Privileged Conversations is a timely and legacy-defining 14-chapter retrospection and introspection into modern diplomacy. The book chronicles and dissects privileged first-hand encounters and conversations by Ghana’s ace diplomat, Ambassador Daniel Kufour Osei, with statespersons and diplomats across Africa and beyond, as he expertly navigated 43 years of high-level diplomacy (1976 to 2019). In chronicling his life as a diplomat, Ambassador Osei provides useful insights into the complexities and pitfalls of today’s international relations, while equipping up and coming Foreign Service Officers with a priceless toolbox for impactful and successful diplomatic careers.
‘DK’, as the author is popularly known, took his first steps in working life learning the ropes of diplomacy as a volunteer under Ambassador Nzekele Kitsodi of Zaire in Accra and rose to the powerful position of Secretary to President John Agyekum Kufour (2001–2008). A keen sports enthusiast, DK begins his free-flowing narrative by briefly ushering the reader into his family background, which includes his life in African Bungalow, a once upmarket and beautiful middle class suburb of Ghana’s commercial capital, Kumasi, where famous Ghanaian personalities – the Joe Appiahs, the Kyerematens, Justice Aduseis, Victor Owusus, Krobo Eduseis, I. B. Asafo-Adjeis, C.E. Osei (Governor of the Central Bank under President Kwame Nkrumah and the father of the current Chief of Staff, Akousa Frema Osei-Opare) among others – lived. DK therefore grew up among illustrious families a privileged community, where intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge, discipline and hard work permeated life and shaped character.
DK’s early activism as an enthusiastic member of the anti-loan scheme committee of the University of Ghana, Legon,which was established to fight the cancellation of free university education by Prime Minister Kofi Abrefa Busia’s government (1969-1972), and subsequently the President of the Students Representative Council (SRC), played a significant role in shaping his interest in diplomacy.
Fluent in French and armed with great interpretation and translation skills, having partly studied at the University of Dakar, DK joined the foreign service in 1976, and was immediately confronted with a dilemma – to make a choice between joining the Research Department (RD) or the mainstream foreign affairs department. With professional advice from Ambassador James Victor Gbeho and Ambassador J. Cleland and after three long agonizing months, DK made what he later adjudged to be the right decision by choosing to work within the mainstreamministry. That was the genesis of the ‘privileged conversations’ under review.
A series of interesting, witty and captivating descriptions ofepisodes and events set the scene for the privileged conversations as DK intimates his audience with his adventures. Among them, the return to multi-party democracy in September 1979 following the bloody three-month rule of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) junta and the election of a foreign service officer, Dr. Hilla Limann, as President. Upon assuming office,President Limann decided to restore normal relationshipswith Ghana’s neighbours. He dispatched an interesting delegation to Côte d’Ivoire’s independence celebration in Katiola on 7 August 1980, as an icebreaker. Côte d’Ivoire at the time was was extremely suspicious of the succession of military governments in Ghana following the overthrow of PM K.A. Busia, the country’s ally, in 1972. The composition of the delegation reflected Ghana’s charm offensive. It was led by the academic turned Foreign Minister Dr. Isaac K. Chinebuah, whose tribe (Nzema)straddles the two States and shares a cultural affinity with the ethnic group (Baoulé) of Ivorian President, Félix Houphouët Boigny. The delegation also included the powerful party leader Kojo Dadson, among others. Independence Day in the country is celebrated from region to region on a rotational basis, ostensibly to foster national cohesion and nationhood, one destiny and equitable development. Ghana under President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo has initiated a similar practice since 2019, moving the independence celebrations to Tamale and Kumasi in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
DK recounts that that during the celebrations in Katiola, Ghana’s foreign minister, Chinebuah was ‘trying hard to keep awake’, and was supplied with successive cups of coffee to keep him awake. This diplomatic embarrassment was noted by the powerful director of the Ivorian state protocol, Ambassador Ouegne, who kept a close eye on theGhana delegation. Besides the Ghanaian Minister’s ‘sleeping sickness’, he was also dressed in a political suite replete with a pair of sandals, a serious and highly unacceptable diplomatic blunder. It demonstrated the lack of seriousness on the part of the fledgling Ghanaian diplomacy. The independence dinner presented another opportunity to add insult to injury with yet more embarrassing developments: One member of the Ghanaian delegation whose party (CPP) had been out of office since 1966, demonstrated unbridled exuberance when he took to the floor to dance with the beautiful wife of the veteran President Houphouët Boigny, to the extent that he abandoned his kente cloth at his seat and attacked the dancing floor in his shorts and jumper. With this inappropriate diplomatic gaffe, Ghana under Limann had blown the opportunity to build a better relationship with Abidjan which, since 1960, had opposed many Ghanaian governments. Through this narrative, DK is sensitizingprofessional Foreign Service personnel to make it a duty to always guide politicians in all aspects of diplomacy,including the dress code, utterances and behavior at luncheons, among others. Reporting on a visit, such as the one to the Côte d’Ivoire, to the cabinet could be tricky even in the best of times.
Chairman Jerry John Rawlings’ visit to Abidjan after the 31 December coup was a bit better in terms of management but achieved little to nothing as the Ivorian side steppeddown protocol following the lack of movement on substantive issues, such as the funding of Ghanaian exiles, and subsequently political parties in Ghana by the Ivorian government post-1992. DK notes that throughout the 45-minute flight, Flt. Lt. Rawlings did not read the briefs and talking points prepared for him but preferred ‘looking through the window.’ He further notes in this lively and politically engaging book the interesting fact that the Ivorian President, Houphouet Boigny, refereed to his Akan origins in Ghana and therefore ‘had every reason to be interested in the stability of our country.’ Nonetheless, another diplomatic blunder soured the visit, when a member of the high-level Ghanaian delegation arrived at the luncheon decked in the wrong outfit.
The diplomatic drama was not limited to Cote d’Ivoire.Blunders were also recorded in relation to Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Senegal, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Togo. Following the 1983 coup that brought Captain Thomas Sankara to power through the insurrection from the Po Parachute Regiment just north of Paga in the Upper East region, Ghana finally had a good neighbor and ally. In Ouagadougou, after one of Captain Thomas Sankara’s speeches at the sports stadium on the ills of neo-colonialism, settler domination and imperialism, it was time for the Ghanaian populist leader to respond. Chairman Rawlings decided that if he gave a speech in English it would be boring with translation into French. Rawlings, always streetwise and ever an actor, turned to DK: ‘now give my speech on my behalf and make sure it is as radical as possible’. This is where DK’s involvement in student politics came to his rescue to save the situation.Rawlings was so much impressed by DK’s radical speech that Rawlings spent the night with Captain Thomas Sankara in a night-club.
In the book, DK also carefully and meticulously catalogues his observations about Ghana-Togo relationship. Togo, like Cote d’Ivoire, hosted many Ghanaian exiles following the coup of 31 December 1981. Lome has always accepted Ghanaian exiles since independence in 1957. Through his intelligence, including from Ghanaian exiles, President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who survived a few coups of his own, warned President Hilla Limann about plots being hatched to overthrow his People’s National Party (PNP) government. On one such occasion the Togolese Presidentsent strong, positive signals to President Hilla Limann in the presence of Foreign Service Officers to help stabilize Ghana, including his willingness to assist the ‘government of the PNP even if military assistance was required.’ At one point President Eyadema had become so concerned about political events in Ghana that he decided finally to have a one on one meeting with President Hilla Limann. DK noted that ‘…..as President Limann walked out of that meeting and came to join us in the waiting room, with a (worried)look on his face, he did not say a word to any of us until we were about to depart from Lome.’
The author weaves some of his own exploits into his very readable narrative. One such undertaking was his role in the reopening of the Ghana Mission in Kinshasa following the liberation of Zaire by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo – Zaire (AFDL) led by Laurent Kabila in 1997. He was incidentally succeeded by his son, Joseph, as President of Zaire following his assassination four years later in 2001. Others included his role in supporting peace efforts in the deadly Liberian civil war with the participation of a myriad armed groups, such as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), the Liberia Peace Council and the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) led by General Johnson (currently a member of the Liberian Senate). This was a dangerous assignment for DK given his lack of military training. Nonetheless, he led an operation to bring out the respected Alhaji Koroma one of the factional leaders to Accra from a heavily mined Voinjama region in Liberia. The operation was executed with a helicopter belonging to then Guinean President, General Lansana Konté. Long after DDRRR exercise in Liberia following the civil war, the Voijama area was still infected with millions of mines and other war materiel, which wereeventually cleared through a supplementary disarmamentexercise by the UNDP. The successful operation by DK to extract Alhaji Koroma to Accra should have led to an award by the state; after all, the Liberian warlord was the darling and favorite rebel leader of the Ghanaian leadership.
DK also followed the modus operandi and behavioral patterns of Ghanaian leaders abroad in Privileged Conversations. He recounts that President J.J. Rawlings used every opportunity he had on his travels abroad to meet a cross-section of Ghanaians. On a visit to Dakar during the era of President Abdou Diouf, a Ghanaian pan-Africanist intellectual and human rights lawyer confronted Rawlings publicly. In a courageous manner, he explained the evil nature of military dictatorship. According to DK,‘rumblings (could be heard) among the security guards of President Rawlings, which made him wonder what possible fate could befall the questioner.’
The impudent interloper in question was the radical marxist intellectual, Spencer Nana Kusi Apea (aka Nana Busia),son of the junior brother of Prime Minister K.A. Busia.Spencer, a human rights lawyer lived at the time in Banjul,The Gambia. His brother, Dr Kojo Busia, was also then working for USAID in Bamakao, Mali. The author confuses the two brothers in reporting the incident.
DK also comments on the inner workings of the Foreign Ministry and the mentality of ambitious Foreign Service Officers, particularly with regard to postings outside Ghana, which is always a challenge. For many, according to his narrative, postings to Europe and the Americas are coveted and hugely preferred to stints in the ECOWASneighborhood. This attitude renders the Ministry a hotbed of all manner of lobbying, placing the minister in a difficult position. DK recalls his posting to Conakry in 1992 to demonstrate the point. ‘Dr Obed Asamoah (then Minister of Foreign affairs and Regional Integration) had a reputation for being very strict, a frank talker, and most Foreign Service Officers ….. did not want to be found in his presence alone. Somehow I had a totally different view about Dr. Obed Asamoah. He in turn was very open and frank with me, so as we stood together at the Aflao border on that fateful day in July 1992, I could not understand why for once Dr. Obed Asamoah felt uncomfortable. Apparently, he thought he had very bad news for me and didn’t know how to break it. He pulled me aside and said: “Young man, I know how difficult life is in Conakry but I have looked at the officers who are due for postings, and I sincerely think you will do good job in Conakry. You should get ready to leave Accra in August.”
The author concludes his Conversations with a reflectionon comprehensive mediation in which all parties understand and accept or reject the rationale for constitutional reforms, in order not to repeat the recurrent tensions around the Presidential third-term mandate which is destabilizing West Africa, as we can see in Lome, Abidjan, and Conakry.
If there are any drawbacks to the rather fantastic, informative and free-flowing ‘Privileged Conversations’, for lack of any shortcomings to pinpoint, one may hazard an opinion on the absence of references, footnotes that could point students of international diplomacy to follow-up research on some of the backgrounds to the interesting conversations captured in the book. For example, for a better understanding of the crises in the Congo (now DRC), the author could have helpfully referenced President Nkrumah’s seminal work, The Challenge of the Congo (1963), Prof. Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja’s, The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila A People’s History, among others. The introduction of the ECOMOG topic on page 113 in relation to the Stand by Force, could have benefited from a footnote to refer readers to the genesis of Economic Community Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), which was hurriedly put together in 1990 in Banjul by a coalition of willing West African leaders, including Flt. Lt. Rawlings, Nigeria’s General Ibrahim Babagida and Guinea’s General Lansana Konté, for a ‘humanitarian intervention’ at the onset of the first Liberian Civil War – in December 1989.
These seeming omissions in no way take anything away from this informative book Foreword by President John Agyekum Kufuor. Privileged Conversations is a masterclass in story-telling and a must-read book for all serving and aspiring diplomats around the world, as well as students of history and diplomacy. I unreservedly recommend this fast-moving, educative, enlightening and entertaining masterpiece – which is half auto-biography and half academic text – to all and sundry who wish to grasp the ropes of diplomacy while avoiding its hidden traps. These include, not least, media practitioners and politicians, who all too often replace scholarly analysis with social media soundbites ‘for lack of time’.
Ambassador DK Osei is definitely one to watch, more so as he prepares for his next exposée focusing on his experiences as secretary to President John Agyekum Kufuor, whose autobiography is expected soon.