By Owei Lakemfa
I WAS to attend the International Labour Organisation, ILO, Conference for two weeks in 2011 and was late in making accommodation arrangements in Geneva. I turned to Ambassador Ayo Olukanni, then Nigerian Deputy Ambassador in Vienna, Austria if he had somebody that can check out the hotels and make a booking. Olukanni had been like my elder brother who watched over me when I was a teenage undergraduate in Ife. He responded that will be Kay. “Kay will do it.” A few days later, he called that Kay had done the booking. I asked him what is Kay’s other name? Laro.
Then a few days before my journey, I called to say I had not received the details of the booking so I could go straight to the hotel when I arrived. Olukanni said he would get back. He did shortly afterwards providing the diplomat’s phone number and said: “Kay says he would receive you at the Geneva Airport.” I protested that I did not want a high ranking Nigerian diplomat going to wait for me at the airport, all I wanted were details of the booking. Olukanni replied that I should send my flight details, adding: “Once Kay says he would be at the airport, you can be sure he would be there.”
I arrived Geneva airport and Kay picked me out. As we drove into town, I noticed we were going a bit farther and told him I wanted to be nearer the ILO headquarters. He assured me I would have no problems getting to the ILO offices.
It turned out that Kay had not booked an hotel. Rather, he took me to his home in Geneva and said a friend of Ambassador Olukanni cannot come to Geneva and stay in an hotel when he has accommodation. He had at least three bedrooms. He had supper ready and I soon found out that his full names were Kayode Laro and he was from Ilorin where we shared a number of friends, especially the legions that had attended Ife.
The next morning, after ensuring I took breakfast, he drove me to the ILO headquarters before going to his office at the Nigeria Embassy where he was putting his human rights, disarmament, environmental and development passions to the service of our country. I resisted his coming to pick me home.
For the slightly over two weeks, I stayed for the ILO Conference, this became our pattern. When I bought food items from the mall, he protested. I had to persuade him that that I would feel like a parasite. Already, he was saving me $110 daily on accommodation, I was paying no transport to the ILO and was being overfed. I added jokingly that I did not mind being overfed, especially when he had a mini-gym in one of the rooms complete with a thread-mill where I could burn some of the fat. Kay treated me like a king in Geneva just by being introduced by Ambassador Olukanni with whom he had served in Nairobi, Kenya.
Nigeria was on the United Nations Security Council and needed experienced people to support the Mission. Kay was moved there specifically to serve on the Council. He had attended Nigeria’s top military training institution, the National Defence College Course 17 from 2008-9, and so had the necessary skills and diplomatic tact needed to enable Nigeria navigate in the most sensitive and contentious Council in the world. Despite his demonstrable competence, skills and high intellect serving with distinction in places like Zimbabwe and being Consul General in Atlanta, Kay, mainly due to quota issues, was never appointed ambassador until his retirement in December 2018.
One day while playing table tennis at Jabi Park in Abuja, a familiar figure walked past. It was the quiet, shy and good natured Kay! I joined him on his walk and we had long conversations. He had retired and lived in Kado Estate, some five-minute drive from the park. He requested we went to his house.
It became some pattern on Saturdays; we would meet at the park, take a walk and discuss current affairs. He read my Friday columns on international affairs and we would discuss these. He would give fresh perspectives. A major issue we discussed was when Nigeria had no ambassadors in virtually all countries, including a substantive Permanent Representative in the United Nations after Ambassador Joy Ugwu left. Then finally in July 2020, new ambassadors were named and Kay was on the list. I was quite elated, not just because I knew he was quite competent, dedicated and meticulous, but I also felt justice was being done to a very fine diplomat who was not appointed an ambassador while in service, but was found fit to be one in retirement!
Then months later, we met at the park. I expressed surprise. I had thought he had left without forwarding his new address. He smiled wearily and said no posting had been made. Finally, on May 15, 2021, that is ten months after his appointment, he assumed duties as Nigeria’s Ambassador to France with concurrent accreditation to Monaco. I congratulated him and promised to visit him in Paris.
Whenever I read about his work in France, I remembered my promise to visit. Then this year, President Bola Tinubu was elected and he visited France. Kay as ambassador received him. He also organised the Nigerian community to meet the new President. I was proud of Kay.
Then, the July 26, 2023 coup took place in Niger Republic and the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, immediately imposed sanctions and gave the junta a seven-day ultimatum to reverse the coup or face possible military action. It became common knowledge that France wants military intervention in Niger Republic and I wondered what advice the thoughtful Kay as Ambassador to France would be giving the Nigerian Government with President Tinubu as ECOWAS Chairman.
Then out of the blues, I received the shocking news that my dear friend, compassionate diplomat and humanist, Ambassador Kayode Laro, 64, had left humanity from Paris on Friday August 11, 2023. Five days later, his earthly remains were flown to the Ilorin Airport and interned at 9.50am in his family house at Okesuna, Ilorin.
My grief ran deeper that I never fulfilled my promise to visit him in Paris to which I had given an open invitation. As I write, at the back of my mind, I see the familiar figure of Kay walking towards me, a fleeting smile playing on his lips with his extended hand, and saying: “Owei ba wo ni?”(Owei, how are you?).
Death has robed Nigeria of a great soul at a time we seek direction and need our best brains at work.
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