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Dr. Thomas Mensah will be 85 on 12 May [2]

Cameron Duodu
Cameron Duodu

In the first part of this article, I related the story of how, as a final year student at the University of Ghana, the late Prof Albert Adu Boahen challenged a British lecturer who entered the Junior Common Room and angrily switched off the radiogram the students were playing, on the grounds that they were “talking whilst listening to the music”.

(By the way, name of the British lecturer was not Taylor. Taylor was the Master of Akuafo Hall, to whom Adu Boahen and Thomas Mensah were reported.)

Taylor demanded that as a punishment, the two young men should be rusticated. That is the most serious punishment that could be imposed on a student, and in the particular case of any final-year student, a personal disaster of untold dimensions!

But when some of the Ghanaian lecturers heard about Taylor’s demand, they put their foot down and said, “No!”. Final-year students to be rusticated for merely switching a radiogram back on after it had been switched off? Wasn’t that pettifogging?

As it happened, Adu Boahen’s tutor at Akuafo Hall was Dr Alex Kwapong, the brilliant ex-Cambridge classics scholar, who was later to become Vice-Chancellor of the University. And Thomas Mensah’s tutor was another classics maestro, the Oxbridgeian, Lawrence Ofosu-Appiah. These two kicked against the expulsion of Boahen and Mensah, and to the chagrin of the two British academics, their word prevailed.

As I have implied, to have been expelled from the University in their third year would not only have been a monumental personal disaster for both students, but it would also have altered the course of Ghana’s history. But in 1965, the two friends again did something extremely courageous – together again – that could have not only ended their academic careers but possibly their very lives.

On 4 February 1965, the erudite and highly-respected intellectual and politician, Dr Joseph Boakye Danquah, who had, in conjunction with others, forged the struggle for achieving independence for “The Gold Coast” from British rule, died at Nsawam Prison. He was being kept there under the Preventive Detention Act, on the orders of President Kwame Nkrumah. “acts” against national security. It was the second time he’d been thus detained without trial.

On this second round of detention, Dr Danquah was kept in solitary confinement in deplorable conditions. He was not given a bed but had to sleep on the floor with only a blanket to lie on. A toilet bucket was kept in the cell. He was only allowed to exercise for about ten minutes each day.

Danquah wrote heart-ending letters to President Nkrumah, describing the horrible conditions under which he was being kept. He begged Dr Nkrumah to release him so that he could continue to contribute to the intellectual life of Ghana. (This was a tacit indication that he would retire from politics ans devote himself to intellectual pursuits, if released.)

Danquah also made it clear to Nkrumah that he was aware that his [Danquah’s] wife had been approaching Dr Nkrumah on behalf of her husband. His words implied that he was under some sort of mental torture over the power the President seemed to hold over his hapless wife.

Apart from mental torture, Dr Danquah also had a physical ailment. He was asthmatic, and the close confinement under which he existed worsened his condition. He also had high-blood pressure. In other words, at the age of 69, he was a man afflicted with old men’s ailments, who could literally drop dead at any moment.

On the morning of 4th February 1965, Dr Danquah came back to his cell from the prison yard to discover that the few things he was allowed to keep had been disturbed by a not-quite-so-subtle search. He flew into a rage and fired a tirade of words at the warder who was in charge of him. In the course of the tirade, he collapsed and – died.

The announcement of Dr Danquah’s death was received in Ghana and elsewhere with total, numbing shock. Danquah, the fighter for Ghana’s freedom, had been killed by having his personal freedom stolen by Kwame Nkrumah, a man with whom he’d worked against the British imperialists who had deprived both men of their freedom in 1948?

The realisation dawned on many Ghanaians that the deadly effect of the Preventive Detention Act was leading their country into a very evil order, in that one could not defend oneself when one was accused of crimes under it. Danquah’s death at Nsawam convinced some people, in fact, that the depths of political misery that Ghana had entered into could soon approach the proportions of the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union or the fascist regime’s regimented oppression of Germany.

Dr Danquah’s nephew and “Big Six” colleague, William Ofori Atta (popularly known as ‘Paa Willy’) was summoned by Nkrumah’s Government and told that Dr Danquah’s body would be released to him for burial, provided he signed an undertaking that the body would be buried not later than 6pmthe very next day after his death!

The undertaking Paa Willy signed read: QUOTE: “I, William Ofori-Atta, undertake to collect the body of Dr. J. B. Danquah from Nsawam Prison and to take it to Kibi and have it buried at Kibi not later than 6 p.m. on Friday 5th February, 1965. (SIGNED WILLIAM OFORI ATTA)” UNQUOTE

This order to bury Danquah within 24 hours was almost as callous as his manner of death itself. Danquah was the brother of the Okyenhene or King of Akyem Abuakwa. In Akan culture, such highly-placed people were not buried immediately after their death. Time was given to inform the many relatives and friends of such important personages, so that they could all make arrangements to go and give him a proper send-off. Dr Kwame Nkrumah was an Akan, and knew about these customs. Yet he gave orders that Danquah should be buried like some unknown person!

When news of these callous arrangements reached the Ghanaian public, many people wept with amazement. Oh! Dr Danquah, the “Doyen of Gold Coast Politics”, whose United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) had invited Kwame Nkrumah to come from London and become its Secretary (a position from which Nkrumah had split and formed his own Convention People’s Party (CPP) at the head of which he had become Prime Minister and later President of an Independent Ghana) – this man was to be denied, in death too, the honour to which he was entitled?

I was editor of the Ghana edition of Drum Magazine at the time and when I heard that Danquah was to be “quietly buried”, I decided that the burial would not go unrecorded. I took my very brave photographer, the late Christian Gbagbo, with me to Kyebi and we photographed everything that took place, although we could see that Nkrumah’s security personnel were swarming all over the place. I was impressed by the lack of fear present at the funeral. No-one objected to being photographed by us, despite the oppressive atmosphere created by the known presence of so many secret security agents.

Unknown to me, Dr Thomas Mensah from the Faculty of Law and Dr Albert Adu Boahen of the History Department, had also gone to Kyebi to pay their last respects to Dr Danquah.

Dr Thomas Mensah, his chest bared in the traditional manner whereby pall-bearers of important personages roll the top parts of their cloths down to their waists, was a leading pall-bearer!
What? With Nkrumah’s security personnel all over the place?

Yes.

I know from personal experience that young boys brought up in Akan villages often have to face situations where they have to repeat to themselves, what their fathers had taught them, namely, that “Cbarima wu a, owu dako”[A man can only die on one day.]

Thomas Mensah applied this dictum to the day’s sad situation – as if to say, “Hey! Even Dr J B Danquah is dead. Kill me, too, if you like!”

Tommy wasn’t arrested. Neither was I or my photographer, despite our highly visible coverage of the funeral.

Back in Accra, I smuggled the photographs to London, aware that if they were intercepted at the airport, my luck would have run out. Fortunately, a complete stranger I encountered at the airport, whom I didn’t know from Adam, agreed to take them for me, just upon hearing my name. I gave him the telephone number of Drum’s London office from wherever he was, and they would send for the parcel. He agreed, without knowing what the parcel contained. This happened in 1965, informers were all over the place! Where do Ghanaians get this generosity of spirit – and sheer bravery – from?

The photographs were held in readiness in London for publication, upon the expected fall of Dr Kwame Nkrumah. We knew it was bound to happen, and it duly occurred, almost exactly one year after Dr Danquah had died at Nsawam Prison; i.e. 24 February 1966.

Now, although Adu Boahen had gone to Kyebi with Thomas Mensah, he had no idea that Tommy was going to act as a pall-bearer! But since he had travelled together with Tommy, he would no doubt have been arrested with Tommy, had that unfortunate but highly possible eventuality materialised. Adu must therefore have felt some trepidation when they set off from Kyebi to return to Accra. He would have been within his rights if he had turned to Tommy and said, “But you Kontopiaat, you didn’t tell me you were going to be a pall-bearer?” He didn’t. Knowing Adu, he probably was glowing inside that his friend had demonstrated such courage openly. But it was no joke: funerals were one place where Nkrumah’s secret security apparatchiks personnel compiled names of “anti-party” individuals.

When Drum published Thomas Mensah’s photograph as a pall-bearer after Nkrumah’s overthrow, some people wondered how he could have been so “foolhardy”. What they didn’t know was that Adu Boahen, although not photographed, was also in the congregation at the Kyebi Presbyterian Church, where Danquah’s funeral rites took place. Osofo Akufo, the clergyman in charge, began with chilling words that anyone who was present could never forget: “Wose Aban se, yennwie bribiara ansa na woabo nnonsia!” [They say the Government says that we should finish everything before six o’clock!] .
We must salute – and emulate – men with the courage of Adu Boahen or Thomas Mensah. Such men are not born every day. So we must celebrate them without restraint.

Happy Birthday, Thomas Mensah!

And a fond farewell to you, once again, Kwadwo Adu Boahen.
Your names will for ever – and justifiably – be enshrined in the history of Ghana.

By: Cameron Duodu