Arthur Mbanefo: A fulfilled life of service – Part 4

Arthur Mbanefo

Arthur Mbanefo

Continued from yesterday

At 70, Arthur began to lose that characteristic patience and supreme indifference with which he treated smaller issues hitherto. When they underpaid him, he ignored it. When colleagues conspired against him, he tended to ignore them which, of course, infuriated them more. But from 70 some people started getting under his skin. And that was when he got to New York as Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations (UN) – a position he believed to be the apex of his life of service. Now he was meeting a class of Nigerians – diplomats – who are experts in double speak and double dealing. Prof. Gambari obviously got under his skin for the abominable lack of care over Government Property, especially the beautiful residence in Terry Town. Ambassador Gambari had been our Permanent Representative and Ambassador for nine years and was obviously reluctant to leave his post or was not duly informed that he had been recalled. The diplomats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs nearly, always feel that all non-career ambassadorial appointments were a signal failure of the rulers of Nigeria to appreciate that being an ambassador was a birth right belonging only to those in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A thousand and one perquisites of office belonging to the post would never be disclosed to non-career ambassadors, even though by definition, an ambassador was the personal representative of the President.

Arthur soon got the usual treatment but he was lucky that he went there at 70 and with only his wife. He should have imagined had he gone when he was 40 or 50 with wife and six children arriving at post, he could not have stayed at the ambassador’s flat in Manhattan. The Foreign Affairs Ministry is a maze of personal connections which, if you do not have, you will find life extraordinarily difficult. Even with the frustrating conspiracies against him, Arthur succeeded; he found out secrets he was not supposed to find out. Moreover, he was aware that he was now playing on a large world stage where the name of Nigeria might be praised or tarnished depending on how he carried himself and how seriously he wanted to work. A lazy ambassador would be left to his own devices and fortune; ignored and shunned, if not despised.

But Arthur pulled out several feats – organising the G77 – that is, organising a conference of 138 Nations or States in Cuba, Havana, within two months of his arrival in New York. That is no mean feat. To get his President to preside over such an array of States, to prepare the programme, the communiqué , the plan of action, the implementation protocols – these are herculean tasks which I am surprised he was able to carry out and yet seeming outwardly so unruffled.

The specialised agencies of the UN, in New York, Geneva, and Paris, etc. carry an added weight which the uninitiated cannot easily appreciate. There are endless committee meetings, endless reports to write and read, and in the process some people became experts in some aspects – disarmament committee, ECOSOC, FAO, ILO, etc: on top of these the machination of the big countries fighting their proxy wars through the United Nations systems and agencies. It does take time to master the nuances and the attendant diplomacies. New York keeps three people of Ambassadorial rank – the Consul General, the Deputy Permanent Representative and the Permanent Representative. It is always best to find a modus operandi to work all three together because it is not a military posting and anyone of these three may prove uncooperative and there are few recourses.

Ambassador Akpata had been an expert on United Nations matters and was well known there before his retirement. His recall was to him a vindication that he was wrongly fired. He would work with Arthur if lines of duty are clearly defined. But Arthur did not come to New York to have his portfolio shared with anyone else. He would listen to Ambassador Akpata but he would make the decisions. All diplomatic outposts are congeries of group conspiracies, full of near devilish planners one against the other; they are rumoured mills where everybody’s business is the business of all – the grist of daily discourse, comportment, behaviour and messages. Arthur ran into this atmosphere head on and being Arthur, took it head on. But at 70 there is so much you can do. There is work if you want to: You can work yourself to death and I believe that his heart attack came from too much work, too much supervision, repairs of residence, running the city flat, running all these committees; keeping Nigeria’s friends friendly at the UN (He had a Nigerian Group), an endless whirlwind of diplomatic activities which would sap the strength of most people, even Arthur.

A first class diplomat who did not stay there one day more than necessary. A wise man who today we celebrate his book and his life, a man who at 86 still stands up ramrod straight and I, at 10 years his junior, hunched, a rolly polly needing redemption.
Dr Cole OFR, is a former Nigeria’s Ambassador to Brazil, among other diplomatic postings. He wrote this as a review of Ambassador Arthur Mbanefo’s book

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