How a BBC present helped form Africa

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Elizabeth Ohene (C) and Robin White (R) grilled UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1989 about her opposition to sanctions in South Africa

As BBC Focus on Africa marks its 60th anniversary, one in all its former deputy editors, Ghanaian journalist Elizabeth Ohene, appears to be like again at her time with the radio programme, how its journalism modified and the way it helped form the continent.

I joined Focus on Africa in September 1986. I left the programme in July 2000.

The workforce I joined was a small group, dominated completely by Robin White, the editor, and the voice of the programme, Chris Bickerton.

My introduction on air was a shock to the system; an clearly Ghanaian accented English was not precisely what individuals had been used to on Focus on Africa – not the BBC hierarchy and definitely not the listeners.

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Media captionFocus of Africa: A story of Africa’s 60-year historical past

Until then, the BBC voices sounded just like the BBC, clipped, higher Middle-Class, posh, public-school educated English and the one African voices had been of these concerned within the tales who occurred to be interviewed.

There had been protests about my voice and accent, however all people stored their nerve and after some time, individuals with even stronger African accents had been allowed on the programme.

Only 4 nations may obtain calls

Our well-known reporters across the continent, on whom Focus constructed such a powerful repute, weren’t broadcasting “in voice” in these days.

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Reports from Sola Odunfa (L) in Lagos had been typically learn by presenters like Julian Marhsall (R)

Their stories got here in written kind by telex and had been edited and skim within the studio by Focus workers.

Until the mid-1990s when the phone techniques turned a lot improved, any listener of Focus on Africa will need to have thought Sola Odunfa, our legendary Nigerian reporter in Lagos, seemed like presenters Julian Marshall or Rick Wells, or Robin White, who would learn his stories within the studio.

When I began work with Focus in Bush House, the place the BBC World Service was based mostly for a few years, there have been solely 4 nations in Africa that you might make phone calls to straight from London.

The first satellite tv for pc cellphone name that got here to the workplace got here from the EPRDF, a insurgent group on the time waging a warfare towards the Ethiopian authorities.

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The EPRDF rebels captured Addis Ababa in 1991, ousting Mengistu Haile Mariam from energy in Ethiopia

I took the decision and it was a crystal-clear line and naturally, I used to be incredulous when the person on the road claimed to be calling from some place in northern Ethiopia and mentioned there had been a serious battle that they’d received.

It was a shiny late morning in London and I suspected the person will need to have been in one of many purple phone cubicles outdoors Bush House on the junction of Kingsway and the Strand.

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Focus on Africa would obtain letters from listeners delivered to Bush House with solely the programme’s identify on the envelope

I regarded out of the window onto the road, absolutely anticipating to see the person that I used to be certain was making an attempt to stage a big hoax on us.

Rebels with telephones

Satellite telephones had been to come back to play a giant function in our lives afterward with the most notorious being the calls from Charles Taylor, who launched a rise up in Liberia in 1989.

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Charles Taylor known as up Focus on Africa when he launched his rise up in Liberia in 1989

There had been many anguished arguments within the Focus workplace about what to do with individuals who name up providing to inform us tales – and so they weren’t all rebels combating to overthrow governments.

When Laurent-Désiré Kabila rang to say he had invaded Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, and about to chase out its chief Mobutu Sese Seko, we nearly did not use the story, for concern of being accused of instigating rebellions.

Focus on Africa at 60

Full coverage

Focus on Africa had by this time bought a repute because the programme that gave area for opposition voices to be heard.

I do not assume there was a lot hesitation in taking part in that function.

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There had been intense discussions within the Focus workplace in 2009 about whether or not to interview LRA chief Joseph Kony

At the time, there have been only a few personal radio stations on the African continent and the state broadcasters had been normally not minded to permit any dissenting voices to be heard.

The irony was not misplaced on us concerning the variety of rebels or opposition leaders, who, as soon as they turned the federal government had been not eager on talking to Focus.

Love affair with South Africa

The first reporting journey I went on, took me to Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Elizabeth Ohene

Elizabeth Ohene

I used to be bodily carried and thrown out of the Zambian parliament, not for doing one thing heroic, however as a result of I used to be not correctly attired”

I used to be bodily carried and thrown out of the Zambian parliament, not for doing one thing heroic, however as a result of I used to be not correctly dressed. I’ve by no means lived that one down.

I met Dennis Liwewe within the flesh and a more dramatic sports reporter has never graced our programmes.

I interviewed then-President Kenneth Kaunda, bought again to my lodge and found my tape recorder had malfunctioned! I bought a recording of the interview from the Zambian presidency and President Kaunda turned my good friend.

On that very same journey, I met and interviewed a sure Frederick Chiluba in his workplace in Kitwe. He was so grateful I interviewed him, I used to be embarrassed.

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Sharp dresser Frederick Chiluba didn’t grant Elizabeth Ohene an interview as soon as he turned Zambia’s president

A number of years later, he turned President Chiluba and I by no means bought an interview from him.

I lastly bought to South Africa in October 1989 and began a love affair with that nation.

Milton Nkosi, later to change into BBC Johannesburg bureau chief, was recent out of faculty and had began work within the BBC workplace with Mike Woolridge.

There had been many instances Nkosi and I weren’t certain we might survive the insanity that had taken over South Africa within the interval resulting in the primary democratic elections, however we did.

The day of Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as president, as I used to be reporting on the occasions for our programmes, I felt a giant a part of the Focus story was coming to an finish.

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Focus on Africa received a Sony Award for its protection of Nelson Mandela’s launch after 27 years in jail

The liberation struggles on the continent had been coming to an finish. The subsequent struggles had been certain to be completely different.

We bought a Sony award for our protection of the day Mandela was launched from jail; however someway, regardless of our greatest efforts, we by no means thrived within the protection of post-apartheid South Africa.

Maybe Focus is wired for disaster and never for on a regular basis drab occasions.

‘Abacha useless, might he rot in hell’

So, what sticks in my thoughts?

UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher scrambling on all fours looking for my umbrella after Robin White and I had gone to interview her in Downing Street in 1989 previous to her go to to Africa.

The newspaper headline I noticed as I bought out of the airport in Lagos quickly after the demise of Nigerian army ruler Sani Abacha. The banner headline mentioned: “Abacha useless, might he rot in hell”.

A hospital room in Makeni, Sierra Leone, full of individuals, younger, outdated, male, feminine, all of whose arms had been butchered.

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Thousands of individuals had their limbs hacked off by rebels throughout Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil warfare

There was quite a lot of blood round, there was one physician within the midst of all of it and there was a person with a recent, deep, cutlass wound throughout his head, I may see his mind; miraculously he was not useless and he needed to speak to me.

And a jug of iced Pimms because the tensions eased within the Focus workplace on the finish of a broadcast on the peak of summer season.

My recollections of Focus on Africa are from a special period, however then I’m an outdated lady.

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