A tribute to Professor Austine SO Okwu at age 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-Biafra Ambassador.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the British were tired of ruling Nigeria. For the government, they had divided the country into regions, provinces, and divisions. As the date of his departure approached there was a long list of services to deliver to the locals.
In 1958, Austine SO was one of several young men who applied for a senior service position. As she sat down to fill out the job application form, she thought about what the fortune teller had predicted about him. How in November, or perhaps December, 1924, he would not descend from the womb until his relatives, vehemently opposed to British-type education, made an exception and promised divinity that he would be allowed to follow in the footsteps of the whites . , and he sits at school.
Weeks passed and some applicants, including Austine, were invited to Enugu, in eastern Nigeria, to face a civil service commission headed by Mr. Felix Iheanacho.
‘Indicate your name, date of birth and place of origin,’ asked the main interviewer.
‘Sir, I am Austine Okwu, born in November, perhaps December 1924, to Egbu Owerri.
‘Young man, make up your mind, pick a month and a date,’ said another interviewer.
‘Birth registration didn’t exist when I was born, and my parents didn’t go to school.’ Not unusual considering the time, and the interrogation proceeded.
‘How can you help maintain law and order in the division?’
SO approached the edge of the wooden chair where he was sitting, supported both shoulders and with wide eyes said: ‘The problem is twofold. First, good policies are often turned bad by their inhumane executions. Second, even bad policies could be turned into good ones through human interpretation and implementation to help the community. The collective welfare of the governed,’ he continued, ‘is the most important reason for governance.’
Swept out of his seat by such a spontaneous response, the chair circled the table. ‘Shiny!’ he said he and hugged SO
After three months of mentoring that included a ten-day near-death experience at the Man-of-War Bay training camp in Cameroon, where Austine nearly drowned when he tried to touch the bottom of a bay of the Atlantic Ocean, was assigned to work as an officer in the Ahoada division, under Tony St. Ledger.
Suddenly, fortune followed him in the form of a house in an area reserved only for European expats. He was also given a butler and a medium-sized car suitable for a medium-sized garage. Feeling accomplished, SO married Beatrice Chuke from Obosi.
Ahoada catapulted Austine into full public service in the diverse Igbo community. At the behest of the colonial administrators, Austine oversees the collection of taxes, the maintenance of law and order, the supervision of elections, and the review and adjudication of public petitions.
Everyone took notice when the division’s new deputy director resolved a dispute over leadership issues between division officer Tony St. Ledger and Mpi, a die-hard division chief with strong Igbo values. As a result of this accomplishment, Tony felt at home with Austin and visited him often.
The day Tony St. Ledger visited
One day, when the Owerri sun had begun to decline and families were hurrying to overcome the approaching darkness, there was a knock at the door.
“Honey, someone is knocking on the front door,” Austin told Beatrice.
A tall, agile butler, eavesdropping, hurried to open the door and was out of sight again.
“Please have a seat, Mr. St. Ledger,” Beatrice said as a white and tan face entered the sitting room.
Sitting across from the dining room table, the division officer and Austine chatted and laughed.
‘Did you see what’s in the recent Nigerian Gazette?’ Tony asked.
The agile Butler resurfaced, placed a cold beer, a glass, and a rabbit-head opener in front of Tony, then docked in the kitchen and began plucking the birds.
“No,” Austine answered, raising her eyebrows in pleasant surprise.
‘The Nigerian Federal Government is seeking Foreign Service Officers for the diplomatic service, and I think you are fit for the job. I’ll make the calls on your behalf. She poured the last drop of beer into her mouth and leaned back against the meat.
Excited, Austine got up, ran to the fridge and ordered a bottle of beer for himself and another bottle of stout for Tony.
True to his promise, Tony made calls and garnered the support of many Igbo kingmakers, including Chief Jerome Udoji, then Secretary of Eastern Nigeria. All SO agreed 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 to the left. On the morning before leaving for Lagos, family members gathered to see him off.
“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 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 awaited his arrival.
His interview in Lagos was brief and intense, as was his stay. After the first question, it was clear to him that the capital city of Lagos was not ready for another Igbo personality willing to serve his homeland.
‘What made you leave the Ahoada 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. He who endured the Man-of-War Bay training will not succumb to hostility, SO swore in her mind.
“Done,” said the chairman of the federal task force, Alhaji Sule Katagum, with a wave of his left hand. Unsure of the outcome of the interview, Austine went home and waited.
Many days later, the news broke, the federal civil service commission had recommended SO to the Nigerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Position: First Secretary and Chief Chancellor of the High Commission of Nigeria. Orientation: 3 weeks. Destination: Ghana
In September 1961, SO boarded a flight and left for Ghana, his host country, led by an ambitious Nkrumah, a Pan-Africanist, who dreamed of a day when he would not only rule his enclave, but also Nigeria and perhaps Africa.
Austine not only survived, but enjoyed the turmoil of Ghanaian politics. Every opportunity for him became an opportunity to show Nigeria to the world.
Meanwhile, back home, the main ethnic groups, the Igbo in the east, the Hausa in the north and the Yoruba in the west were locked in mortal combat, an atmosphere that disintegrated into civil war in 1967. .