21.12.2008 Feature Article

Dr Conor Cruise O'brien By Cameron Duodu

Dr Conor Cruise O'brien By Cameron Duodu
21.12.2008 LISTEN

When Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien,who has just died in Dublin, aged 91, arrived in Ghana to become Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana, few people knew who he was.

However, as editor of Drum magazine and Ghana stringer of The Observer, his confrontation with the Western powers over Katanga's secession in the Congo, was known to me. So I did a feature about him in Drum.

He was particularly pleased when I uncovered the fact that the Mary MacEntee whom Fleet Street had "caught" him with in the Congo, was no bimbo but had been described by Sean O'Faolian, the famous Irish writer, as one of 'the greatest living poets writing in Gaelic.'

At the time, there was a knife-edged debate over the direction, between East and West, that Ghana should take. Some of my friends were hardline scientific socialists, but O'Brien, then a liberal, won their respect with the clarity of his thought and the humour in which he expressed it. They affectionately dubbed him "Comrade VC" (for Vice-Chancellor).

But then came a purge of suspected CIA agents among expatriate lecturers on the Legon campus. His spirited defence of some of these, in terms of academic freedom, brought him into the direct line of fire of Nkrumah's disciples.

In a piece in Drum, I reminded them that it wasn't exactly a great secret that O'Brien always did what he thought right, and if they had brought him to Ghana, knowing this, then they ought to be ashamed of themselves for not being able take what they'd got.

The Party newspaper, the Ghanaian Times, named me as a "little beatnik" and implied I was being used by 'foreigners.' Next, a member of the Nkrumah court warned me to leave the country. Of course, I was shattered to be forced to leave -- even for a short time. But the lesson O'Brien taught me, namely, that one should always speak one's mind, no matter who got annoyed by it, was worth it.

May his soul rest in peace. To Maire -- the rock in which even a 'God' could safely lodge -- and the rest of his family, I say, with all Ghana: Dammirifa Due! (Condolences.)