The soldier glared at me disapprovingly.
“I have been told to detain you,” he said, explaining that my suspicious behaviour had been spotted by telescope from atop the International Conference Centre in Accra, the capital of Ghana, where the African Union summit was being held.
“Do you know how many presidents are in there?” the soldier asked me as I opened my knapsack on his command.
“Security is serious. We have to be concerned about terrorists. You are a white man, you should know better.”
Twenty-four hours earlier, I’d been denied accreditation to cover the meeting of 52 African heads of state.
If I had not submitted my name three weeks earlier I had no hope, an official at the summit press centre explained.
That left only one thing to do: go guerilla. Skulk in the streets with the common man.
The big item on the African leaders’ agenda was supposed to be a “grand debate” about African unity.
The push from Libya’s Muammar Gadaffi to create a “United States of Africa” was an idea first floated by Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, in 1957 and has the backing of its current president, John Kufuor.
The unity push is a deliberate red herring, Ghanaian journalist Ato Kwamena Dadzie explained.
“It is something for them to talk about,” said Dadzie, who is a spokesman for the Ghana Journalists Association. “It will have no conclusion. Not in my lifetime.
“In Ghana, we have about 65 different ethnic groups. In Nigeria there are more than 500. And that’s just Nigeria.
“They will talk about unity so that they don’t have to come to any conclusions about other things, like Sudan.”
Atrocities committed with government support in the Darfur region of Sudan should have been high on the list of topics for discussion.
Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir was the only African leader not attending the summit.
“The conflict in Sudan has changed from armed robbery to a war of tribes to resistance against the government,” al-Bashir said in a televised press conference reported by local media, explaining that allegations of genocide in Darfur are concoctions of the Western media and the US, which wants a pretext to invade Sudan and seize its newly discovered oil wealth.
“The people of Darfur are safe,” he added.
Africa has other problems to worry about too, such as the repatriation of refugees from recent civil strife in Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
“They want to make all of African into one country?” asked Hirry Atiti, Sierra Leonean refugee living at a camp outside Accra.
“Gaddafi just wants to be a big man,” Atiti said as we talked down the street from the conference centre.
He was interrupted by the noisy passing of a pickup truck full of Rastafarians blaring reggae music and toting placards with slogans reading, “Peace is the Way.”
Ghana police had already announced publicly that they would have “zero tolerance” for any public demonstrations while the summit was in session.
A minute after the Rastafarians passed, two police cars and a paddy wagon followed them out of sight with sirens wailing.
The next day, while Kufuor was giving his opening address as union chair, I walked up the road toward the conference centre until a security guard turned me away.
No accreditation, no access.
Around back of the centre I met an old man named Emmanuel Eetey.
“The fuck,” Eetey said in disgust with a gesture at the distant building where the heads of state were gathered.
“We are hungry, you know? We are suffering,” he said. “This is just talk, talk, talk.”
And African unity?
“No,” Eetey said, slapping his head. “We do not have one mentality. Our mentality is too different.”
As he wrote his name on a piece of paper Eetey became nervous and asked me to follow him into a walled courtyard.
The sight of huge tank in the courtyard stopped us short. The attending soldiers told us to leave.
One of them followed to “detain” us.
There didn’t seem any point in explaining to him that I was an unaccredited journalist on a self-appointed assignment, so when he gave me back my recording device and suggested I leave the area I agreed.
Inside a nearby bar, Kufuor was still talking on TV to an audience of bored-looking delegates.
“We are at the crossroads and at the same time at the threshold, of a new era with great opportunities but also many challenges and responsibilities for Africa,” he said.
“Africa can no longer be a scar on the conscience of the world.”
OK, but denying a scar’s existence won’t make it go away.
That said, Kufuor’s tack was no surprise for Africans in the streets of Accra who knew what to expect from the summit: nothing.