Did Nkrumah’s Charisma Over-reach?

Fri, 1 Oct 2010 Source: Idun-Arkhurst, Kobina

Among Africa’s postcolonial leaders, Nkrumah had the singular distinction of becoming co-president in a foreign land (in Guinea), where he was exiled following his overthrow in his own native Ghana. At the time of Nkrumah’s overthrow, he was on route to China to participate in mediation talks over the Hanoi crisis. Nkrumah also had the peculiar distinction of having his birthday commemorated as a national holiday in Namibia, while for a long time his person (even his corpse), political party, and ideas were res non grata in the land he led to independence from British rule in 1957. But it seems it is only in death, and with the hindsight of history, has Nkrumah’s true worth been officially, not necessarily widely, acknowledged in the country of his birth.

21 September 2009 was the centennial of Nkrumah’s birth and, for the first time in Ghana’s history, that day was commemorated not only by die-hard Nkrumaist intellectuals alone, but also across the nation as an officially memorialised national holiday. Namibia might also not be the only other African state that will be recognising the day henceforth. The African Union, whose progenitor (the Organisation of African Unity) was Nkrumah’s brainchild, has also adopted the day to be acknowledged across the continent. As a region, Africa has long given Nkrumah due recognition as one of the continent’s foremost statesmen.

Nkrumah’s charismatic leadership and statecraft in steering the then Gold Coast into Sub-Saharan Africa’s first independent state lent him considerable moral authority. His radical political ideology- centred on a confident black consciousness and honed in his contacts with radical civil rights movements and personalities in the United States- provided an inspiring rationalising pan-African ideology for African nationalism. And his oratory and organisational abilities, which had shot him to political limelight in the Gold Coast, not only made him a natural spokesperson for Africa on the world stage, but also served to mobilise and channel the emerging African nationalism into a pan-African project. In the United Nations General Assembly, Nkrumah led the charge against imperialism and neo-colonialism, which he described as the last stage of imperialism, a theoretical extension of Lenin’s view of imperialism as the last stage of capitalism.

Nkrumah’s Role in Africa

In December 1958, Nkrumah convened the first All African People’s Congress, which, in Immanuel Wallerstein’s words, was the “true successor of [earlier] Pan-African Congresses”, which were organised in 1919, 1921, 1923, 1927, and 1945 to address the challenges facing Africa due to European colonialism. The All African People’s Congress would eventually pave the way for the birth of the OAU in 1964, short of Nkrumah’s vision of a United States of Africa with its own continental standing force to guarantee security in the region. Nkrumah also used Ghana as a base for training freedom fighters for independence movements elsewhere in Africa, a project that edged him close to the communist bloc and set him on a collision course with Washington, London and Apartheid South Africa. Among Nkrumah’s ardent disciples who would shape the political futures of their own countries were Namibia’s Sam Nujoma and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe’s) Robert Mugabe. The latter would school in Ghana and take a Ghanaian for his wife.

Nkrumah’s own marriage to Fathia, the niece of Egypt’s Abdel Nasser, was as political as it was personal, and one that would be characterised by staying nuptial loyalty rather than marred by feelings of personal betrayal. At her uncle’s request, Fathia readily agreed to marry the nationalist black leader because she was charmed by his charisma and what he was doing for his people on the other side of the Sahara. Hers was a tell-tale of a wife’s enduring solemn love that went beyond the husband’s person to his legacy. Fathia was tied to Nkrumah’s charisma and memory as steel to magnet. She fled with her children to Egypt following Nkrumah’s overthrow, but returned several times when the United Party, the beneficiary of Nkrumah’s military overthrow and a descendant of Ghana’s first nationalist political party, the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), was also overthrown by a military junta professing leanings to Nkrumaism.

But Fathia’s attachment to the land of her husband’s birth became part of the unfolding story of political instability, which affected her family’s personal circumstances. Their family house would be confiscated to the state by successive military regimes and once occupied by the Speaker of Parliament in the first 8 years of the Fourth Republic under the Rawlings-led National Democratic Congress (NDC). In what is perhaps symptomatic of the ambivalence that characterises the discourse on Nkrumah’s role in Ghana’s national life, his house would be released to Fathia and her children not by the NDC, which claims affinity to Nkrumaism given its neo-Marxist pretentions and pseudo-revolutionary origins, but by the New Patriotic Party (NPP), an offshoot of Nkrumah’s political foes in the UGCC and the UP. The NPP came to power in what would be the country’s first peaceful and democratic change of power in 2001.

Led by John Kufuor, an Oxford-trained lawyer who was one of the country’s longest-serving politicians and known to many as the Gentle Giant for his mild and peaceable character, the NPP’s gesture seemed to suggest that for once the country was ready to heal its fractious political past, including ethnic and ideological cleavages that had dogged the national development effort. But it would not be long for those cleavages to re-emerge like re-opened sores as the country headed toward the next electoral cycle, when ideological and ethnic legacies become key instruments of mass political mobilisation. For the supporters of the NPP, admitting to Nkrumah’s role as the country’s foremost leader, including acknowledging him as the founder of modern Ghana or to any successes from his ambitious nation-building, was seen as undermining the role and republican ideals of the conservative nationalist leaders of the UGCC, especially the role of Joseph Boakye Danquah, the founder of the UGCC who died in Nkrumah’s prison for his criticism of the Nkrumah government.

Defenders of the Danquah-Busia tradition are wont to remind their opponents that the name “Ghana” was in fact the choice of J. B. Danquah, to whom must therefore go the title of “founder of modern Ghana”, not Nkrumah his recruit. They are also quick to remind their detractors who cite their forebears for their threats of secession that it was rather Nkrumah who effectively seceded from the nationalist movement into which he had been recruited as secretary. Against Nkrumah’s oft-vaunted oratorical powers, Danquah-Busia followers peck the scholasticism of Danquah, the philosopher who obtained his PhD from the University of London, and of Busia, the Oxford-trained sociologist, who became the first black African to be made a University Professor and would later return to teach at Oxford, following his overthrow in 1972 by a pro-Nkrumah military junta. Busia’s name was even been transliterated as the Best University Scholar in Africa. John Kufuor, who would three decades later succeed Busia as the second person from the tradition to lead Ghana, was Busia’s junior contemporary at Oxford.

Many of these views get churned out on online Ghanaian forums and news outlets with passionate zeal. The Internet and other modern communication technologies, such as television and radio, have become an important medium for national political discourse and contestation, shaping national consciousness the way the emergence of print media, including literature and newspapers, produced and reproduced the “nation”. The ability of Ghanaians to mount platforms with New Media is itself a measure of some progress in the modernisation project beyond what Nkrumah left behind. While many of the participants on the online forums reside abroad, especially in Europe and North America where over the decades Ghanaians have gone in search of greener pasture or in flight from political persecution, there is increasing participation by the population at home. Given the Internet’s faceless character, however, such discourse has been prone to sleaze, bile, and vitriol, which often widen ideological and ethnic cleavages and undermine national cohesion. The internet is serving to mobilise national resources, mental or material, wherever they may be, but it is also fraught with the peril of fracturing the national sense of purpose.

Nkrumah’s Political Formation:

As pointed out earlier, Nkrumah was himself once a member of the UGCC, having been invited by its leadership in 1948 to serve as the party’s secretary. Nkrumah saw this invitation as a call to national duty, prematurely ending his studies at the London School of Economics to where he had come from the United States for further postgraduate studies. In the US, Nkrumah obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees from Lincoln University and University of Pennsylvania respectively. Nkrumah’s sojourn in the United States was an important formative period. His own condition as a poor student, stowing away to America in search of opportunity, and having to do menial jobs to make a living and pay his way through college, gave him a stamp of purposeful earnestness. He would later win the President’s Scholarship at Lincoln, (where he also won prizes for his oratorical and teaching abilities, characteristics that would define his leadership.

In the US, Nkrumah saw in the discrimination and torture against blacks the very condition of the people he left behind and became attracted to the civil rights movement, especially to the radical brand associated with Marcus Garvey and W. E. du Bois, with whom Nkrumah built personal friendships. At the centre of the rhetoric of the radical civil rights movements was the rejection of the white man’s false sense of racial and cultural superiority, with which he rationalised racism, slavery, and colonial domination. Some emphasised a return to Africa, the homeland. In this way, the radical black movement was pan-Africanist in its ideology, although different groups differed in their commitment to leaving the Americas and returning to the ancestral land. In 1945, the Pan-African People’s Congres took place in Manchester, with Nkrumah playing a central role in its organisation. It was the organisational abilities he exhibited in these movements that brought him to the attention of the nationalist elites back in his native land.

Nkrumah’s Staying Charisma

At the turn of this century, Africans voted Nkrumah in a BBC pole as African Man of the previous century ahead of Nelson Mandela, who did not appear impressed being overshadowed by Nkrumah’s staying star power. In some respects Mandela’s misgivings about playing second fiddle to Nkrumah was justified. After all, he is recognised across the world as a living legend, the world’s moral conscience. He responded to his own 25-year old imprisonment under Apartheid rule with a message of peace and forgiveness and exorcised Apartheid’s racism with a multicultural vision that saved South Africa from racial retribution and implosion. Perhaps, for these reasons, the Madiba, the father of South Africa in that true sense of the word, deserved the honour bestowed on Nkrumah. But the 20th century on which the poll was based may tell a different story.

The 20th century was the century of the emergence of African nationalist movements and independent struggles, and Nkrumah, more than any individual African, was at the centre of those struggles. His charismatic leadership and statecraft in steering the then Gold Coast to Sub-Saharan Africa’s first independent state, as his radical political ideology of confident black consciousness, lent him considerable moral authority. Of course, not all Africans were enamoured by Nkrumah’s advocacy for continental unification. Many African leaders jealously guarded the territorial sovereignty on which European colonialism had been based.

The sentiments and fears of Nkrumah’s ambitions were summed up in an article by Sylvanus Olympio in Africa Speaks Out, a 1960 compendium of articles by African leaders. Comparing Nkrumah’s ambitions with the expansionism that had led Europe to two devastating world wars, Olympio’s article read in part: “At the moment, political unification (in Africa) is desired only by those political leaders who believe they could come out on top in such unions”.

But it is important to put Olympio’s fears in context. Part of his Togo, the German-held trans-Volta Togoland which had passed to the British as part of the World War II settlements, had gone to Ghana following a referendum in which the people of the trans-Volta, although sharing ethnic affinities with the rest of Togo more than with what would become Ghana, voted to join the latter at the prospect of freedom. It is also true that Nkrumah’s vision of continental vision still remains a dream of African leaders and peoples, even if there are disagreements on how and when to achieve it. It is fair then to suggest that Nkrumah has an enduring charm across Africa.

BBC television commentator Brian Walden once argued that while being ‘perhaps the most generally admired figure of our age’, Nelson Mandela ‘falls short of the giants of the past’. Mandela himself agrees: ‘I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.’ His transcendent charisma as the conscience of the world, which gives him an authoritative moral voice on world affairs, derives from giving the world a vision of a peaceful post-racial, multi-cultural world, a vision contained in a statement he issued from the dock:

"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

For this Mandela appears in Time Magazine’s most influential 20 men of the century. Notwithstanding this Mandela’s global political stature is highly over-rated. To suggest this is not to rob the Madiba of well-deserved honour and dignity. The Madiba once wrote in notes smuggled out of prison by friends that any man or institution that tried to rob him of his dignity would lose. Robbing the Madiba of his honour might also incur the displeasure of many around the world who are inspired by his moral leadership. The fact remains, however, that in Africa his transformative influence is far less felt beyond South Africa itself than the inspiring and intellectual influence of Nkrumah beyond Ghana. That the Madiba is ensconced so high in Western thought as a living legend itself says a great deal about how heroes are made and their heroism rationalised.

The simple and plain truth is that there was so much fear in the West of what would happen to white South Africans and Western interests in post-Apartheid South Africa that Mandela’s gesture and rhetoric of peace, as well as his ability to rein in racial retribution with his moral authority, as much as stunned and converted Western hearts as did the non-violent protests of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The alternatives in all these cases were ugly and did not serve the interests of the West, even if the methods were the very means by which the West had asserted and rationalised racial supremacy. Most importantly they were methods that would radically change the status quo. Central to the acceptance of the moral leadership of these great men was the need to broker a change that was less revolutionary.

At the same time the general recognition given these leaders by the world shows an increasing embrace by the world’s peoples of progressive values and repudiation of discrimination and domination of all forms. Thus, such great men appeal to both their former oppressors and those who oppose oppression both at home and abroad. Had events gone otherwise Mandela would have remained the pariah that he was when fighting the very thing his vision is now to help the world fight. Even after securing a multi-racial South Africa and in spite of all the praise he attracted, Mandela still remained on the State Department’s list of notorious terrorists by default.

What progressive values underpin the moral leadership and charisma of Gandhi, Luther King and Mandela that have made them world heroes? All three fought for freedom from racial domination. Gandhi was further noted for his secular vision by which he sought an independent Indian society in which religion did not determine political rights. Hindis, Muslims and Indians of other faiths would live and govern together. King was further noted for a pan-humanism rooted in a theological doctrine of liberty, the equality of all God’s children. Thus while fighting white racism and violence against blacks, he was opposed to reversed racism and violence against whites in America and oppression of Vietnamese by American forces. Mandela hoped for an ideal democratic and free post-racial society and has been as opposed to black domination as he was against white domination.

Still, Nkrumah Has Question Marks

There are a number of reasons to argue that Nkrumah’s charisma over-reached its limits in his own native land. The first reason arises from his executive style of leadership reinforced by the personality cult he deliberately tried to cultivate. Both also flow, ironically, from his unrivalled organisational abilities and oratorical skills in the politics of Ghana. These attributes served the cause of the independence movement by mobilising a docile population to support a nationalist movement that had for long remained an elite enterprise. Much of this grassroots support, however, gravitated toward the mysticism that surrounded Nkrumah’s persona. This was bolstered by Nkrumah’s top-down leadership style and his deliberate attempts to build a cult around his person and ideas, such as through the creation of institutes to teach his philosophical ideas and vision as Nkrumaism.

In this latter sense, Nkrumah behaved more like Charles de Gaulle whose rule in France was characterised by impatience for, and attrition with, both his party and the legislature, as well as by his own personal contact with the French population. Nkrumah ruled by his charismatic persona, his popularity with the masses, and domineering self-confidence, so that he was hardly constrained by his party’s structures or other officials. Nor could he submit himself to the kind of bargaining and reciprocity that characterises transactional legislative politics. From the 1960s on he moved toward increasing centralisation of power in a way that broke down the separation of powers between the arms of government. He used his party’s majority in parliament to revise the constitution to give himself powers to remove supreme court judges and to declare Ghana a one-party state, setting the precedence for the spread of one-party dictatorships and arbitrary rule across Africa.

The CPP was built more on this personality cult rather than on effective impersonal party structures that could outlive the founder himself. Nkrumah’s overthrow tempered his mystique and cut the umbilical cord that tied the various organs of the CPP together. This is not surprising. Charismatic leadership often rests on ability to continue to win victory, bring benefits to the followers, or uphold moral values on which that leadership is based. These are proofs of the leader’s charismatic qualification. Failure and disillusionment undermine belief in the leader’s charismatic authority.

Today, Nkrumah remains overwhelmingly popular, but the party he left behind is unable to re-organise itself, racked not only by lack of unity but also by inability to give Nkrumaism a new relevance in contemporary Ghana. It is not that Nkrumaism has become irrelevant for Ghanaians. But the electorate, becoming increasingly more sophisticated, are wary of a party unable to envision its own relevance beyond Nkrumah, with some of its candidates sometimes seeking the popular mandate based on their resemblance to mystical Nkrumah’s mystical forehead. Thus, in death the man Nkrumah outlives the party he founded. Even up to today, most members of the remnant CPP owe allegiance not to an impersonal institutional structure, but to Nkrumah, the reason there are so many splinter groups claiming allegiance to him but are unable to come under one disciplined party structure.

Kobina Idun-Arkhurst (kobkurst@Gmail.com)

Dept. of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University, UK

School of Public Policy & Management, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China

Columnist: Idun-Arkhurst, Kobina