By Frank Apeagyei
The World is a Stage,
And all the Men and Women,
are merely Players,
They have their Exits and Entrances
And One Man, in His Life, Plays many Parts.
When an oak tree falls, it carries with it the sorrows of a generation, because there are many whose living depended on its acorns as fruits, or its timber for furniture. For, the oak, as a deciduous tree, even though evergreen, sheds off all its leaves at the end of a period of growth.
We as human beings have something to imbibe from this phenomenon, if only to remind ourselves, about the transitory status of our earthly existence.
The death of the doyen among the mightiest of oaks, personified in Mr. Benjamin Amponsah Mensah, commonly called B.A. Mensah, kingpin of the nation’s private sector entrepreneurial class and pathfinder of indigenous mercantilism in post-independent Ghana, which event occurred on Friday 15th – March 2013, if only to remind us of our impermanent or fleeting status is unbearably painful.
How merciless then could death be for taking away the supremo whose wallet fed many mouths with direct and indirect jobs and provided leadership in our political and socio-economic endeavours.
B.A Mensah was educated at the Kumasi Presbyterian Boys School where I first met him. I was grouped in the Red Section of which he was the leader, in the colour system of grouping students into sections. What we knew of him was the fact that he hardly got any arithmetical question wrong and gained for himself little doses of prizes in that regard for his efforts.
We again met in Accra where, by chance, I joined him in the 1950s in the house where we were staying as tenants at Adabraka, near the Kwame Nkrumah Circle. A few CPP stalwarts, before becoming Cabinet Ministers, were also renting accommodation in the same storeyed-house. These included the famous Krobo Edusei, J. E. Jantuah (later K.S.P) J. Y. Ghann, (MP Adansi), I.W. Benneh (MP Berekum) and his son Prof. Benneh, and J.G. Awuah (Progress Party MP also from Berekum). Other personalities were Dr. Albert Adu-Boahen (Later Professor) Kwame Gyawu-Kyem (Editor) D.Q. Awuah-Darku, (Vanguard Assurance) and Mrs. Faustina Kutu Acheampong and her parents.
He had then left the Gold Coast Police Force after serving for almost two years, as a constable. Later he was employed by the British Trading Firm, GB Ollivant as a storekeeper also for a short period.
In 1951, B.A took a decision to work for himself and proceeded to register an import/export company naming it BAMCO (B.A. Mensah & Co.) which from that time traded in assortments of goods ranging from soaps to drinkables.
In 1960, he diversified his business interest to include:
- Importation of guns and ammunitions for sale, targeting farmers and hunters.
- Importation of yarns for the kente weaving industry, the brand of which was unmatched in quality by any brand in West Africa.
- Importation and wholesaling of used clothing in bales.
- Manufacture of braziers and ladies under wear labeled “Delight Form”.
He opened shops, worked so hard, and flooded his outlets with products which were fast-moving to enable him build up appreciable capital, but not without difficulties, though.
One such difficulty arose out of his effort to establish the Rothmans cigarette factory.
Following extensive research and discussions with some entrepreneurs of a number of cigarette manufacturing companies which took him globe-trotting, he hit on the idea of securing a franchise from Rothmans International to set up a branch in Accra, since the BAT Group, producers of 555 were the only major company doing business in Ghana.
In the 1960s he spent a considerable amount of money in preparing the grounds for the business during the Busia regime. In this regard, he acquired a huge factory at the Accra North Industrial area, cultivated large acreage of tobacco on farms initially located in the Volta Region, and secured a permit for the industry from the government during the Acheampong era of the 1970s.
These commitments had been made based on tentative agreement with Rothmans International who were prepared even to enter into a partnership deal with him, after several meetings that took place in South Africa, the UK and the USA. With the final agreement slated for Accra, the Chairman of Rothmans International, Jim Wood decided to fly down himself to do the signing. Then there was a bombshell that came tumbling down. B.A. and Jim Wood were summoned to the Castle to be informed by the Head of State, Gen. Kutu Acheampong, that the permit for the establishment of the business had been withdrawn from B.A. Mensah.
The reason assigned was that the Supreme Military Council (SMC) government had decided that the deal should be given to a State Organisation and not to an individual. In this respect, the application sent by the Upper Regional Development Corporation (URDC) and canvassed by the Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Major Roger Felli, had been approved to supplant all others. He added that Mr. Jim Wood was at liberty to accompany Major Felli to the region to inspect facilities available.
Since Rothmans International wanted a foothold in Ghana to do business, Jim Wood objected not but joined the Commissioner to catch the next Ghana Airways plane for the trip.
Don’t ask me what the instant reaction of B.A Mensah was? It should take only a man of steel to avoid falling flat on his face! With this development the chapter on Rothmans business with him appeared closed and an ambition derailed.
The surprise element however was that B.A. Mensah was in no mood to give up nor be frustrated by the turn of events. He kept monitoring the daily activities of his guest who had been filched away from him. Three days into the trip to the Northern Region, news came to him that Jim Wood, the very important personality (VIP) from Rothmans International, had been stranded at the Tamale Airport and looking sullen and crest fallen. No flight, no flight was the announcement constantly blurring from the speakers.
At once B.A. intuitively jumped into the matter. He invited me, as his PR Consultant, to accompany him to see Air Vice-Marshall George Yaw Boakye at the Air Force Base at Burma Camp, where he chartered a military plane, paid fully for it, and sent to Tamale to bring down Jim Wood.
Immediately upon his return to Accra, Jim Wood sent a tersely-worded letter to the Head of State, stating as follows:
“Rothmans will do business in Ghana but only with the private sector, represented by
Mr. B.A. Mensah or Ghana is off our radar.”
This new development enabled B.A. to regain his permit to establish “The International Tobacco Ghana Limited (ITG)” in 1970.
B.A. Mensah, was larger than life. He was an institution in his own right and a pillar behind many establishments, Manhyia Palace no exception. He loved tradition and exhibited unalloyed loyalty to the Golden Stool in the service of the royal occupant. His habit of honouring Otumfuo with kingly receptions in the form of high-profile dinners on occasions that His Royal Highness passed through Accra was highly appreciable to the obligee and the priviledged invitees.
He took part in active political life of the nation but with no apetite to seek public office. His choice of party affiliation was inclined towards the liberal democrats of the Danquah/Busia tradition. As a result, he became a founding father of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and held himself inseparable from its daily activities, sometimes offering his own residential palace as a meeting ground for party executives.
His commitment to the NPP was inspired by his deep belief in the concept of capitalism which is driven by the doctrine of free enterprise, democratic system of governance and free condition for the development of each person.
He chose the platform of business to prosecute his political agenda instead of the political soap box. In this connection, he formed the Ghana Indigenous Business Association, an advocacy organisation, to challenge the Ghana Chamber of Commerce which he said was a tool of the imperialists. The chamber was then chaired by the General Manager of UAC, a typical trading company of colonial vintage.
Here, he matched the Chamber jaw to jaw at many fora in seeking to champion the cause of Ghanaian businesses and bringing reliefs being sought from Government by the businessman.
B.A, as he was often called, stood tall to the challenge and vigorously battled the government, offering a new style of advocacy much poignant than before and soon his Association overshadowed the age-old Chamber of Commerce and put them out of action. He had all the popular acclamation by the business community and became the face and mouth of the private sector business in the country for a long while.
B.A. Mensah had an unyielding spirit and an untiring physical stature. The strong Will, providentially ingrained in him, quite often, aided him to defy monumental challenges even of the bitterest type. Who else, but himself, could battle the kind of vicissitudes that caught up with him from time to time. Mention is made of:
- Three times arrest and torture at the hands of the Military junta during the AFRC regime in 1979 for no just cause, except to tell him that he was too wealthy.
- The seizure of his Rothmans cigarette factory, which was the leader of the market in the industry, together with other assets, merely for non-payment of sales tax and in spite of prescribed sanctions of the laws that did not include confiscation.
- The inability to regain his assets after winning a court case.
- His running battle against multiplicity of ailments in his old-age and
- The long suffering of confinement to a wheel-chair.
Having gone through all the odds and lived up to the age of 88 and still endowed with a youthful brain-power as well as considerable array of material assets, he was supported by well-groomed, well-educated children, prosperous by their own bootstrap, who were bonded well with him. One can only conclude that B.A. Mensah was uniquely born.
In the generation of today, man comes into the world either to make a name or to make money, few people make both and B.A. Mensah was one of them.
After establishing ITG as his flagship business, the uniqueness of B.A. Mensah became more manifest in the direction of philanthropy. The Greek word philanthropy is defined as showing concern for humanity by performing charitable actions or donating money. I was among an army of people who became beneficiaries of the largesse of this generous man. As I knew it, sometimes the quantum of money or the nature of the material being donated was so huge that the beneficiary got confounded.
I returned from my studies in U.K in the middle of the 1960s having been recruited from London by the Ghana News Agency as a sub-editor. I had no accommodation and when I made this known to B.A. Mensah, he took me to Avenida Hotel at Adabraka, booked a room for me and made payment to cover a period of one year.
In 1972, I bought an XJ 6 Jaguar Saloon Car from London which was shipped to me in Accra by the legal luminary, Dr. Thomas Mensah of the International Maritime Court (IMCO) and who once chaired one of Ghana’s Constitutional Drafting Committees. It did not take long for me to drive the car into a gutter which was so badly damaged that the engine was the only part saved. A few weeks later, B.A. Mensah had one flown from London for me to replace the car I cherished so much.
In 1973, one of the partners in my PR and Advertising Consultancy Firm, CONTACT PUBLICITY LTD. Mr. G. Adali-Mortty, had a surprise of his life. We had gone to ITG to discuss the advertising schedules of the company for the year, as their agents.
When B.A. Mensah sighted the rickety car driven by Mr. Mortty which we took to his factory, he grinned and invited the old man to see him in a week’s time. Adali came back smiling with a brand new Golf Saloon Car for which he paid nothing.
In 1974, Mr. Gyekyi, a General Manager at his BAMCO Commercial Enterprise, became a recipient of a special gift. Without soliciting any financial assistance, B.A. Mensah decided to surprise him with a cheque for his loyalty to him. A cheque was enveloped and sent to him by a messenger with a covering note that read: “Something small for loyalty”.
When he opened the envelop and saw the amount sent, he fell flat on his face.
Needless to mention nephews and nieces whose education and professional studies he sponsored both in Ghana and abroad.
Such was the nature of the man we are mourning today. When will another one like him come with a large breast for many to suck his milk? May his name be immortalised and the good deeds emulated.
God have mercy upon his soul.