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In Africa with Ali

  • Muhammad Ali signs autographs in Dakar

  • Peter Griffiths (second right) with members of Muhammad Ali's party at Dakar airport

  • Muhammad Ali waves farewell at Dakar airport

Sad to see Muhammad Ali has passed away. In January 1980 he and I, three of his aides, and a small State Department delegation, clambered aboard the vice-presidential jet, Air Force 2, on an ill-conceived Jimmy Carter initiative around Africa. The only other journalist on board was a radio reporter from Voice of America.

The trip started at Dar es Salaam (then the Tanzanian capital). As usual, crowds on the tarmac chanted “Ali, Ali, Ali”. By all appearances, the former champion’s arrival in Dar looked familiar enough: exactly like the humanitarian missions he had become accustomed to. But this was different, and Ali - who had been doing charity work in India the day before - was groggy. Worst of all, he was unsure about why he was even there.

In a plan that seemed like a good one when it was hatched, President Carter convinced Ali to help lobby African countries to support a proposed American boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow. The boycott had been ordered by Carter in response to the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but the White House knew that a failure to get other nations to similarly boycott could embarrass the US and render its move to sit out the games ineffective.

Now the president was in bad need of assistance in selling the plan abroad - and the boxing legend was needed in Africa. Ali, offended by the Russian invasion himself, agreed to lend a hand. These are a few pix I took in Dakar, Senegal (except the last one which Ali took with my camera). We also visited Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya, Ivory Coast and Liberia.

As an aside, in April, just two months after he had received us at his beachside residence in Monrovia, Liberian president Tolbert had been murdered in a coup d’état, reportedly "disemboweled in his bed while he slept", by coup leader, Samuel Doe.

On a happier note, in Senegal, we were received by the cultured and pleasant president Léopold Sédar Senghor. He and Ali (who also wrote poetry) recited their poems to each other on a beach under palm trees. Senghor was the first African elected as a member of the Académie française. ■