CONVERSATIONS WITH MY STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS (4)
REMEMBERING GENERALS ANKRAH AND MOBUTU
By CAMERON DUODU
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS: I am still waiting to hear about General Sani Abacha of Nigeria….
ME: Listen man, Abacha was, without doubt, the most notorious character in West African history – if not African history, and you can’t make me get rid of him just like that.
SOC: Oh? You’re not serious?
ME: Do you know anyone who would hang nine activists – including a famous writer, the Ogoni leader by the name of Ken Saro-Wiwa – on the day a Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference opened, knowing that appeals had gone to the Conference to appeal to him to spare the men’s lives?
ME: Abacha did. Do you know any head of state in Africa who could single-handedly salt away between $2 and $3billion?
ME: Abacha did. This is no fable. The Swiss Government has traced most of the money and sent it back to the Nigerian Government. Do you know any head of state in Africa who would invite back the winning candidate in an election (Chief Moshood Abiola, winner of the June 12, 1993 election in Nigeria) – who had escaped into exile because the military had ‘annulled’ the election and there were threats to his life – and then jail him and murder his wife (Kudirat Abiola)?
ME: Abacha did. And ironically, he and his victim, Abiola, both di3ed in 1998 – within a month of each other.
ME: Yes. So just wait and let me come to Abacha in my own good time. You won’t regret it. Right now, I am more interested in exploring the lunacies associated with military rule in Africa. In Ghana, the military carried out lunacies even when they weren’t in power. You may remember that in 1979, a group of young military officers carried out a coup against their senior officers who were then in government?
SOC: That was the JJ Rawlings group, wasn’t it? The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). Blood-thirsty lot, right? They executed eight senior officers including three former heads of state – Generals Fred Akuffo, Kutu Acheampong and Akwasi Afrifa, right?
ME: Right. But they did one thing right. They said they would hand over power to an elected civilian government in three months, and they did exactly that.
SOC: Amazing. The soldiers usually find ways of staying in power once they taste power and discover how good it is to have the entire resources of the state at their disposal. So when these guys left office after three months, as they had pledged, they became heroes. Except to the government they had handed power to – that led by President Hilla Limann (who ruled Ghana from 24 September 1979 to 31 December 1981.) Limann’s military intelligence outfit fed him with reports that Rawlings wanted to overthrow him and return to power.
The atmosphere they created in the country was so charged that I was not surprised when one day, I read a terse report in one of our papers — no doubt put in by the Military Intelligence people — stating baldy that an unspecified number of “military personnel” were being tried for attempting to cause disorder — or something similarly vague. The rest of the report was so uninformative that I could hardly make a story out of it. The official military public relations outfit was uncommunicative when I tried to obtain more information for a story for the BBC World Service.
But I managed to put a story together and send it to the BBC. In those days, most of the Ghanaian media were lacking in curiosity, to say the least. So everyone who wanted to know what was going on in Ghana listened to the BBC.
SOC: Didn’t Limann himself confront you about your reports to the BBC? Must have been uncomfortable?
ME: Yes, most unpleasant. One day, I was at the State House in Accra covering a conference on Ghana’s gold resources when President Limann, having finished his speech, got up to leave. We all stood up for him. As he passed, he stopped dead — just by me. Pointing at me, he said in an accusatory tone: “You! Every time I leave this country, they tell me “Cameron Duodu has reported this. Cameron Duodu has reported that…”
Before I could think of something sharp to retort with, like, “My job as a correspondent is to tell the world the truth!” he had walked on…
I felt outraged. I’d known Dr Limann when he was a member of the Ghana Constitutional Commission of 1968-69, and a mutual friend, a nice guy called Kambong, had introduced us and had said to me in prophetic words: “This man is very learned. He will one day be Ghana’s President!” I’d liked the man and had once visited him at his lodgings in the Airport residential area in Accra. He it was who’d first shown me the then unpublished report of the Constitutional Commission… As President, he’d invited a group of newsmen to come and have lunch with him, and he and I had engaged in a surreal tete-a-tete whereby he’d mistaken me for someone else he’d met whilst he was a student in Paris. I tried to correct him, but he was in full flow, disclosing examples of student mischief-making that shouldn’t pass the lips of a President. I had to be at my diplomatic best, not letting him lose face by exposing his lapse of memory, and yet trying not to bask too much in the reflected glory he was directing at me. It was tough. The other newsmen looked at us transfixed. I managed to stop him short by saying, “Please, Mr President, make sure your men don’t do anything that will embarrass you if I report it to the world.” He laughed it off. And now, he was complaining that when he was abroad, he was told of things I’d reported that didn’t please him? I wanted to remind him of what I’d told him that day in the Castle. But before I could retort, he was gone.
SOC: Limann was not the first head of state to reproach you in public, though, was he?
ME: No! My real bete noire was Lieutenant-General Joseph Ankrah, who became head of state after President Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown by the military on 24 February 1966. He became Chairman of the National Liberation Council (NLC) which claimed to be restoring the democracy that President Nkrumah had destroyed in Ghana. One day, I attended a press conference in the Castle, headquarters of the Government. This was after the 17 April 1967 attempted coup led by Lt S B Arthur (known as the“Guitar Boy” coup because after Arthur had taken over the national Broadcasting station, he played a song called “Guitar Boy” by the Nigerian musician, Sir Victor Uwaifo.)
SOC: I know you’re dying to to talk about Victor Uwaifo’s other song, Joromi and how many girls you danced with to that tune….
ME: No,no: I am sticking to the military theme. . Do you know why Arthur’s coup failed? After taking over Broadcasting House, he went to his girl friend’s house, in an armoured reconnaissance car called a Ferret. He went to find out whether she’d recognised his voice when he’d made his coup announcement! By the time he got to Burma Camp, officers had gathered in the mess discussing what was happening. One of them told him that they had assembled to hear his instructions. He wanted to go in armed, but was politely reminded that one didn’t go to the mess armed. Instead of saying that mess rules were suspended for the time being, he meekly put his sub-machine gun somewhere and entered the mess. He was promptly put under arrest and put in a guardroom. Meanwhile, the other officers in Accra disarmed his men and put them in the cooler. Later, Arthur was court-martialled and executed, together with his co-conspirator, Lieutenant Moses Yeboah. One funny Air Force helicopter pilot who liked Western films, used to joke about Arhur’s stupidity, it, saying: “Signor, when you want to coup, coup! Don’t go talking to girl-friend!” (adapted from The Good The Bad And the Ugly, a Western film in which a would-be murderer corners his enemy in a bath tub, but begins to talk threateningly, instead of shooting, and the man in the bath-tub manages to produce a gun and kill him).
SOC: Yes. but back to the Castle. Lt-Gen E K Kotoka had been killed in the attempted coup. And they were holding a press conference to tell the nation about what had happened. You got up and …
ME: I got up and innocently asked Ankrah, “Sir, are you going to appoint another officer to replace General Kotoka on the Council?” (There’s hardly ever any solid news to be obtained at a Government press conference – they are mostly public relations exercises meant for the national radio and are a waste of one’s time, unless one always asks hard-nosed questions.)
But my perfectly legitimate question caused Ankrah to explode: “You are the people who are spreading rumours!” he barked at me. “When we made the coup, did we say that when one of us died, we would replace him with another officer?”
All the journalists sitting with me seemed to shrink into their seats.
Gee-whiz! You merely ask a question at a press conference and the head of state breathes fire on you? If I wanted to spread rumours, why would I ask the Government a direct question?
Jimmy Markham, a former colleague of mine at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (sadly now deceased) and a sharp-witted guy, later made fun of Ankrah: “Ankrah said ‘When we made the coup’! But where was he when Kotoka and the others were making the coup? They merely called on him to ‘gift’ him the chairmanship – to his complete surprise — after the coup had succeeded! He knew nothing about the coup!”Jimmy laughed at his own witticism but I didn’t join in. The Ankrah menace was hanging rather heavily over me.
SOC: It was an eye-opener, wasn’t it? You — and others — thought that with the overthrow of Dr Kwame Nkrumah, dictatorship had ended for ever in Ghana. But dictatorship is a human weakness. It can affect the whole culture of a nation. Ankrah’s antics provoked the brilliant remark from the Legon Observer newspaper that what was going on in Ghana, post-Nkrumah, was “the same thing different”.
ME: Don’t I know it! By the way, that was not my only encounter with Ankrah. General Mobutu Seseseko of Zaire came visiting Ghana in the latter part of 1967 to confer with Ankrah prior to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit that was to take place in Kinshasa in September 1967. After his talks with Ankrah, Mobutu held a press conference, with Ankrah presiding. Mobutu strongly spoke in favour of negotiations as a solution to the civil war that was then raging between Nigeria and Biafra. He waxed quite eloquent about his own efforts to make peace in Zaire with rebel Generals who tried to secede – he boasted that he gave them big jobs in Kinshasa! (This was a subtle hint on how General Yakubu Gowon of Nigeria could solve the Biafran secession problem). I detected how his mind was working and asked him: “Will you be sharing your experience with General Yakubu Gowon? And if he doesn’t listen to you, will you then recognise Biafra?”
General Ankrah [once again] exploded: “Don’t embarrass him!” he shouted at me. “He is not Gowon?”
Again, everyone looked at me. At the end of the press conference, a foreign diplomat I knew tapped me on the shoulder and said softly, “Cameron, always remember you are living under a military regime!” I must say I was more than happy when Ankrah was removed from office in April 1968 and General Akwasi Afrifa, a far more polished and liberal officer, became head of state. I remembered Afrifa from 1966, when I flew down to Accra from London to cover the 1966 coup….
SOC: No, you may not talk about Afrifa right now…
ME: Okay. But may I go back to Ankrah for just a moment? A military aide of Ankrah’s once told me that on an official visit to Canada, Ankrah told the Canadian Prime Minister of the time, Mr Lester Pearson, that he thought the US should drop an atom bomb on Vietnam and end the war there! The guy said the Canadian PM, a very erudite man who espoused a very enlightened attitude to world conflicts, was shocked by Ankrah;s ignorant statement. He told Ankrah sarcastically, “I am sure when you arrive next door – in Washington – the man in the White House (‘LBJ’, Lyndon Baines Johnson) “will be “very interested to hear you say that”. Ankrah’s aide said he felt ashamed to have a head of state who could make such a crass statement and who was so dumb he could not tell when other statesmen were throwing sarcasm into his face.
SOC: Hey, didn’t we start with an uninformative newspaper report in 1981 about the arrest of soldiers in Ghana for plotting a coup? What did you find out?
ME: Er, apparently, only one officer was arrested. He was called Captain Effah-Dartey. The Government announcement of his arrest was opaque to the point of being incomprehensible.
So I commented, in my dispatch to the BBC, that the omens for democracy in Ghana were not good if an “unnamed Ghanaian citizen could be arrested and tried at an unknown location by unnamed people, for an unspecified crime!”.
After my dispatch was broadcast, President Limann’s people hit the roof. The Special Branch (the security police) came to my house. They said their Director wanted to see me. I went with them.
The Director told me that the Government was not pleased with my report on the BBC.
I replied: “Then the Government should stop doing things that will make me send reports that do not please it.”
The Director said I could go.
As I got up to leave, my professional cheek took over. I asked him: “By the way, what is the correct name of the Captain who has been arrested?”
He said :”I think it is Effah-LARTEY”.(“You think?” I said. In my head. I chuckled to myself). Then, I left.
Later on, when I got to know that the name of the arrested officer was Effah DARTEY, I could not help laughing. I wondered to myself: “If the Director of the Special Branch does not know the correct name of an arrested army officer, then what sort of security service do we have in this country?”
On 31 December 1981, although he was being kept under a 24-hour surveillance system and followed everywhere, , Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings was yet able to carry out a military coup and overthrow the Limann Government. Ghana then entered a long, dark period of repression — all of which I am sure Ghana would have been spared, if the Limann administration had not allowed its military intelligence to lead it by the nose but had trusted the people of Ghana by ruling in a truly democratic fashion, and had stopped making unnecessary enemies.