Kaye Whiteman: In Memoriam

Tuesday, 24 June 2014
Jonathan Derrick


The community of Africa-oriented people in Britain has for many decades formed a little village of its own, including both journalists and academics, both Africans and others. This village has now lost its chief, with the death of Kaye Whiteman on 17 May, a great loss which has also affected countless Africans around the home continent and others.

I first met Kaye when I joined the staff of the West Africa weekly, with which he was associated most of all, in 1966. He was then Deputy Editor, the Editor being David Williams, who held the post for thirty years (1949-79), built up the magazine to a flourishing and influential organ for West Africa, and was the chief of that Afro-London village in his time. Kaye joined the staff in 1963. Born on 9 March 1936, son of Quaker parents, Martin Kaye Whiteman went to Quaker schools – Friends’ School at Saffron Walden, Bootham School in York. Then he studied at Queen’s College, Oxford (1956-59) and was awarded an MA in Modern History. He began his journalism with a trade journal and then with the picture magazine The Sphere. Then he went on, with no turning back, to start his work of half a century in Africa journalism and other work for Africa. About the same time he married his Barbadian wife Marva née McGeary; she and their son Simon now survive him.

From the first years of his first West Africa job Kaye made many journeys to Africa, including a number to Francophone countries in which he always had a special interest; he and Bridget Bloom, then on the magazine’s staff, did much to expand its coverage of those countries. But the four Commonwealth West African countries were the magazine’s main focus as they had always been; it was their people at home and in the Diaspora (smaller in the 60s but always important for the circulation) who subscribed above all to West Africa, outnumbering its – very important – business, official, and academic subscribers.

Nigeria always had a particular importance for the magazine and its editorial staff such as Kaye. He made several journeys there during the crisis and civil war of 1966-70. He was, by coincidence, in Cameroon for its celebrations of ten years of independence when the Biafrans were defeated in January 1970, and rushed to Lagos where a high point in his journalistic career followed. He recalled the secessionists’ formal surrender in his book Lagos: A Cultural and Historical Companion (2012): “There were three foreign journalists present – Bridget [Bloom, by then with the Financial Times], Hugh Neville, the bearded correspondent of Agence France Presse, and myself, also sporting a trimmed moustache and beard.” That book was written towards the end of a long and close association with Lagos city.

In 1973 Kaye left West Africa for an important Information post under the Commission of the then European Economic Community in Brussels, dealing particularly with development issues which were then the province of Claude Cheysson, Development Commissioner, and the Deputy Director-General of the Development Directorate (DGVIII), Maurice Foley. Development issues meant, at that time, especially the negotiations leading to the first Lome Convention of 1975, between the EEC and African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. Amid this major event for Africa’s trade relations Kaye Whiteman’s exile from African affairs was only partial, indeed he was not really exiled from them at all: West Africa had exceptional coverage of the Lome negotiations.

Kaye Whiteman returned to West Africa in 1982, now as its Editor in succession to Kenneth Mackenzie. He was to remain in charge, as Editor and as later Editor in Chief and Managing Editor while several Africans held the editorship, until 1999. By the time he took charge the magazine, which had been run by a subsidiary of the IPC (the Mirror Group) when Kaye and I joined it in the 60s, had gone through changes of ownership. It had for long had a close link with the Daily Times of Lagos, which, when it too was under the Mirror Group, had been built up by the hyper-dynamic Alhaji Babatunde Jose into Nigeria’s leading daily. Later the Daily Times of Nigeria Ltd came under majority Nigerian government ownership. It was still flourishing when it bought West Africa in 1980, and some promising years followed for the magazine.

But then came a long, slow, depressing decline of which many who worked for the magazine or who (like myself) kept in touch with it and made some contributions retain bad memories. Ownership of a newspaper by an insolvent state agency is a recipe for stress, struggle and strife. Staff and contributors suffered when money to pay them regularly ran out. Kaye Whiteman, bearing the burden of trying to keep a leaking ship afloat, suffered a lot. “I can’t tell you how fed up I feel,” he told me when liquidation finally came in March 1999. Throughout all this he retained the sympathy and loyalty of the staff, now bigger than before; to one former editor he was “Uncle Kaye”. In fact he was always a popular person, a great conversationalist able to talk about a dozen subjects, with an unending sense of humour: Frank Aigbogun, Publisher/CEO of Business Day of Lagos, has said, “Never a dull moment when Kaye Whiteman was around.”

That liquidation was not the end for West Africa, though its revival under part-Ghanaian ownership later in 1999 did not continue for long and a final collapse came in 2003. Still less was it the end for Kaye’s career. He served for a year and a half as Director of Information and Public Affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, headed by his close friend Emeka Anyaoku. He reached official retirement in 2001, but retirement was not in his nature. In 2001-2 he was in Lagos to help start a new newspaper, Business Day, for which he continued to write a regular contribution until his death. He recalled that time in Lagos fondly in his book about the city, which he came to know very well; he and his wife went there for a Nigerian launch of the book early last year.Besides Nigeria Kaye knew probably the majority of African countries"; when he went to Kampala for the (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) he said Uganda was one African country he had not yet visited, as if that was something exceptional. I don’t know if he kept count of his journeys to the continent over half a century. He was constantly to be seen among the press people at OAU, Commonwealth and other summit meetings, and other major gatherings. He branched out to be an observer at the memorable 1994 elections in South Africa, a country which had been the enemy for West Africa back in the 60s.

Besides the enterprising Business Day venture Kaye continued freelance work for many years -for example, he was a contributing editor of Africa Today from 2002 onwards - but his involvement with Africa extended well beyond his writing. He was involved in everything Africa-related in London, including the Royal African Society and, notably, the Africa Centre, where he was constantly seen back in the 60s (the Centre’s greatest days, I say), later becoming a trustee of the Centre and a major organiser of its revival programme.

Through all this activity Kaye acquired an enormous circle of colleagues, contacts and friends, in Africa and beyond. It would be impossible to list them (the tributes on the Africa Centre website give a small idea). With no disrespect to others not mentioned, one may give examples: journalistic colleagues such as Jose and others (several mentioned in the Lagos book) of the now defunct Daily Times; other journalists, editors and publishers like the late Raph Uwechue, or Christopher Hurst, or Béchir Ben Yahmed of Jeune Afrique; scholars and writers such as Michael Crowder, Anthony Kirk-Greene, Donal Cruise O’Brien, and Adekeye Adebajo, now Executive Director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, and co-editor with Kaye Whiteman of The EU and Africa: from Eurafrique to Afro-Europa (2012). Kaye would have wanted to write more historical works; his interest in history was shown in his publication in 1992 of West Africa at 75: Selections from the Raw Material of History; he keenly supported my own current research into the early years of the magazine, and I regret greatly that he will not see the resulting book.

And then there were all the senior public servants Kaye met officially, dined with, and befriended, politicians, diplomats and others: people such as Emeka Anyaoku, J.H. Mensah, Thomas Kanza, or, from the Brussels days, the French politician Claude Cheysson. Moving easily in the corridors of power, as Kaye did, is a normal and uncontroversial part of an editor’s job. It did not mean that Kaye felt entirely at ease with the way African states were being run. He showed signs of sympathy at heart with dissenting and radical ideas (Quaker genes?), and came to be a great retrospective admirer of Kwame Nkrumah. But as a journalist and editor he had to live with rather different ideas prevailing in the governance of Africa, and with African governments’ aversion to press criticism. Over four decades the implicit threat of banning was a serious one for a magazine dependent on sales within Africa. The dilemmas this created, especially when abuses of power occurred, were difficult, and Kaye felt them.

I recall him once expressing a little longing to concentrate his writing on the arts. It was not meant entirely seriously, but he did have a real preference and affection for poetry, novels, music, painting, architecture, sculpture, drama and the cinema, and their practitioners. Those people were his favourite subjects in the “Portraits” he wrote in his first period with West Africa, when he also had a great time at the Dakar Festival of 1966. This inclination towards the Muses continued, and the Lagos book is (fitting the general orientation of the Signal Books “Cities of the Imagination” series, but also fitting Kaye’s preferences) filled with material about the city’s poets and novelists, the memorable Lagos musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, highlife and other music, cultural centres, FESTAC of 1977, and architects studying ideas for the city’s future: “The small but unusually creative collective of artists with whom I am happy to be associated and who have called themselves Bukka (after the Nigerian street cafeterias)” (page 247 of the book). That was one more of Kaye’s sidelines. There were many of these, and in London in recent years he was far from anyone’s idea of a retired man, though he did in fact have a major health problem which he spoke of little, but could not be concealed. Despite this his activity continued into this year, including commemoration of the centenary of Nigeria’s unification and – the last important event he attended, and one fitting Kaye’s main interests – a meeting to mark Wole Soyinka’s 80th birthday: just a few days before the reaper struck a hard blow to great numbers of people.

Kaye Whiteman, journalist and editor,  9 March 1936 - 17 May 2014

Jonathan Derrick