Monday, July 21, 2008

As the Week Opens in Accra: Deconstructing ECOWAS in a Whirlwind West African Weekend

What does it take to have a truly West African weekend? A meal at Tante Marie in Accra Mall, or a Sunday evening with Blood Diamond? How about seeing a close relative off to the neighbouring West African country of Benin, by way of Accra.?

I might not have been sufficiently privileged to eat at Tante Marie, but I most definitely got my good share of West Africa.

It all started with Saturday morning, when up very early, my Mum and I accompanied my Dad off to Nigerian-based ABC Transport, near Caprice. At the time of morning we woke up--circa 4.00am, traffic was bound to be quiet and slow.

Some twenty minutes later, we were there at ABC Transport premises, curious, yet pleasantly surprised about how the Black Man can manage his own affairs. I felt especially proud when, after departure formalities (checking-in of passports at a till labelled "Lome-Benin-Lagos", weighing of suitcases to ensure when they passed the standard 25kg, a small yet reasonable fine would be paid; and finally lining up in not-so-single file to the buses to board (all against a backdrop of DStV) ) I spotted a Westerner, who looked rather confused at this kind of organised chaos.

But if to the Westerner, it looks like chaos, to the average ECOWAS-ian, it looks like a very decent attempt to travel West Africa at a reasonable rate. The trip from Ghana to Cotonou and back goes for around GHC100. For now, it is only four countries--Togo; Benin; Nigeria and Ghana--the ABC transport plies. I live to see the day when it can go westwards towards Cote d’Ivoire and maybe Senegal?

I didn’t mention Liberia or Senegal because I was reserving it for the part of the weekend that took me there--well almost: Blood Diamond.

After seeing Leornardo DiCaprio’s Oscar-winning performance in the 2007 movie "The Departed", I was convinced this guy as an actor was going to go far. Though I saw the former before this one, I knew I was going to get something great. And very good it was. From DiCaprio’s very good emulation of a White African accent to his shaky relationship with the ruthless colonel, one got an impression that you were living the movie with him and the Sierra Leonean fisherman – Vandy – played by Djiman Housou.

But back to West Africa: as Solomon Vandy was introduced at the end of the film as someone instrumental in highlighting the path of what has become known as Blood Diamonds, I almost couldn’t help hold back tears at the sheer evil of the global Western money-men who, in collusion with Africa’s corrupt leaders, perpetuate the conflicts that seek to enrich them perpetually at the expense of the number of countless innocent lives.

In the end, it felt like I had met Jennifer Connelly’s character journalist Maddy Bowen in Conakry, Guinea (even though we never saw the meeting in the film) with Vandy, and back to London, after the turbulent period of meeting the child soldiers in Sierra Leone near the mining “village”.

Far be it for me to give away too much of the film—especially for those who have not seen it – for it’s a profoundly disturbing ride through West Africa and much of the Western world, where profiting from diamonds are de rigeur. When the end credits exhorted one to insist on the quality of the diamond, I thought it risible, yet a good start in sensitizing our minds to the terrific history behind that which is claimed to be a "girl’s best friend".

Ultimately, as I thought about the regular unbearable lightness of being West African, I paused for a second and thought about the weekend. Being West African may sometimes be unbearable, but you just have to know where to look. Sierra Leone, so the film intoned, is at peace—and so is much of West Africa. ECOWAS’s attempts at conflict prevention and conflict resolution are bearing fruit with institutions like Kofi Annan Peacekeeping Training Centre and efforts like the Kimberely process. That even Guinean citizens were able to force the country’s long-serving leader in 2007 to consider former ECOWAS official to be prime minister is a reflection of the long road to a conflict-free ECOWAS so many of the 230 million members of the region have hoped for.

Long live West Africa! Long live ECOWAS.
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