I didn’t court the stream of consciousness. It just surfaced from deep within my psyche, and only because I had read Ghana’s Daily Graphic on the internet.
I felt outraged. I had known Dr Limann when he was a member of the Constitutional Commission in 1968-69. A mutual friend, a nice guy called Kambong, had introduced us and had told me in prophetic words: “This man is very learned. He will one day be Ghana’s president!”
I had liked the man and had once visited him at his lodgings in the airport residential area in Accra. He it was who had first shown me the then unpublished report of the Constitutional Commission. As president, he had invited a group of journalists to have lunch with him, and he and I had engaged in a surreal tête-a-tête whereby he had mistaken me for someone else he had met whilst he was a student in Paris. <p >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. <p >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, in 1980, he was complaining that when he was abroad, I had reported things that didn’t please him? I wanted to remind him of what I had told him in 1969. But before I could retort, he was gone.
Limann was not the first head of state to confront me in public. Remember Lt-Gen Joseph Ankrah, chairman of the National Liberation Council (NLC) that replaced the government of Dr Kwame Nkrumah in 1966? Nkrumah had danced so deftly with the Queen when she visited Ghana from 9-20 November 1961, but that is for another day. <p >But one day after the coup that overthrew Nkrumah, I attended a press conference in the Castle. There had been an abortive counter-coup on 17 April 1967 led by Lt S B Arthur (the Guitar Boy coup). Guitar Boy was the hit song by the Nigerian musician, Victor Uwaifo. Lt Arthur had played it when he took over Broadcasting House in Accra…
Well, why did his coup fail? After taking over Broadcasting House, he went to his girlfriend’s house, in an armoured Ferret vehicle, to ask her whether she had recognised his voice when he 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 reminded that one didn’t go to the mess armed. So he put his sub-machine gun somewhere and entered the mess. He was promptly arrested and put in a guardroom. Later, he was court-martialled and executed. One funny helicopter pilot who liked Western films used to joke about it, saying: “When you want to coup, coup! Don’t go talk to girl!”
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. I got up and asked Lt-Gen Ankrah: “Sir, are you going to appoint another officer to replace Gen Kotoka on the Council?” My perfectly innocuous question caused Ankrah to explode: “You are the people spreading rumours,” he barked at me. “When we staged 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-whizz! You merely ask a question at a press conference and fire is breathed on you? 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 staged the coup’! But where was he when Kotoka and the others were staging the coup? They merely called on him to ‘dash’ him the chairmanship – to his complete surprise – after the coup had succeeded!” Jimmy laughed at his own mischievous witticism.
That was not my only encounter with Ankrah. Gen Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire visited Ghana during Ankrah’s reign and he held a press conference, with Ankrah presiding. Mobutu described his efforts to make peace in Zaire with his rebel generals who tried to secede – he boasted that he gave them big jobs in Kinshasa! (This was a subtle hint about how General Yakubu Gowon of Nigeria could solve the Biafran secession problem, which was then the talking point in all Africa). I got the hint and asked Mobutu: “Sir, will you be sharing your experience with Gen Gowon? And if he doesn’t listen to you, will you recognise Biafra?”
Gen Ankrah, once again, exploded: “Don’t embarrass him,” he shouted at me. “He is not Gowon?” Everyone looked at me. At the end of the press conference, the British information attaché took me aside and said softly: “Cameron, remember you are living under a military regime!” Kai – I didn’t pay attention to his advice. Anyhow, Ankrah was removed very soon. Gen Akwasi Afrifa, a more liberal chap, became head of state.
But I can’t talk about Afrifa right now. General Odumegwu Ojukwu, leader of Biafra, has just died (26 November 2011). I should write about him. And don’t forget, Alex Ibru, who founded The Guardian of Nigeria and introduced an amazing level of literacy into the Nigerian newspaper world, has also passed on? (on 20 November 2011).
But permit me to go back to Ankrah. His military aide told me that on a visit to Canada, Ankrah told the Canadian prime minister that he thought the US should drop an atomic bomb on North Vietnam and end the war there! The guy said the Canadian PM was so shocked he told Ankrah – sarcastically – that when he arrived in Washington, he should tell that to the man in the White House – Lyndon Baines Johnson – who would be “very interested to hear that”. Ankrah’s aide said he felt ashamed to have a head of state who was so crass.
Oh, and I have forgotten about Captain Effah Dartey. Captain, if you are reading me, you don’t know this but you owe me a drink. For when you were arrested in 1981, I did report it on the BBC. As I say, the government announcement of your arrest was opaque to the point of being incomprehensible. So I commented 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, Limann’s officials hit the roof. Special Branch officers came to my house.
They said their director wanted to see me, so I went with them. The director told me that the government was not pleased with my report. I replied: “Then the government should stop doing things that will make me send reports that don’t please it.”
The director said I could go. As I got up to leave, my professional instinct 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). Then I left.
Later, when I got to know that the correct name was Captain Effah DARTEY, I laughed. I wondered to myself: “If the director of the Special Branch (the political police) does not know the correct name of an arrested person, then what sort of security service is being run in the country?”
We found out on 31 December 1981, when, although he was under 24-hour surveillance, Flt-Lt Jerry Rawlings was able to stage a coup and overthrow Limann’s government.
Ghana then entered a dark period of repression – all of which would never have occurred if the Limann administration and its security goons had trusted the people of Ghana with real democracy and stopped pettifogging and making unnecessary enemies.