Under The Neem Tree
MADNESS AT NOON
New African Magazine November 2012
Journalism is a funny profession. When a story takes possession of a journalist’s imagination, nothing can stop the flow of intellectual ‘adrenalin’ into his or her brain.
The journalist can become temporarily ‘maddened’ by the idea of “the scoop” (a piece of news which no other journalist has come across and which reaches the public for the first time through that particular journalist’s byline alone.)
One journalist who came on a visit to Accra could not wait to read his own stuff; a heavenly look of delight spread across his face as he perused what he’d written and I once chided him in a light vein about how “vain” he was. He could have retorted: “Are you sure you don’t do the same thing yourself?” Whereupon, I would have had to own up! As it was, he mercifully agreed and admitted, like the good sport that he was: “It’s all ego, isn’t it?”
Well, not all journalists are a good sport. Some are so driven by ambition that they will pursue a story to any length, irrespective of whether it will place other people in jeopardy or not.
Once, a lady journalist for whose paper in London I was working as a local correspondent, obtained a tip in London about a measure that the Ghana Government of the time was about to put into place. This measure would affect LONRHO (now Lonmin), a British company with a gold mine in Ghana, and the tip was given to the lady journalist by a representative of the company, who hoped that if the contemplated measure was leaked and widely publicised, pressure would be brought upon the Ghana Government not to carry out the measure.
Well, this lady was not satisfied with what she had got in London but began to bombard me with cables asking me to “firm up” the tip for her, “from the Ghana angle”. Her naivety was abominable — all overseas cables to Ghana were read by the Government’s spies before being dispatched to the intended recipients; this was routine practice in dictatorships, and yet this supposedly ‘experienced’ journalist didn’t know that?
The lady journalist was not the only one who made an embarrassing request to me: the late Colin Legum, who was a famous Africa Correspondent of the London Observer, also once badgered me with irritating cables, asking me about some arrested coup plotters! I didn’t expect that of Colin Legum, for he was a vastly experienced correspondent who had been thrown out of several African countries, and I had assumed that he knew how totalitarian regimes worked. Making enquiries about people who had been arrested for plotting a coup could easily be misinterpreted as showing an unusual interest in them — and get the suspicious agents of the military Government to conclude that perhaps one was somehow in league with them! It didn’t occur to these journalists in London that not everyone was as crazy about “scoops” as the habitues of the famous El Vino’s — a winebar in Fleet Street, London, EC4, where wild rumours used to make their round’s — to the popping of bottles of expensive champagne, paid for with lucrative expense accounts!
But back to the lady journalist. Asking me to “firm up” the tip for her, “from the Ghana angle” was inviting me to go to jail to satisfy her need for a scoop! For the Government in question was a military government, and such administrations ferociously frowned on “leaks” of information, especially from their own officials. The military approach to “leaked secrets” is taken to absurd lengths, of course, for the military are trained to keep secrets close to their chests, inasmuch as the premature leakage of a military secret of any sort could genuinely place soldiers’ lives in danger. Of course, political or business secrets do not rank, by any stretch of the imagination, as highly as ‘sensitive’ secrets of military ‘movements’, for example. But a soldier who is running a Government Ministry will not differentiate between dangerous secrets and harmless secrets. All unauthorised revelations of secrets, would constitute an offence, as far as the soldier was concerned. And an offence by a “disloyal” person at that. During war operations, “disloyal” elements were shot; ‘summary execution’ was what soldiers called such a punishment.
I intimated to the lady in London that if I so much as broached the subject to any member of the military government, in an attempt to confirm or deny it, he would immediately want to know where I got the information from, whether it was true or not, and that my trouble would probably be worse if the information was accurate, because it would mean that someone high-up had broken his ‘oath of secrecy’! I therefore could not make the enquiries she’d suggested.
Well, she wouldn’t take no for an answer and published what she had been told in London.
The military officer in charge of the Ministry concerned, the late Col. Kwame Baah, aware that I worked for the same company as the lady whose byline had appeared on the story, sent for me. He questioned me politely but firmly, whereupon I told him I knew nothing of the matter. Luckily, he believed me, and even revealed to me that the military Government had independently established that the guy who tipped off the lady journalist, a Commander Foden, had been inciting all manner of people to put pressure on the Government to abandon its intended action.
Had Col. Kwame Baah chosen not to believe me, he could have had me taken to Burma Camp where I would have been given a military-type, so-called ‘identification haircut’ (a complete shaving of one’s pate!) Many unfortunate people who go into military guardrooms are sometimes initially given such a rough shave, as a matter of course — whether they are guilty of any offence or not.
My situation at the time vexed me a great deal. You see, I don’t mind being pilloried for something that I have written myself. But to be placed at risk of obtaining a ‘military haircut’ and worse, on the basis of a story written by somebody else safely ensconced in London, most probably drinking white wine and eating prawn cocktails at long lunches, was absurdly unjust — in my view! But to some of these London-based journalists, the scoop was the be-all and end-all of everything they wanted.
The Lonrho story was not the last time I faced trouble on account of an article written by someone else. On a second occasion, I was invited for questioning by the Special Branch police, over something another journalist, the late Nicholas Ashford, from the London newspaper, The Times, had written. I didn’t even know of the subject-matter he had written about, as I didn’t have access to copies of his paper.
I learnt later that another Ghanaian journalist, a very courageous chap called Adolphus Patterson, had been taken in on suspicion of having talked to The Times man. They had widened the net of suspects to bring in anyone who had a connection with foreign newspapers, and that had included me.
When I got to the Special Branch offices, they sat me down before a panel of four people and asked me whether I knew the chap from London. I said ‘No’. They had deliberately placed a copy of the article the guy had written a little distance from me, and watched my reaction. Since I had never seen the article, I just ran my eyes quickly over it and looked away, showing no interest in it. I surmised that they had wanted to see whether the sight of the article would startle me and thereby give me away.
.When I didn’t react, they were reassured and asked me: “We know you are a very experienced journalist. Where do you think this journalist might have got his information from?”
Ei? Was I a master-magician or what?
But I kept my cool and replied frankly: “Look, journalists get their information from many sources. Don’t highly-placed Ghanaians attend cocktail parties given by foreign diplomats and the top representatives of foreign companies? Don’t you know that it is a trait in some Ghanaians to open up to strangers they meet at parties, in order to look important? Are there not foreigners in this country who know more about its affairs than you or me? People hear a lot, and if it is in their interest, they will tell it to a visiting journalist who will go away to his country and write about what he has been told. What can be done to him when he’s safely back at his base?”
Apparently, they released the hapless Adolphus Patterson shortly after they’d interviewed me. This piece of intelligence was relayed to me by Kwame Kesse-Adu, a veteran journalist who worked for The Pioneer, the Kumasi paper once edited by Baffour Ankomah, editor of the New African. Kwame Kesse-Adu spent so much time as the ‘guest’ of governments that one sometimes wondered why he stayed in journalism at all. Unfortunately both he and Patterson are no longer with us. Very tough blokes, both.They never feared to write what was the truth, for fear of any government.
The third occasion on which I had an encounter with the Special Branch also involved a visiting foreign journalist — from the London Daily Telegraph.
This chap breezed into Accra and promptly wrote a lengthy piece critical of the military Government of the time. Unlike others, he didn’t leave the country but stayed on. The Special Branch were therefore able to pick him up from his hotel, as soon as the Ghana High Commission in London had telexed a copy of his article to Accra. They then set about trying to trace his sources.
As it happened, I, completely ignorant of the man’s arrest, made a visit to the Ghana Ministry of Information shortly after the chap’s arrest, on a completely unrelated matter. While I was making my enquiries, one of the top officials of the Information Ministry spotted me and told the Information Commissioner, “Ei, one of that man’s friends is here oh!”
I had no idea whom he was talking about!
Now, the Commissioner at the time was Col Robert Kotei, a former Ghana high-jump champion, whom I’d featured in Drum Magazine when I was its editor. So I made light of ewhat the official had told him, expecting that because he knew me so well, he would just say “Hello” to me and let me go. But Bob Kotei wanted to quiz me about the ‘arrested correspondent!’ I told him politely, “Please this has got nothing at all to do with me.” And I left the Ministry in a bit of a huff.
Ha! Apparently, Kotei wasn’t satisfied and got the Special Branch to pick me up from my home! I was damned annoyed, but I realised they might have connected me to the correspondent because they had found my details in his notebook – given to him, no doubt, by a drinking companion of his, the late Godwin Matatu, who was a former colleague of mine from Africa Magazine, published in London.
When I got to the Special Branch, they brought in the correspondent and watched our reactions on seeing each other. I’d indeed walked past the guy, without knowing who he was, at the Ambassador Hotel, once. But I betrayed no knowledge of him. And, of course, he didn’t know me from Adam.
The Special Branch guys then did a very clever thing: they put me and the correspondent in the same car and asked a poorly-dressed man, an official that one could easily mistake for a chauffeur, to take us to our respective destinations. I knew immediately that this was a trap – they wanted to see whether the guy and I would converse with each other in the car. That would establish that I had been lying when I’d said I didn’t know him.
Stupidly, the guy did try to make conversation, immediately we left the precincts of the Special Branch. I was appalled that he was so inexperienced that he didn’t realise we were being set up to converse and reveal that we knew each other. I whispered between clenched teeth, in as deadpan a manner as possible — as if I was only sighing to myself: “Hmmm! As for those Three Wise Monkeys”….
Now, the motto of ‘The Three Wise Monkeys’ was: “See nothing, Hear nothing and Say Nothing!” I calculated that the correspondent would be well enough read to get the allusion I was making to the wisdom of keeping mum! Fortunately, he did catch on, and held his peace. The “chauffeur”, of course, knew nothing, for his degree of literacy would not have stretched to a knowledge of “The three Wise Monkeys” — something I could confidently take for granted, however, in a Daily Telegraph correspondent! Sweet, indeed, is a deep taste of the Pierian spring!