June 6, 1979 and related matters (2)

BY: Razak El-Alawa
Flt Lt J.J. Rawlings
Flt Lt J.J. Rawlings

It is interesting that June 6, this year, fell on Wednesday just as it did in 1979. In the same way June 4 this year also fell on Monday just as it did in 1979 when Flt Lt J.J. Rawlings struck for the first time to change the course of Ghana's history forever.

There was nothing foreboding at the beginning of June in 1979. Nothing showed that there was going to be any political tsunami that was to sweep away the top brass of the military in Ghana, a coup that was to end all coups in Ghana.

In my case, I was only looking forward to my flight to London by British Caledonian, now defunct, on the night of June 6, 1979, on my way to Liverpool where I was to be attached to Liverpool Daily Post and Evening Echo, the two newspapers in the city, as my prize for being Ghana's Journalist of the Year, 1978.

I remember a few days earlier, on May 28, 1979, I had gone to the British High Commission to collect my visa. I was not happy when Unilever, the sponsors of the Journalist of the Year Award, asked me to go for the visa myself.

I thought it would be easier if they went for it for me. But they told me I should present myself at the High Commission. The only question they asked me at the High Commission was if I knew anybody in Britain. The only name that came to mind was Edward Ofori Sarpong, my sixth-form mate at KOSS, who was doing his Master’s at the University of Liverpool.

They checked through their computer and his name came up. He was on University of Ghana Scholarship. I was told later that if he were an illegal immigrant they would have gone for him anywhere he was hiding and repatriated him.

I was lucky to have Ofori Sarpong in Liverpool at the time I went there and he made my stay very memorable. I always visited him in his hostel where he prepared Ghanaian dishes for us to eat.

Ofori Sarpong later returned to lecture at the University of Ghana, and had stints at Uthman dan Fodio University in Sokoto, Nigeria and University of Jinja in Uganda. On his return to Ghana, he rose to become a Professor of Meteorology and Pro-Vice Chancellor at Legon.

We lost the Professor in December 2016. May his soul rest in perfect peace!

After collecting my visa on May 28, I took things easy and only looked forward to June 6, 1979 when I would leave for London, not knowing drama was about to unfold in Ghana's political history.

I had planned to collect my per diem from the Standard Bank on Friday June 1, 1979, but I thought there was plenty of time and decided to wait till Monday.

I was busy with arrangements to receive Real Tamale United (RTU) that Friday. They were coming to the capital to honour a league match with Accra Hearts of Oak on Sunday, June 3, 1979. I had to shuttle between home, the Girl Guides Hostel at Achimota, where the team was to lodge, and the Hotel President  at Adabraka where the officials that included Alhaji Aliu Mahama, Alhaji B.A. Fusseini and Alhaji Alhassan Alolo had put up.

That match on Sunday between RTU and Hearts at the Accra Sports Stadium, which ended goalless, was one of the best ever played at the Accra Sports Stadium.

After the match, the team left by road for Tamale, while the officials returned to their hotel to rest and wait for their flight to Tamale the following day. I left the hotel for home getting to midnight.

June 4

We all woke up on June 4 to hear rumours of another coup. This time it was military versus military. Then we learnt that the leader of the latest coup was Flt Lt Rawlings, the man who led the uprising that was quelled on May 15, 1979.

Rawlings was to appear before a court martial that morning of June 4 to answer charges on his role in the abortive attempt of May 15. After announcements for and against the success of the coup, it became evident by mid-day that a new junta was in place.

Major General N.A Odartey- Wellington, the Army Commander who single handedly wanted to stop the takeover, was killed in action. The Chief of Defence Staff, Lt Gen Joshua Hamidu, came on air to ask troops loyal to the Supreme Military Council (SMC) II, under the leadership of Lt Gen. F.W.K. Akuffo, to lay down their arms to avoid further bloodshed.

What was of interest to me at this stage was whether my flight in 48 hours’ time on Wednesday, June 6, would come on. This was because a curfew had been declared and the airport closed.

I could not leave for the office till after 11 a.m. that Monday. It had started raining that early morning and as I drove from Dansoman to the Graphic Office, everywhere was quiet with people sitting in front of their houses listening to radios. Most shops were closed.

When I got to the office around midday, a number of editorial staff were already there. Some of my friends, who had missed a farewell party organised by my brother, the late O.A. El.-Alawa, on Friday started teasing me, that there should be another party.

What came through my mind was why I did not collect my per diem from the bank that Friday. Now, all banks and other public offices were closed. It was the same on Tuesday, June 5. Even though the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) was then in control, all opposition had been suppressed.

It continued to rain throughout Tuesday unabated. The airport remained closed with the curfew still in place as we left the office for home that Tuesday evening.

We woke up in the morning of Wednesday, June 6, to the good news that the airport had been opened and the curfew lifted. It was still raining in the morning as I left for the office to know my fate, whether I would leave that evening for London or not.

Taking off

I got to the office to the welcome news that Unilever had called that my flight would come on that evening so I should get ready for departure. I had to dash to Unicorn House to get confirmation. From there, I moved to the Standard Bank where I did not have any problem accessing my per diem.

I didn't go back to the office. I went straight to the house. Many friends came to me in the house to give me parcels to be delivered to their relations in the United Kingdom (UK). It was a very trying moment as the rain continued to pour.

All my friends who wanted to see me off to the airport couldn't make it. My brother Alhaji Fattai El- Azeez with whom I was staying at Dansoman drove me to the airport and left immediately in the rain.

Soon, the flight was called. We boarded and I realised we were only a handful and I was the only black person. I couldn't believe it. Why didn't they arrange for me to fly by Ghana Airways? I asked myself.

We took off in the rain, and not quite long after we landed at Murtala International Airport in Lagos, The plane was almost filled to capacity with so many Nigerians coming on board. I now felt at home sitting beside fellow blacks, Nigerians.

From Lagos, the plane made another stop over at Yaounde before we flew directly to the Gatwick Airport in London. It was already daybreak but i did not know the actual time since in my rush, I had left my wristwatch at home in Accra.

There was some drama at the arrival lounge at Gatwick. There were people waiting to receive their visitors and relations, some displaying placards. There was one man displaying a UAC placard with a lady by his side. Suddenly, the Nigerians rushed to them.

I looked on as they started exchanging pleasantries with the lady. I approached the man and told him that I was coming from Accra. The man was excited and told the lady: "Our man is in."

Apparently, they were interested in finding out if I was able to make it since they did not know the airport had been opened and the curfew lifted in Accra. They abandoned the Nigerians, who had also come on Unilever tickets, and concentrated on me.

I joined them in the bus that took us to a hotel that was arranged for the Nigerians. From there, they took me to the headquarters of Unilever, where I was received by the head of Public Relations, the son of the last Governor of the Gold Coast and first Governor-General of Ghana, Sir Charles Arden- Clarke, and the Information Officer at the Ghana High Commission in London, Mr Emmanuel Vorkeh, who was the third winner of the Journalist of the Year in 1973.