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 people. From a review of his book, In Truth for Justice and Honor: A Memoir of a Nigerian-Biafran Ambassador.
By the late 1950s to early 1960s, the British were fatigued with ruling Nigeria. For governance, they had divided the country into regions, provinces and divisions. Nearing the date of their departure there were long list of services to hand over to the locals.
The Ahoada Interview
In 1958, Austine S.O. was among several young men who applied for a senior service job. As he sat down to fill in the job application form, he thought of what the fortune-teller foretold about him. How in November, or perhaps December, of 1924, he wouldn’t descend out of the womb until relatives, vehemently opposed to British type education, made an exception and pledged to divinity that he would be permitted to follow the footsteps of the white people, and sent to school.
Weeks went by and a few applicants, Austine among them, were invited to Enugu, in Eastern region, Nigeria, to face a civil service commission headed by Mr. Felix Iheanacho.
‘State your name, date of birth and place of origin,’ asked the lead interviewer.
‘Sir, I am Austine Okwu, born November, perhaps December, of 1924, from Egbu Owerri.’
‘Young man, make up your mind, choose a month and a date,’ said another interviewer.
‘Birth registry did not exist when I was born, and my parents did not go to school.’ Not unusual considering the era, and the questioning proceeded.
‘In what ways can you help keep up law and order in the division?’
S.O. moved to the edge of the wooden chair where he sat, braced both shoulders and with eyes wide open stated, ‘The issue is twofold. First, good policies often turn bad by their inhuman executions. Second, even bad policies could be turned into good by their humane interpretation and implementation to help the community. The collective well-being of the governed,’ he continued, ‘is the most important reason for governance.’
Swept off his seat by such a spontaneous response, the chair came around the table. ‘Brilliant!’ he said and embraced S.O.
After three months of orientation which included a near-death experience during ten days at Man-of-War Bay camp training in the Cameroons, where Austine nearly drowned when during swimming drill he tried to touch the bottom of a bay of the Atlantic Ocean, he was posted to work as an officer in Ahoada division, under Tony St. Ledger.
Suddenly, fortune followed him in the form of a house in an area reserved only for the European expatriates. Also given to him was a Steward, and a midsized car suitable for a midsized garage. Feeling accomplished, S. O. married Beatrice Chuke of Obosi.
Ahoada catapulted Austine into full public service in the diverse Igbo community. On behest of the colonial administrators, Austine oversaw the collection of taxes, maintenance of law and order, monitoring of elections, and the review and adjudication of public petitions.
Everybody took notice when the new assistant division officer smoothed out a dispute about chieftaincy matters between the divisional officer, Tony St. Ledger, and Mpi, an uncompromising chief in the division with strong Igbo values. As a result of this accomplishment, Tony felt at home with Austin and visited frequently.
The day Tony St. Ledger visited
One day, when the Owerri sun had begun to wane, and families were hurrying to beat the impending darkness, a knock came on the door.
‘Dear, someone is knocking on the front door,’ said Austin to Beatrice.
A tall, agile Steward, eavesdropping, rushed to open the door and went out of sight again.
‘Please have a seat, Mr. St. Ledger,’ Beatrice said as a tanned white face gained entry into the living room.
Sitting across at the dining table, the division officer, and Austine chatted and chuckled.
‘Did you see what is in the recent Nigerian Gazette?’ Tony asked.
The agile Steward resurfaced, set a cool stout beer, a tumbler and a rabbit head opener in front of Tony, then docked in the kitchen and began to pluck fowl feathers.
‘No,’ answered Austine, his eyebrows raised in pleasant surprise.
‘The Federal Government of Nigeria is looking for Foreign Service officers for diplomatic service, and I think you are suited for the job. I will make the calls on your behalf.’ He tipped the last drop of beer into his mouth and leaned back in the chair.
Thrilled, Austine got up, hurried to the fridge, and claimed a bottle of beer for himself and another bottle of stout beer for Tony.
True to his promise, Tony made calls and got the support of many Igbo kingmakers, including Chief Jerome Udoji, the then Secretary of Eastern Nigeria. All agreed S.O. 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 to come fruition. At the local barber shop, S.O. had his hair trimmed, with a side track to the left. In the morning before departing to Lagos, relatives gathered to wish him farewell.
‘When a fish gets mature in the head it crosses the river to the ocean,’ said James Osuji, an uncle. ‘Like Moses and Abraham, who guided the Jews, our ancestors shall demolish all obstacles in your way,’ declared Lawrence, an older brother. ‘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 waited for his arrival.
His interview in Lagos was short and intense, and so was his stay. After the first question, it became clear to him that the capital city of Lagos was not ready for another Igbo personality eager to serve his motherland.
‘What made you leave Ahoada Division and the Eastern region?’ the first interrogator demanded.
‘To serve the motherland 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. He who endured Man-of-War Bay training will not succumb to hostility, S.O. swore in his mind.
‘Done,’ said the chairman of the federal task force, Alhaji Sule Katagum, with the wave of a left hand. Uncertain about the outcome of the interview, Austine went home and waited.
Many days later, the news came, the federal civil service commission had recommended S.O. to the Nigerian foreign ministry. Title: First Secretary and Head of Chancery to the Nigerian High Commission. Orientation: 3 weeks. Destination: Ghana
September of 1961
In September 1961 S.O. boarded a flight and left for Ghana, his host country, headed by an ambitious Nkrumah, a pan-Africanist, who dreamed of a day when he would not only rule his enclave but rule Nigeria and perhaps Africa.
Austine not only survived, but relished the rough and tumble of Ghanaian politics. Every opportunity to him became an occasion to showcase Nigeria to the world.
Meanwhile, back home, major ethnic groups, the Igbos in the East, the Hausas in the North and the Yorubas in the West were locked in mortal combat, an atmosphere which disintegrated into civil war in the year 1967.