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Kwame Nkrumah: 40 Years after the Coup

24 February 2006 at 12:16 | 851 views

By Zubairu Wai, Toronto, Canada

40 years ago on this day, the African revolution suffered its greatest setback when “Dark Days” descended on Ghana, with the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah, the visionary Pan-African leader, and according to a BBC African service poll, the greatest African that ever lived! Whilst the unfortunate events on that day have continued to impact on the body politic of the African continent, today should remind every well meaning African of the nature of the struggles that lie ahead, especially in the process of the African revolution. Days like these should not drive us to lament the loss, but to reinvigorate us to renew our commitments to the struggle for a new humanism (Fanon) and human emancipation and social transformation on the African continent.

One thing keeps coming to my mind as I reflect on the infamous coup that shattered the dreams of millions of Africans on 24 February, 1966. What went wrong in Ghana and with Nkrumah’s reign that made it possible for him to be removed from power, before realizing his dreams for Ghana, and more importantly, Africa? Of course we know the obvious: Nkrumah was overthrown by some reactionary forces on the instigation of, and active participation of the CIA and other imperialist forces. It was clear that Nkrumah’s vision threatened the Western imperialists and they wanted him out. But was that all? Certainly not! As great as he was, Nkrumah had certain flaws that made him particularly vulnerable to those reactionary forces. No matter how we idolise him, we should, with all honesty, face up to those truths if we are to be able to reconstruct his legacy and move the quest for continental unity forward.

When Antonio Gramsci (the Leader of the Italian Workers’ Party) lost out to Mussolini’s fascists and was thrown in jail, he tried to rationalise what went wrong with his movement that landed him in a fascist jail. Throughout his writings (see the Prison Notebooks, for example), one could hear Gramsci asking himself various questions: what went wrong? Why am I in a fascist jail? Why and how did we lose out to fascism? etc. Whatever follows in Gramsci’s work are answers to those questions, his trying to make sense of his predicament. My call therefore, for us to revisit Nkrumah does not imply disregard either for this African ‘giant’ or his legacy. It is rather in the process of self-reflectivity and critical re-evaluation and reinvention, so that we’d avoid his failings while building on his strengths in order to carry his legacy forward.

In Accra, Ghana on 6 March, 1997, marking Ghana’s 40th independence, the late Julius Nyerere, the founding president of Tanzania and a contemporary of Nkrumah’s, made a speech titled “Africa Must Unite”, (the three words that Nkrumah lived for, and in fact a title and theme of one of his many books). While emphasising Nkrumah’s oft repeated damning warning - ‘unite or perish’ - and indeed proclaiming achieving political unification of Africa the responsibility of the present and future generations of Africans and their leadership, Nyerere did acknowledge that Nkrumah, as a person, had flaws and made several mistakes. Nkrumah was a bigger person, he reminded his audience, but like everyone else, he did have faults, and the faults of big people are sometimes bigger. However, those character flaws did not dilute, or take away from the potency and even urgency of what Nkrumah stood for: recreating Africa in the image of Africans and reclaiming the dignity of its people; feats that would only be achieved by Africans themselves through political unification.

Of course we all know the ideals that Nkrumah stood for, and how he worked tirelessly for achieving those ideals. My reference to the aforementioned tribute of Nyerere to Nkrumah however, is not to emphasise Nkrumah’s politics, which we all know, but to underscore Nyerere’s honesty in admitting that Nkrumah was mortal and like everyone else, had failings, some of which were big. Paradoxically, those flaws in Nkrumah’s character were a function of his very vision, and the urgency that he attached to achieving it. As tautologous as it sounds, it was the urgency of achieving Nkrumah’s vision that led to some of his political failures, which in turn led to his overthrow and the failing of the vision. What do I mean? Nkrumah had a specific understanding of social transformation in Africa and how to achieve it. That vision animated him; it was so compelling and urgent that he became very impatient with anybody who did not share it or understood him. In the end, he became increasingly authoritarian and dictatorial towards the end of his reign. That was his biggest failing!
Nkrumah was never corrupt. In fact he died, almost broke. But because he would only admit, sometimes uncritically, those who purported to share his dreams and ideals into his circle, and frowned on any form of dissent or opposition, he ended up admitting self-serving sycophants who did not believe in what he stood for. These people just recited the speeches Nkrumah wanted to hear. Nkrumah was to only later realise this set-up after the coup. In Dark Days in Ghana, (the book he wrote in exile in Guinea detailing his experience with the coup and its aftermath in Ghana), he describes how some of those he had trusted the most abandoned him almost immediately after the coup. But that was not all; most of them were also very corrupt and were only busy enriching themselves, while professing commitment and belief in Nkrumah’s aspirations.

The result: towards the end of his reign, the reserves of Ghana, were already in a bad shape, partly because of his very necessary but numerous and ambitious social and infrastructural programmes, but also because of corruption which was going on right before his eyes that he didn’t even notice. Nkrumah denies this in Dark Days, but reality indicates the contrary. Ayi Kwei Armah’s compelling novel, The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, effectively portrays that growing culture of corruption in Ghana under Nkrumah, especially in the few months before the coup. The self-interested and greedy military officers who overthrew Nkrumah, Afrifa, Kotoka and their co-conspirators used both the rising culture of corruption and Nkrumah’s growing authoritarian tendencies to justify their action. Of course we all know where their action on that day left Ghana.

Nkrumah is our hero, and we should celebrate his legacy. But we should also recognise that he was a man of contradictions. On the one hand, he represented the aspirations of the continent and the vast majority of Africans through his selfless devotion to the African revolution and the dignity of the African personality. He was a towering champion of African liberation and unity. On the other hand however, he was oppressive to some of his own people (no matter how minute their numbers might be), the ones he was seeking to liberate and unite. To those people, Nkrumah was and would always remain an oppressor. We cannot deny these contradictions in the man’s life; neither should we seek to cover them up. In fact they do not, in my view, take away much from his legacy and greatness.

We all, I believe, have multiple personalities and are multiple situated. It is this multiple situatedness that allows us to negotiate different situations and shift between available options, even if they sometimes lead to contradictions in our characters and practices. That is why for example, Tupac, (I do not intend to compare him to Nkrumah), who stood for black empowerment in his native US in his short life, and whom Newsweek described as “the most articulate of intelligent African American male anger”, could in an album (Strictly For My NIGGAZ), compose a moving tribute to black women (Keep Ya Head Up), while at the same time, rapping about ‘getting around’ them in another song on the same album, (I Get Around).

It is the same reason that makes Jessie Jackson a civil rights leader, but then allows him to father a child out of wedlock. It is the same reason that made Martin Luther King Jr. a powerful voice of the disenfranchised, yet unfaithful to his wife. The examples are many and varied and I doubt if any human being could genuinely escape these contradictions. What is important however, is not seeking to deny these contradictions inherent in us, but to be aware of them and construct programmes (individual or collective) that allow us to sift through them, (in our homes, our lives, practices, utterance, etc.) to enable us to isolate those tendencies that inhibit positive action for social transformation, while redefining those that allow us to move forward.

While we celebrate Nkrumah’s legacy and seek to move it forward, we should guard against credulity and blind hero-worshipping. This is where my idea of critical reinvention and self-reflectivity comes in. It is only when we are honest with ourselves and admit our failings and seek to move beyond them that we could hope for self renewal and positive transformation. 40 years after the coup, Nkrumah’s name echoes, even if like a spectre from another time. In our search for a critical imagination in response to the African predicament, Nkrumah, I believe is our guide, because the potency of his vision for Africa remains much more compelling and urgent today as it was at the dawn of political independence.

Photo: Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. May his soul continue to rest in peace.