• Wednesday, July 24, 2024
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Summits remembered


Knowing this week sees a gigantic EU-Africa summit in Brussels, the first ever in the so-called capital of Europe, I felt I should do what we sometimes call a scene- setter. This would have made even more sense were I actually going to cover the meeting, as I had seriously considered. Was this not one of my special subjects that I have consistently tried to keep abreast of these past forty years or more? However, confronted with the bland flatulence of much of the material, the opacity of the language and the tedious technical issues that would need explaining I decided on a more reflective form of column, removed from the hurly-burly of conference centres.

 For throughout my journalistic career I have felt great ambiguity about summits. They have exercised a certain fascination as theatre, the feeling that one is taking part in a live performance, as an eyewitness to history. They are places for stories to be rooted out like truffles, growing in most unexpected places, dependent on chance encounters, sometimes with strangers, sometimes with old friends. Yet they can induce mortal ennui.

  I have attended many in Africa, at organisations like ECOWAS (Cotonou, Dakar and three in Abuja), or the now totally-forgotten OCAM (the Common African Malagasy Organisation, a mostly francophone grouping that was an early manifestation of the notorious Françafrique, which died in the early seventies, which took me to Niamey (1968), Ndjamèna when still Fort Lamy (1971) and Lomé (1972). The latter had some historic significance as it was followed by an official visit fromgeneral Gowon, which sowed the seeds of what became ECOWAS in a speech by Gowon in Kpalimé on the Ghana border.

 Then there was the old Organisation of African Unity (OAU), including Accra (1965) Kinshasa (1967) Algiers (1968) Rabat (1972) Addis Ababa (1983 and 1984), and Yaoundé (1996). For reasons beyond my control, which I regret, I have never done an AU summit, but it may be that by the time this 21st century began, my appetite and stamina were both reducing. I also felt that I had seen the best years of ‘summiting’, at the same time as post 9/11 security at all such meetings became more intense.

 Many of the summits that I attended were vintage occasions, spawning anecdotes that could fill several columns, should I excavate my memory.  Just one, from the Addis Ababa summit of November 1983 at which Gaddafy was outmanoeuvred by Mengistu. Waiting around with sundry disconsolate hacks outside the entrance to the conference hall at the old UN/ECA headquarters, I chanced on Senegal’s then Foreign Minister Moustapha Niasse, whom I had come across in Senegal in the early ‘seventies, when he was a militant in Senghor’s Socialist Party youth movement. After cordial greetings, he said I should not be lingering outside, and, to the envy of my colleagues, took me straight through to the delegates lounge. There I was able straightaway to get the kind of specialist details of what was happening (how a coalition of states that wanted to save the OAU from the disastrous split around the person of the Libyan leader).  I was subsequently able to slip a few titbits to those outside, although as a journalist I have always preferred to operate as a loner and not to hunt in packs

 I have no space here to write of all the conferences of the summits of the Commonwealth or CHOGMs (those I attended in Africa were in Durban, Abuja, Kampala) or Francophonie, whose first summit in 1986 I also had the thrill of covering. I say ‘thrill’, because the opening ceremony took place in the palace of Versailles, offering theatrical panache as only the French can do it. I also managed a number of addictive Afrique-France bunfights, from Vittel to Cannes by way of the Louvre, and the signing of the first three Lomé Conventions – not strictly summits, but with plenty of what Conor Cruise O’Brien, referring to the United Nations, called “the sacred drama”.

 There is, as I said, a grievous downside, Memories of hours of boredom surge back of ante-chambers, sofa-bestrewn lounges littered with a thousand coffee cups or corridors (and cooped up in the increasingly stifling confines of Media Centres), waiting for the inevitable release of a communiqué, or tight-lipped press conferences. It sometimes conjures up semi-religious rituals – each organisation playing the role of a church, with secular cardinals, bishops and their minions releasing indulgences and other spiritual placebos to the wondering masses – in this case the motley media gang with their cameras and notebooks, now increasingly furnished with arrays of digital gadgets – one physical symptom of deeper changes that have taken place in the profession. One of my most recent summits was the G20 in Docklands in 2009 , where ‘security’ considerations ruled, and the media were strictly confined to ‘yellow area’, to be spoon-fed information, a further step along the road to virtual summits which can be covered entirely from PC, laptop, tablet or IPAD.

Kaye Whiteman