British journalist Charles Bremner's recent report represents neo-colonial wishful thinking, concocted from probably the bar at George The Fifth Hotel in Paris. The Times, once a paper that published great foreign reporting, must not become a rag full of stories of the type that used to emanate from the Nairobi Hilton Hotel bar.
Time was – in the 1960s and 70s – when Africa appeared regularly in the world press; especially, the British press. The situation has changed radically, because newspapers are cutting costs all over the place.
The trouble in the 1960s and 70s was that the owners of the newspapers that covered Africa often thought that Africa was a “country.” Not only that – their foreign correspondents somehow managed to persuade them to believe that this one “country” of their imagination, vast though it was, had one capital and it was situated in – Johannesburg, South Africa!
Johannesburg, their highly-valued foreign correspondents argued to the newspapers' bean-counters, was “cost-effective”. It was almost like “home”, only cheaper. The weather was generally like summer in Europe and America; the food combined the best in UK, Dutch and to a lesser extent, German and French cuisine. And it was half the cost because – labour employed in the kitchens was unbelievably cheap. But above all, things worked in "Joburg"!
What they didn't specify to any great extent was that apartheid “job reservation laws” made it extremely cheap to employ even skilled blacks as general underlings; household help especially – something no foreign correspondent would be able to afford at home, even if his proprietor was loaded like Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere or other Lord What's-his-name.
But enjoying a good “Western” lifestyle in Johannesburg had its risks: if a foreign correspondent had views that were the slightest bit “liberal” and which therefore obliged him to report unfavourably on the racial situation in South Africa under its then apartheid regime, he would be thrown out of the country. Or he would be followed everywhere he went, on a daily basis, by the not-so-subtle plain-clothes policemen of the police state that South Africa was.
To avoid this unpleasant situation and continue to be welcome in apartheid South Africa (it was rumoured) some of the foreign correspondents took the precaution of allowing the relevant officials of the South African Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Information to read their dispatches before they were sent by cable to the UK or the US or wherever. This was something they would never do on home territory, but you know? Abroad is abroad!
These correspondents invariably took the “advice” of the South African officials and removed words and sentences that might not please the “authorities” (South African ministers in charge of enforcing apartheid laws.) Some of the correspondents did not need to go through this voluntary censorship at all, for they were quite paternalistic about the human rights of the blacks (if not as racially prejudiced as their hosts, the apartheid-mongers).
With time, the independent African countries to the north of South Africa got wise to the existence of a South African enclave within the “Africa Correspondent” fraternity, and they began to refuse visas to journalists based in South Africa. Ghana under Nkrumah led the way – it eventually obliged anyone arriving in Ghana from South Africa to sign a paper denouncing apartheid, before being allowed entry. However, this did not deter the more resourceful journalists: they normally carried passports from acceptable Western countries like the UK, the USA and Canada, and would fly first to London or Paris or New York, before flying to Ghana, Guinea, Mali or some of the other more anti-colonial West or Central African countries.
The trick did not work too well, however, for the by-lines of some of the correspondents who were prejudiced against black-ruled countries betrayed the fact that they were almost permanently domiciled in South Africa. So, eventually, the stratagem was adopted of foreign correspondents migrating almost en masse from Johannesburg to Nairobi, Kenya (a country which, under Jomo Kenyatta, did its best to dilute, if not hide the racism that had sparked the “Mau Mau” rebellion in the 1950s.) There, the correspondents managed to put flesh on some of the practices that Evelyn Waugh had satirised in his extremely funny book about foreign correspondents entitled Scoop.
In Nairobi, so much drinking was done –mainly at the Hilton Hotel bar or “watering hole” that some of the correspondents began to believe that stories they had heard from fellow journalists the night before had originated from the diplomats and businessmen who acted as the source of many of the stories about Kenya and black Africa they published. So, a journalist would ask, “Did you hear that (say) Emperor Bokassa/Idi Amin/Other Terror-monger had his political opponents chopped up into little bits and fed to crocodiles in his private pond”?
Such a story would gain in horror as it was recycled around the tables at the Nairobi Hilton and elsewhere for a week or two. And then – it would appear in print: one journalist would have taken the plunge! The story would be attributed to “diplomatic sources” or “usually reliable sources” or “travellers recently arrived from the benighted country”, causing angry cables to the other correspondents from their foreign editors, querying how they could have missed such a story!
My very good friend, the late Richard West, who had spent a lot of time in the company of foreign correspondents, once told a group of us a story that bore all the mark, not of the Nairobi Hilton, but of the Lagos Bristol Hotel. A foreign correspondent had arrived in Lagos with a demand from his foreign editor that he should chase stories about the massive “corruption” that was occurring in Nigeria.
Now, the correspondent chanced upon a very good story indeed – as he drank at the Bristol Hotel bar, he happened to be within earshot of a Nigerian lawyer who was briefing a visiting counterpart about how his client intended to make a packet of money: he was on the verge of landing a huge contract for the importation of cement into Nigeria.
The beauty of the contract lay in the fact that at the time [the oil boom years following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war] so much cement was being imported into Nigeria that the ships bearing them could not all be easily unloaded at Apapa port and were forced to queue up for miles on the sea. All a cement importer had to do was to present complicit government officials with a manifest not only for the cost of the cement allegedly on board the ship but also massaged figures denoting “demurrage charges” covering the long period the ship was detained in Nigerian waters, unable to discharge its cargo.
The journalist added some imaginative details to the story (such as a claim he made that some of the ships stayed in Nigerian waters for so long that the cement they carried “caked” up!) and wrote a fantastic report entitled “The Great Lagos Cement Armada.”
He then rushed it to the Lagos “Cable Office”. Only to be told that the cable lines were “down” (i.e. inoperative).
The journalist then tried to find a traveller to take the story abroad by air and mail it to his newspaper. The paper would reward such a traveller well, he knew.
But there were no flights out of Lagos because – the airport had been closed by a strike!
In exasperation, the journalist coined a phrase to encapsulate how a foreigner in West Africa often got thwarted by forces he could not control: “The WAWA Syndrome”.
“WAWA”, Richard West explained, stood for: “West Africa Wins Always.”
The peals of laughter that greeted Richard West's story lasted for at least five minutes. No one cared whether the story itself was apocryphal or not. For it was a story that we would nowadays say 'clicked' every cliché: bad African telephone lines; patchy electricity supplies; periodic shortages of water; sweaty taxis; unreliable tradesmen – all these “conspired” together to make West Africa Win Always against the poor visitor.
I have been reminded of these “Nairobi Hilton” stories by a report published by the London Times newspaper on 1 December 2017. Entitled “Macron eyes former British colony Ghana as jewel of Francophone Africa” the story, by Charles Bremner, claims that: “On his visit to Ghana, [French President] Emmanuel Macron had “broken new ground on a trip to Africa... by visiting Ghana, a Commonwealth member and a former jewel in Britain’s colonial empire.
[Macron, Bremner continued] “is trying to make France Europe’s main broker on the continent at a time that an inward-looking Britain is in retreat... [He] chose Ghana for his foray into the Commonwealth because its economy is growing fast, but it is also surrounded by French-speaking nations, and the president, Nana Akufo-Addo, is a democratically respectable Francophile. Mr Macron is the first French president to make an official visit to Ghana.
“Mr Macron, who travelled with Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, saluted his Ghanaian counterpart as “the embodiment of a new generation of African leaders who believe in a new narrative for the future of their youth”. [Macron] is determined to reverse a loss of French influence in recent decades, reflected by the increasing adoption of English, notably in hitherto Francophone Rwanda and Gabon.”
You may ask, “So Akufo-Addo is to be used by Macron as his “instrument” in renaissance of French influence in Africa? Where was Charles Bremner when Macron was wooing Akufo-Addo? Has Charles Bremner seen the speech Akufo-Addo made when he addressed Macron at the official dinner?
Other than that, does the mere fact that Akufo-Addo speaks fluent French make him a Francophile? What exactly does being a “Francophile” mean? If you love or even adore some things that are French, does it mean that you would automatically become an instrument of French policy? If that were so, then Akufo-Addo's education at Oxford University would not only make him an Anglophile but a British stooge? How does Charles Bremner square that circle? Can a British stooge turn round to become a French stooge in the Brexit era of all times?
Charles Bremner's report represents 'neo-colonial' wishful thinking, concocted from (probably) the bar of George The Fifth Hotel in Paris! The Times, once a paper that published great foreign reporting, must not become a rag full of stories of the type that used to emanate from the “Nairobi Hilton Hotel bar”. That does not befit it.
* CAMERON DUODU is a veteran Ghanaian journalist and author.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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