I am happy writing about twenty years of what has become an institution, one that is very dear to me. When my former editor, friend, comrade and collaborator, Kwesi Pratt, Jnr., publisher and editor of the Insight newspaper, Accra, Ghana, informed me a few weeks ago about the celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the Insight newspaper and asked me to send in my reminiscences, my first reaction was that of surprise.
I couldn’t believe that the Insight newspaper was already 20. It looked like yesterday when I became part of the Insight family seventeen years ago. After my phone conversation with Kwesi, I debated for days about how best to capture the essence of my Insight experience. And what an experience it was! That period remains the most productive years of my life as a journalist, writer and agitator.
There is a compelling similarity between Ghana and Nigeria, both English-speaking countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This similarity is noticeable by everyone, even for a first time visitor. Of course, there is a historical connection: Ghana and Nigeria were colonies of Britain. Both countries share a legacy of colonial distortions and misguided development paradigms.
The two countries provide a very cynical example of the manipulation of democracy. The political scene in both countries has witnessed a harvest of coups and senseless incursions by military adventurers.
I arrived Accra in November 1996 in the midst of the political crisis in Nigeria occasioned by the brutal military dictatorship of Gen. Sani Abacha who replaced an equally despotic military regime led by the self-styled evil genius, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (IBB). Between the two generals, Nigeria and Nigerians witnessed thirteen years of mindless, corrupt and brutal dictatorship.
Ghana then was entering the second phase of its transition to civil rule. Flt Lt. Jerry John Rawlings, the young air force officer who had twice been head of state through coups and transmuted into a civilian president in 1992 was preparing for reelection. Babangida and Abacha, it appeared, would later borrow a thing or two from JJ’s bag of tricks. Mr. Rawlings’ first official trip outside Ghana after he won reelection on December 7, 1996, was to Nigeria and to Gen. Sani Abacha, perhaps to brief the dark-goggled general how his (Rawlings’) brand of “militocracy” had worked in Ghana.
Gen. Babangida seized power on August 27, 1985, after toppling the regime of Generals Muhammadu Buhari and Tunde Idiagbon. He promised a quick return to civil rule and a departure from the past. But by the time he was forced to leave power eight years later on August 27, 1993, he had brutalized, impoverished and decimated the country through a combination of neo-colonial policies, including the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) and its twin components of privatization and commercialization.
But it was not just in the social and economic spheres that IBB left a brutal legacy. Politically, he orchestrated an inordinate transition programme that imperiled the nation and eventually led to the emergence of the archetypal monster named Sani Abacha. Abacha declared war on a broad section of the country that included journalists, writers, students, rights activists and progressive politicians.
It was in the midst of this social and political turmoil that I arrived Accra, hoping to get a breather from the suffocating environment for journalists and political activists in Nigeria.
I met Kwesi a few days after I arrived Ghana. I didn’t know him from Adam, but the Socialist Internationalist that he is, I didn’t need to know him beforehand. When I arrived Accra, the first impulse was to link up with local journalists as well as Nigerian pro-democracy activists who had made Ghana a hub. The list included Dr. Kayode Fayemi (current governor of Ekiti State,) the late Dr. Tajudeen AbdulRaheem, Dr. Ike Okonta and Makin Soyinka. Kwesi facilitated some of these meetings.
He would introduce me to many radical elements across Africa, including leaders of opposition to Mobutu Sese Seko in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, Ghanaian exiles who had returned home with the advent of democracy, as well as to radical academics and activists in Ghana, including Dr. Bawa Mohammed, Dr. Yao Graham, Dr. Adam Nasser, Dr. Sekou Nkrumah, Profs. Kwame Karikari and Audrey Gadzekpo.
My meeting with Kwesi was auspicious. The Weekly Insight (as it was called then) which he edited resonated with me because of its left-leaning position on issues. I made enquiries from some Ghanaian journalists at the headquarters of the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) about the editor of the paper and I was given Kwesi’s cell phone number. That was when cell phones were status symbols in Nigeria and only governors, ministers and high profile politicians had access to cell phones. In Accra, journalists were using cell phones to record and file live reports to their radio stations.
I put a call to Kwesi who described his office and invited me over. Thus began a friendship and partnership that has lasted almost two decades. When I met Kwesi, I was armed with a few articles I had written about the situation in Nigeria. We exchanged pleasantries, talked politics in Ghana, Nigeria and the continent generally. I handed him my articles. He read through quickly, complimented my writing and asked me to continue writing for the paper.
A few weeks later, he formally invited me to join the Insight as associate editor. Kwesi likes to describe himself as an Nkrumahist socialist. But to me, he is much more than that. If I believed in the brotherhood of man and pan-Africanism, my meeting with Kwesi solidified that belief.
I can’t write about my Insight experience without remembering Kwesi’s charming and unassuming wife, Marian Baaba Pratt. Marian was not just a dedicated spouse and mother, she stood by Kwesi throughout his travails during the military era in Ghana which saw him in detention fourteen times and earned him the sobriquet, “agitator-general” and “Gani Fawehinmi of Ghana”. Even with her demanding job as a banker, Marian would always pop into the “newsroom” to offer editorial advice and help in editing stories.
Insight and the Pratt family provided a home away from home. Kwesi’s children, a girl, Maame Ama, and twin boys, Kakra and Panyin, whom I met as preteens have become adults and successful in their chosen fields. Kwesi’s was a decent family. They did not have any of the hang-ups which many Ghanaians had about Nigeria. Once the children saw me in the company of their father, I became a family member immediately. I remain “uncle Chido” till this day.
Insight and Ghana invoke many fond memories. It was in Ghana that I met the beautiful woman, Sola, who would later become my spouse. It was in Accra that I first met Hafsat Abiola-Costello and Nike Ransome-Kuti, two of the most strong-willed women I have come across. It was in Accra that I met one of my best friends, Lewis Asubiojo, with whom I now run the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy.
From a make-shift office in Kwesi’s