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One Day While Traveling Through West Africa…

by Dave Sanderson

There are a million travel stories in Foreign Affairs – this is one of them.

My first posting was to LDN between 1989 and 1993 as an EL. Because the RCOT (Regional Communications Officer – Technical) was also in LDN it resulted in some interesting travel opportunities. Being able to fly from Heathrow meant just about anywhere was easily in reach.

In May of 1991 Ron Cooke, the RCOT, asked if I could make a trip to ACCRA and DAKAR because the EL in ABDJN, Jacques Larose was away (I think this is when Melanie was born) and there were issues in each mission that couldn’t wait. 

The problem in ACCRA was related to the BID 770 and since it wasn’t clear what was wrong we decided I would travel with a complete spare from LDN. In those days the ELs traveled with a TENEC kit regardless so we went as Ad Hoc Couriers but the additional equipment this time made for a fairly large load. I was somewhat flexible in my dates so I went through the OAG to see what opportunities there were to get from Accra to Dakar or vice versa. Ghana Airways had daily flights but on Monday there was a DC-9 scheduled which meant a First Class section and being a Courier meant First Class was required. I had experienced Ghana Airways on my first ever TD abroad so I hoped First Class would be a less memorable experience. I submitted my travel plans to the Travel Officer in LDN and was booked London to Accra on Swiss Air (always a delight) via Zurich, Accra to Dakar on Ghana Airways then Dakar to London on Air Afrique via Rome, changing in Paris to British Airways. 

Regrettably I was waitlisted in First Class from Zurich to Accra and when I boarded the flight I began to understand why. The aircraft was scheduled to stop in Accra then fly on to Monrovia, Liberia. First Class was filled with Liberians whom, I presumed later, were on their way back from Switzerland to their country which was in the midst of a revolution lead by Charles Taylor who was intent on deposing the corrupt and ruthless leader, Master Sergeant now President Samuel Doe. More on this later and I leave it up to you as to why a large contingent of Africans had gone to Switzerland… 

The flight to Accra went without incident but on arrival the pilot announced that the flight would not be proceeding on to Monrovia as it was not safe to land at the airport due to the fighting. This caught my interest as I knew the flight to Dakar was scheduled to stop at Robertsfield Airport which is in Liberia. 

Things went well in ACCRA and I made arrangements with the mission to be picked up for the 7:30 AM flight that would take me to Dakar on Monday. I asked when we should leave, thinking 6 AM would be fine – after all I had a First Class ticket. I was told I would be picked up at the Hotel at 4AM and we needed to be at the airport as early as possible as Ghana Airways had a tendency to leave early if they were full. An interesting concept, I thought. 

So it’s Monday morning and I’m standing at the airport with my escort along with a fairly large group of locals waiting for the flight which was due in from Lagos. Turns out the flight wasn’t originating from Accra as per the OAG but because of an Organisation of African States meeting in Banjul, Gambia, the regular west coast milk run had Lagos and Banjul added to it on this day. A bit after 7:30 a Ghana Airways Fokker FW-28 lands and comes towards the boarding area. I look at the Ghana Airways representative and ask where the DC-9 is. “It’s broken” is the reply. This is nice… 

When the aircraft stopped and let down the ladder my escort shouted “GO!! We’ll load the bags.” Remember that seats had been sold for a DC-9 but a FW-28, which is less than half as large, has shown up and it’s carrying delegates for this conference so there was a rather large crowd at the bottom of the steps. All pleasantness and manners go out the window and I managed to force my way in the aircraft where you grab any seat you can. I managed to get one about a third of the way down the aircraft and was trying to arrange one nearer the front with the flight attendant who was not at all helpful. I was told by my escorts that the bags were in the rear hold. 

Off we went (our taxi speed was just slightly less than take off speed – I think the pilots were former colleagues of Chairman JJ Rawlings while he was still just a lowly Flight Lieutenant in the Air Force) and the first stop was Abidjan. As I made my way out to stand on the tarmac a corpulent African gentleman in the front row said he heard I was a Diplomatic Courier and he would hold the seat next to him which had become vacant. I thanked him and went to stand in the shadow of the wing and watch the hold. A large, very black security guard took interest in my presence but thankfully the Courier Section had provided the ELs recently with very official looking “Canadian Ad Hoc Courier” badges so he was happy. 

When I got back on the plane the seat in the front had been saved by the gentleman who turned out to be the Nigerian High Commissioner to Ghana who was on his way to the conference in Dakar so he was there to hold on to my seat for as far as Banjul. 

Next stop was Robertsfield Airport in Liberia. I must say that the uniforms on the 16 year government troops that were swarming around the place were very nice. A far cry from what the normal “uniform” can look like in Africa (no doubt the fact the President was a Master Sergeant in his former job accounted for this). There’s nothing quite as memorable as seeing a teenager with four RPGs strapped to his back walk by. 

I am standing again in the shade of the wing watching the hold when I strike up a conversation with a Ghana Airways official, one of three who happened to be on the flight – they occupied the front row on the other side of the aisle from me. The local ground crew person opens the rear hold and checks the baggage tags of the items by the door and decides there is nothing to come off. But the local Ghana Airways agent comes running up and says “you must check to see if there is anything to come out” so they start unloading the rear hold. Just at the point there are only a couple of items left the co-pilot comes over and says “no, no, no there is nothing in there for here!” So the process of re-loading everything starts and it’s not going well. I’m talking again with the Ghana Airways rep when all of a sudden he stops talking and begins to shake his head. I look to where he is looking and the front tire of the airplane is nearly flat. It seems that in their zeal to reload the aircraft the ground crew has not considered balancing the load. 

As there were the three Ghana Airways officials on the flight an executive decision is made. All passengers and their luggage are removed except for the passengers going on to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Of course I have to protect the dip bags with my life (and looking out into the jungle where I had read in a newspaper earlier the rebels were gathering this might just happen). I climb on to the baggage cart which is driven under an overhang thankfully just in time as a brief downpour hits the airport. For the next two and half hours I enjoyed re-reading the book I had just finished and spent a bit of time wondering what a boy from the Prairies was doing in a place like this and speculating if the rumour that the Dip Passport hade a Kevlar cover were true. Given that I had just made that rumour up I wasn’t hopeful but had it in my shirt pocket over my heart just in case. 

Finally the flight returned (phew) from Freetown whereupon we all boarded with the luggage loaded and headed on to Banjul then Dakar with no issues. I was relieved to see that my escort from the Embassy was there waiting as by now the flight was four and half hours late. I asked if they had been waiting all that time. They had checked with the Ghana Airways office in Dakar many times for the status only to be told “she is coming” each time. 

The work is done in DAKAR then it’s off home on Air Afrique First Class with a stop in Rome then to Paris where we were early. It took twenty minutes for stairs to show up but the luggage is being off loaded. I’m praying the meet from the Embassy is there. A strange man comes around to below the door which thankfully was open, looks up and holds up three fingers. As I had three dip bags I’m thinking he’s from the Embassy and got the bags so I nod then mime holding a suitcase and hold up one finger (my index finger). He goes over to the little van he had pulled up in and holds up my suitcase. Ah!! All is well. The stairs come, we drive over to the BA flight and it’s back to familiar territory in Heathrow where the registry clerk happens to be doing a regular meet for the Courier from Ottawa so I give him the bags to take back to the mission and I hop in a cab to go home. 

One week to the day I had sat on the tarmac at Roberstfield Airport I read in a London paper that the rebels had overrun the place and taken control of most of the country. Shortly after that Charles Taylor deposed the despot Samuel Doe. 

It should come as no surprise that almost exactly ten years later the corrupt, cruel, despot Charles Taylor was overthrown in a revolt in Liberia. 

WAWA – West Africa Wins Again

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© OFARTS Canada 2006 Old Foreign Affairs Retired Technicians, Canada The opinions expressed here are those of the contributors. Accuracy of facts has not been verified in all cases.