On the road from Cotonou, Dahomey (Benin) in May, 1972, I hitched a ride with the Nigerian Ambassador to the Central African Republic. His large dark Mercedes swung to a stop as I stood smiling broadly with my thumb out. The back window rolled down and he asked me where I was going. I replied “Lagos” and after a few more questions, he invited me to join him in the back seat while his driver continued on the way.
He was a thin, very poised, confident man with a slight British lilt beneath his West Africa accent, revealing his education at a university in England. He was quite reserved in his questions and interested in my education. I felt a little like I was being cross examined, vetted. He was very aware of Cornell and Penn, which surprised me here on a road in southern Benin rolling in to Nigeria.
It was a long drive, and we had an ongoing interesting conversation on many topics. I could see that he was well educated and that perhaps he had picked me up, in part, for his intellectual curiosity. As we spoke, he told me his name was Paul and he was the Nigerian Ambassador to the Central African Republic. He had been at some meetings in Cotonou and was returning home.
We discussed many subjects along the five-hour trip. He was quite curious why someone from the US was hitch hiking in the area. He asked my opinions about many social issues and wondered at what I thought of the decolonization process that had been going on for ten years or so.
We had a very amicable discussion as we drove. I thought it was a great opportunity for me to better understand what upper-class Africans were thinking and was surprised at my good fortune in meeting such an educated and erudite fellow. It was good to feel like I was speaking with someone I shared a similar education with, almost like being back on campus talking to a foreign student, but now I was the foreign student.
Many of the men who I met in this part of Africa wore simple fashionable short sleeve shirts with breast pockets. They looked a little like a guayabera, in light linen to deal with the heat. After a while, I noticed many carried letters in that breast pocket with the stamps visible. After a while, I understood that this was a form of badge that indicated the man was educated, literate, could read and write, and had friends in far places that would write to him. All of these were important status statements that elevated him from being a “local” to being a man of the world. It was an important distinction in an African that was emerging from repressive colonialism.
Back home, no one had to prove these things. They were all presumed from the beginning. In Africa, at that time of transition, one had to continually prove one’s status.
Lagos was generally intense, jampacked with people and honking vehicles, but it was miraculously quiet and peaceful behind his family compound’s walls. The compound had lush gardens and several other houses which his immediate family occupied. There were also cottages for close relatives. I couldn’t believe my luck in meeting this gracious and influential gentleman.
As I left his house to move into the youth hostel that was more downtown, Paul again invited me to contact him when I arrived in Bangui, CAR, which I planned to reach in a few weeks.
It was also quiet in the hostel that he directed me to. It was away from the boisterous streets. It too had a garden and was very popular with Europeans, Americans and Aussies/New Zealanders. Usually the Americans and Aussies were the loud ones in these hostels, while the Brits and Kiwis were quieter, though in Lagos, everyone in this garden enclosed hostel was very mellow… perhaps in deliberate contrast to cacophony outside its walls.
Three weeks later, the day after I arrived at Bangui, I called Paul at his embassy. He advised me that he was planning a diplomatic dinner later that week and I was invited.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I dressed up in my pair of nice khaki pants and a polyester sport jacket. I even wore a tie! These had to travel with me in my backpack, so they were not really embassy level fashion, but they were the best I could do.
Paul announced me as an American Student Observer that he knew. A graduate of Ivy League Cornell University, working on a Masters’ Degree at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School and the Department of Peace Science/Regional Science on a 1-year Leave of Absence to travel and study. The other three guests were the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Sudanese Ambassador, and the Sudanese Military Attaché. It was not the usual kind of event attended by an itinerant student, I felt honored to be there.
The meeting was prompted by the panicked flow of refugees from the newly declared Southern Sudan Autonomous Region into the Central African Republica. Civil war had been driving people out of the area since the 1950s, but there was a surge as this phase of the war ended and the region declared itself autonomous. These refugees put stress on the CAR’s ability to manage the refugees. I listened like a fifth wheel and wondered why I was there.
The entire dinner was conducted in French because we were in the Central African Republic, a French speaking country. It seemed a little odd since Nigeria and Sudan had been British Colonies. But then, French is the language of diplomacy.
Paul welcomed each of us. He opened the discussion by asking the UNHCR ambassador to describe his understanding of the nature and scope of the current state of the flow and disposition of refugees from the Sudan into the Eastern regions of the CAR. He called the situation “dire.”
The Sudanese Ambassador was then asked to comment of the UNHCR’s description of the situation and conditions as dire. The Sudanese Ambassador, whose military was the reason refugees were being driven out, claimed that the situation was not quite so desperate as the UNHCR outlined. He consulted with his Military Attaché, who scoffed and stated that everything was under control and spoke dismissively and disparagingly of the refugees. The Attaché had a chilling laugh, like a cartoon villain, “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha …ahhhhhh…” I feared for the poor refugees and the danger that was driving them from their homes.
I learned that the southern Sudanese were mostly of African descent, more like the people of CAR. But the northern Sudanese, who controlled the country, were Arabic. It reminded me of the many ethnic differences I had already seen in my travels.
It was interesting to be the fly on the wall and observe the diplomatic game that was going on as these men verbally jousted with each other for the benefit of the UNHCR. Paul wanted to make sure the refugees didn’t get further west than CAR and into Cameroon so Nigeria wouldn’t be involved. Nigeria was still recovering from its own civil war.
It was a unique experience for me to even be there. I was flattered to be invited; the dinner was excellent. But why was I there?
I came to the conclusion, much later, that I was also a pawn in their diplomatic chess game – representing the US, in a subtle, unstated way. Paul inviting me and presenting me as a US graduate student suggested that there was some implicit US endorsement of what he was saying. It gave him more status, more credibility without even mentioning it. I was the envelope of stamps in his breast pocket.