'I'm trapped in an immovable and enormous African traffic jam' says columnist David Banks

Journal columnist David Banks ventures out of north Northumberland into West Africa and finds a lesson in the darkness for us in Britain

Journal columnist David Banks
Journal columnist David Banks

I am sat in a traffic jam so immovably gridlocked that a hearse crawls past at a snail’s pace, horn blaring, hazard lights flashing and emergency siren wailing mournfully.

Leaning out of his side window, the sober-suited undertaker implores fellow motorists to clear his path to the cemetery. His unknowing passenger, alone among the sweating, travel-weary throng, is the only commuter beyond caring what length of time his final journey takes. As it is, he seems likely to have found eternal rest on the motionless ribbon of pothole-strewn tarmac that links the notorious Spintex Road traffic blackspot with the motorway (Ghana’s one and only) between the port city of Tema and central Accra.

Our driver shines a weary, white-toothed grin as he shakes his head and murmurs laconically: “Three or four weeks ago the guy in the box might have found a siren useful, but now . . ?”

Chaotic traffic thrusting choking particulates-laden diesel fumes into the atmosphere is a basic problem Accra shares with most developing cities. Taking a journey here any time between dawn and midnight is like driving from Godzone to Newcastle in Craster’s kipper-smoking shed.

It has little to do with the volume of traffic: the percentage of Ghana’s vehicle-owning public is dwarfed by the UK ratio, despite the increased prosperity the nation achieved following independence under Nkrumah in the 1950s. The problem owes its cause to the severe scarcity of roads, the result of a 15-year interregnum under Nkrumah’s eventual successor, the socialist ‘coup-appointed’ President Rawlings, whose lackadaisical disregard for expanding the country’s infrastructure has snarled the economy in a dawn-beyond-dusk stranglehold.

It certainly has little to do with population size: Greater Accra is no greater than one-fifth the size of London. Google the figures for yourself. I can’t: my broadband connection is down and my laptop is powerless. I am currently composing this column through the medium of freshly-sharpened pencil on a pad of old-fashioned paper by the light of a flickering solar lamp.

What? I didn’t tell you about the 12-hour power cuts that plague this and other semi-developed African countries? ‘Load sharing’, they call it: the power company operates a rota of planned blackouts, suburb by suburb, and the resulting ‘increase’ in available electricity is meted out to the unaffected areas. Sounds primitive, you think? Positively Third World? Unthinkable in a modern society like ours? Then think again.

Ghana’s power shortage is caused by the crumbling capacity of the country’s Upper Volta Dam hydroelectric system – which is currently failing to produce the required 75% of the country’s power supply – and a strike among gas pipeline workers in neighbouring Nigeria from whence comes the remaining amount.

Britain’s power situation could easily become equally perilous: power generation is close to maximum capacity, we are pledged to reduce fossil fuel emissions and there is a nervousness regarding increased dependency on nuclear generation. At the same time, we obstinately refuse to wholeheartedly countenance renewable alternatives.

Stand by for winter blackouts. . .

BAD news follows me whenever I travel abroad.

I was in Jerusalem when my mobile phone croaked the first of a series of increasingly urgent messages from the BBC: “Please contact ASAP. Need your input re News of the World.”

I called as asked. “We need to know what you think about the final edition of the News of the World,” begged a harassed Radio Four producer. “No can do,” I replied. “I’m not getting the British papers so I haven’t seen ANY editions of the NoW, never mind the latest. Perhaps you could fax me a copy?”

“You don’t understand,” insisted the exasperated producer. “We want your comments on the last-EVER edition . . . Rupert Murdoch has closed the paper down for good!”

It happened again this week, only this time the topic was “the Newmark sting”. What did I, a former editor, make of the Sunday Mirror’s behaviour regarding its exposé of the Tory MP Brookes Newmark?

I cunningly declined to comment, having learned to examine the evidence at first hand before rushing the judgment.

Anyway, what with power cuts and traffic jams I had the perfect excuse.

With age comes wisdom. And subterfuge.

david_banks@hotmail.com

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