Oh, how I miss Lome!

BY: Razak El-Alawa
Togolese strong man, Gnassingbe Eyadema
Togolese strong man, Gnassingbe Eyadema

It is not yet the anniversary of the death of my very good friend, Prince Ebow Godwin, former BBC correspondent based in Lome, who died in the Togolese capital on November 25, 2012, following what was described as a cardiac arrest.

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The fifth anniversary of his death is still some three months away. But then, how time flies!!!

During my encounter with Joe Lartey recently, about three weeks ago, the good name of Prince came up for mention and discussion. This was because another good friend, Ato Amoaning Annan, also a celebrated journalist and now a communications teacher at the Islamic University College, Adjiringano in Accra, was also present.

The three of us were resident in Lagos and anytime Ebow came to Logos, which he did very frequently, we rallied around to receive him. At the time I met Joe in Lagos in 1990, he was getting ready to return home to Ghana. On about two or three occasions that Ebow came to Lagos from Lome, in the last days of Joe’s stay in the commercial capital of Nigeria, we met as usual to have fun together.


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So it was, that three weeks ago we remembered our departed good friend, Prince Ebow Godwin, when Ato, Joe and I met at the Nkrumah Flats residence of Joe at Lartebiorkorshie.

However, on my way back home that Saturday afternoon, many sweet memories of the several stop-overs I made in Lome to see Ebow, either on my way to Accra from Lagos or to Lagos from Accra, especially in the last decade of the last century, that is between 1990 and 2000, flashed back.

Lome was an interesting place to visit at that time because the Togolese capital had become home to many Ghanaians who saw themselves as refugees living in exile at Lome. A few were actually there because, for one or two reasons, they were running away from Rawlings, whose toes they must have stepped on.

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Others were economic refugees who were there to do some business, regularly shuttling between Accra and Lome. But there was a large Ghanaian population during the time and they engaged in many social and even political activities as if they were in Ghana.

So it was always a delight to meet some of those Ghanaians then, who were always ready to tell you how life was treating them.

Even after the return to civil rule in 1993, many of the refugees refused to return home, since Rawlings was still in charge. It was the same with Prince Ebow Godwin, so long as Rawlings was at the helm of affairs.

For those who may not know, Prince had a problem with Rawlings, especially after he had handed over power to Dr Hilla Limann in September 1979. He was a great critic of Rawlings during the ill-fated Third Republic while he had cordial relationship with the PNP administration.

The Punch

So when the Third Republic fell on December 31, 1981, Prince knew he was in trouble. Yes, indeed he was in trouble, as he was one of the targets of the new junta put in place by Rawlings, the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC).

Prince was the editor of the Punch, a private newspaper which was doing very well during the Third Republic. Following the putsch of December 31, 1981, he had no option but to flee to safe havens in Lome, leaving the Punch in the hands of the late Eben Ansah, who later changed the name of the paper to the Voice.

How Prince was able to survive in Lome and establish himself as a foremost journalist of international repute was a mystery to some of us, his close associates. He did not live the life of a refugee waiting to be fed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

He quickly settled down and got himself acclimatised into the new environment while integrating with the local people, high and low. In no time, Prince was able to build himself an empire in the Togolese capital where he became an icon, reporting political events from Togo for the BBC while he wrote for such magazines as Africa and New Africa. He also contributed stories about goings-on in Togo for the Daily Graphic, Ghanaian Times and the Chronicle.

It was always a delight to visit Prince in Lome. In fact I was a regular visitor to his residence at Nyekonapoe, a suburb of Lome, where the national headquarters of the ruling RPT party was also located.

He occupied the top floor of a two-storey building. It was a huge apartment with a big hall and four bedrooms. This was where Prince lived like a king for years before his unexpected demise almost five years ago.

Apart from his residence, he also had an office, some few metres away, from where he filed his stories for the BBC. The office also had a bedroom, which served as a resting place for visitors.

He could also operate from home as a journalist if he had to file his stories late in the night, since he had the gadgets.

Quite remarkably, Prince also owned two drinking parlours or bars in Lome. One was a complete house which was used for social gatherings, especially funerals.

As a result of all these, Prince became the defacto head of the Ghanaian Community in Lome, playing host to many funerals involving Ghanaians at one of his drinking spots.

Prince did not live like a refugee in Lome. He was an essential part of the larger Togolese society. He was respected by the people who gave him sanctuary because, as I have already mentioned, he succeeded in integrating into the society. Not only did he learn the French language, he also learnt how to speak the local Ewe Language. Thus, he was able to communicate with the high and the low in Togo.

If Prince was loved by the residents of Lome, it was because they saw him as one of them. He gave jobs to a number of Togolese, boys and girls, who worked at his drinking spots. One would have thought that he would employ Ghanaians, but no he did not do this, because majority of the patrons at the spots were Togolese.

I was always fascinated, any time I was in Lome at the way Prince went about his duties as a journalist and as a businessman. He never left anything to chance but he was meticulous in all his operations.

Nothing amused me more than the way Prince handled the Togolese who worked for him. Every night, sometimes close to midnight, after they had closed, the leaders of the group would come and drop the keys to the spots and the sales for the day.

Then first thing in the morning all the workers would assemble at the “palace” of Prince. The leaders would report all that went on the previous day, while the workers would collaborate. Then proper accounts would be rendered, with reports of how many cartons or bottles were consumed, which would tally with the money brought in.

Explanations would have to be given if there were any discrepancies.

I used to watch in amazement as Prince dealt with his workers, with whom he had very cordial relations. He rarely raised his voice at them unless he suspected some fishy deal.

Indeed there was never a dull moment any time I visited Lome in those days. Even if I wanted to spend only a night to continue my journey the following day, either to Accra or to Lagos, Prince would detain me for another day or two, not minding my protests that I was running against time.

Meetings

If my visit coincided with a weekend then I was in for it. That was the time for funerals or social gatherings. It looked as if all Ghanaians in Lome would converge on one of the drinking spots. Everybody present felt at home as Ghanaians of all walks in Lome gathered to celebrate one thing or the other, all at the behest of Prince, the emperor.

As a result I was able to come into contact with so many Ghanaians living in Lome at that time, some of them remained my friends when we all later returned to Ghana.

One person I met at one of these gatherings who surprised me was Willie Evans, a former member of the Black Stars team that won AFCON in Tunisia in 1965, defending the title earlier won in Accra in 1963.

When I first saw him I could not recognise him but he appeared so familiar. I kept on wondering where I knew him. He also tried to make me out, as he kept on stealing glances at me.

Later, he got up to come closer to me. When he mentioned his name I stood up and we embraced. Willie Evans, whom we used to call Odongo, was in Form Three when I entered WASS in September 1960. His uncle, with whom he lived as a day student, was our senior housemaster.

Unfortunately, the following year he left for Wesley Grammar where he blossomed into a first-class footballer, representing the Academicals, from where he moved to the Black Meteors, before establishing himself as a dependable wing half for the Black Stars.

At the time we met in Lome during one of my visits in 1996, Willie was the coach of a top football club in Lome. He was living well. But sadly, not quite long after, he was reported dead in the Togolese capital.

Certainly the greatest moment of my visits was the night Prince met the former Togolese strong man, Gnassigbe Eyadema. It was Saturday, August 3, 1966. That morning in Atalanta, USA, Nigeria had won Olympic Gold in soccer. I was coming from Lagos. Prince had an appointment to meet the Togolese leader. He sent word that a journalist was coming from Lagos and he would like to bring him along.

Eyadema was in a joyous mood because the Olympic soccer gold was coming to Africa. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I sat side by side with Eyadema at the Presidential villa.

It was and still remains one of my greatest days.