A Tale Of Two Countries

  • PublishedJune 4, 2007

“Owned by no-one. Free to say anything” – motto of the British daily, The Guardian.

I like to think of The Guardian as New African’s big neighbour. Big in terms of reach, and you may add global influence. Their big, brown building at 119 Farringdon Road in EC1 is just two minutes walk from New African’s much smaller block of offices at 7 Coldbath Square (also brown in colour; London likes brown, no wonder Gordon Brown is going to be the next prime minister).

In the days when Africa was Africa, when we were not adulterated by so-called “globalisation of culture” (which essentially means Western culture taking over the world), we would have shouted from Coldbath Square across the two-minute divide to our neighbours at 119 Farringdon Road to come over because the evening meal was ready, and they would have heard us.

Every morning I pass by The Guardian on my way to work. And a smile breaks at the corners of my solid African mouth when I see their motto prominently displayed on their building: “Owned by no-one. Free to say anything”. A noble thought if you didn’t know that by the sheer set-up of the British/Western media (which pride themselves of being the Fourth Estate of the Realm), The Guardian, though “owned by no-one”, is not, and cannot, be “free to say anything”. In fact it does not. It chooses what to say, when to say it, and how to say it, depending on whose goat is being gored and why.

In the second week of March this year, George Shire, a Zimbabwean patriot and academic of immense depth, wrote to The Guardian in reaction to the shrill reporting of Zimbabwe in the British/Western media after the beating up of some opposition MDC leaders by the police on 11 March.

I met George Shire eight weeks after sending his piece to The Guardian and the daily newspaper had not found enough freedom to print Shire’s article. As I write, three more weeks later (making it 11 weeks in total), The Guardian had still not run Shire’s article despite his many telephone calls to the newspaper to check what was happening. A shorter letter he sent had also not been published. “Owned by no-one. Free to say anything” indeed.

Which reminds me of a letter published on 22 August 2002 by The Times, another British daily. At least The Times does not claim to be “owned by no-one” and thus “free to say anything”. We all know it is “owned” by Rupert Murdoch and, if we should stretch The Guardian’s logic, “not free to say anything”. But on 22 August 2002, The Times exercised enough freedom to publish the following letter (which holds salutary lessons for us all).

Headlined “Mugabe’s academic life”, the letter was written by one Graham Zellick, from the Office of the Vice Chancellor, University of London. The full letter follows:

“From the Vice-Chancellor of the University of London.

Sir, It is true that President Robert Mugabe holds four University of London degrees (letter, August 16), all obtained by private study as an external student. He obtained a BSc (Econ) in 1958 when working as a teacher, the LLB and LLM while in detention in the late Sixties and early Seventies; and the MSc (Econ) in 1985 when already prime minister. Our external programme, which even now has 30,000 students around the world, has a unique record in offering degree-level opportunities to people denied access to conventional higher education, including political prisoners (such as Nelson Mandela) and prisoners of war.

“Neither intellectual ability nor academic training offers any guarantee of ethical or civilised behaviour, but perhaps it was a mistake in 1958 to grant Mr Mugabe an exemption from the paper in constitutional law by virtue of his earlier studies in South Africa, since he might have acquired a better appreciation of the value and importance of the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, the freedom of the press, the separation of powers and fundamental human rights.

“We may not be proud of Mr Mugabe as one of our external graduates, but we – and British higher education generally – can be proud of our external programme.”

In Ghana, our elders say: “When a big lies, it means he is hiding something big.” The vice chancellor could well have added that “perhaps it was a mistake for Queen Elizabeth II to have given Mr Mugabe a knighthood in 1994 (a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath) since he has no grasp of the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, the separation of powers and fundamental human rights”. But I shouldn’t expect him to say that, as, in this era of Bush and Blair, shame has become a non-essential trait of opinion formers in the metropolitan capitals.

So what am I driving at? Simple. I am comparing the treatment of Zimbabwe and its president by the British/Western media and their opinion formers like the vice chancellor, and the treatment given to my own country Ghana by the same British/Western media and their opinion formers like the vice chancellor.

For those who haven’t yet noticed, Ghana and Zimbabwe have similar variables in many respects. I can tell because I am Ghanaian and I know Zimbabwe very well. For a start, the former First Lady of Zimbabwe was a Ghanaian, and the two countries have a vitriolic private press vying for honours with the state-owned media. They also have an opposition not shy to speak its mind.

But the strange thing is that while Ghana is talked about in glowing terms in Western capitals, Zimbabwe is said to be a “dictatorship” ruled by a “tyrant” whose middle name could have been Hitler. The flipside, however, is that Hitler was not African, he was a thoroughbred European who ruled in Europe, as President Mugabe once reminded me when I brought up the matter in one of our interviews. Another variable common to the two countries is the strength (or is it weakness?) of our currencies – the Ghana cedi and the Zimbabwean dollar. In April 1983, Ghana, then under Flt-Lt Jerry Rawlings, devalued the cedi under intense pressure from the IMF and World Bank. At the time, the cedi was exchanging for ¢5 to £1, and ¢2.75 to US$1. Today, the cedi is exchanging for ¢18,400 to £1, and ¢9,240 to US$1.

I have tried to calculate the percentage of the depreciation but my calculator doesn’t have enough space for all the zeros needed to make an accurate calculation. So those of you who work with super-computers, could you please do me a favour by calculating the following: If 100% = ¢10 to £1, what % is ¢18,400 to £1? It would be much appreciated.

While waiting for the super-computer calculation, let’s try and do it manually. This is how I would approach it. If 100% = ¢10 to £1, 200% will be ¢20 to £1; 400% will be ¢40 to £1; 800% will be ¢80 to £1; and 1,000% will be ¢100 to £1. Therefore, ¢1,000 to £1 will be 10,000%. And ¢18,000 to £1 will be 180,000%. If you add another ¢400 to £1 (ie, 4,000%), you get the princely sum of 184,000%! That has been the depreciation (please don’t tempt me to use collapse) of our currency in 24 years – since 1983!

I am not an economist, so I need some education here. Could somebody tell me if a currency collapse of Ghana’s proportions affects the inflation rate in any country? Perhaps it does not. Else how would the IMF and World Bank keep telling us that Ghana’s economy was doing well (very well indeed, thank you. Ghana was even declared “a star pupil” of the IMF and World Bank) while the cedi was suffering that calamitous collapse? Today, the same institutions and other Western opinion formers point to the 1,750% inflation rate, recently revised to 2,200%, in Zimbabwe, and say it is the worst since Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin. Last year, when Zimbabwe re-denominated its currency and dropped four zeros at the end, we saw a lot of sneering articles in the British/Western media despising the Zimbabwean leadership for running a “voodoo” economy. In July, Ghana is introducing a re-denominated cedi, after dropping four zeros at the end. And have you heard a bird squeak?

In mid-May, there were headline stories in the British/Western media about “Zimbabweans facing power cuts for up to 20 hours a day” (The Guardian). At the same time, a group calling itself the Committee for Joint Action (CJA) was calling a press conference in Ghana to talk about the worsening electricity crisis in President Kufuor’s country. “From a load shedding schedule [which started in August 2006] of 12 hours light-off every five days, we have retrogressed to a 12-hour light-off every other day and are currently being subjected to a 15-hour lights-off every other day even though this latest move has not been officially announced,” the CJA said. But have you heard a bird squeak in Western capitals about “Ghanaians facing power cuts for up to 15 hours every other day?”

Ghana gets over 50% donor support every year to run its budget. In 2001, President Kufuor himself said it was a shame to Ghanaians that (at the time) 70% of our budget was financed by foreign aid. The percentage has since come down. But the point to underline here is that Zimbabwe gets no budgetary support from abroad since Britain and its Western allies imposed economic sanctions on the country in 2001. Elsewhere, Tanzania gets 40% donor aid to support its development budget.

Now imagine what would happen to Ghana and Tanzania and their economies, if they were to suddenly lose the over 50%  and 40% respectively of budgetary support they now get from abroad? But that is what has happened to Zimbabwe for the last seven years, and Mr Mugabe has been soldiering on partly thanks to his two economics degrees (a BSc and MSc) obtained from the University of London “while in detention” (detained by who and for what?, the vice chancellor would not say).

And instead of being proud of a former student who is not sitting at the tube station begging for alms to run his economy, the vice chancellor dares to sneer at Mr Mugabe. “We may not be proud of Mr Mugabe as one of our external graduates…”. Shame on you, Professor Vice Chancellor. People like you do the world a huge disservice for ditching objectivity and replacing it with political correct ness and supporting the flag. “Owned by no-one, free to say anything.”  May the good Lord have mercy on us all.

Written By
Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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