March 20, 2004. Accra. Ghana’s former ruler, J.J. Rawlings gave me so much hope but ended up dashing my hopes in the blazing heat of the Ghanaian weather where for five days I was sick and down with malaria.
So threatening was the malaria that my childhood friend Segun Adebanji, then the managing director of Ghana Breweries in Accra, had to fly in their company doctor to check my health. Down in malaria’s weakening grip in this capital of the old Gold Coast where I was born, what gave me strength was the thought that I was going to interview the charismatic and mercurial Rawlings and get a good story for my paper: The Sun. I had called him from Nigeria and he expressed his willingness to grant me an interview, in that familiar, soothing voice. With that assurance, I bought my ticket, flew down and lodged at the modest $100-a-night Noga Hill Hotel where I had the opportunity to revive my Twi and Fante languages of Ghana.
Rawlings’s press aide is a burly man by name Victor Smith whom Rawlings asked me to link up with. Smith wanted a questionnaire which I submitted. And that was my undoing. He had also asked for a copy of an earlier story we carried on Rawlings in The Sun headlined: WHY I KILLED GHANA’S FORMER PRESIDENTS—Rawlings.
And again, that was another mistake. Rawlings had studied my questions and probably found them too offensive and cantankerous. I had asked him to look at the 20 years of Rawlings rule and to assess himself. I had asked him to share with me the kind of things he would share in his memoirs. I wanted to know his links with General Ibrahim Babangida and the late General Sani Abacha. I asked about how he was coping with the loneliness of being out of power. I raised the issue of human rights abuse. I wanted him to defend the allegations of human rights abuse leveled against him in his time. I wanted to hear from the horse’s mouth his claim President John Kufuor had been victimizing him.
I wanted proof about the extent of victimization. Then there were these questions given me by a Ghanaian journalist friend who wanted Rawlings to defend his newly acquired state-of-the-art SUVs and some landed property they claimed he had. I told my Ghanaian friend that by Nigerian standards, a former head of state buying four SUVs is no news at all. But my friend argued forcefully: “You see, we are not in Nigeria. In Nigeria, your politicians can steal public funds to buy planes and nobody would raise an eyebrow. But in Ghana, this is a very big scandal.” He asked me to ask Rawlings: “Where did he get the money to pay Custom duties on those luxury cars? Where did he get the money to be gallivanting abroad? Where did he get the money to send his children to study abroad?”
Lesson for all journalists: If you are asked to submit a questionnaire, please, don’t ask offensive questions. Ask questions that would massage the ego of your interviewee. Ask questions that would motivate him to want to blow his trumpet. The unwritten rule is: Do everything to get your interview first. And in the course of the interview, you can then deviate to ask satanic questions. As an old pro, I should have known. I paid the price for my naivety.
I eventually met Rawlings in his twin colonial-style bungalows in Accra. After thirty-five minutes of waiting, I was finally ushered in to meet the iconic Rawlings that we all have come to know from his striking photographs in the media. He welcomed me in his Soyinka-like polished English. And just I was about pressing my tape recorder to kick off the interview, he cautioned me to hold it. No recording. No interview. He didn’t come to be interviewed. Instead, he had come to berate me on the headline of my story: WHY I KILLED GHANA’S FORMER PRESIDENTS. To him, the headline was too sensational and he didn’t take kindly to it. On that score, he didn’t trust me enough to sit for another interview which obviously would be sensationalized in the typical Nigerian aggressive tabloid style. Another reason he wasn’t granting an interview, was that his party’s presidential candidate Prof. Arthur-Mills had just made “a landmark” statement on the “state of the nation” and he wanted that to sink in. He didn’t want a major Rawlings interview to cast a shadow on the Arthur-Mills story. According to Rawlings, Arthur-Mills had just given a wonderful, soul-stirring speech.
He urged me to go and read that speech which according to him addressed the core of Ghana’s national problems. “Arthur-Mills with this statement has now proved that he is his own man,” Rawlings told me. The perception was that Arthur-Mills was Rawlings’s Man Friday. But Rawlings told me his man had redeemed himself. And it would please him if I interviewed Arthur-Mills for my paper. Instantly, he made a call to Arthur-Mills to inform him about a Nigerian journalist in town and the need for him to meet me and give me a copy of his speech titled “State of the Nation.” I did meet Arthur-Mills and he gave me an interview.
So, what is going to happen to the questionnaire I had drawn? I asked Rawlings. “Don’t worry, I would answer it all and fax it to you,” he replied. I never received any fax from him.
“Chief,” he told me. “I would invite you back to Ghana and give you an interview. Everything I have said today, I would repeat it all. I don’t fear anybody.”
For over half an hour, he engaged me in an emotionally charged rhetorical lecture laced with isms. He talked about Kufuor’s government having “the worst” human rights record. “Look at the killings in the north,” he said. “Every day, they are importing arms into this country. They keep harassing and killing people. And they keep feeding the public with lies, pure lies.”
He talked about Ghana allowing America to establish a military base in Ghana when, according to him, Nigeria balked at a similar idea.
“Chief, I like your country. Nigerians won’t take any bullshit from any country. You can’t mess Nigeria around. It is not the same with these people in power.”
At a point, his eyes bulge and it is as if he is going to charge at me. But then, he slows down and apologizes for his heated behaviour. He kept calling me Chief, believing that the best way to honour a Nigerian is to call him Chief.
“Chief, I am not angry at you,” he says apologetically. “You might think I am angry but that is me. I am only angry at these people who are deceiving our people. If you can’t make Ghana better, at least, leave it the way you found it. Soon, we shall expose all their lies.”
As he talked, my own temperature was rising too and I was sweating, courtesy of my malaria. Rawlings perceived I wasn’t feeling fine. And he asked after my health.
“Are you asthmatic?” he asked, and I replied no. “Well, I want you to cultivate the habit of eating garlic daily. It would keep you healthy.” I thanked “Dr.” J.J. Rawlings for his prescription and gave him two of the books I co-wrote with Dimgba Igwe. One of the books is titled 50 NIGERIA’S CORPORATE STRATEGISTS—Top CEOs Share Their Experiences Managing Companies in Nigeria.
So sad that J.J. Rawlings—popularly called “Junior Jesus”—is dead. And won’t rise from the dead in three days’ time!