I had almost forgotten about my visit to President Nkrumah’s office when we received news on 21 November 1960 that “Congolese troops have surrounded the Ghana embassy in Leopoldville and have been engaging in a shootout all night with Tunisian UN troops, who are protecting the embassy.
Several soldiers on both sides have been injured. It is believed that the Ghana Ambassador, Mr N. A. Welbeck, is in the embassy.”
The news saddened me a great deal. If Welbeck was killed, and any harm came to his staff, it would be Dr Nkrumah’s fault, I thought. I had brought him a clear warning that things were not going well between Ghana and the Congolese government (under Sergeant Mobutu).
When a national radio announces that your ambassador has been expelled, you get him out. In an anarchic situation like what existed in the Congo at the time, you do so very fast.
And yet the President had chosen to disregard the news I had brought him. His office was not a “news agency”, he had told me. And now, Mobutu was trying to throw Welbeck out, at the point of a gun.
Countries which were opposed to the manner Ghana had been to the forefront in helping the Congolese Government of Patrice Lumumba were delighted at the turn of events.
Their newspapers and radio stations described in detail, how Welbeck had hidden in a “freezer” or “fridge” (the accounts differed!) at the first report of a gun. They exaggerated the casualties suffered by the Tunisian UN troops who were guarding the embassy and preventing the Congolese troops from entering.
Sensational reports on the event led to questions being asked in the British House of Commons (because the British Government was providing Ghana with Royal Air Force planes to transport our solders and equipment) :
“Captain Kerby asked the Secretary of State for Air how many Ghanaian troops, pounds of freight and pounds of mail, have been transported by aircraft of Royal Air Force Transport Command from Accra to Leopoldville, to enable a Ghanaian contingent to participate in the United Nations force, since the emergency in the Congo began.
“Mr. Julian] Amery: Up to 25th November , about 2,500 passengers, 300,000 lb. of freight and 6,000 lbs. of mail were moved from Ghana to the Congo. Thirteen different aircraft have been employed.
“Captain Kerby asked the Secretary of State for Air whether, in view of the expulsion from the Congo of the entire Ghanaian Embassy staff, he will prohibit any further use of aircraft of Royal Air Force Transport Command, now providing the airlift of reinforcements and supplies to Ghanaian troops in the Congo, in operations which might involve the Royal Air Force in a Congo conflict amongst African states….”
In Ghana, the President ordered the Belgian ambassador, Mr Gerard Walravens, to leave the country within twenty-four hours. Dr Nkrumah was sure that it was the Belgians who had advised Mobutu to expel Welbeck.
Indeed, it was a major international crisis. The most ironical aspect of the issue was that because Ghana’s troops in the Congo were under the command of the United Nations, they had been deployed elsewhere and were not available to help the Tunisian UN troops defending the Ghana embassy. Matters got even worse when Ghanaian troops under UN command were ordered by the UN to prevent Prime Minister Lumumba from gaining access to his own radio station to broadcast to his people, after he had been “sacked” by President Kasavubu.
Lumumba was damned annoyed: he’d thought that Ghana was in the Congo to help him and he couldn‘t understand that Ghana’s troops were ultimately under the orders of the UN Secretary-General’s representative in the Congo, Mr Ralph Bunche, and his military commanders. So neither Nkrumah nor Lumumba could do anything about it. Unless, of course, Ghana withdrew the troops -- which would be a whole new ball game.
Although was satisfied that events had proved me right, I felt frustrated, because if Dr Nkrumah had acted on the news I had sent to him and withdrawn Welbeck at the first sign of trouble, he could have avoided giving the impression that Ghana wanted to “defy” the new Congolese government.
If I were in his shoes, I would have withdrawn Welbeck and sent people to work “underground” in the Congo to do what Welbeck was doing, i.e. provide political advice to Lumumba and also money. By precipitating a confrontation with the Mobutu lot, he advertised the failure of Ghana’s Congo effort to the whole world, and, indeed, exposed Ghana to ridicule.
Indeed, I later learnt that most of the big powers run big operations listening in to the home news broadcasts of foreign countries in which they have an interest. The BBC, for instance, runs a major listening operation at a place called Caversham, in England, which supplies news to the British Foreign Office, as well as BBC newsrooms. In fact, the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation’s own monitoring service was conceived as a minor form of Caversham. But alas, when it provided us with its best scoop, the news was not recognised for what it was.
It is amazing how history repeats itself. In 1983, I was twiddling with the knobs of my television set in Accra, trying to get nearby foreign stations, when I chanced upon a Nigerian Television Authority news broadcast. It showed pictures of Ghanaians who had been expelled from Nigeria, trying to leave the country. Many had attempted to board an overcrowded ship back to Ghana and some had fallen into the sea.
I was shaken by the news. I realised at once that this was a retaliatory measure by the Shehu Shagari Government of the time, against Ghana for expelling Nigerians in 1969, under the Government of Dr Kofi Busia.
I drove straight to Castle, Osu, after the broadcast, and told a very high member of the Government that the Nigerian Government was expelling Ghanaians and that the situation appeared desperate for the Ghanaians. I urged him to initiate efforts to send transportation to Nigeria to get the Ghanaians repatriated back home.
I am afraid the important personage disregarded my advice and did nothing. On the contrary, when it became evident that the expulsions were of a magnitude that was hard to comprehend, the Ghana Government worsened matters for the expelled Ghanaians by closing its borders! Within a few days, the number of returnees massing at Ghana’s border with Togo, at Lome, unable to cross for home, had reached hundreds of thousands.
It was crazy. I drove to the border to take a look. It was a most pathetic sight. People were sleeping on the sand on the beach everywhere. I saw a woman who had just given birth to a baby. Here was very little food and water. The international press descended on Ghana and ran harrowing stories of what was going on.
Eventually, unable to stand the pressure, the Government opened the borders that it should never have closed in the first place.
Again, I had, out of sheer prescience, provided those who ruled my country with news which, if acted upon, could have saved quite a number of lives and prevented a great deal of suffering.
But those who could have acted on the news had other concerns.