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10.03.2009 Feature Article

Letter from Afar: I thought then that everyone loved us!

Letter from Afar: I thought then that everyone loved us!

Fifty-two years ago – that is the day that Ghana gained its independence, March 6, 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 our celebrations was Richard M. Nixon, then Vice-President, who was later destined to feature hugely in history.

Out of a sheer journalistic hunch to do something historical, I went over and shook hands with Nixon. He actually got up as I took his hand, though he must have been taken quite by surprise. I smiled, muttered: 'Welcome, Sir!' and passed on. His Secret Service detail might have felt uneasy allowing me to approach him. But I had a press badge on.

They were probably briefed, anyhow, that Ghanaians were a harmless people. We didn't harbour any ill-will at all towards our former colonial masters, the British, so how much more the USA? Actually, my favourite reading of the time was the airmail edition of the Daily Telegraph.

At that time, the paper was full of lengthy 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.

I used to buy the paper for sixpence from Kingsway Stores in Accra, and when I tell you that sixpence was capable of buying me a very good lunch, you will appreciate how much my desire for professional exposure cost me.

In the week of Ghana's independence, I read the coverage of the event by most of the other Fleet Street (British newspapers hq of the time) 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 remember buttonholing Rene McColl of the Daily Express (for instance) and quizzing him on his output, which included alleged quotations from Ghanaians in the street, who, he claimed, called the Queen 'The Queen Mammy' and Prince Phillip 'De Dook Edinboro'.

I got a distinct impression that the best of Fleet Street were not above representing fiction as fact in exactly the manner Evelyn Waugh had described in his novels, Scoop and B lack Mischief.

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, after first charging him with contempt of court for - ironically - describing British justice as 'blind' because an expatriate British judge, presiding over a Ghanaian court, had given a ruling not favoured by Colvin.

The case became a cause celebre in Ghana for the Telegraph sent a bombastic barrister, Christopher Shawcross, from London to defend Ian Colvin. The Ghana Government denied re-entry to Shawcross when he went off for a weekend in Lagos. One news- paper with clever sub-editors had this marvellous headline: SHAWCROSS IN SHAWCROSS OUT!

I was reminded of these things when, on March 11, 2007, 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 ca change!'

Ferguson's tedious thesis – in so many words – is that Ghana has been run to the ground by its leaders and has proved – wait for it – that Africans are incapable of ruling themselves.

Now where had head that sort of thing before? In The Observer, by Norman Stone; in The Spectator by Paul Johnson and Taki "and once, in an aberrant leader in The Independent.

The view that Africa needs to be 'recolonised' comes from right-wingers who cannot get it into their skulls that 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. The Hundred Years War; The War Of The Roses and The Potato Famine In Ireland. But no one has said the British should invite the Normans or Visigoths back piece didn't notice it either.

The trouble is that many of those who run the western media assume 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.

Ferguson smeared Dr Kwame Nkrumah with 'communism', but said nothing about how wrong the British were similarly to 'smear Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, who far from being a socialist, built one of the worst oligarchies in Africa. Did Ferguson know that Nkrumah's personal secretary for over a decade was a British woman he inherited from the Governor of the Gold Coast?

That Nkrumah 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 whom the Congolese loathed?

One of the worst difficulties Ghana has faced since independence has been the winner-takes-all political culture it inherited from Britain. 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 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. And, of course, once the 'literates' had grabbed power that was it.

They will never hand any of it back to the traditional rulers. And yet we know that a lot of such people go to Parliament to obtain good pay and other "entitlements" for themselves and nothing else.
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 are gladly provided for 'The Mother of Parliaments' at Westminster?

MyjoyOnline, © 2009

This author has authored 338 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: myjoyonline

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