Ambassador Akporode Blessing Clark is a well-travelled diplomat, who has served in various capacities in Europe, America and Africa. From New York as Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, he was reassigned in 1981 to Nigeria as a Director-General of the Foreign Ministry in charge of service matters. But, while at the United Nations, he served as Chairman, Special Committee against Apartheid and Chairman, Committee on Peace Keeping. Ambassador Clark, who retired prematurely in 1984, speaks on the sad story of Nigeria’s development, the poor state of Niger Delta region, his career in Foreign Service, gender parity, among other issues.
As a career diplomat, how was your journey in Foreign Service?
It has been a very interesting and eventful experience. As a civil servant, I was not much affected by the vagaries of the government. My oath of office was to serve whoever was in government, consequently I made progress under both civilian and military rule.
I never applied for posting or promotion, yet I had a very satisfactory career. I joined the old Western Region Civil Service in 1957 as an Assistant Secretary under Chief S. O. Adebo in Ibadan. I served in several ministries before transferring to the Foreign Service in 1961.
Since retirement in 1984, what were your preoccupations?
Since my retirement, I was appointed to the Presidential Advisory Council on Foreign Affairs from 1999 to 2015 and I have been an active trustee and member of both the Council of Retired Federal Permanent Secretaries (CORFEPS) and the Association of Retired Career Ambassador of Nigeria (ARCAN). I have also been serving as the Chief Executive of the Yakubu Gowon Centre for International Peace and Development. I am a life member of the Institute of International Affairs, the Ikoyi Club 1938 and a member of the Metropolitan Club.
Lastly, among the honours that I am most proud of is the national honour of Commander of the Order of the Niger (CON) which was conferred on me in 1999.
As a prominent elder statesman, you are conversant with the history of Nigeria, what do you think are the problems of Nigeria and your solution to them?
Nigeria has not evolved along the lines which were envisaged at the time of independence, yet we cannot overlook immense physical and material development in the country. As the late President Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal said, ‘there are many slips between the cup and the lip,’ the achievements we have made so far in the country do not match our expectations given the prodigious human and material endowments of the country. It is a crying shame that the impression is given that we have become a country of crooks and corruption where there are no knowledgeable and honest people to drive the progress and development of the country. Consequently, we have become globally notorious for our deficits in infrastructure (physical and institutional), power and poverty. One does not require a ‘Solon or a Solomon’ to direct the affairs of this country. All it requires as was in the case of modern Turkey is a team of young men and women dedicated to the proposition that Nigeria must be different and great starting with changes in education that is knowledge based, disciplined reform of the administrative services, provision of adequate healthcare and dedicated economic planning as was in the case in India. Nigeria can be different and proud again.
You graduated from the University of College Ibadan, now, University of Ibadan. What were your life experiences as a student at the premier university?
My days at Ibadan were very rewarding and carefree. The University College was then a manageable institution with a crop of young men and women admitted from all over the country committed to making Nigeria great as there were no so-called catchment areas. Independence was then within reach and the expectation was that we were being educated to own our country and therefore prepared to serve. I am proud to say that I do not know or heard of any Nigerian of my generation who went through UCI that has been accused of treasury looting. We replaced the foreign administrators and professionals quite seamlessly and laid down the foundations of the new country which was the envy of people everywhere before the current rot that we are all complaining about.
As a key stakeholder from Niger Delta, the region is currently enjoying a relatively calm scenario. What role did you play to achieve this?
I have neither served in my state of origin, Delta nor in any state government apart from the old Western Nigeria. Yet, I was fully aware that my services were for them and on their behalf. And therefore, my service to the country as a whole has affected it. I am fiercely Nigerian by conviction and persuasion, and irrevocably committed to a united and indivisible Nigeria. My services, my loyalty have been at the federal level. I therefore cannot claim that I have made any direct substantial personal contribution to the situation in the Delta even though I am immensely concerned about the situation in the area. However, I am deeply pained by the hugely deleterious effects of the oil industry in the region. Not only has it destroyed the socio-economic life of the people, it has also inflicted tremendous cultural and psychological wounds on the societies. Unfortunately, there is an apparent lack of recognition and appreciation of the very significant contribution that the region has made to the prosperity and unity of the country. Of course, I do derive vicarious satisfaction from the fact that my elder brother Chief E.K Clark has been at the forefront of the struggle of the people for improvements in their quality of life, and peace in the region.
Contrary to the ostentatious lifestyles of your contemporaries, you have chosen to live a very quiet lifestyle. Is it intentional or that is your natural way of life?
I feel flattered that you have observed my modest lifestyle. It is in my character. Honesty has been my byword. I can proudly say that I can account for every single penny I have spent. My family background and the schools I attended equipped me to learn to live within my means.
How was your life experience growing up with the renowned Chief Edwin Clark and J.P Clark?
My brothers and I were brought up as a closely knit family united by the family traditions of mutual loyalty and love. We ate together, slept together and went to school together. Till today whenever we are together, we still eat together from the same pot. Fortunately, we have developed our own individualities each of us pursuing different courses. There was no basis therefore for rivalry because of our upbringing. We always took pride in the success of one another because of the way we have grown up together we like to believe that we have set an example for other families in our community to follow. Parents have striven to send their children to school and tried to emulate us. This has been a matter of great satisfaction to us.
What is your advice to the upcoming career diplomats in Nigeria and the aggrieved Ijaw youth?
I always take very opportunity to tell my young colleagues and upcoming diplomats that they belong to a noble career and profession. They should take pride in themselves and work hard to justify themselves. No diplomat is judged by local standards, every diplomat must compete against his peers from other countries because diplomats compete to defend and protect the interest of their countries. I also counsel them to keep their noses clean and not to be jealous of their contemporaries in the home service because they are not judged by their material wealth but by the quality of their service abroad. Few diplomats practice what they learnt at school. They are, therefore, required to be inquisitive, work hard and to master any schedule given to them. The international agenda is not determined by any particular country or individual. Every diplomat must therefore equip himself to deal with any contingency that may arise in the course of their career. They must be willing to adapt and practice to the best standards. They must learn as much as they can about their country and to see the whole country as their own. Their loyalty therefore must be to the whole country and seek its good in all its ramifications. Since every nation is a microcosm of Nigeria made up of different ethnic groups, religious persuasions, individual interests and ambitions. Diplomats must learn to be tolerant, and open minded. They must be prepared to undertake training and more training to be able to cope with the vagaries of the international agenda.
As for the young Ijaw men and women, they must not lose hope. They must learn that the responsibility of developing their areas lies with them and because of the hostile terrain where they most live they must acquire skills and habits to develop themselves as nobody else is going to do it for them. I always remind them that the hallmark of an Ijaw man was honesty hence an Ijaw man will say he is speaking an ‘Ijaw truth’ because that defines their character. Fortunately, we are blessed with resources and intelligence. It is up to us to covert the challenges facing us into opportunities for development. I remind them that the Ijaws were the first to come into contact with the western world. The hallmark of which was the pursuit of education. They must, therefore, draw up on that history to acquire education and professions that will enable them to control their resources properly and develop their areas.
The campaign for gender equality is increasingly high. During your time in service, what were the roles of women?
There was no gender difference in the part of Nigeria that I grew up in. Of course, there were cultural practices that tended to favour boys over girls. But basically, we had equal opportunity to go to school and gain employment. The boy child certainly had certain advantages, but a determined girl competed equally and favourably with her male counterparts. Nigeria is one of the countries where there is no differentiation in salaries and remuneration of workers male or female. When there were some discrepancies in the entitlement of Foreign Service Officers between male and female at the initial stage of the service like marriage status, single parents, Nigeria did not hesitate to redress the situation. Officers both male and female followed the same career paths. They were appointed Ambassadors, Counsellors, first Secretaries and so on without discrimination. In my family for instance, all of us both male and female went to school and had equal opportunities to advance but the dropout rate was higher amongst the girls because of cultural pressures to marry.