NKURMAH IN RETROSPECT
Article by: Arthur Kobina Kennedy
This coming Monday, it will be a hundred years since Nkrumah was born.
So many years after his birth, the Osagyefo excites more passion and disagreement, by far, than any of his contemporaries.
Some say he is the Greatest Ghanaian – maybe African ever.
Others see him a wicked tyrant who blew our nation’s opportunity to be the first truly successful African country and was therefore justly overthrown.
Before looking at the great man and his legacy, let me dispose of a few myths and inconsistencies out there.
First, it is ironic that some in our country condemn in strong terms the overthrow of Nkrumah and the CPP in 1966 while they staged and or support the 31st December coup that overthrew the CPP’s successor, the PNP. While people of goodwill may disagree on whether the 1966 coup was justified or not, it defies imagination for one to be against the 1966 coup while being for the 1981 coup.
Second, it is strange that the party founded by the leader of the 31st December coup now wants to honour Nkrumah by declaring him the sole founder of Ghana. In the next week or so, there will be a lot of debate on whether he was the founder of Ghana or one of many founders.
The issue of how Ghana was founded, truth be told, is a historical matter that cannot be settled by spin. When in 1865, King John Aggrey of Cape Coast asserted his right to rule Cape Coast against the British imperialist and was exiled to Sierra Leone, he was fighting for independence! When in 1871, Fanti Chiefs joined together in the Fanti Confederacy, under the leadership of Ghartey, Horton and Blankson, they were fighting for independence!
When Yaa Asantewaa marched at the head of the Asante army in 1900 to fight the British, they were fighting for independence. When the leaders of the UGCC met at Saltpond to launch their enterprise, they were fighting for independence.
The ridiculous claim that Nkrumah alone won independence reminds me of a substitute in a hotly contested Hearts-Kotoko epic match who got the winning goal and afterwards went around shouting “I won! I Won!”. His coach pulled him aside and asked “Son, what do you think the other players were doing for the sixty minutes you sat on the bench”? The effort to make Nkrumah our sole founder is reminiscent of the sycophancy that made PDA and most of his excesses possible.
Third, we must celebrate the attitude of Pa Grant, Danquah and others who put ability ahead of age and nepotism. These days, our politicians, upon hearing Nkrumah’s name, would have asked “Obaa daben”? (When did he come?).
To return to Nkrumah’s legacy, here is where I stand.
First, Nkrumah was a great and visionary leader who may be the greater African, not just of the last century but maybe of all time.
Second, he was a tyrant who deserved to be removed from power.
I hold both of these views firmly and comfortably.
Ghanaians who talk of Nkrumah’s greatness err when they cite only the physical projects that he left behind – – Tema Habour, Akosombo Dam, Tema Motorway, KNUST, etc. His greatness lay far, far beyond those projects. They lay in three other areas; his inspiring effect on the black man, his singular contributions to the liberation of our continent and his hold on the masses stemming from his brand of retail politics.
It is indisputable that even people as respected as Martin Luther King Junior felt inspired by Nkrumah. That is why, while he held court, Accra became a kind of Mecca where people came to be inspired.
One only has to listen to his speech in Addis Ababa as the OAU was formed and hear his exhortation to his fellow leaders, not to “see themselves as Ethiopians, Nigerians, Guineans, etc, but simply as Africans” to feel the spirit at work in that room. His contributions to the liberation of Africa are so well-known that they do not require recounting.
On his effect on our politics, many saw or later read of his hold on ordinary people without understanding why but there was a reason. I remember that growing up, there was an elderly man, Agya Kwaku, who just lighted up whenever Nkrumah’s name was mentioned. When I asked him why he admired Nkrumah so much, he told me a story. He said sometime in 1949, Nkrumah had visited his village on behalf of the UGCC to organize the masses for independence. When Nkrumah walked into his house, a group of boys had cooked cocoyam, in the special way described in the local parlance as “akaw”. When the boys invited Nkrumah to join them in their meal, he did not even wait for a chair. He just sat on the floor and started eating the food with them.
As he ate with them, according to the old man, he went round the group asking them about their lives and their dreams. After that, any of them would have walked through fire for him. There were many politicians then, and they are many more now who would never have put their hands in the same bowl as those unemployed and unlettered youth but Nkrumah did, happily. Long before Bill Clinton, there walked in the villages of Africa a politician who truly fell the pain of the masses. And by God, when he had a chance, he did a lot about those pains.
But despite these accomplishments and qualities, in the end, he was a tyrant who harmed Ghana and gave Africa a very bad example.
He introduced the Preventive Detention Act shortly after independence and proceeded to impose limitations on the freedom of Ghanaians, unknown even during the colonial era.
He declared Ghana a one-party state. That was one of the cruelest things he did. The man who introduced multipartyism to Ghana by breaking off from the UGCC to form the CPP decided to make Ghana a one-party state!
He declared himself President-for-life. The man who had been educated in the West and knew or should have known better committed this travesty.
Then he capped it all be giving himself the power to remove judges of the Supreme Court for “reasons he saw fit”.
Regardless of a leader’s accomplishments, when he makes it impossible for people to change him peacefully, he makes his violent overthrow inevitable. As a friend of New York City’s greatest mayor, Fiorella La Guardia, once wrote to him, “Good men in good times must not set bad examples for bad men in bad times”. Nkrumah was a good man who set some terrible examples for Ghana and Africa.
I know there are many who blame Nkrumah alone for his failings but I do not.
Politics is a team sport. Just as Nkrumah alone did not win independence for us, he did not commit these errors alone. He did it with a team. The tragedy for our nation and Africa is that those who could have stood up to him and set him straight chose to be sycophants at the decisive moments.
Imagine when he was contemplating in the introduction on Preventive Detention Act. What might have been if Gbedema, Botio, and Ako Adjei had walked to his house one morning and one of them had said “Kwame, you are our brother. We love you. We fought for you when you were in prison. We have served you loyally every step of the way but you shall not impose Preventive Detention on this country. Not today, not tomorrow and not ever”! What if, in Parliament, the CPP members had led in defeating PDA? Nkrumah’s success between 1951 and 1957 when he was leader of government business was because he did not have absolute power.
Unfortunately, those who could have saved him from his excesses refused to stand up and he became a tyrant and in the process, destroyed his country and himself.
While I believe that his overthrow was justified, I wish a chastened and wiser Nkrumah had lived long enough to return to power, to give us more of his visionary leadership short of his tyrannical tendencies.
As we celebrate the centenary of his birthday, I believe his life should unite us.
His vision and commitment to our country and our continent should inspire us, to greater leadership and greater exertion in the service of our people. But his large faults and failings should stand as sentinels in the night, warning us of the evil that lurks in the best amongst us so that we can say, in response to those tragic failings – – never again, never again.
We should also learn from the sycophancy that made his failings possible because those who could have stood up to him and set him straight failed to do so. That sycophancy, writ large still thrives amongst our ruling classes and it is harming our nation.
It is time for UP traditionalists to accept Nkrumah’s unique place in our history and join in celebrating his greatness so that our nation can move on.
And it is time for CPP loyalists and the opportunists who have joined their ranks to stop their indefensible defence of his excesses. The death of Danquah and Obetsebi in prison while in Preventive Detention was the moral equivalent of Kulungugu, up to a point. What made it bad was that the death of Danquah and Obetsebi were purely and simply murders by the state. It is against the laws of natural justice to make oneself President-for-life in a Republic. It is subversive of a nation under the rule of law to arrogate to one person such unchecked power. I know, from very reliable sources, that as he lay dying in far-away Romania. Nkrumah regretted the most egregious of those excesses. Those who loved him can demonstrate their commitment best, by dedicating themselves to the masses he loved so much. Those who detest him so much can serve our nation best by dedicating themselves to the ideals that he betrayed so tragically. Let them lead the effort to build the strong institutions that will defy the tyrants of the future.
Therefore, let us all come together to build a nation worthy of his lofty vision but free of his tragic failing. Let us by building the nation he helped to found demonstrate truly that even though dead in the flesh, Nkrumah’s spirit and his spirit of service to Ghana and Africa will never die.
Nkrumah never dies!
Daily Graphic Page: 14 – 31 Friday, September 18, 2009