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EPITOME OF DIPLOMATIC FINESSE AND SAVOIR FAIRE: AMBASSADOR IGNATIUS OLISEMEKA AT 90!

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By Boladei Igali

On Saturday, 12th March, 2022, elder statesman and moralist, Ambassador Ignatius Olisemeka attained the transcendental age of 90. Better known as Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary, Principal Envoy, Head of Mission, High Commissioner, Chef de Mission Diplomatique (CMD), he remains Nigeria’s surviving ace of diamonds in the diplomatic sphere.

With an exceptionally personable visage, it seemed by a long shot, that he would attain that age so early. Not surprising, encomiums poured in from Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, home Governor of Delta State, Ifeanyi Okowa, Ohaneze Ndigbo, the Pan Igbo flagship body, Association of Retired Career Ambassadors of Nigeria (ARCAN) and from around the world.

Although he was born in Kaduna, the heart of northern Nigeria, his paternal root in Ibuzor (Ibusa) Delta State, informs his given names, Chukwuemeka which in his Anioma dialect of Igbo language means appreciation of the benevolence of God.

However, the more arcane Latin rooted name, Ignatius within the domain of Roman Catholicism, is prescient of the future of the child. Like the famed 2nd century Catholic martyr, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and the later St Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuits Order in the 15th century, the bouncing baby boy was presaged to sail boundless across various shores.

Ninety years after, Olisemeka, has left not only the entire Nigerian Foreign Service community but a good section of the political class in exceptional adulation and near hero-worshipping. He was at various times, Nigeria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador to the United States of America and High Commissioner to Canada as well as Ambassador to Israel. Olisemeka had also served as Nigeria’s Ambassador to Spain, just as he was accredited to the Holy See (the Vatican) and was at a time, Nigeria’s High Commissioner to Kenya and Lesotho respectively. Before then, he had traversed the world as a career diplomat and left a mark as one of the most outstanding in his generation.

In other respects, Olisemeka was one of the early Directing Staff at the National Institute of Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Kuru, Jos, two years after its establishment in 1986. At NIPSS, Olisemeka left a mark as being amongst the most outstanding minds that provided capacity in leadership and statesmanship training to many of the top names in the military at the time. Much later in retirement, he continued to serve Nigeria as Pro Chancellor of National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN)

STRENGTH OF CHARACTER

Throughout his public service, Olisemeka was known as a man of very strong principles, and could, in the estimation of some, be regarded as self-opinionated or cocky. He often stuck to his guns, and was known while in service, to have often treaded a lonely path of fixated positioning on issues of professional standards, ethics, integrity and accountability.

A few stances will suffice.

It could be easily recalled that at the point of the hurried movement of the Federal Capital from Lagos to Abuja in 1990, Olisemeka, who was a Federal Permanent Secretary, took up the gauntlet to caution the military authorities led by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida against planned coercing of the Diplomatic Corps to abruptly close down their Embassies in Lagos. Considering the prevailing mood in the country shortly after the failed 1990 military coup, his views could be termed courageous, but that was quintessentially Olisemeka. Eventually, a common understanding was arrived at to allow the diplomatic community open liaison offices in Abuja as well as permit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to keep a robust liaison office in the former capital, Lagos.

Another interesting incident which made the gossip rounds at the erstwhile Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters, then in Wuse Zone 3 was his altercation with a self-appointed friend and admirer. On his assumption as Minister, the said individual who was a top official from another government department approached Olisemeka to offer counsel on how he could speedily make money from his privileged position. The story has it, that after thanking his guest for his “unpleasant” offer, Olisemeka excoriated him severely on his gallantry in corruption and disservice to Nigeria. Threatening to call the police on him, it took the quick intervention of aides to help the totally disgraced top official vanish, as it were, from the office.

In his continued obstinacy and firmness of mind, Olisemeka was, at a time, able to take on former President Olusegun Obasanjo over his perceived “undiplomatic” appointments of Ambassadors following the country’s return to civilian rule in 1999. All over the world, Foreign Service is made up of career personnel who have risen through the years and naturally expect to enjoy their career fulfillment by becoming Ambassadors. In Nigeria, even under military rule, the method had been to keep it on the ratio of 70:30 in favour of careerists vis-à-vis politicians. Shockingly, the return to democracy under the Fourth Republic saw a different kettle of fish as the pendulum swung in favour of the non-professionals. In his widely published letters, Olisemeka repeatedly tackled the then president on the matter. Sadly, the status quo still remains!

He was also a busybody of sorts on national issues and spared no efforts to bare his mind on the decaying moral fibre in the society. He had on several occasions delivered public lectures wherein he berated the proclivity of Nigerians to answering bogus titles they never earned such as “Dr.” and “Ambassador”, which he alleged had become the norm in the country. Similarly, Olisemeka questioned the morality of public officials obtaining Honorary Doctorate degrees from places that were unverifiable and are paraded in national public place with gusto.

These went along with his attack on the level of political corruption and the poor leadership recruitment process in Nigeria. During the regimes of Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo, Umaru Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, Olisemeka was known to have written several letters to them on matters of national concern. Unfortunately, he complained quite often to close persons of the fact that some of those whom he wrote such letters to, never had the civility of providing replies, and wondered if some of his good ideas were ever read.

Another incident for which Olisemeka is remembered is his frugal attitude towards the common purse. In most of the Missions abroad where he served as the boss, his thriftiness and obsession with saving money for government created a love-hate relationship with his subordinates. While in Washington DC, for example, he insisted on saving money for the Federal Government by instructing his staff to enroll their children in public schools and not elite private schools as was common. He consistently maintained that government money must be used only when necessary and not recklessly.

It is his financial prudence that attracted him to develop an open love and admiration for the person of President Muhammadu Buhari, especially in an article which he published at the twilight of the 2015 General Election. Coming from the South-South of the country, it came as a surprise to many that such a senior citizen from that part of the country could pour encomiums on a candidate who was contesting against one of his own from the region. His views on endorsing then candidate Buhari were however not without an equal amount of some form of umbrageous counsel when he insisted that the latter should not seek office at his age for office sake if he was not sure of his performance.

HOW HE STARTED

Olisemeka’s professional life traces back to 1958 when he was recruited into the Colonial Civil Service, having graduated from the University College, Ibadan a year earlier. Before then, he had received secondary education at Igbobi College, Yaba, Lagos which was founded in 1932, and has produced many other prominent Nigerians. Like one of the best which he was, after university, he got posted to the Cabinet Office of the Governor-General, Sir James Robertson. This was a time when Robertson was finalising a flurry of activities towards ending British colonial rule over Nigeria which became formalised by the “1914 Amalgamation”. As a matter of fact, the year before then i.e. 1957, the colonial government had granted Nigeria internal self-government and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa became the first Prime Minister. The young Olisemeka therefore was entrusted with various tasks connected with the preparations for hand over, of full political power to Nigerian leaders.

Shortly afterwards, he was moved to the newly established diplomatic service which was located in the Office of the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as one of the pioneer staff. Consequently, his duties changed from being political in terms of being on the team crafting the new Nigerian state to that of diplomacy. He was quickly deployed as the first Chief of Protocol to the pioneer President of Nigeria, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, a position which is today known as State Chief of Protocol. Thereafter, he served as Chief of Protocol to the Prime Minister. Much later in his career, Olisemeka held positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and remained one of the fiercest advocates of the independence of the Foreign Service.

FROM THE MOUTHS OF OTHERS

In the eyes of peers and observers, Olisemeka has been sufficiently adjudged. A near contemporary, Harold Monu, now an octogenarian, who was Nigeria’s Ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire in the early 1980s, stated thus:

“Ambassador Ignatius Chukwuemeka Olisemeka has remained the quintessential diplomat, suave, knowledgeable and approachable. No wonder, these qualities charted his (career) path …. Upon his retirement, Ambassador Olisemeka melted into the mainstream of life in his native home of Ibusa, Delta State taking the experience garnered over the years to his people. What a diplomat’s diplomat!”

Similarly, HRM Igwe Lawrence Agubuzu, a career diplomat, who was once Acting Secretary of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), but now seated on the ancient throne of his progenitors as the Paramount Ruler of Ezema Olo Autonomous Community and Chairman of the Enugu State Council of Traditional Rulers, averred inter alia:

“Among his contemporaries, I see the inimitable Ambassador Ignatius Chukwuemeka Olisemeka of Ibusa Town in Delta as matchless in sartorial elegance, mentorship of younger officers, bilateral diplomacy, strength of character and patriotism”.

Coming many generations down, Ambassador Charles Onianwa, whose last post was as the Nigerian High Commissioner to Ottawa stated inter alia:

“Olisemeka is one of the finest gentlemen ever. A father, mentor to all.”

However, like all other human beings, Olisemeka had his weak sides bothering on his perceived rigidity. Some others consider him as a kind of “haute société” in a fast moving world of diplomacy.

Before drawing the curtain, perhaps a word on what many in the international community thought of him as evidenced in the declassified secret reports of American agents in Nigeria in his hey days. On September 21, 1973, a cable from US Embassy, Lagos to Washington, described him thus:

“IGNATIUS OLISEMEKA, NEWLY APPOINTED DIRECTOR OF AMERICA DEPARTMENT IN MINISTRY OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS, IS CAREER FOREIGN SERVICE OFFICER. “BRITISH OLD SCHOOL” IN HIS OUTLOOK, HE TENDS TO BE FORMAL IN INITIAL CONTACTS, BUT BECOMES FRIENDLIER UPON GREATER ACQUAINTANCE. GENERALLY, BUT NOT OVERWHELMINGLY, PRO AMERICAN IN HIS VIEWPOINT. WHILE NOT USUALLY FORTHCOMING IN SUBSTANTIVE CONVERSATIONS, HE OCCASIONALLY CAN BE WHEN PRESSED”.

CONCLUSION

In view of the great burden of representing one’s country in faraway destinations, the norm from the dawn of diplomacy has been to pick the very best at any given time into the Foreign Service. This, the colonial government did, with scrupulous details as Olisemeka and his contemporaries, from the pioneer squad of initial twelve (12) officers have for more than 60 years carved out the diplomatic pathway for Nigeria to follow. Today, he, along with some of his thinning surviving peers, remain the treasures of an aspect of national service that is not much known and that is often seen only from the narrow prism of protocol, etiquette and courtesies. But more than that, people like him have been at the pinnacle in their commitment to national service, to national interest, both as defined by the unchanging permanent factors and the nuances established from time to time by whichever government is in power.

At present, Nigeria boasts of about 110 diplomatic missions spread all around the globe. Thanks to this new nonagenarian who started the journey, the country’s interests are vigorously pursued even under very challenging times. One critical question however is – to what extent have those sterling qualities of diligence, tact, astuteness and personal finesse are still maintained? These remain challenges to those still in service and charged with managing the Nigerian diplomatic apparatus.

Having retired from the Nigerian public service as far back as 1989, he relocated to the quiet of his home area of Asaba, the picturesque capital of Delta State, and hometown, Ibuzu, both on the western banks of River Niger as it ends a 4,189 kilometres journey from the Guinea Highlands into the Niger Delta.

A close friend of the Asagba of Asaba, His Royal Majesty, Professor Chike Edozien, whom he considers as an elder brother, Olisemeka holds the title of ”Dike-diora” of Igbuzu, which translates to “the strongman and pride” of his people.

Feliz compleaño, Señor Embajador!

Igali is a retired Ambassador and former Federal Permanent Secretary