his seat by such a spontaneous response, the chair came around the table. ‘Shiny!’ he said and hugged
After three months of orientation that included a ten-day near-death experience at the Man-of-War Bay training camp in Cameroon, where Austine nearly drowned when during a swimming exercise she tried to touch the bottom of a bay of the Atlantic Ocean, he was assigned to work as an officer in the Ahoada division, under Tony St. Ledger.
Suddenly, fortune followed him home in an area reserved only for European expats. They also gave him a Steward and a midsize car suitable for a midsize garage. Feeling fulfilled, SO married Beatrice Chuke of Obosi.
Ahoada catapulted Austine into full public service in the diverse Igbo community. At the behest of colonial administrators, Austine oversaw the collection of taxes, the maintenance of law and order, the supervision of elections, and the review and adjudication of public petitions.
They all caught on when the new assistant division officer resolved a dispute over leadership matters between the divisional officer, Tony St. Ledger, and Mpi, an uncompromising division chief with strong Igbo values. As a result of this achievement, Tony felt at home with Austin and visited him frequently.
The day Tony St. Ledger visited
One day, when the sun in Owerri had begun to wane and families were rushing to overcome the impending darkness, someone knocked on the door.
“Honey, someone is knocking on the front door,” Austin told Beatrice.
A tall, lithe steward, eavesdropping, rushed to open the door and disappeared again.
“Please sit down, Mr. St. Ledger,” Beatrice said as a tanned white face entered the living room.
Seated across the dining room table, the divisional officer and Austine chatted and chuckled.
‘Did you see what’s in the recent Nigerian Gazette?’ Tony asked.
The lithe Steward reappeared, set a cold strong beer, a glass, and a rabbit head opener in front of Tony, then docked in the kitchen and began plucking the feathers from the birds.
“No,” Austine replied, raising her eyebrows in pleasant surprise.
“The Federal Government of Nigeria is seeking Foreign Service officials for the diplomatic service and I believe you are suitable for the position. I will make the calls on your behalf. He popped the last drop of beer into his mouth and leaned back in his chair.
Excited, Austine got up, hurried to the fridge, and claimed a bottle of beer for himself and another for Tony.
True to his promise, Tony made calls and gained the support of many Igbo kingmakers, including Chief Jerome Udoji, the then Secretary of Eastern Nigeria. They all agreed SO was to go to Lagos, to work with the Federal Government in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The trip to Lagos, Nigeria
The wisdom of the deity had come true. At the local barbershop, SO got a haircut, with a side rail on the left. In the morning before leaving for Lagos, a relative gathered to wish him goodbye.
“When a fish matures on the head, it crosses the river to the ocean,” said James Osuji, an uncle. “Like Moses and Abraham, who led the Jews, our ancestors will break down all obstacles in their path,” declared an older brother Lawrence. And may you never forget Ndigbo, your people.
The next day, Austine packed a leather box and traveled to Lagos, where a federal task force awaited her arrival.
His interview in Lagos was short and intense, as was his stay. After the first question, it was clear to him that the capital city of Lagos was unprepared for another Igbo personality eager to serve his homeland.
“What made you leave the Drowned Division and the Eastern region?” asked the first interrogator.
“Serve the country abroad with distinction,” he replied.
“Aren’t you just another ambitious Igboman, trying to take over Nigeria?”
Sweat broke out on his forehead as his hand moved to adjust his gray bow tie. The one who endured the Man-of-War Bay training will not succumb to hostility, so he swore in his mind.
“Done,” said the chairman of the federal task force, Alhaji Sule Katagum, with a wave of his left hand. Unsure about the outcome of the interview, Austine went home and waited.
Many days later, the news came that the federal civil service commission had recommended SO to the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Title: First Secretary and Head of Chancery of the High Commissioner of Nigeria. Orientation: 3 weeks. Destination: Ghana
In September 1961, SO boarded a flight and departed for Ghana, his host country, led by an ambitious Nkrumah, a pan-Africanist, who dreamed of a day when he would rule not only his enclave but also Nigeria and perhaps Africa.
Austine not only survived, but enjoyed the rudeness of Ghanaian politics. Every opportunity for him became an occasion to show Nigeria to the world.
Meanwhile, at home, the major ethnic groups, the Igbo in the east, the Hausas in the north and the Yoruba in the west, were locked in deadly combat, an atmosphere that disintegrated in a civil war in 1967.