26 November 2012

Ghana: An Encounter With Aliu Mahama


It was in the heat of the Dagbon crises in 2002. The Abudu - Andani internecine conflict had reared its ugly head. The late Vice President Alhaji Aliu Mahama was in the middle of the recriminations being traded by both factions in Tamale. Information making the rounds in Tamale had it that Alhaji Mahama had been warned by one of the factions not to set foot in Tamale, because if he did, he would be attacked.

Alhaji Aliu Mahama seemed to have given impetus to the threat on his life, for a year had passed since the threat was issued, and he had neither spoken nor set foot in Tamale. Eventually, he dared his antagonists and landed in Tamale, but under one of the heaviest military guard ever accorded any visiting personality of his stature.

The visit took him to the Regional Co-ordinating Council (RCC) and to his private residence at the Vittin Estates. The whole visit lasted 91 minutes - from his arrival at the airport to the RCC and to his residence, and back to the airport - under heavy military guard.

I was then the Northern Regional Editor of the Ghanaian Chronicle. The report I filed to The Chronicle emphasised the fact that Aliu's visit to Tamale lasted only 91 minutes, under one of the heaviest military guard ever, and tied it to the earlier threat to his life by a faction of Dagombas in Tamale. The story hit the front page of the paper.

Four days after the publication of the story, the late Alhaji B. A. Fuseini, former Northern Regional Minister and Ghana's Ambassador to Libya, a bosom friend of Alhaji Aliu, called me to convey the Vice President's displeasure with the story.

"Kassim, your man is not happy with your story, and he has asked me to tell you so in no uncertain terms." Alhaji Fuseini said sternly. "How could you have written that his visit lasted only 91 minutes under heavy military guard? Kassim, he is not happy at all."

Initially, I took Alhaji Aliu Mahama's displeasure with my story in my stride, because I felt I had only fulfilled my professional obligation to diligently apply the principles of journalism to the best of my ability. Upon second thought, I entreated Alhaji Fuseini to plead with Aliu Mahama that I was only honouring my professional obligation, that he should accept my apology for any embarrassment the story must have caused him.

A couple of days later, after profound introspection, I engaged myself in a critical monologue: "How could you, Kassim, do this to your big brother? As a founding player of Tamale Real United, Alhaji Aliu was your team manager. He took a special liking to your style of play and did not miss the chance to critique your performance after each match. In your days of active journalism, he motivated you to do stories that enhanced the development of the North."

The monologue went on: "How could you portray one who appointed you editor of his proposed newspaper in such an unfavourable light; a one-time big contractor whose office you occasionally visited as a reporter to banter with; one who would call you to congratulate you whenever you did positive stories that put the north in the limelight; how could you? Oh my dear!' I lamented.

But, then life must go on, I thought to myself. Then, a few years later, it happened that I was going to launch my own newspaper, The Northern ADVOCATE! I wanted an eminent personality to do the launch.

Guess who came to mind? The Vice President of course! Alhaji Aliu Mahama, the man who was unhappy with my reportage, who had a bone to pick with me. How would he react if I approached him? I weighed the pros and cons for a couple of days, and boldly took the decision to approach him.

To the Castle I went. Gaining access to him was as tedious as cracking reinforced concrete. At the time, you went through the reception and then to security. I sat in the reception from 12 noon to 2:00 p.m just trying to let them inform his office that I wanted to meet him. I was unsuccessful. I left and decided to go to his residence and wait for him.

At his residence, the security there made it clear to me that it would be difficult for me to see him, and advised me to go back to his office the next day. Hey! What's happening I asked myself? Ah, Ah! Is that not the Aliu who I could see any time I wanted back in Tamale in those days? Well these are not those days. Currently, the circumstances have changed, I noted. He is state 'property' now.

The next day, I said to myself: "Today, whether they like it or not, I will see Aliu. I will bluff my way through." I got to the reception of the Castle around 2:00 p.m. I told them I wanted to meet the Vice President. One of them asked me to sit down. I politely declined. Before he could utter his next statement, I blurted: "He is expecting me", and cajoled "he asked me to see him now."

I was confident that if the Veep heard my name he would surely ask me in. After all, he must be looking for a chance to take his pound of flesh off me, because of the story I did on his 91-minute visit to Tamale.

To my expectation, after some few minutes of exchanges between the receptionist and whoever he was talking to on phone, he hung up, glared at me and said: "you can go." As I strode gingerly to Aliu's office, several unsavoury thoughts crowded my mind. How would I explain the story?

The security guards to his office asked me to wait. After about five minutes, they ushered me into the Veep's office. As I entered, his sight behind the massive desk was a delight to behold, a sharp contrast with his "contractor" office back in Tamale.

Alhaji Aliu looked up suddenly, and with a rather disarming smile, said: "Kassim, welcome." The smile pepped me and relaxed me a bit. I sat down, and he started asking after friends and acquaintances within the journalism fraternity back in Tamale - he was a friend to journalists. I was more relaxed now. Then he asked: "So what brings you here?"

With palpable anxiety, I began to stutter an explanation for my report on his visit to Tamale, but he cut in sharply: "Kassim, BA has spoken to me already, so it's ok. Some of you journalists are like that. Sometimes when you are excited about something, you forget about relationships. I understand."

I was struck dumb with amazement; overwhelmed by his sheer friendliness. What a tolerant man! What humility! Here was a man, who brokered no nuisance, telling me to put the unpalatable report I did about him behind me! The man has not changed! I quickly told him my mission: for him to launch my newspaper, The Northern ADVOCATE, coming on at the International Press Centre, Accra.

"I would have liked to do the launch myself," Alhaji Aliu said apologetically. "But, unfortunately, Kassim, I am travelling, so I will let Awuni do that on my behalf." So, Mr. Andrew Awuni, then the Deputy Minister of Information, gracefully launched the paper on behalf of the Veep at the International Press Centre the following fortnight.

That was the man, Alhaji Aliu Mahama. He was the epitome of discipline and simplicity; he was compassionate, humble, modest; he was forward-thinking, affable and magnanimous - a good Muslim by Islamic standards. May his soul rest in Allah peacefully?

Abdallah Kassim is a communications practitioner with RUMNET, Tamale

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