Ambassador Gordon Harry Bristol was until his death on Wednesday, 3rd December 2014, the Under-Secretary for Administration and Finance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was moved to this position from being the Under Secretary for African Affairs a few days to the fateful journey he made to Lisbon, Portugal where he met his untimely death. Whereas Ambassador Olugbenga Ayodeji Ashiru, who transited to Eternal Glory on 29th November 2014 has been gravely ill, Gordon was not so visibly so. This was why his passing was sudden and shocking to all who knew him.
I did not know Gordon Harry Bristol until I returned from a posting from Belgrade (what was then Yugoslavia) in 1998. When I met Gordon in the Planning, Research and Statistics Department of the Ministry, and I was introduced to him, he screamed and confessed that he had read and enjoyed every political report and dispatch that came from my Mission. This was a period of Yugoslav war of secession which saw the country disintegrate into five and later seven Republics, namely, Bosnia-
Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro (later into two separate countries and Kosovo), Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia. Gordon had meticulously taken note of the consistent theme of our reports which was to the effect that Nigeria should draw useful lessons from the disintegration of Yugoslavia and avoid the errors of omission and commission made by the leadership of that country.
We thereafter became very close friends. We would engage each other in intellectual discussions about Nigeria’s foreign policy including Foreign Service administration. I recall a seminar work that we did together on this matter, which had stood the test of time. The Ayida Panel on the Reform of the Civil Service had made far reaching recommendations about the cost of governance and manning levels to the effect that the Ministry was over-staffed with a dysfunctional structure which needed to be reformed. Gordon and I were given the task of preparing the Ministry’s response to the government White Paper on this matter. This assignment was supervised by Ambassador Maurice U. Offor who was in charge of the Posting Division at the time. Our comments and observations, which were a robust defence of the Ministry, while debunking, with sound logic, some of the wrong assumptions and assertions, were upheld by Government.
I was in my office one afternoon in the Posting and Discipline Department, when Gordon came to me and said Ambassador Patrick Dele Cole would like to see me in Ambassador Ayo Azikiwe’s office at the African Affairs Department. Ambassador Cole had just been appointed Special Adviser to President Obasanjo on International Relations in June 1999. The new Advisor was sourcing for Special Assistants in the Ministry. Gordon had been identified for one of these positions. He was quick to identify me, to join him. That was how Gordon, myself and Ambassador John Gana became Special Assistants to Ambassador Dele Cole until 2002. We were later joined by Messers Ibierre Akpana and Ms Rita Abebe. This provided a great opportunity for Gordon and I to become very close professionally and at a personal level.
Gordon was never afraid of work, no matter the volume of papers that needed to be read and dissected. We would resume at the Nicon Hotel, and later in President Obasanjo’s Study and the Office (White House, opposite the Banquet Hall of the State House) from 8 in the morning until 9 PM every day. During this period, majority of the papers and correspondence addressed to President Obasanjo were processed by this office.
I recall walking closely with Gordon, colleagues from South Africa and Algeria in developing the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), which was subsequently adopted by the African Union. Gordon and I accompanied Ambassador Dele Cole to the consultative meetings in Algiers, Algeria and Pretoria, South Africa including regular interactions with President Obasanjo which provided his inputs and insights, including those of Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Abdulazeez Bouteflika into what became NEPAD. It was also in this capacity that Gordon and I worked on one of the major papers of policy regarding re-classification of Nigerian missions into Categories A, B, C and D on the basis of rational, scientific and national interest considerations. This is the proposal that was eventually adopted by the Ministry and is the current classification in use as of today.
President Obasanjo was once asked of the role of Dele Cole in the Villa. He responded jokingly by saying, “Rather than ask what Dr. Cole does in the Villa, you should ask what does he not do in the Villa?” This rare recognition by President Obasanjo of the work of this office at the time, was due in no measure, to the work of Gordon Harry Bristol, my humble self, and John Gana.
I will forever remember his depth of analysis in addressing foreign policy matters of the moment and of the future including the administration of the Ministry over which he held strong views on integrity, propriety and due process. Gordon was excellence personified. He was one of the best and assuring faces of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the outside world that earned respect and admiration for the Ministry. He was an amiable and urbane Diplomat, a man of great vision and a strategic thinker even in matters of self-actualisation and not least, Nigeria’s foreign policy.
Gordon exhibited an uncommon depth of knowledge, a quick and versatile mind, matched by eloquence of speech, the confidence and facility that could only have come from someone on top of his brief. He wrote effortlessly, demonstrating a free flow of ideas that reveals a fertile imagination and sagacity of mind from one who has devoured volumes of literature. Even at this early stage of our interaction, Gordon had demonstrated a larger than life personality, very ebullient and boisterous. There was no dull moment around Gordon, as he exuded life with an infectious sense of humour. He would crack rib-cracking jokes and proceed to laugh loudly at himself and the jokes, thereby lightening up the atmosphere around him.
Upon the disbandment of Dr. Dele Cole’s office in 2002, I speedily returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs while Gordon remained behind and became one of the pioneer staff member of the Due Process Office that was run by Dr. Oby Ezekwesili who later became the Minister of Solid Minerals and Education. It was in this capacity that Gordon worked with Steve Oronsanye in the State House from where he was appointed the Consul General to Douala, Cameroon and subsequently as Ambassador to Paris, France. When he returned to Headquarters in 2012, Gordon was appointed Director, Africa Multilateral Affairs Department. He never liked this position; convinced that he was entitled to become Under-Secretary, and he told me so. It did not take too long, therefore, before he was appointed Under-Secretary for African Affairs. Gordon took this calling with professional dexterity and uncommon leadership that assisted in giving greater focus to Nigeria’s African policy particularly at the ECOWAS, the African Union, and indeed, Nigeria’s bilateral relation with individual African countries.
We continued to work closely on many issues as he chaired several Working Committees in the Ministry. I recall, with fond memories, three of Gordon’s last assignments that left no one in doubt that he was a master of the game of diplomacy. We had gone to Tinapa, Calabar, Cross River State from 27 – 30 October 2014 for a Retreat on ECOWAS and Nigeria’s national interest. Gordon chaired or provided the background anchor to most of the sessions. On one of those tough afternoons, Gordon caught himself napping when it was time for him to summarize discussions at the end of the Session. In what, with hind-sight, seems like a foreshadow of what to come, Gordon stated that he had been “battling with the angels” and had only struggled to be awake and back to resume and conclude the proceedings.
At two other events, which he chaired, namely, an in-house review committee on a knotty African issue that has remained stalemated, and on protocol and hospitality courtesies to be extended to foreign delegations and dignitaries visiting Nigeria, Gordon chaired these two committees with consummate skills in negotiation and consensus-building that led to conclusions that were well-grounded, logical and in Nigeria’s national interest. It was in the same manner that Gordon presided over the preparatory committee on the meeting on Security in Nigeria held in Abuja with Nigeria’s strategic partners and neighbours on 3rd September 2014.
Gordon exemplified the best in sartorial traditions. He would joke that at a younger age, he used to be more handsome and would always turn out in well-tailored suits. Later and as he moved closer to the end of his eventful life, he turned full circle and began to appear more often in Niger Delta attires. This was a perfect match on Gordon Harry Bristol, who was quick to remind anyone that cared to listen that he was a proud son of Bonny, Rivers State from where the Nigerian light crude oil was produced.
Gordon proved himself a dogged and selfless fighter for group interest on the basis of firm convictions as his colleagues of 1980/1981 sets of Foreign Service Officers in the Ministry would testify. At a personal level, Gordon treated me with utmost respect in my interactions with him. There was hardly any week that passed that Gordon would not visit me in my office 8th floor, to update each other on issues, exchange banters and, as he always put it, to enjoy the aroma of my coffee.
With a charismatic personality, Gordon had a powerful presence that left anyone who met him in any doubt as to his place in the scheme of things. He was determined to document his rich diplomatic and public service experience in his Memoirs, the topic of which he shared with me as Witness to Power. He had planned to record his experience of bestriding the various corridors of power that spanned a career of 33 years of unblemished and meritorious service to his Fatherland. It is a matter for regret that this would now have to be done post-humously.
Earlier on when he was planning to build his house, and he exchanged the concept with me, I told him that I did not believe in big houses in Abuja for officers whose children would soon grow old and leave for different parts of the world. In response, Gordon, in his characteristic manner, told me he would like to host Foreign Ministers in his house in retirement. This was vintage Gordon.
A day before he died, Gordon had called from Lisbon, Portugal informing me of his visit to the country during which he intended to undergo a “minor” surgery. He was calling to let me know that he was away from Abuja and to leave his number in the event that I or the Honourable Minister needed to contact him. Less than 24 hours later, I saw his number on a missed call to me, followed by that of his darling wife, Ambassador Ijeoma Bristol. Unknown to me, Gordon had passed on late the same day he called; and that was the message his wife wanted to convey to me.
Gordon’s passing is a huge loss, not just to his family, but to the Nigerian Foreign Service and the country at large. He will be sourly missed by all.
Adieu, Gordon; as we pray to the Almighty God to grant your soul eternal rest
–– Ambassador ‘Sola Enikanolaiye is Director, Minister’s office, Ministry of Foreign Affa