By Tikum Mbah Azonga
Everyone, I believe, knows that the profession of journalism is made up of ups and downs. Nonetheless, I wonder whether a lot of people have given thought to the fact that sometimes, apart from ups and downs, a journalist can simply get carried away by a situation or a circumstance. Such was the case with me when in 1987 as a young and enthusiastic international journalist working for WEST AFRICA magazine in London I traveled to Lome, capital of the Republic of Togo in West Africa.
The purpose was to cover the twentieth anniversary of President Gnassingbe Eyadema in power. While president, Eyadema put in place a robust media mechanism. He opened up public relations firms in key Western countries including the United Kingdom and appointed established native media moguls to run them. Whenever there was an invent back in Togo needing coverage, each bureau head would carry a team of journalists from his or her base to Lome and throughout the stay in Togo, that official would act as team leader of his group. Team leaders were well known to the authorities of the country. The team leader who took us from London was called Peter Biddlecombe, a thorough-bred British man who spoke the Ewe language that is common to both Togo and neighbouring Ghana.
SITES AND SOUND OF LOME
We were lodged at the leading Sarakawa hotel in Lome for a week, during which we made tourism trips to some parts of the country, not far from Lome. Our trip to Lome took place after the Cameroonian diplomat Sammy Kum Buo had just been appointed the pioneer Head of the UN-initiated Africa Regional Office for Peace and Disarmament in Africa, gladly headquartered in Lome by President Eyadema.
One evening, Sammy and some friends took me out for a drink. While we sat there chatting, two smartly-dressed girls walked up to us and said something in one of the Togolese languages after which they giggled. Eager to know what they said, I asked Sammy and the other “old hands” in Lome. I was told that the girls were boasting that there were “vitamins” in their buttocks. What an odd place for them to pinpoint, I thought to myself.
HERE COMES THE FRENCH ENVOY
At the time we were in Lome, François Mitterrand was president of France. It happened that his son, Christophe Mitterrand had also turned up for Eyadema`s tea party. Christophe was the president`s adviser on African affairs, I believe. When we met, we were with Siradiou Diallo, an ace journalist of the Paris-based JEUNE AFRIQUE magazine. It was Siradiou who introduced Christophe and I to each other. After he did that and were shaking hands, Christophe cracked a joke by saying, “Mais je ne parle pas” (But I`m not talking). To gainsay him, I also said: “Mais moi je ne vous demande rien”.
A TIPSY PRESIDENT ON TV
On evening in my hotel room, I switched on my TV and there was Gabonese President Omar Bongo being interviewed by French journalists. The president who was also in Lome for the jamboree, looked and spoke as though he had taken a glass too many. He was blunt and rather undiplomatic in his pronouncements. He commented on the biased treatment French media were giving him and threatened: “Si les Français insultent Bongo, les Gabonais vont insulter Mitterrand!” He recunted how one day Congo Brazzaville President Sassou Nguesso called him to say that students at the University of Brazzaville (Congo) were on the rampage. He said he asked Nguesso: “ Mais jeune frère Sassou, les militaires sont là pour ça non?” For the record, Bongo`s daughter was married to Sassou Nguesso.
OPEN AIR CONCERT
On another evening, guests were treated to a live concert during which some of the cream of African artists performed. Those I remember vividly are the Ivoirian star Aicha Kone to whom I remember simply saying after the chow: “Aicha, tu es une star” and she responded with the ceremonial, “Merci”. The other artist was the Zairean (at the time) diva Tshala Muana who simply trilled the audience with a dance that accompanied her all-time sizzling tunes. One of the guests keenly watching her very step from the audience was her own President, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Gbendu Waza Banga. As I sat there, I wondered whether the president might send for her after the show.
HOW I MISSED ARREST
A total of thirteen Heads of Sates and Presidents attended the party, including our very own Paul Biya, although he left earlier because as we were told, his wife at the time, Jeanne Irene was taken ill back in Yaounde. But before the president left, I managed to meet him and shake hands with him. We international journalists were at the airport to witness the Togolese presidential couple receiving each guest as he descended from the plane. The red carpet was arranged such that where our group was standing, each time President Eyadema collected a visitor from the plane, then walked towards us before deviating. We noticed that President Eyadema was very friendly to our man Peter Biddlecombe because almost each time he passed by us he acknowledged Biddlecombe.
When Eyadema received President Biya and they were walking to wards us, I timed them. As soon as they came close to us, I stepped forward towards the red carpet and offered my hand to Paul Biya. He hesitated but took it. We shook hands during which time I told him I was a countryman of his in Lome from London to cover the event. He smiled and said “Comment allez-vous?” Before I could answer, I noticed that President Biya`s guest had stopped after realizing that his brother president was not with him. President Biya then left me and rejoined President Eyadema and both men continued their walk side-by-side. I must have been carried away because I do not remember exactly what happened after that. But I recall that suddenly I was surrounded led by Togolese presidential security men who led me away for questioning. I explained that I saw the opportunity to greet my president and grabbed it. They maintained that it was undiplomatic and added that usually one waits for a Head of State to offer one a handshake; one does not become the first to offer the president a handshake. I said I was sorry and they released me. But frankly, I was sweating and my heart was in my mouth.
I noticed that throughout the rest of the days I spent in Lome, I was tracked. When I left my hotel room and came back I realized my things had been tampered with. On the day we were being driven from the hotel to the airport for departure, two men in civilian dressing stopped our vehicle and asked if I was onboard. When I answered to the affirmative, they mounted and sat with me. They saw us off at the airport.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
From that moment I feared I might be blacklisted by Togo and perhaps my own country for breaking the rules of conduct. However, as it is said “never say never”, the following year I received another invitation to travel to Togo for coverage. Furthermore, I received another surprise in the form of an end-of-year greeting card from the President of the Republic.