From London to Africa, How a Diplomat Who Signed Up to Serve Nigeria, Ended Serving His People

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May 20, 1967: Days after a meeting with Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in Enugu at which he resigned from the Nigerian Foreign Ministry and pledged to transfer his services to the Igbos, Austine S.O. Okwu returned to the United States, packed a few personal belongings and hurried to London to start a Biafran Foreign Mission.

The Biafran Mission in London was different from any other he had participated in. Not because he had to build it from scratch – he had already done that in 1962 when he opened the first Nigerian diplomatic mission in Dar es Salem, Tanzania – but the urgency of the mission made it unique.

The measure of results was in minutes and hours. Unlike the upstart Igbo resistants, the Federal Republic of Nigeria had had months to dream of a war in which they would, in a matter of days, squash the Igbos the way ruthless lions devour orphan rabbits.

July 6, 1967: The Nigerian forces unleashed artillery bombs on the town of Ogoja. For Igbos to have a surviving chance, more so since they had no formidable military, a swift international engagement was a must.

Within hours of arrival, Okwu began to work the phone, renewing political and social contacts with journalists, students, youths and Igbo organizations.

Circumstances and time did not permit any of the usual diplomatic niceties of protocols, parades, parties, pay packages and bouquets of flowers accorded to foreign representatives. Instead, it was a low- to no-budget diplomatic squad, reminiscent of the manner in which Biafran soldiers fought the Nigerian invaders with fists, sickles, talisman, clubs, and wooden stakes.

Ambassador Martin at the Nigerian Embassy in Washington, DC, initially relieved when he heard Austine had quit, quickly became furious when he learned that the ex-Chancery head had been making calls and organizing seminars to educate the public about the suffering of the Igbos.

‘Austine knew too much! What is he going to disclose? Send a memo out to the Nigerian High Commissioner in London,’ Martin roared, ‘and ask London to frustrate and keep an eye on Mr. Okwu at all times.’

Beatrice, Okwu’s wife, called to confront him on the veiled threat. ‘He who has taken a venture must get ready for the penalty,’ he warned.

Oil and Weapons of War

As is always the case in wartime, whoever thinks faster and acts faster vanquishes the enemy.

Since oil money was the reason Nigeria invaded the Igbos, the Federal Government had an immediate plan to capture and secure the riverine oil area of Eastern Nigeria. And so did Austine.

To repel the federal forces from the oil area, Biafra needed sea and river combat arsenals. Austine wasted no time in making contacts and commitments with armed operatives. He called Enugu, the Biafran capital. ‘I have, ready for delivery, a dozen armed amphibious speedboats and submarines. Please answer,’ he pleaded.

His calls hit deaf ears. Perhaps the clatter of machine guns has drowned my calls, he wondered. At last, a late response came inquiring for the weapons. By then the Fed had captured the riverine area and imposed a naval blockade on the Eastern Region.

Rumors in Harmattan

Until someone gets a turn in the drama of life, they always see what others don’t see. So was the case three months after Austine went to London. A rumor arose and spread like Harmattan fire in the minds of cynics. Who among the Igbos was best suited to represent Biafra in London? A politician, a British-trained Igbo lawyer, an academician or a street-tested diplomat?

When the rumor dust settled, Austine S.O. got the message: Biafra needed him to leave London and go to East and Central Africa.

‘Why?’ he challenged the notion.

The answer came promptly, ‘Because of your experience and expertise in that region. We need you to persuade your old friends Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia to support Biafra.’

Lately, his mind had been swinging from the future to the past, on one level trying to foretell what the future held and on the other reflecting on the lessons of former times.

He remembered how, as the Acting Commissioner for Nigeria (1962-1964), he had met Prime Minister Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia he met in Ghana, earlier in 1962, while he was Nigerian Head of Chancery and young Kenneth was a freedom fighter soliciting introductions to Nigerian politicians. ‘He sure owes you a favor,’ his mind whispered.

‘But how does someone decide, when called, to leave wife and children and go to a faraway land to serve a besieged race of uncertain fate?’ Okwu asked himself repeatedly. Some decisions, he discerned, deserve input from trusted friends.

Reassignment to East and Central Africa

Emeka Anyaoku was a colleague whose opinion Austine valued a lot.

‘What should I do?’ Austine asked Mr. Anyaoku. ‘Rather than leave London and go to East and Central Africa, I’m considering resigning from the Biafran Foreign Mission.’

‘Austine,’ said Mr. Anyaoku, his voice assertive yet woven with brotherly courage, ‘you have to go. Recognition by countries in East Africa is vital if Biafra is to have a fighting chance. ‘My in-law,’ Mr. Anyaoku continued,’ nobody else could yield a better result. East and Central Africa are places you know very well. Please do not allow resignation to enter your mind. Quitting will deal an irrecoverable blow to Biafran morale.’

Austine concurred for a moment before saying, ‘But I feel that I have to stay in London, close to my family. Our kids are young, and they are beginning to worry about my absence, and will the Igbos be -?’

‘Listen, Austine,’ Mr. Anyaoku stepped in smoothly, ‘I feel your despair about family; I know you have made sacrifices over and over again, and as for the Igbos – let posterity judge.’

Following that conversation with Emeka Anyaoku, Austine broke the news to his wife, Beatrice.

‘I will return to East Africa,’ he said, with a noticeable crack in his voice which only silence would mend. In the next few days, Beatrice watched him pack two suitcases, selecting one brown shirt over a similar one, and rejecting black shoes over a brown pair. Three dome-topped hats went in, as did three multicolored bow ties, several pens, writing paper, and about ten folded newspapers, some old and some new.

Full diplomatic circle, and tasks at hand

Having served Nigeria in London and returned to the city to serve Biafra, and having served Nigeria in Tanzania from 1962 to 1964 and now set to go back in July of 1967 as the Biafran Ambassador, Austine marveled at how destiny had forced his career into a full diplomatic circle.

His task: to convince diplomats, Presidents, and countries of East and Central Africa to help Biafra fend off the might of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and stop any further bloodshed of the Igbos.

Even with a staff of just three -sometimes only two – Austine S.O. Okwu still had several enviable accomplishments for Biafra.

Paraphrasing from his book

‘At the risk of appearing arrogant, I will say for the record that I worked harder than any other person in bringing about the recognition of Biafra by Tanzania on May 8, 1968, and Zambia May 20, 1968.’

Author’s reflections

Amidst all other parallel diplomatic overtures, bombs and mortars, jet fighters, and bazookas, Ogbunigwe continued to wreak havoc on both the federal troops and the Biafra army and civilians through 1967, 1968, and the end of 1969. It wasn’t until January of 1970, after three million Igbos had died, including hundreds of thousands of Igbo children who starved to death, and with many families heartbroken over the loss of sons, daughters and parents, that Biafra surrendered – still a proud and unstoppable race.

A reference book

Details of Austine S.O. Okwu’s diplomatic services for Nigeria and for Biafra are to be found in his book, In Truth for Justice and Honor: A Memoir of a Nigerian-Biafran Ambassador. It is an indispensable resource for anyone who wants a firsthand account of events leading up to and during the Nigerian civil war: 1967-1970.

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