Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Inauguration à L'Africaine

Back in January I attended the inauguration of Ghana's President John Agyekum Kufuor into his second term in office. Accra's finest were in their element; Ghanaians don't need much prompting for ceremony - if funeral attendance can be one of our great social pastimes, imagine what a happy occasion can bring about.

I was escorting my mum who, like almost all the women present, was decked out in a colourful kente outfit. One of the President's Special Initiatives is on textiles so the word had gone out in the media encouraging everyone to wear Made-in-Ghana clothing. There was mostly kente but also lavish lace, agbadas and batakaris on display. Actually hers was a highly unusual kente, traditionally most go for the orange/yellow/green variety. Having seen the cloth before it was sewn, my father and I had been puzzled by it, we couldn't imagine what it would look like when complete and, as it ended up, the seamstress had deconstructed the kente strips and reinvented it beyond anything we could have envisioned.

Mum at inauguration

I'd never been to an inauguration before and didn't think I'd ever have occasion to do so again, so it was tongue-in-cheek when I groaned grudgingly that I would rather watch the event on TV. Everyone saw right through my pose, and rightly so.

The main ingredients of such events are what one would expect: pomp, circumstance and pageantry. In this instance, there was an added component: chaos. I should elaborate somewhat on the latter quality of the occasion...

One of my favourite plays is Les Chaises (The Chairs) by Eugene Ionesco which is a classic in the Theatre of the Absurd. Its plot is about a nonagenarian couple who are waiting in a lecture hall arranging chairs in preparation for a lecture and interacting with a host of invisible participants. The language and the stage directions are minimalist and ridiculous, but such fun to follow or act out. The play is hilarious, bleak and an object lesson in futility much like the chaos that was to ensue during the proceedings. As it turned out my prime impression of the inauguration was that everything boiled down to a matter of chairs.

Les Chaises

Now this was quite surprising to me, it should plainly have been a numbers game. After all, the state protocol officials knew exactly how many people they had invited and how many minders they would have. And they had unlimited budgets and the vast grounds of Independence Square available to them. You can't gatecrash events where 6 heads of state and a cohort of dignitaries are in attendance, at least I would hope the security would be tight enough to assure that.

So let's start with this: the President's family didn't have any seats.

As they bitterly reminded us, they had stood throughout all the proceedings in the 2000 inauguration. This year they stoically stood their ground, demanded that the right thing be done and were determined to cause a scene. "The last time, we could blame the previous government, we didn't have time to prepare a transition. This time, we're in power... Look at this! Look at this!"

Eventually chairs were fetched and a temporary canopy was rushed to the scene. Of course, the canopy was still being assembled when the Speaker of Parliament and his clerks made their way to the podium to start the function.

The Chairs

Then there was the case of the chiefs. African chiefs have large retinues and even the lowliest of sub-chiefs will insist on no one sitting in front of them. An hour before the scheduled start, as the extent of the chair fiasco became evident to all, 50 or so chiefs decided to take up the seats reserved for the Members of Parliament. Imagine that: the inauguration is supposed to be a sitting session of parliament. All the newly sworn MPs and their spouses were supposed to be in that section. They'd walk out in a rage. So there was a scramble to somehow manufacture some chairs for the chiefs and then to find the right way to phrase the requests to have these members of the Council of State take them up. There was a minor hitch when it was heard that that someone, and no one knew who, had forbidden plastic chairs. What comedy, don't you think? We're just lucky the Asantehene was not in attendance and had sent a representative in his stead.

Not to belabour the point or to sound too prissy, but as I sunk into my own chair (How I got it? I won't discuss) and tried to cajole my face in an expression of quiet expectancy, it seemed to me that having burly workmen ushering plastic chairs over a sitting Baroness Amos (UK) and dodging past President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah (Sierra Leone) was stretching things a bit.
"Oh! Excuse-o Madame".
The Chairs

Then there was the Master of Ceremonies for the occasion, who mangled every name and title: to take a few examples, ascribing Sierra-Leonean citizenship to South African Deputy President, Jacob Zuma. President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso suddenly became Gambian. "Big Mama", Mrs Obasanjo discovered that she was actually the First Lady of Niger not Nigeria, and so on. That last one at least got a correction, President Olusegun Obasanjo can be poker-faced like the best of them, but there are some things that even he can't handle. The Nigerians, and there is no society more hectic than theirs, would never tolerate disorganization on this scale. Needless to say, the MC's every utterance occasioned squirming for all in attendance. You could just see the members of the diplomatic corps flinching and preparing their communiqués back home. The IMF and World Bank types were sporting self-satisfied smirks confident that they have every reason to dictate to us.

A few other items of note. It was also the first and last time I saw Gnassingbe Eyadema, President of Togo, in the flesh, with his customary dark glasses and impassive bearing. A mafia don if ever there was, he was weeks from his death.

And the sight of the judiciary. Have you ever seen their like? Wearing wigs and Etonian robes in the almost Saharan heat. Lord have mercy. The members of the Supreme Court made even the numerous clergy look sedate (Ghana is currently in grip of a new Christianity).


The event was almost derailed and dignitaries were kept waiting for hours on display in the midday heat by the shenanigans of the opposition who had thrown the proceedings in parliament into uproar by deciding to renege on the consensus agreement of the nomination of the Speaker of Parliament. Nothing could start until the speaker and the leaders of the house were elected. It was all a means of sticking their thumbs in all our faces and embarrassing the assembled cast.

At one point, as the voting was taking place in parliament, the rumour spread at the square that the opposition were about to boycott the inauguration since, as befitted their minority status, the votes were sure to not go their way. My mum pointed out that that was very unlikely: she'd have loved to hear the conversations between the minority MPs and their spouses, who had done their hair and nails the previous day and got up early to dress in their finest linen or kente, explaining why they were planning to head home. In the event they showed up, but about half of the spouses didn't have seats. That was actually a good thing: a hundred glamourous women standing in the sun make a picturesque and arresting spectacle. Speaking for myself, I was a keen watcher. The photographers also could pretend that they were at the fashion shows in Milan or Paris.

An inaugural speech is not the most flamboyant of things, it lacks the drama of a State of the Union address, nevertheless it's an occasion to strike a certain tone. Let me tell you about this inaugural speech:

This is a speech that survived at least
  • 2 corrupted floppy disks
  • an urgent dispatch of a courier with USB thumb drive on hand
  • 3 oh-so-secure webmail postings to Hotmail, Gmail and Yahoo mail accounts since the government mail and VPN system was out of order at the time.
On the day itself, there no amount of consternation when it turned out that the version printed in the inauguration brochure had succumbed to either a typesetting flaw or, more likely, a Microsoft Word bug wherein major sections were either deleted or repeated or somehow munged. Evidently no one had bothered to proof-read the piece. I know some people who were holding their breath, praying that the President's copy was ok and that he wouldn't look idiotic or incoherent.

kufuor inauguration

The speech survived all that and was delivered actually very well by Mr Kufuor. The framing device was simple, start with the following:
A story is told about a conversation that took place during the independence celebrations, between the then American Vice President Richard Nixon, who represented the United States at the Independence Day celebrations, and Sir Charles Noble Arden Clarke who was the last Governor of the Gold Coast, newly turned Ghana.

Vice President Richard Nixon is reported to have asked Sir Charles: "will it work?" In other words, Vice President Nixon was asking, will the great historical experiment they had launched, of an independent African state work?

Sir Charles is reported to have paused awhile and pondered over the question; and then answered: "It will have to work." Presumably he must have meant that as the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence, Ghana needed to succeed to set an example for the rest of colonial Africa.
Lay out the broad strokes of your various policies, and then end triumphantly:
And here I believe I speak on behalf of my compatriots when I answer the question posed by the then Vice President Nixon some 48 years ago about the prospects of the newly independent Ghana; "will it work?" he asked.

I say: yes, it is already working, and with God's help, we will make it work even better.
Strong words indeed and you might say, somewhat belied by what I've written. Discoursing on incompetence is mostly painful for someone as proud as I am of my heritage. If minor things can't even be organized, what about the messy business of development? Or perhaps I'm making too much of these things wringing my hands for comic effect?

When you watched the news later on, or read the reports in the media, there is no sense of the live wire and musical chairs flavour that characterized the event. Three paragraphs on the BBC website, one paragraph in the wire services and New York Times. The story was "the President was inaugurated, there was a little snag in parliament, foreign presidents were present, the speech was well received". That's the extent of coverage our small part of the world typically receives.

And maybe that's all that matters then. The weather was fine, the harmattan had come with a vengeance and cast an almost sandy mist that dissipated the heat of the midday sun, There was music (the 20 foot ceremonial drums were out and beaten dramatically), horn blowers blew loudly, there were brass bands and inspections of the guard, a 21-gun salute, there was dancing by nubile women (though not quite as the Swazis do it), and praise-singing by criers. Everyone looked good and strutted like peacocks. The crush of people was intense in the square and the crowds were jubilant. Kufuor is known as the "Gentle Giant" and is a highly popular politician. The NPP supporters knew how to celebrate and indeed it was hard to summon any cynicism in light of their evident happiness. The young men beating drums, inventing new chants and doing spontaneous line dances, were exuberance itself.

I'll conclude though by writing about one of the most vivid images that returns to my mind a few months on. The Libyan representative had one of Gaddafi's legendary female bodyguards attending to him. This woman mesmerized me more even than anything I've written so far.


To give some context, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi normally travels with a few planeloads of female bodyguards. They are typically young, beautiful and fierce things. There is some dispute as to whether they are a mere eccentricity, a simple harem-in-disguise or rather the notorious, Amazonian vanguard of his security services.

Now Gaddafi has sponsored almost every misadventure in the sub-region for the past 30 years, and there have been many, many coups-d'états and rebellions in Africa. You didn't have to start out claiming you were against imperialism and the US to get a cool million from the man of the Little Green Book, you could launch your escapade and only afterward discover that you needed financial help to stabilize things (as was the case with Rawlings).

Incidentally, when Zimbabwe finally unravels in the near future, we'll find out just how much of its patrimony Robert Mugabe has turned over to the good colonel's hands in order to remain solvent. The couple of visits our Muammar has made to Harare in the past 5 years bode ill for that country.

In the particular case of Liberia and Sierra Leone, the mischief was unpardonable. After he escaped from jail in Somerville, MA, Charles Taylor went to train in Libya and started his guerrilla war in Liberia with Libyan help. 15 years later, and 5 countries destabilized, it stands as one of the most destructive and bloody episodes in West African history, something that will take a generation or more to recover from.

Some of the child soldiers who were press-ganged into biblical savagery by Taylor's Sierra Leonean partner-in-crime, Foday Sankoh talk about their Libyan "mother" who was there all along in the background orchestrating much of the mayhem. I've watched or listened to many a documentary about these child soldiers, it is haunting stuff indeed.

The elliptical figure that appears, time and again, in the nightmarish accounts of kidnappings, conscription, forced drugging, hacked limbs, summary amputations, rape as a matter of course, and even that lugubrious standby, cannibalism, is presumably one of those notorious women from Gaddafi's entourage. Who knows if "mother" actually wielded the weapons herself, she was right there in the midst of it, drenched in blood diamonds.

I am not too keen on the word evil, like Ian McEwan, I lean towards the notion that "there are only people behaving, and sometimes behaving monstrously". So you can imagine why I forgot all about the chaos around me and simply stared at her in awful awe. This one was tending towards middle-age. She was a little stout and was dressed unobtrusively as befits someone who is meant to guard someone, in this case the foreign minister or other Gaddafi had deigned to send.

I stood 3 rows behind, admiring the aura of quiet professionalism as she ushered her man to his seat and took up her position to the right of the podium. Her practiced eye was always roving over the crowd, alert for mischief. Only the American and British bodyguards looked comparably sharp and tough.

As for the various African bodyguards, they weren't much of anything, burly but you wondered what a determined foe would do to them. The Nigerian ones had eaten too much eba; it was fufu in the case of the Ghanaians. The Senegalese accompanying Abdoulaye Wade seemed almost effete, tense and frail. The South African ones were only concerned with securing a chair so that their aide-de-camp, could sit behind Zuma. Indeed Miss Libya was the first to react when there was a minor scramble near the VIP section, dispensing a sharp elbow that put paid to some over-enthusiastic paparazzi-type.

I spent most of the inauguration transfixed, wondering if it was this particular woman, or perhaps her sister or one of her close friends, who was in Sierra Leone, seconded to that rogue band of malfeasants. I still wonder you know.

See also: Excellent Discussions and He of The Little Green Book

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Anonymous said...

Hello from Togo

quixote said...

Great article, great writing. I'm commenting, though, to express amazement about the Libyan role in the awful atrocities. I had no idea. 500 channels, news stations everywhere, and even someone like me who pays attention has never heard of this. Blogs will change the world perhaps even more than the printing press.

Anonymous said...

Good article... and you must be writing about the country, Ghana, not the entire African continent.Am I right?