If I come across to colleagues as someone who has a near obsession with checking the meaning and use of words, I guess the October 1989 experience has something to do with that.
As I wrote last week, I recall that from the 1 p.m. news bulletin on Saturday, October 7, 1989, through Sunday and Monday morning, every newscast on Radio Ghana in particular, included the alarming announcement that I and fellow BBC correspondent Ben Ephson were to report at the Ghana Army Public Relations Directorate, Burma Camp, on Monday, October 9, at 8 a.m.
The obvious sledgehammer approach of the repeated announcement was unsettling, but I wasn’t afraid.
When I first heard it, my concern was how my children, especially, and my parents would take it.
Unfortunately, I didn’t succeed in shielding my elder daughter from hearing about it.
As it happened, that day we needed to buy some school things for her, so we were in a taxi in town when the driver tuned into the 1 p.m.
Radio Ghana news bulletin – followed of course by the announcement.
Luckily, she accepted my assurance that I had done nothing wrong, so nothing would happen to me.
Clearly, the repeated, sinister announcement at that period in Ghana’s history when the very mention of “Burma Camp”, army headquarters, was enough to cause a heart attack, put my whole family, friends and well-wishers throughout Ghana and beyond in turmoil.
One poignant show of solidarity I will never forget is that a family member, an ex-policeman, offered to accompany me to Burma Camp on Monday.
I thanked him but declined his touching offer.
On Monday, October 9, I arrived at the Public Relations Directorate, Burma Camp at about 7. 45 a.m.
Much to my surprise, I was received warmly and offered a seat to wait for the Director.
Because of the nature of the ‘invitation’, I had not expected such a friendly welcome.
Ben arrived shortly before 8 a.m. to join me in what turned out to be a long wait.
Eventually, we were informed that the Director had gone to see “the Commanders”, to find out why we had been asked to report there and what he was supposed to tell us!
That gave me the understanding that the widely circulated announcement had not come from the Army Public Relations, despite the impression created!
Evidently the announcement and the wicked instruction that it should be broadcast with every news bulletin for over two days, had come from outside Burma Camp.
Finally, at about 11 a.m., we were ushered into the office of a very senior army officer.
He, too, was quite cordial, to my astonishment.
He explained that the problem was not with the news item, but rather with the use of the word “several” in the BBC report.
He said it gave the impression that many senior army officers had been arrested (in connection with the alleged Major Quashigah coup plot to overthrow the Rawlings administration), but “only three officers of the rank of Major and below” were involved.
Fortunately, I had my original copy of the report I had filed for the BBC, which did not include that formerly ordinary, seven-letter word ‘several’, now being turned into a weapon.
I said that when introducing my report, the presenter had most likely used the “several’ bearing in mind the dictionary meaning of the word (“used when the number is not large but is more than two”), and not in the sense of ‘many’ – which, unfortunately, is the common understanding of that word.
We had a light-hearted chat with him and he clearly understood that it wasn’t my fault, and that no malice was intended by the BBC, either.
Nevertheless, after the friendly chat, as we were leaving his office he handed me a letter and one to Ben, too, whose tone we found out presented a picture very different from the affable meeting.
Its language was extremely hostile and insulting.
Furthermore, as I recall, the warning it contained, about reporting for foreign media, a hint that it was unpatriotic, bore no relation whatsoever to what we had discussed with him.
Evidently, the letter had been written before our meeting.
After leaving Burma Camp, something that I found extremely moving was the solidarity demonstrated by people who recognised me in traffic. Some waved; or gave the thumbs-up sign; while others shouted: “What did they want from you?” and “Don’t mind them!”
Most of the rest of that day was spent responding to anxious enquiries, assuring people that I was safe and in my office.
So what was the rationale behind the heartless cascade of announcements?
Evidently, it was to compel us to think twice about reporting for the BBC. INTIMIDATION!
And yet, the BBC was what most of the people in authority relied on for credible news, especially news about Ghana!
Afterwards, Ben was given a tip-off, about the motive behind the announcements.
The intention had been to frighten us into trying to flee the country.
Therefore, our details had already been forwarded to the country’s exit points, he said, with the intention that if we had tried to leave Ghana we would have been arrested and linked to the Quashigah alleged coup!
It certainly sounded outlandish, but could that be ruled out, given the warped outlook of those behind that announcement strategy?
Definitely the deluge of announcements was to create ‘fear and panic’ in us.
I wonder how they felt, whoever gave that directive, when they realised that no error had been committed by me, their target, because that seven-letter word was not from me.
I think that using the proverbial sledgehammer to kill a fly only betrays one’s own insecurities.
Anyway, since October 1989, I have made it a point to avoid using that seven-letter word, for fear of being misunderstood.
To be continued.