Magazine article The Spectator

Absolute Power

Magazine article The Spectator

Absolute Power

Article excerpt

I used a wad of Sierra Leone currency as big as a roll of lavatory paper to buy a seat on the Russian chopper that takes passengers from Lungi airport across the lagoon to Freetown. Seconds before takeoff, a horde of fare-dodging Guinean prostitutes invaded the aircraft and plonked down on laps, fluttering their gold eyelashes. That helped me to forget my fear of flying and start enjoying West Africa.

Freetown is a steamy dump. Think Peckham meets Kew Gardens and a dose of athlete's foot. 'How de body?' locals say to each other by way of greeting. 'Oh, ' they answer, 'de body fine!' I'm not so sure about that. I saw plenty of civil war victims waving amputated stumps on street corners. I adored the Sierra Leoneans I met, but it baffled me how they sank so low.

And I also wondered what the future holds. A road sign I saw urged PRAY AND WAIT FOR SOMETHING TO HAPPEN.

By contrast Accra, Ghana, was a bit dull, like Woking with bad traffic. Every single white man in my hotel was with an ugly hooker. It was as if they picked them up with their room keys and then, instead of nipping off for a screw, they crowded the restaurant queuing up for buffet food. I was relieved when ex-President Jerry Rawlings invited me for lunch at his place, where he piled my plate high with shrimp and bananas while he vented about African affairs.

After two days with Rawlings, once known as 'Junior Jesus', I finally got a sense of how much fun it must be to be an absolute ruler. While Rawlings was still president, his daughter decided she wanted to go on a skydiving course, so he told the German ambassador to send down a couple of air-force instructors sharpish, which they did. Being a protective dad, he signed up for the course as well. On his first jump he leapt out of the aircraft and forgot to open his parachute. 'Thank god for that barometric thingy, ' he remembered. 'It opened up my chute just in time or I would have been the ex-president sooner than I planned. The Germans filmed the whole thing with a helmetmounted camera, and you can see me tumbling with my fat belly exposed.' Next on my cross-continental safari I went to Zanzibar, playground of my misspent youth. …

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