From time to time in this column I have chosen to include fragments of an autobiographical nature. This is perhaps a pardonable habit arising from that advanced maturity which some like to refer to as old age. Once upon a time, therefore, there were two interludes in my career, where I departed regretfully from the life of journalist, editor and writer to venture into the sunlit uplands of the international bureaucracy. I say sunlit uplands, because for a simple hack such as myself, this was new territory, where I hobnobbed with ministers and mandarins as equals rather than as a distrusted supplicant interviewer or quaffer of leaks.
The magazine West Africa was the central pivot of my writing career, having joined it in 1963 for ten-and-three-quarter years as Deputy Editor and then returning in 1982 for a further seventeen years as Editor/Editor-in-Chief and General Manager in various different permutations. But in between I spent nine years in Brussels as an Information officer dealing with Europe’s relations with developing countries at the European Commission, one of the most amazing and mysterious organisations I have ever encountered.
In fact, crossing over from pure journalism (is there in fact such a thing?) to the necessary hypocrisy involved in PR (public relations) means that unless you have remarkable talents, you are an object of suspicion both to your new colleagues and your former ones, although the unique bridge you are straddling means you have your uses to your new bosses.
You also have to have some belief in what you are doing, and I was naive enough to think that the Lome Convention of 1975 was progressive and pro-African enough to justify my continued commitment. Was it not an attempt to assist genuine African integration as against the divisive and neo-colonial Yaounde Convention which had preceded it? Was it not also a platform to encourage the liberation of the remaining territories on the continent? This was perhaps enough for me to justify my professional betrayal for what people in Brussels called the “chains of gold” – the comfortable conditions to which international bureaucrats are subjected (even if that sounds a little like an ordeal, which it was not).
Would I have continued on this bland and progresssively more and more unrewarding course had I not been offered the post of Editor of West Africa in 1982? This was the third time such an offer had been made but i had severe doubts on who had taken over the magazine in 1973 – doubts which proved to be correct.This part of the history has been told before elsewhere, and this is probably not the place to labour the point or cry over split milk, but when Nigeria saved the magazine from the clutches of apartheid South Africa into which it had fallen, it had been perceived not just as a noble gesture but as a matter of national security. If only that rule had been applied seventeen years later when it inadvertently collapsed in the transition between the Abacha dictatorship and the return to civilian rule in 1999.the magazine might still be with us.
My return from the fleshpots of Brussels to the more austere uncertainties of West Africa still the most dramatic moment of my life of fifty-years in the ‘bush of ghosts’ that is writing about the countries of the sub-region.580 Some never understood that I could be so nonchalant, but others looked in in wonder. One Senegalese journalist said to me “You will explode” and I certainly launched myself onto a scary but exciting switchback ride through the worst years of military rule in Nigeria, working my way through seven managing directors of the Daily Times (some good, some bad) and more ministers of information some of whom thought of the magazine as their personal preserve. I had not anticipated how gruesome it was to become in the 1990s, when I not only had to practise different versions of “necessary hypocrisy”, but various forms of reluctant silence, from mafia-style omerta to the late and much regretted Bola Ige’s ‘siddon look.’ Even in my early days at West Africa (when it was still owned by the Daily Mirror in London), while there were still considerable areas of freedom to write, we used to say jokingly to people that you needed to get into the habit of reading between the lines of the editorials.
By: Kaye Whiteman