7 February 2002

Ghana: Letter to Tony Blair


British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives in Ghana today. The Accra Daily Mail's editor, writes a personal letter for the PM's attention.

Dear Mr. Blair,

Welcome to Ghana.

The very first time I met you was on Monday October 14th 1996 in South Africa.

You were the Leader of the Labour Party, as you still are, but at that time you were also Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.

It was a chance meeting. Most definitely, you will not remember it I do not expect you to, but I do, as if it happened only yesterday.

It was at the Commonwealth Press Union (CPU) Conference and you were one of the main speakers. I remember the buzz around the conference venue at the Cape Sun Hotel in Cape Town when all the delegates eagerly awaited your speech.

My claim to fame in this narration was (still is) that I sat facing the entrance to the dining hall, when you walked in with your aides to join us for lunch before your speech. By some plan of fate, I looked you straight in the eyes and our eyes locked. You walked up to me and we shook hands. I have recounted this encounter many times to my family and friends but alas, there was no photographer in sight to record what for me would have had a place of honour in the family album.

Allow me, Prime Minister, to quote the opening sentences of your speech (which I still have) because in a few weeks time, you will be heading down under to attend the main feature of the Commonwealth calendar, that is the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). You began your speech with these words: "It is an honour and pleasure to be speaking to you today. And a particular pleasure to be speaking after my friend Thabo Mbeki. It is also a pleasure to be here under the Presidency of Sir David English, an extremely distinguished British editor. I have always been a strong believer in the Commonwealth, often an unfashionable thing to be. The Commonwealth is unique. It contains a quarter of the world's population. It includes some of the world's fastest growing economies. It is the only organization outside the UN itself to bring together the North and the South. It is united by a common language. And if it were the irrelevant organization its critics claim it to be, then why should South Africa have wanted to join? I am determined not to let a priceless legacy like this fade into nostalgia."

Sadly, Sir David died not long after as did Lord Durris, who was also there.

We all sat enraptured as you explained the Challenge of Change, New Labour, New Labour Economics, The Decent Society A New Social Morality, The Family and Crime, before your upbeat conclusion.

It was a speech full of hope and optimism and in the conclusion you said, "Politicians everywhere face the same test: how do we create opportunity and security for our people in this world of constant change? My answer is that we do it only by developing the potential of our people, by liberating their talent and ambition, and doing so within a modern civic society of others."

I know your mind is currently occupied with how to combat international terrorism. You've come to our country at a most challenging time for us when we are also trying to make sense of it and also hold at bay our home-grown brand of terrorism while at the same time aiming to achieve the objectives outlined in your speech above. Some of us have described Ghana's Election 2000 as the next most significant event in our young history after our Declaration of Independence in 1957.

Your visit, therefore, should be to encourage us even more to let the democracy of the ballot box rule the day and not the terror of coup d'etats. Terror, no matter in what form, cannot develop the potential of any people, it cannot liberate talents and ambition, nor can it advance the interest of any modern civic society.

When you were addressing us at Cape Town, September 11 was only 5 years away. No one could have imagined what terror lay in wait for the world and the role you, Mr. Blair, would have to play to galvanise the conscience of the world to confront it. We were all filled with the excitement of the new millennium approaching us. A millennium we thought was going to usher us into a new civilization - a civilization that would be truly civilising, as we discovered new ways of curing disease, fighting hunger, promoting peace and creating enlightenment. Then just one year into the millennium, bang! and we are all sent back to ground zero.

When the terrorists struck on September 11, 2001, a new fear took the place of the older fear of nuclear war among nations. All of a sudden, nukes seemed so far away. We were shocked in Ghana and were among the very first set of countries to express outrage and condemnation of the attacks.

Ghana today stands at its own crossroads; it will either leap forward into development by continuing with and refining what Ghanaians initiated in the December 2000 Elections or come crashing to ground zero because terrorists still lurk in our body politic, who even as I write these words may be thinking of ways of employing terror to achieve their political ends.

Our President gave his Sessional Address to Parliament a week ago today. He outlined some areas that he wanted to make his priority this year and beyond. Since you will be meeting him, I believe he would let you know more about those areas.

You were reported yesterday on BBC World to have said that Africa could be the next Afghanistan if the Western world did not take the plight of the continent seriously enough. You therefore called on the richer nations of the world to pay more attention to the continent. I cannot talk for the whole continent, but for my own country, I think you are absolutely right. Sometimes I wonder where we can begin. Everywhere you turn, we have bad news: education, health, housing, transportation, everything! I think we can find ways of sorting out the mess if we allow democracy to work over a period. This means:

1) Discouraging local terrorists from undermining our democracy through coups

2) Developing a partnership with us that would accelerate our economic independence and growth.

3) Helping the independent press to grow.

On the first point, after three successful coups in 1966, 1972 and 1981, a palace coup in 1978 and an insurrection in 1979, you can fully understand why terror as a means of changing governments is still very much a clear and present danger in our democracy.

That is what we MUST discourage. Your voice is a loud voice in the fight against terrorism. In words and in action, Ghana needs you to send a robust warning to the terrorists among us who may wish to unleash terror against our democracy for no other reason than that they think they can do better.

Let me skip to the third point. This is what you said in 1996 to the CPU, "...we strongly support your work on the freedom of the press. Although the press can be an irritant to any politician, a free press is a guarantor of democracy. Those who work for the freedom of the press work for the cause of democracy too."

As countries like Ghana embrace and promote democracy, the press becomes a crucial partner in that development, but what do we see? An emaciated, but thankfully not emasculated press. But emaciation has its own inbuilt emasculating properties and today the Ghanaian independent press is in distress and endangered. Of course, it is not for you to run our press for us but if the press is as important as you articulated in 1996, then a place must be found for press development in Britain's assistance to us - and not only from Britain alone but also from the EU in general, of which Britain is one of the leading members. Some little assistance trickles in, but this is so restricted as to have no effect on building the capacity of the press in terms of infrastructure.

Ironically, even as we talk of the independence of the press and the development of the private sector, in Ghana, it is still the state sector press that thrives. With the head start the state sector press have enjoyed, and the massive assistance they have received in terms of capitalisation over the years, there is absolutely no way that the independent media can compete with them unless there is a corresponding relief package to the private sector. That way we can guarantee the freedom of the press in the interest of democracy. In other words, the press is in need of capacity building assistance just as any other sector of the economy.

Now, to the second point. There are many issues involved there, like our relationship with the WTO, Globalisation, arms proliferation, our indebtedness to your country, and others, which you must have heard over and over and no doubt will come up again as you sit to have discussions with our politicians. My only hope is that you will take our views on board with the same determination to help us lift ourselves up as you did after September 11 when you worked so assiduously to put together a global coalition to fight terrorism.

Let's put together another global coalition to help Africa. There is talk of a kind of Marshal Plan for Africa. That would be a complex and perhaps impossible undertaking. What to my mind would be more feasible initially is assistance to regional groupings like ECOWAS.

This means the Anglophone-Francophone barriers should be encouraged to come down.

It is heartening that our president has started doing just that in the sub-region and internationally also is opening up new friendships and partnerships. Britain's role in bringing peace to Sierra Leone is very much appreciated, but prevention is better than cure and that is why I would emphasise in concluding that Mr. Prime Minister, you should send a clear unambiguous message to those who would want to terrorise our democracy that Britain would not allow them.

Thank you, for taking time off to read this letter.

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