Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

The mystery death of a Catholic Priest

Another political murder in Ghana?

By Elizabeth Ohene

The inexplicable death of Reverend Charles Kukah, a Catholic Priest in Ghana, has raised a furore in the church and, some would say, uncharitable rumours of government involvement. This article tells the facts of the case and the "missing link"
The Mirror, Ghana's most popular weekly', was openly sceptical. The paper's front page story of January 11, 1986, under banner headlines "Priest in Mystery Death - Questions Abound", left no doubts at all that the paper felt that there were unexplained circumstances about the death of Reverend Brother Charles Kukah.

Their unease was in spite of the fact that according to the paper, "officially, the post-mortem at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital mortuary had established that Rev. Kukah died by drowning and there was no evidence of foul play". In the report, an unnamed fellow priest is quoted as saying: "There is a mystery surrounding his death, but who answers the questions?".

Altogether, a strange choice of words for The Mirror, leaving the clear impression that there was an official story and an unofficial one and that the official one was not credible.

The facts as far as the paper could establish were that the Roman Catholic Priest, Brother Charles Kukah, had been at the Kotoka International Airport on the night of December 27, 1985, to see off his younger brother Patrick, a medical doctor who was going to Poland for further studies.

The following morning, he had breakfast with his elder brother and younger sisters at the SVD Guest House at the Cathedral in Adabraka, and parted company with them. Later on, he was said to have spoken briefly with a neighbour and there abruptly ended the life story of this priest.

The next day, December 29, a dead body was found by fishermen at the Faana beach near Bortianor, and the Weija Police were informed; subsequently, radio and newspaper announcements described the body as bushy haired, bearded and suspected to be that of a Black American. US Embassy officials were called in but could not identify the body as being that of any American citizen. As is wont to happen in Ghana when nobody has claimed a dead body, it was left on the

slab in a corner of the mortuary, to rot. It was not until January 3, 1986, that the body was identified as that of Brother Charles Kukah by some of his fellow priests and he was buried the next day, January 4.

Brother Kukah had been in charge of the Mataheko parish in Accra and had only recently been transferred to Nkwatia Kwahu. His old parish in Mataheko had organised a farewell party for him for December 29 and part of the reason he had come to Accra and been staying at the Guest House in the Cathedral compound was to be able to attend his send-off party.

The Mirror then proceeded to ask some of the unanswered questions surrounding the mystery. The beach where the body was found is some 15 miles or more from Adabraka, the last place the priest was seen alive. How then did he get to the beach when his car was still at the guest house? If he planned to go out, why did he not lock his door? If it was true that his body was found clad in a pair of white swimming trunks, the police as announcement said, where then were the clothes he was last seen in the pinkish pair of trousers and long sleeved shirt - where were his shoes? It was not likely that the priest could have gone to the beach, on foot, bare-feet, and dressed only in swimming trunks.

The Mirror story ended with: "These and many others are not mere rhetorical questions but questions that must be answered. Those who have a clue should help if the Weija Police cannot go beyond stating that the Rev. Bro. Charles Kukah died by drowning and no foul play is suspected." In other words, tell the police story to the marines.

But then foul play is suspected by most people and an 'unofficial' version of the mystery death has emerged and all the indications are that the PNDC government is heading towards another controversy of a political murder.

There seems to be a consensus that Rev. Bro. Kukah was murdered, but it is in trying to find out why Rev. Kukah was murdered that a potentially devastating theory has emerged which is gaining ground very rapidly in Accra and in Catholic churches around the country. The belief is that Rev. Kukah was the tragic victim of a mistaken identity, the real target of the murderer(s) was Rev. Charles Buckle, the editor of the banned Catholic Standard. Many people are convinced that a death squad along the lines that abducted and killed the three judges and a retired Army Major on June 30, 1982, had been sent to abduct Father Charles and Rev. Kukah had been mistaken for Father Buckle.

It is not difficult to see why this theory sounds so plausible to so many people. On December 13, 1985, the PNDC government had finally definitive steps against the Catholic taken the Standard - the weekly newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church. Since the PNDC came into power on December 31, 1981, there had been a lot of friction between the church and the PNDC and the Bishops' Conference had always taken a strong position on the human rights abuses that characterised the rule of the PNDC.

Things would seem to have come to a head in early May 1985, when the Catholic Bishop of Kumasi, the Rt. Rev. Peter K. Sarpong, decided he could no longer accommodate two missionaries in his diocese. There appeared to have been an irreconcilable parting of the ways between the Bishop and the two missionaries and the sponsorship of the church under which they came to the country, was withdrawn. This appeared to have infuriated the PNDC Chairman in particular, for he was friendly with the two priests, and not only did he then proceed to give governmental appointments to the two dismissed missionaries, he made an extraordinarily crude attack on Bishop Sarpong.

At a ceremony on June 3, 1985, when Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings commissioned the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation's new transmitters, he attacked and threatened the Bishop..."If I were not a Head of State, I would have punched him right on the nose...I would have dealt with him physically, personally..." (ref Talking Drums, August 12 1985).

That incident and subsequent ones led to the Catholic Church getting a feeling of being under siege. Through it all, the Catholic Standard was the only paper that reported the various incidents. On the front page of the June 16 issue, the Standard carried a letter from Bishop Sarpong urging the paper not to publish the June 3 speech of Flt-Lt Rawlings in which the Bishop had been threatened. Part of that letter read..."My attitude has been to let things as they are, especially as I do not know really what I can do. I consider the whole thing as a salutary experience which no sermon or book could ever give me. I keep before me the admonition (or rather exhortation) of St Peter: 'No one can hurt you if you are determined to do only what is right, if you do have to suffer for being good, you will count it as a blessing. There is no need to be afraid or to worry about them' (Peter 3:131-4)."

The same issue of the paper carried readers' letters, two of which are possibly relevant here: Lydia Martey of Accra wrote: "I have a television set. I watched and I listened to all the speeches made when the GBC's new transmitters were being commissioned the other day and I have since come to this conclusion: The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom."

Abenah Owusuah of Kumasi wrote: "The Chairman of the PNDC said in his speech the other day that he would personally deal with Bishop Sarpong if he weren't Head of State. I wonder how he dealt with his enemies before becoming Chairman. And why does he think Bishop Sarpong could not deal with his enemies if he were not Bishop?"

And it did not end there, the Standard continued to ask the questions and probe subjects that are considered taboo in Ghana currently. The Standard made public the fact that the right of Habeas Corpus had been taken away from Ghanaians, it published a long list of political prisoners being held at a time that the country's Attorney-General had made a bogus claim that there were no political prisoners in Ghana. But perhaps, most important, the paper dared to expose the impossible economic conditions facing Ghanaians and it said the unthinkable: The PNDC should ask the people to give it a mandate.

Once in a while, the government- controlled People's Daily Graphic betrayed the impotent anger in government circles as when it attacked Paul Ansah, Head of the School of Mass Communications University of Ghana Legon as being the person who was writing the editorials and lead articles in the Standard. But then Mr Paul Ansah is well able to answer for himself and answered the People's Daily Graphic, pointing out their fallacies and challenged them on their accusations and silenced them.

At a time when the media in Ghana had become simply official government organs and no dissenting voices could be heard, only the Free Press and the Standard and the once in a while Pioneer, provided any semblance of independent thinking. Of the three publications, the Standard was the most stable since with the backing of the Catholic Church, it did not have to face the terrible economic difficulties faced by the Free Press and the Pioneer and it therefore posed the greatest danger.

When the Standard published its now celebrated editorial on the Sousoudis/ Scranage/CIA spy exchange affair, the government moved and withdrew its licence. Rev. Charles Buckle had been the editor of the Standard through these trying times and many people in the country appear convinced that the PNDC was not satisfied with simply closing down the paper but wanted to teach the editor and thus the Church and possibly any other journalists that might have similar ideas, a proper lesson.

It could not have been lost on anybody that the murder of the judges in 1982 had a most sobering effect not just on the judiciary but on what was regarded as the middle class and made Ghanaians a much more easier and pliable people to govern.

Apart from the two priests Kukah and Buckle having the same first names, Charles, their physical features were alike enough to have led to a mistaken identity on the part of somebody who did not know them well. They both sported bushy hairstyles and wore bushy beards. The reverberations in the Catholic Church have been initial shock, and now rumblings from the people for their Bishops to do something to seek the truth.

While the Church is mourning the tragic death of Rev. Kukah, there is increasing anger solidifies into as the suspicion belief, that he was murdered and rage that he was a victim of a mistaken identity. Many people are openly dissatisfied with the role of the police in simply coming to a conclusion of "death by drowning and no foul play suspected" without any proper investigations.

A wag asked - how did the police come to suspect that the body was that of a Black American, in a country with black people and where bushy hair is not unknown and where a member of the government wears a beard as bushy if not more than what Rev. Kukah sported? Mr Kwamena Ahwoi has a beard not unlike that of the late Rev. Kukah.

Obviously, not many people are going to be satisfied with the "death by drowning, no foul play suspected" and there is increasing clamour for a full-scale investigation into the death of Rev. Charles Kukah.

It is very likely that the PNDC will not be anxious to establish or order any such investigations especially since there is such open speculation of governmental implication in the death. The last special Investigations Board set up by the PNDC into the murder of the judges proved a most uncomfortable thing for the govern- ment and the PNDC would undoubtedly do all it can to avoid a recurrence. However, only such an investigation will quell the suspicions.

Obviously, it would not make the death of Rev. Kukah any less painful for his family, the Church and his parishioners to know that he was the victim of a mistaken identity, but it will certainly stop a lot of suspicion.

It is particularly sad that the rule of the PNDC has brought such an atmosphere into the country that there can be such speculations implicating government in such criminal activity.

The PNDC must be very relieved that in all this, there is no Catholic Standard to air the views that are being expressed in homes and churches.

talking drums 1986-02-17 ghana mystery death of a catholic priest - nigeria the press rules ok