On the Passing of President Attah Mills
By Kwesi Yankah.
Flash Back 2012
One single phone call received that Tuesday froze our universe.
I was at Apam Junction. Phone lines thereafter were jammed, and the normal rhythm of life changed. But it wasn’t the kind of news you wanted to pass on without care. You would rather wait for confirmation from another friend and another friend, and another friend.
Four or so weeks before then, the rumour mill had bundled up Egya Atta, our President, and rested him in uneasy peace. The rumour had gone viral in the social media and from mouth to ear, and had compelled him to ‘resurrect’ and deny rumours of his passing on. ‘I am not dead,’ he had said; that was prior to departing for a ‘routine medical check-up’ in America. On his safe return, he had confirmed he was fit, and declared his readiness to campaign, ‘yesterday, today and tomorrow.’ He even jogged on the tarmac to prove he was hale and hearty. In the few public appearances in recent weeks, though, it wasn’t the President we knew. That nasal twang, and a palpable lack of cohesion in public speech, stirred the linguist in us. The 2011 Christmas must have been an unusual one. The hurriedly arranged visit to USA ‘on official business,’ at a time official businesses had shut down for Christmas in New York (I was in Michigan then), was a signal that something unusual was in the offing.
But in this land of our birth, woe unto purveyors of tragic news that turn out to be false. It may well be a betrayal of the speaker’s own ill motives and intentions. Spreading false rumours of someone’s death could well be a Freudian slip.
It has gone further in our case. In a peaceful country that is deeply polarized, and only limping towards a December election, such false rumours could attract a curse or two. One junior minister apparently frustrated by death rumours about his boss, conjured a source for the rumours. He made bold to make a rather morbid observation, that any time such wishful rumour emerges from the opposition camp, someone among them, rather than the President, dies! Spreading false rumours of the President’s departure might have been responsible for three or more deaths in the opposition camp in recent times, he implied. That was perhaps a warning to all those who peddle false rumours of death.
That curse explains why on hearing the news, I dillydallied relaying it to colleagues in my company— for fear that I might be put on the death roll.
Dialogue at Apam
We were at a workshop at Ankamu, Apam junction in the Central Region, some 40 minutes’ drive from the late President’s home town, Ekumfi Otuam. Soon after, the news was all over and life came to a standstill at the Junction. Passing vehicles flew red flags; commercial drivers tooted horns; sellers pranced restlessly, arms were clasped, tears welled up in eyes, and drinking spots came to life blaring loud music.
The next morning, two colleagues and I engaged a local family in a chat, while we were on a morning walk across the Junction. At the roadside, we had been drawn by the aroma of a steaming hot Fante banku, etsew, being prepared for sale by a 40 year-old woman, encircled by her family. We sat on a bench and chatted with them, while she prepared six hot balls for us. Her sister, on our request, got herself busy crushing hot pepper on an unsteady grinding rock, while her husband carried on his lap a three-year old boy. A sixteen-year old daughter sat close by. She had completed JHS, with Aggregate 25…, but there was no money to take her to senior high school, Mother told us.
Had they heard the news? “Yes, it’s all over the place…people say Egya Atta was killed by the Opposition…” They told us, sizing us up to see who among us might be part of the accused party.
“But others also point fingers at Ex-President….; it is said he hated him,” said the school girl in a distinct Gomua dialect of Fanti.
How did they kill him? we asked…
“That’s what people say,” the banku woman chirped as she wrapped our balls in a transparent polythene bag.
But the chat soon drifted when our hot pepper woman observed that I bore some resemblance to Egya Atta, the President, except that I was a little lighter skinned. I mildly contested her observation, eventually yielding to her pleasure. That was the first time I had been thus honoured, I told her!
Nation in Tears
Overnight, the nation responded in dark robes, scarves, and red wrist bands from north to south. Tears rolled down the cheeks of old and young. Party animosities glided away; ethnic and religious marks melted. A multi-party parliament draped in subdued colours quickly convened; an interparty funeral planning committee was formed.
A shocked flag bearer of the Opposition, Nana Akuffo Addo, hearing the tragedy abandoned a spirited campaign in the hinterland, and rushed down to mourn. Weeks before, when he conveyed to the President, best wishes for a speedy return from a ‘routine medical check-up,’ he had been taunted by political opponents with accusations of ‘mischief’ in his good wishes. A kind of dzi wo fie asem was the warning. Yet he had not been deterred from national imperatives to mourn his President. Former President Kufuor in a rare act of statesmanship, quickly led a delegation of NPP, the largest opposition party, to the seat of Government to pay an early tribute. The beauty of our culture!
Flags flew at half mast throughout the country; vehicles hoisted mourning flags. Weighty drums, beaten by men of muscle pealed condolences; Osei Korankye’s voice and seprewa strings, wailed across the media and echoed in hamlets and homes. Songs of lament filled the airwaves. Overnight, MUSIGA stirred and released a musical tribute performed by a pool of celebrated artists. Nana Ampadu would not be left out. He rose to the occasion and chanted appellations in new recordings. Shops were abandoned by buyers and sellers. Messages of condolence poured in from far and near.
A one-week ‘celebration’ suddenly emerged in the national culture, borrowed from our Ashanti peers. It was a dress rehearsal of sorts, for the D-Day, this week. Exactly 2.15 pm last Tuesday, the entire nation momentarily froze, and observed a minute’s silence in honour of our departed President.
Ghanaian culture and maturity had sprung to its feet, blooming! When death strikes we unite to mourn; hostilities cease! Our democracy and sense of empathy have come to stay.
21st July, three days before the sad news, I travelled to Ho in the Volta region, to attend the burial and thanksgiving service of our dear colleague, Professor F. O. Kwami. During the solemn service, the Deputy Volta Regional Minister had stepped up to the podium, and conveyed to the mourning congregation a message from the President. The President, he said, would have loved to attend the funeral but could not, due to other pressing needs. Moreover, it was his birthday, and he needed to rest. Not quite in tune with funeral norms, the Deputy Minister asked the Winneba Youth Choir in attendance, to lead the congregation to sing a happy birthday for the President. Upstanding, the entire congregation joined the choir in singing melodiously, “Happy Birthday Dear President, Happy Birthday to You/Him….”
To be continued
First published in Public Agenda 2012