In February Ghana’s new President John Atta-Mills announced that Nkrumah’s birthday in September will be observed as Founder’s Day and a national holiday. The long and tortuous national rehabilitation of the man who led the country to independence and remains an inspiration to Africans all over the world had taken yet another important step in the centenary year of his birth.
In the years after Ghana gained independence, Nkrumah’s life and work was dominated by two primary concerns, one international, the other domestic. Internationally Pan-Africanism as a project of political and economic freedom, unity and structural transformation linked to the issue of Africa’s place and voice on the world stage was dominant. Inside Ghana the main issue was the structural transformation of the mono-crop dependent colonial economy bequeathed by the British into a balanced and internally linked one that offered improved and secure livelihoods to Ghanaians. The domestic and international concerns were of course closely linked in Nkrumah’s pronouncements and practice. He hoped that any achievements in Ghana would serve as a model as well as a unit in the economy of a united Africa. Nkrumah was ready to incur the wrath of the major imperialist powers of the day in pursuit of what he believed was in the interest of the African people.
David Rooney concluded his critical biography of Nkrumah with the acknowledgement that ‘His hopes were encapsulated in his ultimate goal of a United Africa in which its rich natural resources would be used for the benefit of all its people and would not be filched from them by foreign financiers and other exploiters. It may take centuries for Nkrumah’s goal to be achieved, but when it is, he will be revered as the leader with the dynamism and intelligent imagination to take the first brave steps’.
From an age when there were a number of outstanding African leaders, among whom Nkrumah was preeminent, the continent currently confronts the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and a host of other challenges such as the situation in and international political play around Darfur without a rallying figure.
Nkrumah’s leadership and rallying role in African affairs went well beyond his vision and theorising. Importantly it included support for national liberation movements. This support embodied a unity of his Pan-Africanism and commitment to anti-colonial independence as a necessary precondition for the continent’s unity and progress. The activities of the Bureau of African Affairs which oversaw support for national liberation movements and the training of their cadre in Ghana with support from the Soviet bloc and China led to Cold War accusation that Ghana was a base for communist subversion in Africa. Two events however stand out in Nkrumah’s readiness to support the national liberation struggle as well as defend its unity with the Pan-African cause, even when face to face with much more powerful countries. These are the financial aid Ghana gave to newly independent Guinea in 1958 and Ghana’s stance and action in support of Patrice Lumumba’s government during the Congo (DRC) crisis of the early sixties. Developments in the two countries soon after independence offer credence to Cabral’s argument that ‘so long as imperialism is in existence an independent African state must be a liberation movement in power, or it will not be independent’.
As France stared defeat in the face in Algeria at the hands of the National Liberation Front (FLN) – a prospect made all the more difficult to countenance because of the humiliation inflicted by the Vietnamese in 1954 – it sought to re-package its colonial control by offering its African colonies membership of a French community. All French African colonies, except Guinea under Sekou Toure, agreed to the new colonial package. In an unforgettable act of vindictiveness, the departing French stripped Guinea of anything they could carry, leaving the country on the brink of collapse. Nkrumah stepped in with a £10m loan to help the newly independent country avoid collapse. This was a considerable sum in those days and big sacrifice by a small country like Ghana.
Nkrumah’s brave and sustained but ultimately doomed support for Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the unity of Congo and his faith in the UN in the face Western plotting and intrigue marked a high point of his willingness to assume international leadership on African causes. The outcome was also a stark statement of what could not be achieved without a concerted African engagement in the face of powerful external forces. Nkrumah maintained a consistent line during the Congo crisis. He insisted that the country should solve its problems with the support of other African countries within the framework of the UN without the meddling of global powers, especially the NATO bloc. He assumed that the UN framework would give international legitimacy to the African led process. Nkrumah sent troops to support Lumumba using Soviet planes much to the anger of the USA. On 23 September 1960 Nkrumah used the platform of the UN General Assembly to make the case for Congo’s unity, Lumumba’s leadership and for an African solution under UN auspices to the crisis in the Congo. The appeal failed to gain traction, mainly because the UN auspices also provided perfect cover for the US and its NATO allies to carry out their plans in the Congo.
It is now a public fact that even before Congo’s independence on 1 July 1960, the American CIA was getting ready to put its puppets in power. President Dwight Eisenhower issued a national security order for the killing of Prime Minister Lumumba within six weeks of Congo becoming independent. Congo’s fate as a Western plaything in the Cold War was sealed and its long and tragic descent into what it has become today had begun. The gulf between Nkrumah’s intentions and his weakness in the situation was tragically highlighted by how Ghana’s contingent in the UN military force became detached from Nkrumah’s political objectives and acted as accessories to actions against Lumumba.
Nkrumah’s lonely and heroic but ultimately futile stance on the Congo crisis contrasts sharply with the flabby collective African approach on Somalia and Darfur. The former process has lurched from crisis to crisis with ever diminishing credibility and capacity of the transitional government. The situation was further compounded by the readiness of Ethiopia, the host country of the African Union, to act in concert with the Bush administration in pursuit of their particular national interests that converged in Somalia. Old Ethiopian imperial pretensions meshed with Bush’s war on terror. All these fuelled the discrediting, resistance to and delegitimation of the AU’s role in that country.
The Darfur crisis and its escalation around the indictment of Sudan’s President Bashir by the International Criminal Court has provided a grave test for Africa’s collective ability to deal with African issues which are heavily intermeshed with international dimensions and interests. The UN/AU hybrid peacekeeping operation in Darfur (UNAMID) continues to face various difficulties. Joint UN-AU as well as Arab League mediation and peace initiatives do not appear to be making much progress. The indictment of Bashir and the issuing of a warrant for his arrest has further complicated the situation. Having failed to exert a decisive influence on the course of events in Darfur, including on the behaviour of the Sudanese government and the evolution of the ICC’s pursuit of Bashir, the African Union has taken a critical stance towards the implementation of the arrest warrant. As the internationalisation of the Darfur conflict widens, the purchase of the African Union on how it is likely to be resolved shrinks.
In recent years Pan-African structures, institutions and processes have proliferated. The mechanisms of the AU have been undergoing refinement since it took over from the OAU as the premier continental institution. Alongside these phenomena, many African leaders have aspired to inherit Nkrumah’s mantle as the visionary and driver of Pan-Africanism and continental unity. A gaping political leadership vacuum however remains at the heart of the continent’s collective expression.
Earlier this year the AU elected Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as chair of the Union. In recent years, he has emerged as the most forthright spokesman for the urgency of creating a United States of Africa. How best and how quickly to move forward to a union of African states was the main item on the agenda of the 2007 AU summit, fittingly held in Accra during Ghana’s 50th year of independence. The debate was inconclusive but the exercise underlined Gaddafi’s stature as a leader of the Unity Now! camp.
The African Union’s election of the unpredictable Gaddafi at this grave moment in history is more a negative than a positive. It is a statement of a collective failure of leadership and underlines the crisis in which the Pan-African project is mired at the inter-state level. His seemingly radical stance on African Unity notwithstanding, the sad truth is that Gaddafi is not the successor to Nkrumah that the continent currently and urgently needs. He does not offer a coherent vision or leadership practice of pan-Africanism in keeping with the needs of the age. These shortcomings are compounded by his unpredictability and histrionics. Some of his views and pronouncements show him up as a man deeply marked by his years as an authoritarian leader. Among his many bizarre acts is his current self-designation as king of Africa’s kings, a reactionary assertion out of tune with the democratic logic on the continent’s national liberation struggles.
The African people want democracy not monarchs. If there is one element of Africa’s post-colonial history that the masses want behind them it is the years of despotism. In Black Star, his deeply sympathetic study of Nkrumah’s life and times, Basil Davidson, who devoted his life to supporting Africa’s national liberation struggles, pointed to the decay of internal party democracy and the gradual ascent of authoritarian use of power in Nkrumah’s Ghana as a key contributor to the erosion of mass support for Nkrumah’s efforts to transform the economy for the benefit of ordinary people. ‘The view for tomorrow is that Nkrumah’s aims were the right ones and their realisation will become increasingly possible as conditions ripen and as other strategists take up further struggles for liberation. These strategists will succeed... in the measure that they undertake and carry through the work of building democratic organisations which become the vehicles of mass participation as well as mass support: movements in which the mass of ordinary people really make, enshrine and uphold the fundamental law of the land’.
The African delegation to the London G20 summit was led not by Gaddafi the chair of the AU but by Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, who is chair of NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) and a good friend of the West. NEPAD is at best a substructure of the AU and Zenawi’s presence is illustrative of the ease with which many outside Africa are able to pick and choose how to deal with the continent. During the Beijing China Africa Forum the Chinese were able to deal with African countries as individuals while the AU was treated as observer.
Processes of restructuring of global leadership are underway in the international level responses to the unfolding economic crisis. One strand of these is the emergence of the G20 as a key site of global economic leadership, the effective downgrading of the G8. This process mirrors the way in which the old wholly Western quartet of leading powers in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has been replaced by a new quad of the US, EU, Brazil and India. The seating around the G20 table reflects the power of individual Asian and Latin American economies with South Africa the only African country there as an individual member country. Realistically the most effective way African countries could have optimised their voice would have been through effective prior preparation and definition of positions and South-South diplomacy ahead of the meeting, as well as having a collective representative of their own choosing.
The continent’s response to the global crisis has so far lacked urgency and the sense that this is an opportunity to make a break with some of the discredited policies which have failed to deliver transformative growth over the past couple of decades. The main line in the global fora has been to plead for Africa to be remembered and for the security of aid budgets. As African leaders traipse around international fora, the glaring absence of leaders who see opportunities for change in the current crisis stands in sharp relief.
The current global crisis has validated what critics of neoliberalism have been saying for years. In the last few years the annual Economic Report on Africa (ERA) published by the UN Economic Commission for Africa has been gently putting out its critique of the experience of the neoliberal agenda in Africa. Years of growth had failed to effect either transformation or the much touted poverty reduction. The current crisis had again brought to the fore the fundamental structural problems of Africa’s economies which the recent years of growth had masked, especially in countries exporting oil or benefiting from the commodities boom.
Nkrumah reportedly broke down in tears when confronted with the news that the collapse of cocoa prices had cut the ground from under his plans for the economic transformation of Ghana. In the years since Nkrumah’s overthrow, the cyclical movement of cocoa and gold prices have been the determinant factors in the health of the Ghanaian economy, tempered in recent years by the substantial aid that the country receives. For some years now Ghana has been a model of the type of economy and economic policy that has been proclaimed as the way forward for Africa but which has failed to deliver over a generation and has been exposed as bankrupt by the global crisis.
During the last six or so years of his rule Nkrumah attempted to transform the colonial economy he inherited. Many leaders of his generation – Nyerere in Tanzania, Kaunda in Zambia, and many others – recognised this to be a primary task of post-colonial economic policy. Despite the claims that Nkrumah’s difficulties were because of his socialist policies, the truth is that for a long time he was a good pupil of the dominant economic theories and ideas of his day as purveyed by leading thinkers in the West. His later attempt to learn from the development strategies of the Soviet Union as well as China and Yugoslavia showed a readiness to take risks and try uncharted paths. In retrospect it clear that many mistakes were made and offer rich lessons for today, but he dared.
In the 15 years Nkrumah was in power a leading role for the state in the economy was the norm in both communist countries and the West where Keynesian economics prevailed. The experience of the Soviet Union offered lessons in rapid industrialisation, which India had started learning before Ghana came along. The relative success of import substituting industrialisation in Latin America had made that strategy a respectable one by the time of Ghana’s independence. The Labour party was undertaking extensive nationalisations in Britain when Nkrumah first came to power. Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism was powered by a grander vision and ambition than the modest European Coal and Steel community, which has flowered into the European Union, but they were united by a recognition of the benefits of regional integration.
Using existing resources, Nkrumah rapidly expanded education, health and infrastructure and aided other newly independent countries such as Guinea. With additional borrowing, industrial and agricultural investments were made. Many of the agro-industrial projects, not all well conceived, were in their infancy when he was overthrown. He inaugurated the Akosombo hydroelectricity dam, the centre piece of the Volta River project, which he saw as powering Ghana’s industrialisation a month before his overthrow. The creation of a local raw material base was not properly scheduled with the new factories that were built in the period before the 1966 coup. By that time the crisis in the international price of cocoa had wrought considerable damage to revenue and growth projections, putting pressure on imports and consumption.
The turn towards the Soviet Union and China was an economic as well as political act. Nkrumah’s anti-imperialism meant that he did not believe he could rely on the West for full support for his transformational project especially given the centrality of African unity with its implication for existing colonial spheres of influence as well as US intrusions into the continent.
One of the key lessons from Ghana’s development experience under Nkrumah is linked directly to his commitment to a pan-African solution to the challenges of under development. Nkrumah’s works are replete with warnings about the limits of what small ‘balkanised’ African countries can do on their own. Faced with the absence of a larger political economic unit he sought to transform the small economy and market of Ghana into an industrialised economy at a fast pace. The post-Cold War global economic framework has made the regional and continental even more key in any serious African project of economic transformation.
Sadly even in the face of the global crisis many African governments are looking only outwards towards their ‘development partners’ rather than exploring the opportunities for deepening regional and continental cooperation and integration. The IMF is offering its pernicious advice that not much needs to change and there seem to be many in African leadership ready to listen. Meantime in the global North, pages are being torn from the rulebooks by which African economies have been run from Washington. The norms which have driven the negotiating positions of the West in fora such as the WTO have been called into question by domestic policies in those countries.
All these offer important opportunities for a new agenda for economic transformation in Africa. Where are the African leaders ready to dare and look beyond guaranteeing the sanctity of aid flows? Wanted: an African ‘leader with the dynamism and intelligent imagination to take the first brave steps’.
* Yao Graham, an activist and writer, is the head of Third World Network Africa, a pan-African research and advocacy organisation based in Accra, Ghana.
* Please send comments to email@example.com or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.