Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Waking up to disaster

Elizabeth Ohene

I noted the defiance on the faces of the people and the fact that members of the government did not go into hiding. I noted that all the political parties felt the need to close ranks against a most determined effort to overturn the government of the country.

Friday morning October 12, 1984. Woke up early, by force of habit, turned on the radio, it took some time for it to register that the news was not about the miners' strike. After almost seven months, I had become used to waking up to: "there was violence on the picket lines in Derbyshire colliery at dawn this morning when police clashed with over a thousand pickets. Three policemen were injured, five pickets were taken to hospital and there were 18 arrests…”

The human brain is such that it actually took some time before I realised that the miners' President Mr Arthur Scargill, had not been mentioned "the Prime Minister, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, and members of her Cabinet survived an assassination attempt early this morning when a bomb blew the hotel in which she and others were staying to attend the annual Conservative Conference in Brighton" For some strange reason I was transported in my mind to a coup morning in an African country, waking up to a strange voice on the radio: "fellow country men, this is Major Brown..." and then martial music takes over....

As I watched the drama unfold on the television screen and the full horror of what had occurred and even greater horror of what would have been my mind still was in Africa...

I noted, and was impressed, by the reaction of the security services, yes there had been a dreadful lapse in security, but once it had taken place, they had moved quickly, efficiently to recapture the upper hand. I noted the stunned expression on the faces of people. I saw the little groups of people huddled together obviously discussing the events, again not very unlike a 'coup morning' in Ghana, but then I noted that some people were trying to do something about the situation apart from members of the emergency security services ... Lord Gowrie, a cabinet Minister was collecting deck chairs from the beach to be used as stretchers for the injured, other members of the public, many of whom had just escaped from almost certain death at the Grand Hotel, were all doing their bit..

But most of all, I noted the defiance on the faces of the people and the fact that members of the government did not go into hiding. I noted the fact that the Leader of the Opposition instinc- tively condemned the action, lent his support to the government and even praised Mrs Thatcher's decision to continue with the conference. On this particular morning, I noted that all the political parties felt the need to close ranks against a most determined effort to overturn the government of the country.

When an African politician or ordinary citizen decides that she would not accept the legitimacy of those who shoot their way into power in her country, why is that regarded as odd?

The scale of the outrage, said Mrs Thatcher, was that there had been an attempt to destroy Her Majesty's democratically elected government and to terminate the democratic conference of a political party.

An outrage of mind-boggling proportions that was suitably condemned by even those commentators and politicians who are convinced that Mrs Thatcher is leading Britain to disaster and desolation... even those who are convinced that she and her policies are evil...

I wondered whether it struck any of the pompous commentators in Britain who routinely justify the violent overthrow of constitutionally elected governments in Africa on the grounds of corruption, inept handling of the economy etc, that what the IRA had attempted in Brighton was not very different from what the Flight-Lieutenants, Colonels, Major-Generals and Master-Sergeants do in Africa all the time.

When Mrs Thatcher said that she will fight the bombers with every that she has, she was warmly applauded, nobody suggested there was any other option but that. When an African politician or ordinary citizen decides that he/she would not accept the legitimacy of those who shoot their way into power in his or her country, why then is that regarded as odd?

The IRA might argue that the situation in Northern Ireland was so bad that they cannot wait for the problem to be resolved through legitimate means and that desperate remedies were required. They, like the soldiers in Africa who seek political power or who are dissatisfied with the economic social conditions in their countries, move in the night and by stealth. They do not believe in debate and persuasion through reasoned argument, they resort to violence and seek to hijack the democratic form of government to attain their goals.

Have they been roundly condemned because their attempt failed (with due respect to the families of the four dead and many injured) and is the degree of commitment to democracy and resistance to those who seek to overthrow the rule of law related to keeping physical power? I wonder.

That marrow-chilling statement by the IRA brought the goose pimples on me. "Today we were unlucky, we will need to be lucky only once but you will have to be lucky all the time".

I wonder if the same thing can be said about somebody like Alhaji Umaru Dikko. He was lucky on July 5 this year when the attempt to kidnap him was botched, will he have to be lucky all the time to remain alive? I do wonder.

Supposing the unthinkable had happened and the IRA had succeeded in wiping off Her Majesty's Government and had managed to take physical control of the country, would the 'business as usual' theory have been advocated and adopted? Would the Opposition party leaders then have kept quiet or tried to show the new leaders that there is a world of difference between the policies of the Labour, Liberal and Social Democratic Parties and those of the Conservative Party? I wonder.

Would the rest of the country have quietly accepted the new rulers or continued with their lives as best they could? I wonder.

Or are the two situations not comparable? The IRA, both the political and military wings, sound as, if not more, convincing as the soldiers who stage coups in West African countries. They also claim to have a responsibility not to sit by and watch their country and peoples violated and ruined by a government that will not listen to its peoples.

Among the immigrant community in Britain, it is not fashionable to admire Mrs Thatcher, or maybe it is one's inherent suspicion of governments and authority, and yet it was such a joy to see her calm and composed.

Such a relief that she overruled the security 'experts' who would have her enter the conference hall through the back door, worrying to see all the armed police surrounding her on the way to church on Sunday. Would the IRA not have succeeded in their grand design if they managed to drive British Ministers behind armed barricades and prevented Ministers from mingling with their constituents?

I was dazed alright, or could it simply have been a fear of having to live through the nightmare from which I had been running away in my own country?

I wondered if this terrible tragedy will make my hosts understand better what many African countries go through regularly. Or possibly the coup phobia makes one project one's fears onto occurrences that have no relationship whatsoever to one's experiences.

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