Under the Neem Tree

How The Daily Telegraph Opened My Eyes To Racism

  • PublishedApril 3, 2007

If you nobble a country politically at birth by handing it to your apes, because they can read and write English, you don’t deserve to sit back in judgement over yourself and say, narcissistically: “How great we were. If only they had done what we instructed them to do!” Pure tosh!

On the day that Ghana gained its independence, 6 March 1957, I thought the whole world loved our new nation that had just been born. Representing the world’s richest country, the United States, at the celebrations was Richard M. Nixon, then vice-president — who was destined to feature hugely in future history. I must be endowed with a journalist’s hunch of crazy proportions, for out of sheer impulse, I went over and shook hands with this guy whose name was later to represent villainy in American governance.

As everyone who has ever been to Ghana knows, we are as warm and welcoming this day as we were then. We didn’t harbour any ill-will at all towards our former colonial masters, the British, and my favourite reading, at the time, was actually the airmail edition of the British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, despite it being known as a stalwart advocate for the continuation of the British empire.

For one thing, it was full of dispatches from all over the world — the sort of stuff that sent a cub reporter like me dreaming of a career as a foreign correspondent who risked life and limb to bring news to his readers. In the week of Ghana’s independence, I read the coverage of the event by most of the other Fleet Street papers. It was largely favourable to Ghana as the first African country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain its independence and be welcomed as a member of the Commonwealth.

I then took “my” Telegraph and opened it at the page that never failed to make me laugh — “Way Of The World”  by Peter Simple. And I got the shock of my life. Instead of the warm welcoming words that most writers were throwing in the direction of Ghana, was a stinging bit of mockery — how could these primitive blacks be expected to run a nation, and that sort of thing. It was the start of a hate-hate relationship between the paper and Ghana which led to the Ghana government deporting a Daily Telegraph correspondent, Ian Colvin.

I was reminded of these things on 11 March when I read a blistering attack on Ghana’s 50th anniversary celebrations by Niall Ferguson in the sister paper of The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph. As the French say, “plus ça change”.

Ferguson’s tedious thesis — in so many words — is that Ghana has been run into the ground by its leaders and has proved — wait for it — that Africans are incapable of ruling themselves. Now where had I read that sort of thing before? In the British weekly, The Observer, by Norman Stone; in the The Spectator by Paul Johnson and Taki and once, in an aberrant leader comment in The Independent – all based in London.

All these pieces were suggesting, however obliquely, that Africa needs to be “recolonised”. This view is shared by many rightwingers, who cannot get it into their skulls that – as I reminded Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight (BBC2 TV) on 6 March 2007 – human dignity is not negotiable and that every group of people have  the inalienable right to govern themselves. If, in doing so, they make mistakes, so be it. British history is full of chapters like The Hundred Years War; The War Of The Roses and The Potato Famine In Ireland. In future, there will be a chapter entitled “How A Prime Minister Lied His Way Into A Stupid War In Iraq With The Approval Of A Supine House of Commons”. But no one has said the British should invite the Normans or Visigoths back to sort out British politics.

Yet when Africans, after only decades of independence — an “independence” wrested from the foreign rulers under conditions laid down by them, at that — inevitably make mistakes, these are put down to their inferiority as human beings. On the showing of Niall Ferguson in The Sunday Telegraph on 11 March 2007, no British historian is ever to be trusted (if we go by his logic, that is). For he wrote: “Although [Flt-Lt Jerry] Rawlings formally restored democracy in 1992, he remained in power until 2001 and his party, the National Democratic Congress, continues to rule the country.”

That is totally false. The party of Rawlings was defeated in a democratically-conducted election in 2000 and President John Kufuor and his New Patriotic Party (NPP) have been in power since January 2001.  How can the “authoritative” academic, Niall Ferguson, make such an elementary mistake and, more important, how can such “august” Western newspapers as The Sunday Telegraph and the Los Angeles Times (which also published Ferguson‘s piece) have printed it?

Whatever the answer, some of us Africans are tired of the Western media for assuming that every Tom, Dick and Harry is capable of writing intelligently about Africa — just because he or she holds an important academic position at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Princeton, or has spent a few years moving around the expatriate cocktail party circuit in an African city.

A true historian ought to recognise the underlying causes of instability in Africa, which is that if a foreigner imposes his own method of governance on someone else, after destroying that someone else’s own customary method of governance on the grounds that it is primitive, then whatever new set of rules are written into a “constitution” and left to the someone else will be regarded as a mere scrap of paper as soon as the foreigner departs, taking his guns with him.

Indeed, Ghana’s first president, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, precisely told the colonial officers who were tying his hands behind his back with constitutional restraints, before independence, that he could “drive a coach and horses” through Ghana’s independence constitution. And by 1960, he had done precisely that – quite brilliantly and legally, too — with the help of a British former Labour MP called Geoffrey Bing, QC, whom he had imported to be his “constitutional advisor”. So much for the African’s innate, “atavistic” inability to run a democratic system.

Second, if you’re locked into an economic system whereby you obtain two-thirds of your export earnings from one crop, cocoa; three quarters of your national revenue from that same source and you can do little or nothing to change that; if you also cannot add value to your other exports because of lack of capital — so you continue to be forced to sell unprocessed gold, manganese, bauxite and worst of all, those massive timber logs (which could easily have been transformed into furniture before export) to feed British, European and American factories — of course the gap between your standard of living and theirs would increase exponentially.

Ferguson’s allusions to Nkrumah’s “communism” are a smear that shows how shallow Ferguson’s knowledge of African history is. Does he know that Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya was similarly smeared, though almost everyone in Kenya would laugh today at the notion that Kenyatta was a socialist, let alone being a communist?

Nkrumah’s personal secretary for over a decade was a British woman he inherited from the governor of the Gold Coast; he was so taken in by the alleged “impartiality” of British officials that he did not hesitate to send to the Congo in 1960, a Ghanaian army contingent led by British officers whom the Congolese suspected of being loyal to NATO and through NATO, to the Belgians the Congolese loathed.

In my opinion, however, the worst difficulty Ghana has faced since independence has been the political culture it inherited. The former indigenous/traditional ruling class, made up of chiefs and their counsellors, who had built up stable societies that had survived slavery and inter-ethnic wars, were first used by the British to subvert their own democracy, through “indirect rule”, and were then short-changed themselves by being written out of the political equation by British officials.

These great brains from Whitehall “cleverly” inserted into the election law the provision that no one could become a Member of Parliament — or indeed of a local council — unless he could read or write English! So, at a stroke, those who knew how to run societies – the illiterate chiefs and elders – became spectators, as the lawyers, teachers, commission agents and other “traitorous clerks” were handed power because they could read and write English.

Mr Ferguson and his ilk swallow the wisdom of this imperialist writ without asking themselves: what has building modern toilets, schools and health posts, providing water and electricity, building and maintaining roads and generally deciding how to spend a nation’s money wisely, got to do with an ability to read and write English?

By the time Ghana became independent in 1957, the UN had been using simultaneous translation for nearly 10 years in a General Assembly in which scores of languages were used on a routine basis. So why was it such a big deal to provide translation, research and secretarial facilities to an infant democratic parliament in Ghana, when these had been gladly provided for “The Mother of Parliaments” at Westminster?

So you nobble the country politically at birth by handing it to your apes, or to quote Ferguson, a pack of “knaves”’, because they could write and read English. And then you sit back in judgement over yourself and say, narcissistically: “How great we were. If only they had done what we instructed them to do!” Pure tosh!

Written By
Cameron Duodu

Cameron Duodu (born 24 May 1937) is a UK-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a notable novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a distinguished career as a journalist and editorialist.

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