The Writers: Chris Cockerill
A brief case of FX problems in Africa – September 2000.
By Chris Cockerill
When the Lufthansa jet touched down at Cairo’s international airport – the penultimate stop before our final destination – 95% of the passengers couldn’t get off quickly enough. By the time 220 people had scurried for the exits there was me, a convent of nuns and several people wearing Medicin Sans Frontieres t-shirts left behind.
We were heading to Khartoum, Sudan.
Six weeks earlier, in Euromoney’s offices, it had seemed a good idea to pitch the story idea to my editor about banking in extreme markets. I had just finished the Euromoney Awards for Excellence coverage of the Middle East and Africa and had heard some fascinating tales out of Africa.
There was the Swiss guy in Congo “doing” foreign exchange.
“Do you wear a suit?” I asked him. A strange question, but that was what popped to mind sitting at my desk in London.
He replied: “Just a shirt and tie, unless the fighting starts and then I take off the tie.”
Or the British head of Standard Chartered in Sierra Leone, who had just witnessed his empire dwindle from 12 branches to one due to missile-propelled grenades.
“What do you do when the fighting starts?”
“We pull down the shutters and wait until it finishes.”
“Do you wear a suit?”
This was the extraordinary thing about being a journalist with Euromoney. If you came up with a good story angle or had a great interview lined up, they would let you go and do it.
Euromoney encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit mixed with in-at-the-deep-end on-the-job training. But no matter the story, or where it took you, you always had to hit your deadline, get your facts totally straight, collaborate, listen to those with experience and make sure you filed the best copy you could possibly write: all qualities that remain deeply embedded with me today.
After numerous phone calls and meetings, it was all arranged. I was to fly to Liberia, take a helicopter across the border into Sierra Leone’s Freetown and start my interviews with bankers working amidst a brutal civil war.
I would then to fly back to Liberia, catch a plane to Sudan and meet some government ministers and the central bank governor to discuss their new international investment incentives against the background of the north of the country bombing the south of the country and UN airstrips.
After Sudan, it would be down to Botswana. Sorted.
Except it wasn’t. Just a few days before departure, my editor called me into an office to say the jaunt into Sierra Leone was off. Apparently my lack of combat training, helmet and bullet-proof vest meant that no insurance company was prepared to cover me. Sudan and Botswana however, they could do.
I landed in Khartoum around midnight with my notepad, $50 in cash and £300 in UK traveller’s cheques, all generously provided by the Euromoney accounts department.
I was to discover on check-in I couldn’t cash those cheques. My hotel, situated on the banks of the Blue Nile, had no idea what they were. Neither did the local bank. So, following my interview with the central bank governor, Sabir Hassan, I asked him one final question: “Could the central bank please cash my UK traveller’s cheques?”
“Of course we can. We would be delighted to help anyone from Euromoney.”
I signed around £150 worth of cheques and was given a briefcase load of Sudanese dinar. I went to back to the hotel and paid my bill, which for three nights cost about a quarter of a briefcase.
At 10pm I was dropped off at Khartoum International Airport and started making my way to the terminal. I was approached by a large man with a gun. He pointed it at me and asked, relatively politely, to hand over my money. I opened my briefcase and started to take out my surplus dinar. He pulled an expression of annoyance and told me he wanted US dollars. I took out my wallet, still staring at the end of the machine gun, and gave him my $50.
Satisfied, he told me to move on. Just 30 metres later, exactly the same thing happened. A gun pointed at me and the man at the other end of it told me to give him money. I showed him my Sudanese dinar, he grimaced and then demanded US dollars. I told him his friend had just taken all I had. He wasn’t happy but we both knew there wasn’t much either of us could do.
I returned to London a few days later, my suitcase lost between Botswana and South Africa and with a pile of money that nobody wanted.
I expected a hero’s welcome. The story was the last in the running order of a 360-page September IMF issue.
Chris Cockerill joined Euromoney in 2000; he was Asia editor from 2002 to 2004 and editor of sister publication Asiamoney from 2004 to 2006. He is now head of marketing and communications, JPMorgan, Asia Pacific.