On the 11th Of December, 2017, the high and mighty of Nigerian society gathered at the Civic Centre in Victoria Island to celebrate the Carringtons – Arese and her spouse – Walter.
The ostensible reason for the celebration was the public presentation of Arese’s book – Defend the Defenseless. In reality it was just another opportunity for people – especially in the South West of Nigeria and its predominant political tendency, to show love and appreciation to the Carringtons for the role they had played in recent Nigerian history.
Some of that history comes forth in Mrs Carrington’s book in tawdry detail from which even the most hard-boiled, harassed and frustrated citizen, immersed in the multifarious incommodiousness of 2017 Nigeria, would recoil instinctively.
One page describes a scene of little Arese, all of eight years old, looking on during the period when ‘Biafrans’ occupied the ‘Mid-West’, as a ‘man in long robe’ – clearly a Nigerian of Northern extraction, probably a man who had made Benin city his home for several years – initially hidden by his neighbours but later betrayed ‘because they were tired of hiding him’ – is gunned down in cold blood and full public glare by ‘Biafran’ soldiers.
Fast forward a few months thence.
Benin is ‘liberated’ by ‘Federal troops’.
Tragedy comes in the most banal detail.
‘…One afternoon my siblings and I were playing in the living room of our house…Again there was pandemonium on the street…Apparently an Igbo man was running from the federal soldiers. A mob cornered him right by the gate of our house. The man denied his ethnicity, swearing he was neither Igbo nor a Biafran solider. The mob shouted back ‘…He is a Biafran soldier…kill am, kill am.’ The man put his hand on his head saying ‘…I no be who dey say I be. I swear to God’ His last word betrayed him when he said ‘Chineke’ which is the Igbo word for God. Then next thing I saw was the man gunned down…’
‘Defend the Defenseless’ is a quaint title for a book. It sounds at once naïve, pretentious, even didactic. The logic for the choice of name only becomes clear as the reader gets into the story. And the story is that Arese Ukpoma, a little Nigerian girl normally resident in Ikoyi, Lagos, was taken by her father – a water engineer and top federal civil servant who once headed Iju Waterworks along with her seven siblings on an ill-timed holiday to their Benin home during the early days of the Nigerian Civil War. While they were there, things suddenly took a dramatic turn for the worse, and the ‘Biafrans’ – under Colonel Banjo, invaded and captured Benin and the rest of the ‘Mid-West’. A Colonel Okonkwo went on radio an announced the birth of ‘Benin Republic’, ‘in close alliance with ‘Biafra’, with himself as ‘Administrator’.
Things rapidly went down-hill.
The Biafrans were paranoid, fearful of an impending ‘federal’ counter-attack. They were looking for ‘traitors’ and ‘collaborators’. They were especially interested in ‘federal civil servants’ and other people who had ties to the Nigerian government. In the market places of Benin, where the rumour mill thrived, a list of names of people to be sought out and ‘eliminated’ was making the rounds. Prominent on the list was Arese’s father.
To reduce their footprint, the family would try to ‘disappear’ into their ancestral homes in the countryside. But it was futile, as the countryside was being scoured by the Biafrans for ‘saboteurs’.
Soon it was obvious that they would have to flee back to Lagos. But the only route of escape lay in a hazardous journey through the forest, through the creeks, on an overloaded fisherman’s boat sailing in the dead of night. Not a journey for man and wife with several children. The father would resort to the Solomonic dictum of dividing his family in two. Four children would travel with him. The other three – the youngest would be left behind in Benin to await rescue at a later date.
His parting words as he made to sneak out through the back of the house with his local guide were to Arese. He was leaving her younger siblings in her charge. ‘You are to defend the defenseless’.
What title could be more apt for the story of her life?
Their father and the children he took with him would at length get to Okitipupa, and eventually to Lagos.
The family would, in time, be reunited.
Oh – there was another family detail pertaining to those days of danger and fear when a little girl was living through the experience of her parents’ ancestral home under the thumb of ‘Biafra’. A group of American ‘Peace Corps’ volunteers were caught up in the Mid West after the outbreak of war. The duty of personally coming to gather up the trapped Americans and marshaling them back home to safety fell to the Regional Director of the Peace Corps in West Africa – a certain Walter Carrington. It was conceivable that in moving round Benin city to gather up his charge, he might have passed in front of the gate of the little girl and his future wife – Arese.
Oh- the twists and turns of History!
The Chairman of the occasion, Chief Ogunshola, gave a long speech that was effectively a review of the book.
Professor Abass – Lagos State Commissioner for External Affairs, whose government was the sponsor of the event, made a few ‘comments’. He insisted he was not giving a ‘review’, which Arese had requested, following his confession to her that, after receiving his advance copy of the book on a trip to the USA, he had stayed up all night reading it from cover to cover.
There were all manner of people in the hall. Adebayo Williams – political thinker and wordsmith. Frederick Fasheun – how did one describe Frederick Fasheun – pray? The Olowo-Eko, Oba Rilwan Akiolu. Stalwarts of NADECO and Afenifere.
The programme described Fola Adeola as ‘Chief Launcher’. You found that assignment intriguing for the man you knew. You waited to see how he would discharge the duties of his office. To your mind Fola either disdained or valued money so much he never talked about it. You remembered him playing the same role at the launch of your book ‘Batolica’, during his hey-day at the helm of GTB, how he made a generous purchase of a large number of copies but deftly wriggled out of the mention of any sum of money.
Up on the podium, he made some edgy jokes about people on the ‘High Table’ – Walter Carrington – former Ambassador of USA to Nigeria, who had ‘stolen’ a ‘Benin treasure’ (Arese). The Olowo-Eko, who had just pronounced him his ‘Financial Adviser’, but had failed to state the terms of his engagement. Even his neighbour, with whom he shared a fence – Baba ‘Jebu – Chief Adebutu Kessington, the Asoju Oba of Lagos. According to Fola, Chief Adebutu was the true ‘Chief Launcher’ for whom he was holding fort. He duly took the microphone to Baba ‘Jebu for confirmation. The latter promptly denied any such arrangement, but went on to buy ten copies of the book, each for a hefty sum of money. .
Fola would round off his pitch by naming a hefty sum to buy copies for ‘Iga Idunganran’ – the palace of the Oba of Lagos, and for himself.
Perhaps spurred on by the crowd’s warm reception of his comedy, he went into overdrive, putting some VIPs on the spot to name their ‘donations’.
He came a cropper when he tried to grab the arm of Wole Soyinka to ‘say something’. The Nobel Laureate wriggled free and made his escape.
Among the high points of Arese’s book are depictions of events during the darkest days of Nigeria’s recent history – the days of the Abacha tyranny, as ‘the goggled one’ struggled to stabilize and perpetuate himself in power, killing, arresting and hounding everyone who stood in his way.
Walter Carrington was a thorn in the flesh of the Abacha person and his regime, using the leverage of his office as Ambassador of the most powerful nation on earth to condemn actions ranging from the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa to the imprisonment of Obasanjo. By now he had carried off his ‘Benin treasure’, and Arese was ensconced in the American Embassy, Lagos, as American citizen and wife of the Ambassador.
The book reveals that Mariam Abacha and an unnamed General’s wife met with Arese at various times and sought to get her to use her feminine wiles to get the Ambassador to soften his hostility. There was a broad hint that she could name the figure of her bribe.
The announcement that Walter would be ending his tour of duty after four years in Nigeria must have come as welcome relief to the government of Nigeria.
But even his departure rituals were to take on a bizarre and surreal air of danger that is difficult to comprehend with the sensibilities of the present day ‘democratic’ Nigeria.
Several people were eager to organize ‘farewell parties’ for the couple. Abacha was peeved that the speeches at these events had become a platform for attacking his government, and was determined that there would be no more.
A final party was due to be held at the home of Pa Onasanya in Surulere. When the Carringtons arrived in their diplomatic car, they found the road barred by ‘Security Agents’. Undaunted one of the organisers jumped into the car with them to lead them to the new, impromptu venue.
As they drove along, they realized they were being trailed by ‘Security-men’. They manoeuvred deftly through side-streets, led by their ‘embedded’ guide. After a while, they thought they had ‘lost’ their ‘tail’.
The destination was Abraham Adesanya’s house.
When they entered through the tall gate into premises surrounded by a high fence, they found a crowd of ‘pro-democracy’ people waiting to welcome them.
Just as the party was swinging into life, there was a loud crashing sound. The tall gate of Chief Adesanya’s fence was torn down by a ‘security’ vehicle. Armed ‘security-men’ spilled into the compound and directed the party to disperse, pointing their guns and threatening to shoot. Nobody was to make any more speeches.
Arese recalled a particular security-man speaking into his radio, perhaps directly to the goggled one
‘Yes sir, we have found them’.
One man stepped forward and confronted one of the armed men. It was – yes, Gani Fawehinmi.
In the writer’s description, Gani pulled his shirt open.
Again in the writer’s description, a gun was levelled. Then a superior officer stepped forward and asked the gunman to step down.
Walter and Arese Carrington were, and still are, believers in the greatness and promise of Nigeria. So, to all appearances, were all the people gathered at the Civic Centre on this particular morning to celebrate them.