Ambassador Walter Carrington and his Wife, Dr. Arese, are one of the prominent couples in Nigeria. Both have very rich resumes. Amb. Carrington, graduated from the Havard Law School in the ‘50s and enlisted in the US Army before going into private law practice in Boston, Massachusetts. He later served as Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, and held various positions in the Peace Corps, including serving as Regional Director for Africa and was Executive Vice President of the African-American Institute. As a diplomat, he was US ambassador to Senegal in the early 80s and became US envoy to Nigeria in 1993, a position he occupied until 1997. Carrington was named Warburg Professor of International Relations at Simmons College in Boston in 2004. Dr Arese, a medical doctor and public health consultant, graduated from University College Hospital, Ibadan.
She obtained her Masters in Public Health from Harvard, where due to her distinguished record in school, she was elected as class marshal and also selected to represent all of the University’s graduate schools as the graduate orator at Harvard’s 2000 commencement – the first Nigerian to be accorded that honour. She had worked as Associate Director of the Harvard School of Public Health’s AIDS Prevention Initiative in Nigeria (APIN), and serves on the boards of directors of several organizations, including being Vice-President of the United Nations Association of Greater Boston and member of the visitng committee of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In an interview with Tokunbo Adedoja, the couple spoke on their marital life and their passion for Nigeria, among other issues
In a suite on the 6th floor of the Federal Palace Hotel located on Ahmadu Bello Way, Victoria Island, former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington, sat on a chair just by a window that gives a generous view of the aquatic splendour of Lagos. On a table in front of him was a laptop. He quietly scrolled through the content of a file on the computer. Though in his 80s, Ambassador Carrington looked fresh, young and agile, a sign of a strict dietary compliance and a clear proof of a man at peace with himself. Few inches away, Arese, his wife, sat on a sofa in the modest but beautifully furnished suite. The love and bond between the couple were clearly visible. At a point before the interview, Amb. Carrington requested for a glass of water. Seconds later, Arese was back with the glass of water, a hug and a kiss on his right cheek. Minutes later, all was set for the interview with one of the prominent couples in Nigeria.
“Why are you so passionate about Nigeria?”, the question was directed at Ambassador Carrington.
“I think it has to do with a number of things. I think it was highlighted by my four years here serving as ambassador and seeing what was going on and watching the struggle for democracy. And ofcourse, when I met my wife and we married and I became an inlaw of Nigeria, and my deep love for my wife. When I returned to the United States, I felt that I was half Nigerian as well as half American. So, that really deepened my understanding and affection and concern for Nigeria”, he replied.
But beyond that, his passion for Nigeria also has its roots in his childhood experience. He had relatives who lived in Nigeria before the Second World War, and the tales told by them in the US stirred his curiosity about Africa, in general, and Nigeria, in particular.
“It actually began when I was a child. I had an uncle who had worked here before the second world war for about 20 years with the Nigerian Railways, and I have five cousins who were born here. And when I used to go visit them when they came back to the United States in Brooklyn, New York, the boys, who were older than I, would always try to impress and threaten me by telling their stories of growing up in Africa. Of how, while growing up in Lagos, to prove their manhood, they would go and fight lions and tigers.
They would tell me all these stories. Ofcourse, I learnt later that there were no tigers at all in Africa and if they were going out to fight lions, they were not going to find them on the streets of Lagos,” he said, as he recalled those tales told several decades ago.
It was also a period when the United Nations was at its early stage and delegations from various countries seeking independence would visit New York to present their cases. Even at that early age, he started learning about Nigeria from Nigerians who came to the US. He would eavedrop on their conversation each time they visited his uncle, who had known a lot of them while living and working in Nigeria. Years later, an opportunity came for him to visit the country shortly before independence for a first hand experience of the land and people of Nigeria.
“I began to learn about this country Nigeria which was actually the first foreign country I really got any personal kind of feeling for so that Nigeria was always a place that I was fascinated by. And then I came up here for the first time leading a group of students on a summer programme. We lived with a group of students in Ibadan, in Lagos, in Enugu, Port Harcourt and Kano and Kaduna. So I got to see a lot of the country then, and this was the year before the independence, in 1959. I got to see what the great hopes were for Nigeria. So there had been a combination of things which have bonded me with Nigeria. Nigeria is really the great country of Africa and has so much potentials and it is a country I think all of the black world looks up to for leadership. I guess I am passionate about Nigeria.”
Years after military rule, he still has his worries about Nigeria. The alarming rate of brain-drain is one of such worries. He said an estimated three million or more Nigerians live and work in United States and Canada. “That is a huge pool of talents that could be so effective here if we can persuade them that things are different and that they have to come back”, he said.
He also identified reasons why thousands of Nigerians who emigrated abroad had not returned home. Conducive environment, security and perception are three of such reasons.
“I think you’ve really got to establish an environment here which will make them feel comfortable in coming back home, feel comfortable in being able to pursue their professions here without having to get involved in playing politics in the sense of having to curry favour, paying bribes or that kind of thing. I think that is a very important component of it. Another reason is the question of security and there have been so many cases, in the past two years, of kidnappings, and that sort of things. People being killed on the road by robbers. So that affects people back in the United States. It is also a question of perception. You really got to change the question of perception that so many Nigerians have in the United States.”
He believes that there is a nexus between insecurity and poverty. Attempting to explain the rising wave of insecurity in the country, he said: “At the same time, one has to understand the economic underpinings of a lot of these problems – that you have too much poverty in this country, too many poor people, too many people that are very easy for demogogues to appeal to and to persuade that the only way that they can get what is theirs is by doing these very things.
“So, you find in all parts of the world that crime and kidnappings and all that, are linked to lack of opportunities and where you have countries that are very well off and where not only that the top people are doing well, but people at the bottom see ways of rising up through the system, you have far less crime. So, I think that is one of the things that has to happen here. That people can feel that they have an opportunity to better their situation and when they begin to feel that, then they will begin to feel that they have a stake in the country. And you get far less crime and far less feelings on the part of people who involve themselves in crime or terrorism or what have you, that they have the support of the people and that they can do this with impunity.”
Was his love for a Nigerian lady who later became his wife responsible for his active role in pro-democracy struggle in the dark days of military rule, even at the expense of being expelled from the country?
Again, he went down memory lane. “Well, I think growing up in the United States at the time that I did, and being active in the civil rights movement as a student gave me the passion for human rights and for human dignity so that when I came here, I still had that feelings that I had while growing up in the civil rights movement. And in the civil rights movement, I was also very active in the anti-apartheid movement in the United States, fighting against apartheid in South Africa. I have been a student activist and I have been an activist in my adult life. So, coming here, I realised that there was a democratic movement that was burgeoning in Africa as a whole.
“I had worked for a while for a think-tank in Washington that was a major black think-tank and they asked me to set up an international programme and I worked on questions of African democracy. I got to meet a lot of people from all over Africa who were fighting for human rights. So, when I came here, two weeks after I arrived, the Abacha coup took place and here I was no longer looking at these issues in a theoretical way but facing them in a very personal way.
“And I saw a lot of very brave people, many Nigerians being arrested, being thrown into prisons. I just felt I just have to speak out. I couldn’t be a passive observer of what was going on and being a diplomat gave me the impunity to speak out at times when it was very dificult for Nigerians to do so, and I just felt that being an ambassador made me not just being the representative of my President to the head of state of another country, but it also meant, fundamentally, being the American representative to the people of the country. And as I saw the people of the country more and more rising up against the military dictatorship, it seemed to me that I had to do what I could to try to assist their efforts.”
The former envoy would however not want to dabble into the debates over the proposed national conference. He would rather leave that to Nigerians to decide, when his view was sought on the issue as someone who had previously supported calls for dialogue.
He said: “Ofcourse, during the Abacha years, the whole question of sovereign national conference was a big issue, the one that was pushed very strongly by prodemocracy and human rights groups, and as a way of getting rid of military rule. And now again, you have to call for a national conference. I was quite outspoken on the question of national conference in the Abacha situation when we had a military administration. I think now you have a civilian rule and an open political system. I read in the newspapers and on the internet, the different views that people have. I think that is one thing I will rather stay out of. It is a Nigerian thing for Nigerians to decide. So, I try not to get involve in domestic political issues. And this is one issue that has people on both sides with different kinds of opinions. I think I will rather learn from what Nigerians are saying than to think that I will have much to contribute to this, looking at it from outside.”
As interesting as the story of his growing up days and contact with Nigeria is, so is the story of how he met his wife while serving as US envoy to Nigeria. He had always wanted to know more about Nigeria and its people. That passion for Nigeria actually paid off. Beyond sourcing for information about the country, he got something more – a wife. Interestingly, he got what he wanted just shortly after presenting his letter of credence. Like most men would do when it comes to love, he saw what he wanted and he went for it. It is a story that Amb. Carrington would love to tell again and again.
“I met her a couple of weeks after I arrived. When you arrive as a new ambassador, you are kind of non-person until you present your credentials. You don’t go out to public events and all that. So, I presented my credentials and the first public event I went to was the national day of the Belgians. It was a big garden party and I walked in, I didn’t know many people there and I looked across the garden and I saw this very beautiful woman and I asked someone who she was and was told that was Doctor Opomo. And so, I went over and began talking with her and became fascinated. You know it’s a long story…..”
It was the first time they met and if anything would have to come out of that meeting, then there must be follow up meetings. This wasn’t a difficult issue for Amb. Carrington. He simply leveraged on his diplomatic privileges to create another opportunity.
“When a famous singer came here and was billed to do a concert at my residence, so I invited Dr. Opomo to come and then the attraction began,” he said, chuckling as he began to describe his wife’s sterling attributes and the marital bliss they enjoy.
“She is a very intelligent, a dedicated person who believes, as I do, in using the skills which we have been able to gain through our education, etcetera, on behalf of people who have not been so fortunate. So, we share a lot of the same views and ideas. Ofcourse, during the time of Abacha, she was always by my side, never cautioning me to step back. She was always right there. She believes in the cause of democracy and human rights, the same way I did. So, we are really two people who have the same way of dedication to certain ideas. And so, it’s been very good and she has done very well in the states interms of being involved in various kinds of issues.”
Has cultural differences been a challenge in their relationship? “Ofcourse, there were certain differences in culture and the way in which things are done”, he said, noting that language was one of such because most Nigerians learn their English in the British tradition and refer to things in different ways using different kinds of phrases from the way an American would do.
“But that is a small thing”, he quickly added, saying they have found a way around it.
“Arese has adapted exceedingly well to US and ofcourse there is a large Nigerian community, as I said, in United States. There are many things that come up in terms of cultural differences but ….. I learnt about the way certain things would be done in Nigeria, she learnt about the way certain things would be done in the states”.
Even though he sees himself as half Nigerian, half America, Amb. Carrington still can’t speak Nigerian languages. He would readily admit that one of his regrets was not being able to speak a Nigerian language fluently, though he has picked up a couple of phrases from his wife.
“That is really one of the regrets, that I really did not learn when I came. I really hoped to do that but unfortunately I just couldn’t. I know a few phrases here and there. But when my wife speaks, to her sister or to our daughter, Bini language, I would say, “wait a minute, are you talking about me?” (laughs). I wished that I had learnt more. On the other hand, there are just so many languages here, and if as ambassador, I had learnt one very well and not the others, that would not be good. So, the thing is that if I was going to learn one, I was going to learn as much in others as I did in that one.”
For Dr. Arese, her marriage to Amb. Carrington has been blissful. “It’s been wonderful being married to my husband”, she said with a smile and a sense of fulfilment. Being married to a foreigner does not make any difference and for her, she would not even agree that her husband is a foreigner.
“I don’t really think it matters whether the person is a foreigner or the person is a diplomat. I think it depends on the persons themselves. Aside from the fact that I am married to a diplomat, I don’t see my husband as a foreigner. He is ‘omowale’ which makes him one of us.”
She couldn’t find enough suitable words to describe her husband when asked to do so. Rather, she simply said: “Like he said being married to me was one of the best things in his life, I also feel that being married to him is one of the best things in my life. I sit back and think, so we’ve been married for quite a while now. It’s always seems like yesterday. It’s always seems renewed. I think it is a blessing to have a blessed marriage because in marriage you are living day in day out with somebody. If it is a stressful situation, it will age and wear one out quickly, but if it is a blissful situation, you find that you feel renewed all the time. And in my marriage, I feel renewed all the time to my husband. So it’s wonderful. He is a wonderful person.”
What is the secret of their marital bliss? Her response was quick. “I think in terms of marriage, you have to have similar goals and I am married to somebody that we have the same passion and their is also that respect, there is the devotion, there is the love and there is the unity which are important ingredients and I feel very blessed. I think that basically in a marriage once there are those key things, then you can sit back and not be stressed and enjoy your marriage. Those key factors unite a marriage, bond it together.”
About two decades of marriage have also had huge impact on their lives and interests. They share so many things in common. For instance, Ambassador Carrington’s best food is Jollof rice, a popular dish in West Africa but significantly popular among Nigerians. His love for it has also influenced her choice of food.
“Years back I could have told you that easily, which would have been fried plantain, but I think now there is a balance. I also like jollof rice,” she said in response to a question on her best food.
Dr. Arese is passionate about good governance, the girl child, the poor and less privileged, and she also believes that the nation must invest heavily in its youth as a path to greatness.
According to her: “Individual acts of kindness and charity are great but it has to go beyond that. Policies have got to start changing.The under-served and poor must be given a chance, and a future to hope for.
“Don’t discount future gains. If we can invest in our youth today, the nation will reap the benefits. Our youth are one of the greatest future gains we can invest in. There is a great opportunity cost for the country and even the world at large for every child we leave without healthcare or education.The future is easy to discount because it is but a figment of our imagination, in reality today is that future that could have been well accounted for.”
A daughter of Edo in South South Nigeria, Arese is passionate about seeing Nigeria achieve its potentials. She holds a strong view that the nation has no reason to be stagnated in spite of its huge natural and human resources. She believes Nigeria has everything its needs for greatness, and that Nigerians themselves are great people that are specially gifted.
“And it is something that as a nation, we should not waste. We should make sure that we harness that potential as individuals, we harness that potentials as a nation”, she said.
Remembering the halcyon days nostalgically, and focusing on her area of core competence, Arese said: “I graduated in 1980 at UCH, Ibadan. I remember a time when University College Ibadan was recognised all over the world. Even as a student in Ibadan then, we had students coming in (from overseas) to study their medicine at UCH. And I think that over the years, healthcare has been neglected and emphasis has not been paid to it. You’ve had the rapid dilapidation of the system, which is very unfortunate. When you think of it, the most important aspects a nation has to ensure that they focus on are things like health. It’s an old saying, “health is wealth”.
“We should go back and focus on our healthcare system. We have no reason to have people having to go for medical care overseas. Nigeria should be a center for medical tourism. Most of the best doctors in the United States, top cardiologists, top neurologists, you go and find out their names, they are Nigerians. If our best and brightest need to go overseas before they can realise their potentials, it is something very sad. And we have to rethink the whole healthcare system, focus on it, make our hospitals, whether state hospitals or national hospitals, make them centers of pride with the best equipment, the best trained doctors, and focus more on healthcare of the nation.”
Even though Nigerians are known for their apetite for foreign goods and services, she believes all that would change when steps are taken to build confidence in the people about local facilities and competence of the human resources.
“First of all, I think the confidence would be easy to be built back in the people when they see that the hospitals are well equipped with all the different equipment and medicines and things needed for treatment. I mean, a doctor can be the best doctor, if he doesn’t have the tools to work with, if he doesn’t have tools to diagnose with, there is nothing much he can do. Labs have to be well equipped for them to be able to send specimen to the lab and get accurate result. Once that is in place, I am sure that lots of people will have that confidence back that Nigeria is capable of treating whatever they have.”
Dr. Arese also observed that Nigeria was not in short supply of blueprints for the development of its healthcare system. She recalled that 30 years ago, she went to the ministry of health and was going through some papers and saw that there were so many blueprints for the health system. “If we had even followed some of them, we would be far ahead in healthcare”, she said.
“I remember when Professor Ransome Kuti was around, he had the primary healthcare system, which was meant to focus on primary healthcare being accessible at every single level, not just when you get to the tertiary level of healthcare. We need to go back and adopt some of these brilliant ideas. Writing something on paper is one thing, implementing them is another. We’ve had different committees come together, brilliant papers being put together. Implementation is the problem. So, we need to start implementation.”
Though based in Massachussetts, United States, the couple visits Nigeria frequently as special guests at state events or keynote speakers and guest lecturers in symposia, colloquia or other public fora. They are also regular faces at Nigerian-related events in the US. This provides good opportunity for them to keep close tabs on development in the country.
“Well there is no place like home and so a lot of time I wake up, go online to read about what is happen in Nigeria. Although a lot of the news are a little difficult to swallow because you wonder why are we still in this situation. I dont think I can ever give up hope on Nigeria. I continue to hope for Nigeria. My husband and I continue to see how we can help in ways that we can promote Nigeria, guide and direct in the right path. So that hopefully, eventually it reaches that promise land.”
Sadly, a lot of news emanating from the country are not palatable. One of such was the last plane crash around the Lagos Airport. She felt a personal loss and in a low tone, Arese said: “It is extremely sad and as a matter of fact it is something that I am talking about with a heavy heart. First of all, my heart and sympathy go to all the victims and their families. I am overwh elmed talking about this topic. It is something that is difficult for me to do. I just lost my mom, the burial was a couple of months ago and MIC was incharge of the burial, and I remember talking to Tunji, just before I left Nigeria last time. He was very supportive when we lost our dad and also when I lost my mum. And to hear what happened, I don’t like to think about it. I just like to think that it didn’t happen.
“Each time something like this happen, we say never again, we say we are going to do something about it, and then again its happens. We really need to start taking human lives seriously and making sure that we invest in what should be invested in. The country just need to focus and evaluate things. When something is not working, we need to overhaul it. We need to change it, so, it works. I am not a technical person in aviation, I won’t go into that because it is not my field. But mere looking at it as a lame person, there is obviously something wrong in the system and I think its needs to be looked into.”
But the news emanating from the country are not only about negative occurences. There are also good stories. For instance, in the midst of the sad tales about Nigeria’s education system, there was still a good news, she noted. “My husband was the convocation lecturer for the 29th convocation of the University of Ilorin. That was my first time of visiting University of Ilorin, though I am from University of Ibadan, Great UI. I must say that I was extremely impressed with what I saw at the university of Ilorin and I think that for being a university that just celebrated their 29th convocation, they have come a long way. There is a lot of discipline in the universty and you can see also that the university is expanding.
“First of all, regarding to the compound of the university, it is a massive expanse of land. it is unbelievable and all very well utilised and even the bit not utilised yet, they have a long term plan for it. You can see that the Vice Chancellor, the academic staff, they are all devoted to the students and to the enhancement of the university, not just within Nigeria, but beyond, on a global level. From what I saw, it is a kind of university that you can speak for overseas and when there is collaboration to be done in studies, it is a university I will have no problem at all in recommending to people and saying University of Ilorin would be a good match. I know you are an alumnus of that school. I was very happy to be there and pleasantly surprised as well.”
Putting Nigeria on the path of greatness requires concerted efforts of all, she posited. Dr. Arese is of the view that if people begin to realise that everybody has a role to play in helping Nigeria reach the promised land, then the journey to the promised land would be faster.
“You elect somebody, hold them accountable. Ask them questions, discuss where you want your country to go to, demand where you want your country to go to. That is your role. And if you are in government, you have a role to play. You have to realise you were put there to serve the people, to take the nation to that promised land. Every one can’t just leave it to one group and say, ‘oh, they are the one doing it’. If you have not played your role, even if you feel you are just a common man on the street, if you’ve not played your own role, then you are also to blame because you have not held people accountable.
“I think there is always hope and I think we should help Nigeria swim to that shore and not let it drown in distress. It takes two to tango. People have to begin to fight for their rights, to demand their rights. If people just sit back and just accept it as one of those things or accept it as the Nigerian factor, then things will never change. It will continue to be the Nigerian factor, “ she advised.