It is no longer news that Ghanaianborn and Africa’s literary icon, Professor Kofi N. Awoonor, 78, is no more. The cold hands of death snatched him away recently in Kenya, while on a trip to do what he knew how to do best: contributing to literature. Awoonor was among the unfortunate victims of the Nairobi Westgate Shopping Mall attack of Saturday, September 21. His life was cut short by the Al-Shabaab assassins’ bullets. Al-Shabaab, an Islamist group that had reigned in Somalia for years until African Union forces pushed it out of the political scene about two years ago, has a strong link with the mother of all terrorist groups worldwide, the Al-Qaeda. The group (Al-Shabaab) was carrying out reprisals on Kenya and other nations in the Horn of Africa that had in the last 24 months, joined forces to frustrate their Islamist cause and operations.On that ill-fated day that Awoonor was shot dead, 69 persons were reportedly killed in the attack, some of who were tourists, fun-seekers, couples, family members, the aged, children, and persons of diverse races and backgrounds. The terrorists had reportedly alerted Muslims in the mall to flee the building before their phased shootings and bombings began, apparently suggesting that they (attackers) were pursuing an extremist Islamic agenda. Unfortunately, Professor Awoonor was one of those felled by the bullets, thus bringing to an abrupt and sad end his golden career in writing, poetry and social commentaries.Professor Awonoor, who always wrote under the name, George Awoonor-Williams, was Ghana’s foremost poet and author, whose works were a blend of the poetic traditions of the Ewe (his ethnic group) and modern religious symbolism to picture Africa during the era of decolonisation. Born at a time when Ghana was still colonially referred to as the Gold Coast, Awoonor attended the famous Achimota College, an institution reputed for producing top-flight academics in Ghana in the heyday, where he passed in flying colours and proceeded to the University of Ghana, Legon. In the course of his rewarding teaching career, Awoonor taught African Literature at the University of Ghana. While at the institution, he wrote his first poetry book, ‘Rediscovery’, a work based on African oral poetry, which was published in 1964. As one of the founding fathers of the Ghanaian movie industry, he also managed the Ghana Film Corporation and founded the Ghana Play House.
The fallen Awoonor took his literary prowess offshore when he went to the University of London to study Literature. While in London, he wrote several short plays for the BBC, which were aired on the radio. In the early 1970s, Awoonor spent much of his time studying and teaching in the United States, where he wrote ‘This Earth, My Brother’, and ‘My Blood’. On his return to Ghana in 1975, Awoonor got employment at the University of Cape Coast, where he rebuilt the English Department. His foray into national politics began from the said university, from where he was arrested for allegedly being an accomplice in a plot to topple the then military government, a situation that led to his arrest without trial for months; and which inspired his work ‘The House by the Sea’, in which he narrated his incarceration experience.
This singular experience launched Kofi to the limelight and made him politically more conscious and active. He began to write serious political commentaries; and was eventually appointed as Ghana’s Ambassador to Brazil (1984 to 1988); Ambassador to Cuba (1988-1990); and Ghana’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1990 to 1994), where he headed the committee against apartheid. He later became the Chairman of his country’s Council of State. Kofi Awoonor was thus not just another celebrated writer; he rose to become a revered statesman that practised what he preached in his writings. The killing of such a rare gentleman by some bloodthirsty fellows is thus a metaphor of the huge state failure in many parts of Africa. That such an illustrious African son could die in the hands of terrorists hundreds of kilometers away from the serenity of his country underscores a monstrous continental security conundrum that should task African countries and leaders, including their military experts. The international community must also show sufficient interest in securing the African continent, not only for the purpose of ensuring that international business, trade, commerce or other vested interests thrive, but also to make life meaningful for all Africans.
Armed banditry, piracy in the high seas and insurgency on a large scale are the offshoots of the inherent contradictions in the entrenched socioeconomic and political distortions in most African countries. Failure of governance, hegemonic (insensitive) leadership, nepotism and rampant corruption are some of the causative factors. The challenge now is how best to make African leaders responsive, responsible and accountable for their reckless actions, policies and programmes while in or out of power so that more Professor Awoonors would not die in vain.