Judging Nkrumah, the evolver

Nkrumah@White House

Mon, 21 Sep 2009 Source: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

It is gratifying to read messages across Africa about one of Ghana’s/Africa’s thinkers’ birthday – 100th – Kwame Nkrumah (21 September 1909 - 27 April 1972). In a period where Africa had no open thinkers to drive its development process from within its cultural values – such as Europe’s Karl Marx or Japan’s Kita Ikki or Latin America’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso about its development philosophy, Nkrumah emerged as one, with immense passion.

Fifty-two years ago, at a time of tumbling regimes, wrong thinking, one-party fetes, military juntas and the need for African sages, Nkrumah’s 100th birthday is reflection for the need for grand development thinking and philosophies that flow from Africa’s innate traditional values in relation to the global prosperity ideals. This is to knock off the widely held view that Africans think well. But while Nkrumah and his associates’ Pan-Africanism were relevant to the African cause, it lacked original African cultural roots, thus failing to appropriate African values critically for the Pan-African project. Kwame Nkrumah committed a fatal developmental error which had had terrible consequences on Ghana'/Africa's progress

When some years ago people in Ghana's Northern Region told policy-makers to consult them and their values when making policies, they were in effect saying there are no practices in Ghana of policy-makers consulting the very people the policies are to affect, a terminal error dating back to Nkrumah's era – part of Africa’s Big Man Syndrome where the Big Men assume to know everything and cannot be challenged and impose their will on Africans no matter what the consequences. This, from the inception of the Ghana nation-state, created a huge problem of trust, a critical element in the development process. And this also reveals that the Ghana nation-state started on a wrong footing, creating all kinds of unnecessary problems for Ghana till today.

The reason is not far-fetched. The Pan-Africanism project, which pre-dates Nkrumah, was more or less an African diasporan vision to raise the injustices ex-African slaves were encountering in the diaspora and also unite them, and explore the possibility of returning them back to Africa. Sierra Leone (the Krios) and Liberia (the Americo-Liberians) are some of the products. Of prominence of the diasporan Pan-African vision was the issue of politics of skin colour and Africa's marginalization in the international political economy.

As a student in the United States and Britain, Nkrumah experienced such racism and returned to then Gold Coast with such baggage. The issue here is that initially Pan-Africanism was more or less an ex-slave diasporan African project, lacking a deep sense of the continental Africa environment and other original African home-grown developmental nuances, a huge ingredient for progress. The Pan-African project, therefore, didn't flow first from within continental Africa, and this may explain why it initially lacked the deep African cultural orientated paradigms needed for developmental goals.

It is important to remember that Africa is the only region in the world where its development paradigms are dominated by foreign development values – and that makes Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism practically irrelevant to the everyday life of Africans, even on philosophical terms.

So despite much hype about African culture in the Pan-African project, it was more or less an artistic thing than the appropriation of African values in policy-making. Short of this, Nkrumah and his associates wandered around the world, like headless chicken, looking for developmental paradigms, from ex-Soviet Union-oriented socialism to Europe-leaning capitalism or something in-between, as if Africa has no history, no cultural values and no experiences in terms of progress. Added to this is the fact that Nkrumah and his associates overwhelmingly carried on fully with the ex-colonialists' development paradigms without any attempts to openly hybridize the enabling aspects of African cultural values and the ex-colonialists' legacies in the continent's progress. Today, humble Botswana is the only exception.

It is, therefore, not surprising that one the most fatal errors Nkrumah made in his attempts to develop Ghana was to harshly marginalize the traditional rulers, one of the key frontline traditional institutions for progress. Africa’s traditional rulers, as Dr. George Ayittey, of the American University in Washington D.C, would tell you, are hugely untapped human resources materials in Ghana's/Africa’s development process. This reflects one of Nkrumah's weak grasp of Ghana/Africa development processes. Some of these initial errors of not fully and openly appropriating African values in the continent's development process have made most national development policies unrealistic in the African environment.

The key word here is “openly,” as a reflector of Africans’ dignity, confidence and psychology in relation to the global prosperity ideals. The reason is Africa experienced colonialism for years and this saw the suppression of African values in the continent's development process. This process damaged the trust of African values, as a policy thresher, and created immense psychological crises. The colonialist suppressed African values and imposed theirs. They thought, wrongly, as today's international development literature would correctly tell you, that African values were “primitive” and that they were more civilized than Africans, and so the Africans should be “civilized.” The French, for instance, minted the “assimilation” project to “civilize” the African. It failed. Then they created the “association” one, which aimed to mix African native culture with that of the French. That was daisy also because it wasn’t done from African perspectives or by Africans themselves.

In the process, both enabling aspects of African values and the inhibiting parts was suppressed for so long that even the earlier elites who came to power, as their behaviour revealed, thought Africa have no values worth appropriating in national development. Senegal's former President, Leopold Sedar Senghor (October 9, 1906 – December 20, 2001), part of the Nkrumah's era, thought Africans are better at expressing their emotions than thinking. No doubt, some prominent Africans such as Y.K. Amoakoh, the former chair of United Nations Economic Community for Africa, have observed that Africa is the only region in the world where foreign development paradigms dominate her development process to the detriment of its rich values.

The sense here is that Nkrumah and his associate did not think first from within African values and any other second, such as the ex-colonialists’, in their zeal to develop Africa. The Japanese, like other ex-colonies, faced similar challenges and were able to circumvent any attempt to either fully carry on with American foreign development paradigms or let the foreign paradigms forced on their development throat, as America's post-war occupying Governor of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur, attempted to do. Like the Southeast Asians, Nkrumah and his associates, using their Pan-African project, should have first envision Pan-Africanism as development policy-maker, brewed from indigenous African values, and mix it or juggle it, with foreign or their colonial legacies. It is, therefore, not surprising that Amoakoh observes that Africa is the only region in the world where foreign development paradigms dominate her development process.

Fifty-two years on, foreign development paradigms dominate Africa's development scene despite lot of energy, time, and money spent on the Pan-African project, creating huge distortions in the continent's progress. The disturbing implications are that not only was the enabling aspects of African values not appropriated openly in national development planning but, as former Ghana’s Minister of Health, Courage Quashigah, would tell you, they were no attempts to refine the inhibitions within African values that have been stifling progress for the continent's progress.

Despite this fatal developmental error, Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism, in all measure, is growing, notwithstanding the hiccups here and there. The emerging success of the Economic Community of West African States (and other African regional bodies), noticeably in helping restore order in Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Liberia, after years of civil wars, is one example. The transition from the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to the present African Union (AU) is another in the sense of African unity. These examples and many more reveal that Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanism is not illusory but working, taking on new meanings and challenges that emanate from the values and experiences of Africans.

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi