Africa Cup of Nations
Africa Cup of Nations

Arriving in a war zone

Saturday January 19 — Richard Calland

As you sweep into the centre of Accra, the sight is uplifting. The Black Star. It adorns the Arc de Triomphe-like building around which the traffic spins. Actually, there are four stars, facing out north, south, east and west. Which is convenient: the Ghana football team are known as the Black Stars. Beneath the Star, two simple words: freedom and dignity. Out of the mouth of George Bush, they sound like hogwash. On this building, in this country — Africa’s first independent nation has just celebrated its jubilee — they have a different resonance. And, all of one’s first impressions of the people assert a confidence and a dignity that is, frankly, an exception to the rule on this continent.

A friend had prepared me for this simple fact: the poor don’t beg here. Of course there is the odd person who will ask for something. But there is not that unrelenting hassle and hustle that you face in most developing nations. Which is why the four hours that immediately followed my first sight of the Black Star were so disappointing.

Three months ago, foreign media were asked to apply for accreditation. I had duly done so and been given a registration number. But on arriving at the media centre — the Kofi Annan Conference Centre — it soon became apparent that the number was worthless. Sixteen thousand journalists have descended on Ghana — there is unprecedented interest in the Africa Cup of Nations for reasons that are the subject of our documentary film — but there was no pre-registration.

The scene inside the building was like a mini war zone. A French journalist had just been robbed; an Australian woman photographer was in a huddle sobbing on the floor; a London hack kept spitting “Fuck it, fuck it” at no one in particular. The man from the BBC said he had spent eight hours the previous day in the queue.

Natasha Olympia, our elegant and urbane fixer, was standing at the point at which a large crowd of about 200 reached the entrance to a long corridor. As we joined her, a massive fist fight broke out in the corridor as those who were trying to push their way to the front met serious resistance. Over the next hour we slowly turned the corner into the corridor wedge. It was very hot. It was very granular.

Every 10 minutes two policemen would squeeze open the doors halfway along the corridor and allow two or three into the room where the accreditation was being done. As this happened, the crowd pushed forward. Another fight broke out. Then, two cops arrived from the other end with a large wooden screen. I thought they were joking, but they weren’t: they pushed it through the crowd back to the entrance to the corridor in order to form a screen to control entry. Five minutes later it was gone.

Seventy minutes later and we had moved six inches. From nowhere, a slight young woman emerged between myself and the Ivorian journalist in front of me, which lifted one’s mood. She put her arms around the waist of the man from Abidjan — “At least you’ve found yourself a wife,” quipped the effervescent Natasha. I was wondering where all the freedom and dignity had gone as I overheard all the scathing remarks from the international journalists. If you wanted to confirm a stereotype about Africa, this was the perfect way to do it. If you wanted to piss off the very people who would otherwise communicate an image of competence to the rest of the world, this was the perfect way to do it.

The police could not cope. So the army arrived. And then the riot police, shiny helmets, visors and all. They could not get into the column, but at least people stopped pushing from the back.

Finally, four hours after entering the building, I braced myself and as the red doors were prized apart, I squeezed out into the air-conditioned embrace of the registration rooms, PCs a-humming. Now I have relived my birth: several hours of pushing up a long, sweaty corridor before being thrust into a cold, unforgiving world. Natasha spilled in after me, falling as she did, five of her six blouse buttons ripped from their linen foundations.

Despite the outbreaks of violence, gallows humour had sustained our intimate corridor camaraderie and as more of our group made it through, we swapped war stories and congratulated each other on having made it. Now for the football.