African viewpoint: Saying goodbye to Bush House

 

World Service staff bid farewell to iconic Bush House

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Elizabeth Ohene returns to the building where she worked for more than a decade.

I have been visiting London this past week and have made the obligatory stops to some of my old haunts.

Like all other listeners, I know that the BBC World Service is leaving Bush House. I have even contributed to some of the Goodbye to Bush House programming that have been done.

And yet it has been surprising how raw the sense of loss is when you are actually inside the building.

For 14 years this building was the centre of my working life, in or outside London. The memories have been coming thick and fast. The stories that took up much of my 14 years.

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When I started work at Bush House some 26 years ago, there were only four countries in Africa that you could dial directly from the UK”

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We followed the liberation or rebel wars around the continent. It has been my misfortune to have lived long enough to see so many people who were fighting for democracy, attain power and turn out to be like the tyrants they fought to overthrow.

It was in the Focus on Africa office in Bush House that we got the first call from a satellite phone. I did not know about satellite phones then and had never seen one and this person claimed to be calling from some place in the north of Ethiopia that would be in present day Eritrea.

He said they had just won a famous battle and, according to him, they had killed thousands of Ethiopian troops.

It was in Bush House that I got to know and interviewed the then leader of the EPLF and the current and thus far only president of independent Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki. He was fighting for democracy.

The day the Ethiopian strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam fled his country to his exile home in Zimbabwe, I drove like a madwoman in the middle of the night to get to Bush House.

Communications revolution

I remember it took more than two years to get a visa for my first reporting trip to apartheid South Africa.

Elizabeth Ohene Elizabeth Ohene worked in Bush House for 14 years

As it turned out, it was perfect timing because I got there and a week later Walter Sisulu and six other anti-apartheid leaders were released from jail and the rest, to borrow a cliche, is history.

It was Bush House I phoned one fine day to narrate one of the most horrific experiences of my life, a trip to the northern Sierra Leonean town of Makeni where about 30 men, women and children had arrived with their limbs and other parts of their bodies butchered.

We covered the big elections, and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, during which I briefly removed my reporter's hat and joined in the dancing.

Gradually, ever so gradually the story of the continent began to change. A consensus appeared to emerge that a multi-party democracy was a better form of government.

The revolution in communications has caused the biggest change. When I started work at Bush House some 26 years ago, there were only four countries in Africa that you could dial directly from the UK.

I think there was only one country on the continent that had a private radio station. Today you can Skype from my village in Ghana and there are more than 100 private radio stations in the country.

The same old stories

I had been thinking and saying that, sad though the move from Bush House is to us oldies, it would help in shaping the new African Service in its coverage of the new Africa.

An unidentified leader of the March 22 Popular Movement addresses thousands marching in Bamako in support of Mali's coup leaders Elizabeth had thought the days of military coups in Africa were over

Then I get up last Thursday morning and the news throws me back to the 1980s all over again.

Soldiers in Mali are reported to have staged a coup d'etat because they claim the government has been unable to deal with the rebellion in the north of the country.

It sounds almost like the so-called June 4th Revolution of Ghana meeting Valentine Strasser of Sierra Leone.

Here I had been arguing we have finished with coups on the continent.

I did not imagine that any group of soldiers would have the temerity to claim they would "return the country to constitutional rule when they have ensured unity, integrity in public life, etc".

I thought I was saying goodbye to Bush House and the type of stories it invokes in my mind - it turns out they are leaving Bush House with the same old stories, thanks to some renegade soldiers in Mali.

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