By Bayo Akinloye
Colin Powell was born on April 5, 1937. He died on October 18 of COVID-19 complications though fully vaccinated. Between those years, he walked life’s stage like an actor in a dramatic saga. His persona had all the imperfections and brilliance of a man who lived life to the best he could muster.
“Built into each of us is a little calculator that can make judgments that will never appear on a piece of paper. And sometimes you know something’s right, you can’t prove it to anybody, or you know something’s wrong. Little ethical circuit breakers you carry around inside…so I go with my instinct,” Powell had once said.
Powell was appointed Secretary of State by George W. Bush on January 20, 2001, after being unanimously confirmed by the US Senate. He served for four years, leaving the position on January 26, 2005. He was the first African-American to serve as Secretary of State.
Born in the New York City neighbourhood of Harlem, the son of two Jamaican immigrants, he was raised in the South Bronx. He attended City College of New York. There, he began his military service, joining the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). After his graduation in 1958, Powell was commissioned a second lieutenant in the US Army. During his 35 years in the army, he served two tours in Vietnam, was stationed in West Germany and South Korea, and acted as President Ronald Reagan’s Deputy National Security Adviser in 1987 then-National Security Adviser from 1988 until 1989. In 1989 he was promoted to the rank of general and was appointed by President George H.W. Bush as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the four years Powell served in that capacity, he oversaw 28 crises, including Operation Desert Storm in 1991. After his retirement in 1993, he founded America’s Promise, an organisation that helps at-risk children. He was nominated for Secretary of State by President George W. Bush on December 16, 2000.
He was the first African American appointed as the US Secretary of State and the first, and so far the only, to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
At the beginning of his term, Powell placed emphasis on reaffirming diplomatic alliances throughout the world, supporting a national missile defence system, working towards peace in the Middle East, and prioritising sanctions instead of force in potential hot spots such as Iraq. He also focused on reinvigorating US diplomacy through reforms in the Department of State’s organisational culture and an infusion of resources for personnel, information technology, security, and facilities.
Powell’s term, however, was soon dominated by the challenges the Bush administration faced after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Powell was one of the foremost supporters of taking swift military action against al-Qaeda and demanded immediate cooperation from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the U.S. search for those who were complicit in the attacks.
When the administration’s attention shifted to Iraq and the possibility that Saddam Hussein was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Powell pressed to have UN inspectors investigate. In February 2003, Powell presented intelligence to the UN that supported the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and could produce more. Subsequently, the administration moved quickly toward preemptive military action against Iraq, despite Powell’s advice that war should not begin until a large coalition of allies and a long-term occupation plan were in place. In 2004, some of the intelligence that Powell had brought before the UN in 2003 was found to be erroneous.
Although Afghanistan and Iraq demanded a great deal of Powell’s attention during his tenure, he pursued other important US foreign policy initiatives and grappled with various crises that arose between 2001 and 2005. After initially difficult administration interactions with Russia and China, Powell worked to improve both bilateral relationships. Prominent among these efforts were the management of US withdrawal from the U.S.-Russian Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and the signing of the Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions in May 2002.
In the area of foreign aid, Powell pushed the administration to increase its commitment to the international fight against AIDS, and oversaw a doubling of development assistance funding. He also pressed for international cooperation to halt the nuclear weapons programs of North Korea and Iran, and the administration achieved an important nonproliferation success when Libya agreed to give up its weapons programs in 2003.
Powell also confronted a variety of international crises, including a near war between nuclear powers India and Pakistan in 2001-2002, domestic turmoil in Liberia (2003) and Haiti (2004), and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. His continued belief that Middle East stability required a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict led him to advocate the 2002 ‘Road Map’ to create an independent Palestinian state at peace with Israel. Although Bush endorsed the plan, Powell could not persuade the administration to make a strong commitment to its implementation.
On November 15, 2004, Powell announced his resignation. After stepping down as Secretary of State, he returned to a busy life in the private sector, continuing his work with America’s Promise Alliance. He served on the Boards of Directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Eisenhower Fellowship Program, and the Powell Center at the City College of New York.
According to biography.com, after his retirement, Powell remained vocal on political topics, openly criticising the Bush administration on many issues. In September 2006, Powell joined moderate Senate Republicans in supporting more rights and better treatment for detainees at the Guantanamo detention facility. In October 2008, Powell made headlines again when he announced his endorsement of Barack Obama for president.
Powell also spent much of his retirement in the business community. In 2006, he was a speaker at a special series called Get Motivated, along with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Powell also joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, as a “strategic limited partner.”
His Yahooze Dance That Went Viral
“I never thought I would see Colin Powell dance Yahoozee. He showed that common touch,” THISDAY Newspaper Founder and Chairman, Nduka Obaigbena, who organised Africa Rising! in 2008 had told ITN. The event was one of four organised as part of the THISDAY Festival, aimed at finding sustainable solutions to the problems facing Africa.
Powell had performed a hip-hop dance (to the delight of onlookers and viewers across the globe) during the event to promote African culture at the Royal Albert Hall. But something else caught the eye.
The Guardian UK explained: “Colin Powell celebrated his 71st birthday this year, but he’s clearly not too old to pull some cheeky Afro-hip-hop moves. His take on Olu Maintain’s song Yahooze at the Africa Rising event at the Royal Albert Hall worked a lot better than his former boss George Bush’s embarrassing inaugural shape-throwing alongside Ricky Martin. Although he kept his jacket buttoned, almost everyone deemed his dancing spot-on.”
But, the UK outlet pointed out: “It doesn’t look as if the former US secretary of state paid too much attention to the lyrics, or he might have discovered that the Nigerian hit is a celebration of that country’s most infamous export, advance-fee email fraud (sometimes called 419 fraud, after the relevant section of the Nigerian penal code). The perpetrators are known as “Yahoo boys” after their email service provider of choice.”
In his years of military service, Powell never disclosed his political sympathies; he was registered to vote as an independent, said achievement.org. “Although he was known to have supported the 1964 campaign of President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, he had served in both Republican and Democratic administrations,” it added. In the 1990s, the general’s great popularity led many people to urge him to run for president.
In 1995, Powell announced that he had registered as a Republican, and he received a thunderous ovation when he spoke at the Republican convention the following year. Although he did not forswear future political involvement, he declined to seek elective office.
In 1997, he returned to his alma mater, the City College of New York, to open the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies, offering high-achieving CCNY students the opportunity to prepare for careers in policy and public service. For the rest of the decade, he continued his work with young people as chairman of America’s Promise: the Alliance for Youth.
Since his demise, there has been an outpouring of condolences.
“Colin embodied the highest ideals of both warrior and diplomat. He was committed to our nation’s strength and security above all. Having fought in wars, he understood better than anyone that military might alone was not enough to maintain our peace and prosperity,” said US President Joe Biden.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who served alongside Powell under Bush said he was “deeply saddened to learn that America has lost a leader and statesman. General Powell had a remarkably distinguished career, and I was fortunate to work with him.”
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Powell’s predecessor at the department, remembered him on Monday as “a wise and principled man, a loyal friend, and one of the kindest people I have ever met.”
She added, “Although we grew up in different contexts, we bonded over our family’s immigrant stories, our deep love of America, and our belief in the importance of public service.”
He is survived by his wife, Alma Vivian (Johnson) Powell, whom he married in 1962 and three children.