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Ride on Tarzan - The Radio Eye story through the lenses of an outsider

BY: Yaw Nsarkoh
Ride on Tarzan - The Radio Eye story through the lenses of an outsider
Ride on Tarzan - The Radio Eye story through the lenses of an outsider

I have long played around with the idea of telling this story to more people. There is no good reason why I have not done so up till now. But a time comes, when the time has come and you just do it. We are at such a time.

Call Charles Yves Wereko-Brobbey, Tarzan; hyper-active, cantankerous, humble, arrogant, rambunctious, affable, playful, controversial, uncontrollable, indefatigable and more, and there will be reasons why you may be right.

It is also true that few who really get to know him, do not recognise he has a childlike charm – one he will himself never admit. He laughs from deep inside his belly, with every part of his body heaving, when he is happy. There is a part of him that signals vulnerability, and again reluctantly a need for protection by caring people.

His exterior is of course very different; a cultivated no-nonsense, even brush and sometimes intimidating intelligence. PhDs in engineering with MBAs to boot do not come easy, and that is what he is. He is always fighting something or for something.

Sometimes I even think he forgets what he is fighting for because he really enjoys the fight. Up to this point, I suspect he has convulsed in laughter at the way I am describing him.

We did not meet in auspicious circumstances. It is to his credit and curiosity and patience that we eventually became friends. Tarzan and Kweku Poku, told me much later that they initially suspected me of being a member of the Gestapo, at the time – Peter Tenganaba Nanfuri’s, dreaded BNI. I worked on night shifts in those days.

So Tarzan could not understand how a man who claimed to have a full time job was always attending media events during the day with journalists during normal working hours. I had to be a spy for Nanfuri!

On the other hand, straight out of Katanga Hall in those days, having fought all manner of battles for freedom, while saying, “we neither fear VC nor police, we fear nobody,” it was not this British trained bourgeois engineer that was ever going to shut me up. Now that I think about it, he must have found me an insufferable small boy, always contradicting him on something.

It was on one such occasion that we found ourselves together at a function organised by the School of Communication Studies, University of Ghana. The event was up the hill in Legon, though I no longer remember which specific hall.

The discussion was on private broadcasting in Ghana. As usual in those times, Kwesi Pratt jnr had invited me to attend with him. Hearing that the dons like Kwame Karikari and Bonnah Koomson were going to be present, I turned up and participated fully. Wereko-Brobbey, then known as Charlie Brobs – not yet having been christened Tarzan by Totobi-Quarkyi – was in attendance with Kweku Poku.

As always, Wereko-Brobbey was a larger than life presence at the event – hemming, hawing, taunting, provoking, challenging; absolutely being Wereko-Brobbey. The event was to exceed all my expectations, as I was in a sense, an accidental attendee.

The Katanga banker whose specific identity I will protect for another 12 months 😊 was present. Together with him, we turned the place into a mini-Katanga Porters Lodge debate with our contributions. Wereko-Brobbey could obviously not stand our guts and we too thought he could go to hell.

Almost the entire faculty of the School of Communication studies was present. Through scholarly presentations – these were the days when so much value was placed on thinking in our civil society space – a very solid case was made for why Jerry Rawlings and his government had to permit private broadcasting in Ghana.

That morning, the then chairman of the National Media Commission, Kofi Kumado, had started proceedings with a fiery but incredibly scholarly speech. He shared his read of the laws and declared all restrictions in place preventing private broadcasting from starting, unconstitutional. It was an explosive statement for the times, requiring tremendous courage and integrity. In a way younger generations today can never fully appreciate. I will come back to this.

If Kofi Kumado had set the room ablaze, Wereko-Brobbey was to unleash the day of Pentecost itself next. At break time, given that Professors Henrietta Mensah-Bonsu and Kotey had both backed Professor Kumado’s read of the law, Wereko-Brobbey declared that he would start private broadcasting the very next day. Was this man a stark raving lunatic or what?

This was the era of Jerry Rawlings and the Gestapo, at the peak of their terrifying powers. Again I say, people cannot understand today what this meant. To take on Jerry Rawlings in this way, was akin to committing suicide in those days. It meant poking the Gestapo right in the eye. It was impossible for me to determine whether Wereko-Brobbey was serious.

But the next day, I tuned in and there he was, with Victor Newman and Kweku Poku. Music being played on air and referring to themselves as RADIO EYE. It was unbelievable. I know there must have been others involved who I have not mentioned only because I do not know them. I apologise to them for not mentioning their names. I hate the versions of history that only celebrate the big men.

In one fell swoop, Wereko-Brobbey and his band had entered the belly of the whale and proven to the Ghanaian people that independent radio was possible. Even the Gestapo did not know what to do. Radio Eye continued for days uninterrupted.

To my mind, this was the biggest thing in the struggle for true democracy in Ghana, since in February 1988, when armed only with his spectacles, a pen and a speech - for three days, Obiba Kwadwo Kontopiat, Professor Adu Boahen, had shaken the very foundations of military dictatorship in Ghana at the British Council Hall.

What Adu Boahen did then had never been seen before in the Ghana of Jerry Rawlings. With the Army Commander sitting right before him, the diminutive historian put his legendary brilliance on display. People would clap and then look around them and check whether anyone had seen them. Such were the times we lived in.

Adu Boahen, who as a boy growing up in Legon, I knew liked to say – and I go deliberately literal in the English translation – “nobody is anything fearful in this world, I, Adu Boahen myself, I am also not fearful,” lived up to his mantra. He taunted the Gestapo. He mocked them. At some point he even mimicked the inexplicable accent of Jerry Rawlings warning that if anyone interfered in his coup West Africa would burn. The crowd roared with laughter. Nothing like this had ever happened in scholarly circles under Jerry Rawlings.

And Adu was speaking at a lecture series organised by the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Professor shook the very foundations of the earth, when to a thunderous standing ovation, he ended by telling Jerry Rawlings to allow democracy in Ghana, or quoting James Baldwin, he warned it will be, “THE FIRE NEXT TIME.” Indeed, about Adu, it can be said, there were men before Agamemnon.

Exactly 15 days after Adu-Boahen, Wole Soyinka went after the Babaginda military dictatorship in Nigeria in similar manner – hammer and tongs. Warning that the Nigerian people would not allow the divine rights of kingship in Africa to become the divine right of guns. It was a great period to be coming out of university. The inspiration to battle for our freedom was everywhere around us. We thought democracy would bring Nirvana and we were willing to die to get it.

History is history. It should be about fidelity to the facts and following the path of integrity where ever it takes us. We should be able to stay context and period specific and give credit where credit is due. You may not like Wereko-Brobbey for certain legitimate reasons. But the facts about his role in bringing private broadcasting to Ghana are ineluctable and indelible.

We must acknowledge it, then say whatever else we want to say that is factual. Do not say one thing a man or woman did makes you unhappy, so you try to bury any other good deed. Or for that matter, that a man you admired can only be discussed in terms of good deeds. A malaise I see as endemic in the crazy debate about who is Ghana’s Founder (or Founders).

We have no Founder(s), please! Where was Ghana found? Nkrumah, Danquah and all did much good but they were also fallible men. Go jump in the sea if you cannot live with that.

For that same reason, my approach to history avoids absolute ascriptions such as: “Founder of a country,” “He broke the culture of silence,” “He brought private radio to Ghana.” Such references are propaganda, panegyrics, hagiography.

Definitely not scholarly approaches to history. While we are on the subject of history, a true limitation is trying to recreate context for people. How are we to let young people today understand what it meant to take on Jerry Rawlings in those days?

It makes me remember going to see the great Tommy Thomson, publisher of “The Free Press,” at his home one night. K.B. Asante had done a detailed historical recollection of the Kulungugu bombings in his Daily Graphic column.

I was with Kwesi Pratt jnr and Uncle Tommy kept telling him that my generation could never fully appreciate how scary and momentous a time, the period K.B. Asante wrote about was. I did feel very strongly that I appreciated what K.B. Asante had written. I therefore demurred with Uncle Tommy. I wish it was not too late to concede to him that I did not understand.

How does one explain these things to this generation. Picking up “The Ghanaian Chronicle”, and reading one of P.A.V. Ansah’s blistering articles; watching a purely mesmerising and magical human rights lawyer at the supreme court in those days. His name was Nana Akufo-Addo; how do you explain that this same President Akuffo-Addo was once an absolutely magical and charismatic human rights lawyer? Can people understand what it meant for Adu to do what he did? The sacrifices of the young Free Press journalists – Kweku Baako jnr., Kabral Blay Amihere and so on – and the ultimate sacrifice paid by John Kugblenu. People have even forgotten Kugblenu. How do you explain that we all wondered how Kwesi Yankah managed to write the things he did, in “Woes of a Kwatriot,” a column in a public newspaper and still stay safe.

Our history has been significantly impoverished by an absence of audio-visual materials from those days. Our culture of archiving is terrible. A lot of that was deliberate action by the dictatorship. Why for example do we not have recordings of Adu Boahen’s speech?

So, those who remain and were protagonists of that era, I plead with all that is great about the human race, record the history of that era in writing. In books. So we will not have people loosely saying, for example, Kotey and Mensah-Bonsu are cowards, That Akufo-Addo has done nothing as a lawyer. That Wereko-Brobbey is nothing. These people simply do not know their history – it breaks my heart, makes me tearful.

But we go back to Wereko-Brobbey and Radio Eye now. Predictably, the Gestapo did move against Radio Eye. Accounts differ on who ordered what. Some say it was Totobi Quarkyi. Others say Madam Nana Konadu Agyemang Rawlings. I do not know for sure. But the Gestapo moved; confiscated equipment and closed down Radio Eye. Wereko-Brobbey and his band were going to be processed for court. In an angry speech, Totobi Quarkyi, railed at Wereko-Brobbey and described him as Tarzan. The name stuck, for the private press elevated it to a celebration. I now even forget that there was a period we did not call Tarzan, Tarzan.

Akufo-Addo and Akoto Ampaw were ready immediately to defend the Radio Eye guys. Eventually, after an officially sanctioned and very ad hominem campaign to desecrate Wereko-Brobbey in every way possible, the case lost momentum and then just seemed to die. Perhaps someone can fill the gaps of what actually happened in legal terms.

But it was now too late. The Jerry Rawlings sensation had to deal with the fact that Ghanaians had been shown that private broadcasting was possible and were demanding it. Say what you want about Jerry Rawlings but he was a shrewd and very skilful political operator who understood power and how to use populist means to survive. If he had been a more intelligent and visionary man, he had the opportunity, with those political qualities, to have moved Ghana along generational transformation. Alas, it is our misfortune that he was not and we are where we are.

The dictatorship begun to give out licences for private radio stations. Joy FM came. It is a huge tribute to Kwesi Twum’s abilities in diplomacy that Joy FM is today so widely accepted. For in those days, that Radio Eye was not being allowed to operate and Joy FM had been allowed was a source of great anger to us activists. Indeed Kabral Blay Amihere said at the time, this could not be Radio Joy, it was rather Radio Provocation. What it says about us as Ghanaians that we allowed a situation where Radio Eye was never given a license, I leave open to debate.

The Gestapo, as with many things with Jerry Rawlings, liberalised the airwaves reluctantly. So all manner of crazy and convoluted restrictions that have today led to uncontrollable over-proliferation of stations; epileptic fragmentation; and a consequent collapse of quality and viability remain. It is a surprise that even in the hands of people who back in the day said they believe in true democracy, the regulatory landscape has not been significantly modified. If we get it right, private broadcasting can become a significant force for mindset revolution, as my great friend Akosua Bame calls it.

Since we became this Neoliberal Capitalist Robinsoe Crusoe Society we now are - plain anomie conditions! - I wonder where the thinking even happens now about the future of our society. This is not what we expected the Fourth Republic to be. I say this on behalf of friends in my generation like Behayz, Kolowawa, Zurich, Rap T, George Sarpong, Magas and the many, many then young people who hoped we were going to be ushered into a Nirvana. Thirty years on, I look at this neoliberal morass and I really do not know what to say. As my friend Eben reminds me always in anguish, “are we too going to die with a broken Ghana, just like happened to our parents?”

I concede that this may be better than going back to the era of the Gestapo. But that is hardly a worthy benchmark. I have very few examples of people who entered active party politics in Ghana and were not diminished by it. I never wanted Adu Boahen to get into it. I see Nana Akufo-Addo now, and truly before God and man, I really wish he had never become president and we could still remember that magical, bright, decisive, charismatic , mesmerising activist we thought he was back then. Sometimes I do not believe this President is the same man as that Akufo Addo. Even Tarzan was diminished by this crazy Robinson Crusoe politics we are practicing with promises and tons of slogan miracles that lead nowhere.

I do not know one person – just one – that has been enhanced by this crazy party democratic politics. It has to change substantially. We must now talk about what future we want for ourselves with seriousness and save ourselves from certain ruin and damnation. Our society is in need of fundamental reconstruction and surgery; a new approach.

All I will say now, is that whatever else we may think about them, the day we tell the full story of private broadcasting in Ghana, let us ensure that Tarzan, Kweku Poku, Victor Newman and the story of Radio Eye are not forgotten. If this country always forgets those who took big risks to try to move it forward, let it not complain about young people who lose all patriotism. We create them. Like Karl Marx once concluded one of his searing critiques, I too say, “I have spoken and saved my soul!”

Read also: Yaw Nsarkoh writes: Akufo-Addo became President and now we are utterly baffled at what we see

The writer, Yaw Nsarkoh has extensive experience, spanning over 29 years with Unilever, in leadership and managing market conditions at strategic levels across developing and developed economies. His areas of expertise include Business Development, Strategic Leadership, Marketing and Branding, Corporate Governance and Organisational Strategy and Leadership. He is currently an Executive Vice President of Unilever based in the UK.