June 6, 1979 and related matters (1)

BY: Razak El-Alawa
Razak  El-Alawa, the writer
Razak El-Alawa, the writer

Next Wednesday will be exactly 39 years since I left Accra for London en route Liverpool. It was my reward for being UAC Journalist of the year for 1978.

It was my first trip to Europe but not my first by air outside Africa. On two occasions in 1976 and again in 1977, I had the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land of Saudi Arabia on the Hajj (pilgrimage) while serving as the Northern and Upper Regional Editor of the Daily Graphic.

Courtesy of fellow journalist and a very powerful member of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, Alhaji S.M. Sibidow, I had been appointed the Northern Regional Chairman of the Pilgrimage Committee. Alhaji Sibidow gave me the offer because he saw me as a neutral arbiter who would not discriminate in the allocation of seats to Muslims on both sides of the religious divide in the north.

I believe I came out unscathed in the very difficult exercise.

Over the past few days, I have been ruminating over this period, especially my trip to Liverpool. I have been wondering, which I have never ever done before, whether that momentous event would ever have taken place if my first opportunity to travel outside Ghana had materialised.

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In September 1974, I had been posted to then Graphic Corporation after my post-graduate studies at the School of Communications, University of Ghana, Legon, even though I had wanted to go to the Ghana News Agency. That was the year national service began and post-graduate candidates were roped in.

During the period of my national service and after Graphic had appointed me a Staff Writer in September 1975, I wrote so many stories on my own and some assigned by the editor or news editor.

Many of my friends told me I was too pro-east and anti-American in those closing years of the Cold War. I must admit it was difficult to hide my Nkrumaist leanings in my writings and I thought they showed in my write-ups.

What surprised me at that time, however, was an invitation from the United States Information Services (USIS) in Accra to meet their director whose offices were located at Tudu at the end of that stretch of road from the Republic House.

I can’t remember how the invitation reached me but certainly it was not by phone, since mobile phone was still decades away. However, I kept the appointment and went to meet the USIS director.

Guest of the United States

I couldn’t believe it when the director told me I was one of those selected world-wide to be guests of the most powerful country in the world on the occasion of its bicentenary, 200 years of American independence, which was to fall on July 4, 1976.

I remember there were two journalists from Ghana, the other from the Information Services Department whose name I can’t recollect now. There were other Ghanaians from other areas who were also invited.

I think I was told that I was invited in my individual capacity and I was supposed to tell my employers about the good news. Meanwhile, the event was still several months away and I was to get all the necessary travel documents ready before the day of departure.

I went straight to my Managing Director (MD), the venerable Kofi Badu, to tell him about the offer from the Americans. I saw him as a father and did not envisage any problem from him. After all he was the one who recruited me after my national service. After I had briefed him, he told me he would call me later.

I am sure the MD did some consultations with some senior editorial officers. When he called me back to his office the following day, he dropped a bombshell. He told me to go back to USIS and tell  the director it was not proper for them to choose an individual themselves and that if they wanted somebody from Graphic, they should send the invitation to Graphic for management to select somebody of their choice.

It was a big blow but I remained calm and went to the USIS. When I told the director about the reaction of my MD to my invitation, the man flared up. The man was so angry he ran my MD down. I was not happy to listen to the exchanges between the director and Kofi Badu.

I quickly left the USIS and headed back to Graphic which was a walking distance. When my MD saw me, he called me to his office and asked me whether I was there when the director spoke to him.

I had to tell a lie that I did not see the director and only left a message with the secretary. I am sure if I had told the MD I had heard the heated exchanges between him and the director, he would have fired me.

Lost opportunity

That was how I lost the opportunity to travel to God’s own country for the bicentenary of their independence in 1976.

Some of my friends advised me to forget about Graphic and go on the trip which they thought, and I believed, would have opened other avenues for me.

The problem I had was that I did not have a passport. If I should apply for one at that time, I should do it through my office, which could expose me. So after sometime, I abandoned the idea. Later, I got to know my other colleague from Information Services was also dropped.

I communicated my invitation to my friend, Kwame Frimpong, now Professor and Founding Dean of the UPSA Law School, who was my Sixth Form mate at KOSS and a fellow V-Mate at Commonwealth Hall, then doing his Masters at the Yale University Law School. Later, he told me how he went to a hotel at Philadelphia where I was to stay and saw my name tag on a bed in the room reserved for me. It was so painful at that time.

During the past few days, I have been thinking about this event, my abortive trip to the United States that took place more than 40 years ago.

I am sure if I had gone as a guest of the state department, it would have changed my life completely probably for good. Maybe after the bicentenary, I would have gone back for further studies to earn a Ph.D. That would have meant staying on in the US as an academic, lecturing at some universities. Maybe I could have returned to Ghana as a  lecturer at the School of Communications.

The probability is that I would have been brainwashed to remain in America with a good job, only remembered in Ghana by relations, a few friends and classmates. I would probably have been like my good friend Prof. Abu Abary, a fellow Vandal, who has remained in the US  as a lecturer and only comes home once in a while.

I wouldn’t have had the opportunity offered me by Graphic to go and work in the north as the regional editor, based in Tamale, where I spent three memorable years, visiting all parts of the Northern and Upper regions on official duties.

I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to teach part-time at the Ghana Secondary School (Ghanasco) when Sixth Form was opened there in September 1976.

I still feel proud to have taught the first three batches of Sixth formers that included former President John Mahama, Moses Asaga, Dr Sulley Gariba, Gifty Mahama, fellow journalist about to retire, Tina Aforo-Yeboah of the Spectator and many more.

I wouldn’t have met some of the wonderful friends I made in the north that included former Vice-President Alhaji Aliu Mahama, Alhaji Raheem Gbadamoshie, Alhaji B.A. Fuseini, Alhaji Alhassan Alolo, Jimoh Ashiru, Colonel Bob Zumah and others who were founders of Real Tamale United (RTU) with which I was closely associated as a result.

At least my inability to travel to the US in 1976 allowed me to remain in mainstream journalism, which had always been my dream. How could I have won the Journalist of the Year Award in 1975, 1976 and 1978 if I had been swallowed by Almighty America, and significantly, all when I was in Tamale.

Then I would not have had the opportunity to also serve as a press secretary at the Castle, the seat of government, during the administration of President Hilla Limann between 1979 and 1981 which enabled me to travel to all parts of Ghana and to several countries in the world.

All the drama surrounding my trip to Liverpool for being Journalist of the Year 1978 and all the excitement will form the second part of this piece.