by Father Robert B. Fisher, SVD
On June 4, 1979 Flight Lieutenant (pronounced “lev-tenant”) Jerry John Rawlings with a group of soldiers staged a coup against the Ghana government of General Fred Akuffo and established a government of his own. On the night of his coup, Rawlings signed orders for the execution of General Akuffo and several other generals. Afterwards, Rawlings and his junior officers engaged in a wider “house-cleaning exercise,” as he called it, and executed other government officials who had stood against his coup, including three justices of the Supreme Court. That happened on June 21, 1979, the Feast of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, who had opposed King Henry VIII and were martyred by him in the Tower of London.
There was a Dutch priest, Father Visser, who sided with Rawlings and gave him some underpinnings based on the communist socialism of Omar Gadhafi in Libya. The Bishop of the capital city of Accra, Bishop Dominic Andoh, suspended Father Visser and told him to leave Accra. On the morning of June 23, a car-load of Rawlings supporters, dressed like policemen, sporting old-fashioned rifles arrived on the Accra cathedral grounds and drove straight for the bishop’s residence at about 9 in the morning. Fortunately, the bishop was out of town. The only ones in the office were a female secretary and Father Peter Agbenu, the chancellor.
I saw all this and ran over to the house and entered the back door. Immediately, I saw those men searching the house for the bishop and held Father Peter at gun point. The secretary fled the scene. I asked them for identity and for a reason why they had entered a private house.
One of them pointed his gun at me and demanded, “Where is the bishop? Is he hiding in the basement?” I said, “The bishop is not here and there is no basement in this house.”
“Well, then, we will take you two as hostages,” one said as we headed out the door toward their car a gun at my back.
Meanwhile, excitement grew in the Cathedral rectory and offices. The American rector along with some Ghanaian sisters stood outside. The rector shouted out, “Don’t shoot them on this sacred ground. Shoot them somewhere else!” I thought, “Gosh! Thanks a lot for your support.”
They piled Peter and me into the third back seat and we drove through a sub-division of the city. They shot their guns in the air and shouted triumphantly. Peter started arguing with one of the men and he slapped Peter. I told Peter that we need to keep them happy or else. Peter and I confessed to each other and then just prayed. We arrived at an office at the Legon University of Ghana. They had us fill out a charge paper and then told us to sit down.
Meanwhile, we noticed that other Christian leaders were trotted in: One from the Salvation Army, another from a Baptist Church...
We sat there from that late morning until evening. Finally, Father Peter asked to go to the bathroom. While he was escorted by an armed guard down the hall, I got up to strike a conversation with the man at the desk. He asked me, “Why did you write down that your charge is you are here because you believe in God?” I started to explain that is what I thought. He said, “There is no God.”
Just then, Father Seynou, the secretary of the National Bishops Conference arrived. He promised to bring Bishop Andoh here next Monday, if only they let Peter and I go. They said to him they were not really interested in keeping me because I am an American. They wanted only Ghanaians. “Thanks be to God for America!” I thought.
We dove back to the cathedral tired, thirsty, and hungry. As we entered the grounds, we saw they were packed with people keeping vigil for us. The church bells rang out and the people shouted praises to God. I was moved to tears of thankfulness.
When we left the car, people came around to hug and shake hands. The Consul of the American Embassy approached me and asked, “Did you give away any secrets of the United States?” Astonished I stared at him, “What secrets? Tell the President not to worry!”
A German lady I knew came to me with a case of ice-cold Heineken Beer. I grabbed it and went inside to gulp some beer down and find some food.
Someone asked me if I was afraid. I said, “No! I wish the bishop would’ve been there to fight his own battles.” I was just peeved at why this had to happen.
A good result of this was that the American ambassador let me use his private swimming pool at his residence. And his cook made me a few hamburgers.
Heck, I was thinking, I missed becoming a martyr, like St. John Fisher, or maybe John the Baptist, whose feast fell on June 24.
On July 4, I won a free helicopter trip to the oil well off the coast of Ghana, where we had a big meal. Out of evil, there always come some good.
The cathedral rector saw me and admonished me, “Never tell this story to anyone.”
What I have said is true. Amen.