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It is an unquestionable fact that the political leader with the most profound impact on Africa in the twentieth century was Kwame Nkrumah, the founder and first president of the independent nation of Ghana. He was born on or about September 21, 1909, in Nkroful in the southwest part of the Gold Coast, now Ghana. The force that impelled his behavior and unleashed his energies was the ideology of pan-Africanism, which took root in him through his discipleship of Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) during his student days in the United States from 1935 to 1945. The ideology’s core objective was to break the African universe away from the powerlessness and degradation that had accompanied five centuries of slavery, colonialism, and other forms of domination suffered by Africans universally at the hands of Western capitalistic imperialism. Returning to his native Gold Coast in 1947, Nkrumah soon proved himself, as the African nationalist Amílcar Cabral (1924–1973) observed, “the strategist of genius in the struggle against classical colonialism” (Davidson 1973, p. 13), bringing the British colony to independence in 1957. From then on, he made the liquidation of colonialism in Africa and the unification of the emergent states into a federal union the primary goals of the new Ghanaian state. In this schema, the freeing of Ghana from colonial rule remained always “the servant” of the second goal of Africa’s total liberation and unity. He tirelessly proclaimed this credo: “I will commit all the resources and energies of Ghana towards achieving Africa’s independence and unity” (Legum 1962, p. 44).
With a federal continental government, he proclaimed, Africa would be able to tackle every emergency, every enemy, and every complexity. This is not because Africans are a race of supermen, but because “we have emerged in the age of science and technology in which poverty, ignorance, and disease are no longer the masters, but the retreating foes of mankind. We have emerged in the age of socialized planning, where production and distribution are not governed by chaos, greed and self-interest, but by social needs” (Nkrumah 1973, p. 240). Above all, he continued, Africans had emerged at a time when a continental land mass such as Africa was “necessary to the economic capitalization and profitability of modern productive methods and techniques” (Nkrumah 1973, p. 240).
In a campaign based on, in the words of Colin Legum, a “passionate, informed and urgent advocacy,” (Gardiner 1970, p. 53) Nkrumah assailed the gradualist, incrementalist, economistic, region-bound approach to integration, making it clear that African unity was, in the last analysis, “a political kingdom” that could only be gained by political means—that the social and economic development of Africa would come only within the political kingdom, not the other way around.
Nkrumah’s single-minded challenge and overthrow of imperial power in Ghana (as the Gold Coast was renamed in 1957) greatly stimulated the forces of nationalism across Africa. The West answered back by creating the appearance of political liberation in diverse African places to hide the reality of the maintenance of old colonial relationships. This way, the West continued to rule and control Africa’s economic destiny surreptitiously, using puppet regimes suitably dressed in the counterfeit trappings of sovereignty. Nkrumah characterized this new phenomenon neocolonialism, and he went on to castigate it as the most irresponsible form of imperialism in the sense that, for those who imposed it, it meant “power without responsibility,” whereas for those victimized by it, it meant “exploitation without redress” (Nkrumah 1965, p. xi).
There was no denying the reality of neocolonialism. Certainly, as Rupert Emerson noted, the territories left behind following the deliberate breakup by France of the French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa Federations seemed “hopeless experiments in endowing with life” artificial political entities that had no prospect of economic and political viability and stability (Emerson 1962, p. 286). And yet, Nkrumah was deemed “to have offended against all international proprieties” by making a battle against neocolonialism his “daily preoccupation,” and by writing a book on its dangers (Bing 1968, p. 32) entitled Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965). The British prime minister, Alex Douglas-Hume, called the concept a slander, and the U.S. State Department officially summoned the Ghanaian charge d’affaires in Washington, D.C. to formally protest the publication of the book in the United States. In the end, Nkrumah’s crusade for genuine decolonization and panAfrican unification resulted in a foreign-instigated overthrow of his government. In the categorical statement of Jeffrey Sachs, “The CIA had its hand on the violent overthrow of President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana in 1966” (Sachs 2005, p. 190).
Nkrumah linked pan-Africanism (as a movement for one United Africa that could countervail imperialism, and as an ideology of egalitarianism committed to the creation of opportunities for the development and uplift of all African people) with socialism: “At the core of the concept of African unity,” he wrote, “lies socialism and the socialist definition of the new African society. Socialism and African unity are organically complementary” (Nkrumah 1968, p. 28). Because colonial rule precluded the accumulation of capital among the colonial subjects, a postcolonial system based on private enterprise would result in the overwhelming foreign capitalist domination of the national economy. On his postulate that capitalism “is but the gentleman’s method of slavery,” he insisted that panAfricanism needed to harness the “scientific,” “abiding,” and “universal” principles of socialism to contain it (Nkrumah 1968, p. 29; Nkrumah 1970[b], p. 26). Among these principles are the public ownership of the means of production geared toward “the fulfillment of the people’s needs,” and recognition of the reality of the class struggle.
Nkrumah’s heroic role in the decolonization struggle in Africa, and his enormous importance as the symbol of Ghanaian national unity in an ethnically fragmented land, produced a wave of oftentimes irrational adulation around him, reminiscent of the uncritical hero-worship that Americans once heaped on George Washington as the first president of the incipient American republic. In effect, a personality cult nourished by Nkrumah’s own penchant for flamboyant style sought for him the same kind of legitimacy rooted in history, religion, and ancestral spiritual practices that was afforded his powerful rival, the Asante King. But, when all is said and done, it was Nkrumah’s grand vision of a united African superstate, much like what animates and drives the European Union today, that drew the racist accusation of megalomania from the West, and not anything to do with his supposedly inflated sense of personal grandeur or fondness for adulation.
Following his ouster, Nkrumah took up residence in Conakry, Guinea, at the invitation of President Ahmed Sékou Touré (1922–1984) and spent a good deal of his time reading and writing, polishing his speaking French, and holding heated discussions on salient African issues with visiting companions-in-arms such as Cabral and Kwame Ture (Stokeley Carmichael, 1941–1998). He made several radio broadcasts to Ghana drawing attention to the neocolonial character of the February 1966 military coup, all as part of a spirited effort to rally support for his return to power. Astoundingly, during this hectic period he also managed to publish several significant books, among them Challenge of the Congo (1967), Dark Days in Ghana (1968), Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare (1968), Class Struggle in Africa (1970), and Revolutionary Path (1973), all of which he dedicated, characteristically, to the “African Nation That Must Be.” Nkrumah died on April 27, 1972, in Bucharest, Romania, while receiving treatment for skin cancer.
Even though his dedication to the pan-African vision entailed the sacrifice of some short-term Ghana national interests, it is still the resounding verdict that the most impressive economic, social, and political achievements in Ghana to date took place during his leadership. And although he failed to achieve the goal of African political unification, what gave Nkrumah his lasting importance “is that he failed in trying to reach the right goal, and not, like many of his time and later, in trying to reach the wrong one” (Davidson 1973, p. 207). After all, this is a historical juncture “when policies aimed at … unity can alone solve Africa’s problems, so that all other alternatives can be no more than temporary diversions from the pathway to those aims” (Davidson 1973, p. 37).
- Nkrumah, Kwame. 1965. Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. London: Nelson.
- Nkrumah, Kwame. 1967. Challenge of the Congo. New York: International Publishers.
- Nkrumah, Kwame. 1968. Dark Days in Ghana. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Nkrumah, Kwame. 1968. Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare. New York: International Publishers.
- Nkrumah, Kwame. 1970(a). Class Struggle in Africa. New York: International Publishers.
- Nkrumah, Kwame. 1970(b). Consciencism: Philosophy and the Ideology for Decolonization. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Nkrumah, Kwame. 1973. Revolutionary Path. New York: International Publishers.
- Bing, Geoffrey. 1968. Reap the Whirlwind: An Account of Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana from 1950 to 1966. London: McGibbon and Kee.
- Davidson, Basil. 1973. Black Star: A View of the Life and Times of Kwame Nkrumah. New York: Praeger Publishers.
- Emerson, Rupert. 1962. Pan-Africanism. International Organization 16 (Spring): 275–290.
- Gardiner, Robert, Margaret Joan Anstee, and C. L. Patterson, eds. 1970. Africa and the World. Addis Ababa: Oxford University Press.
- Legum, Colin. 1962. Pan-Africanism: A Short Political Guide. New York: Praeger.
- Sachs, Jeffrey D. 2005. The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. New York: Penguin Press.
- Smertin, Yuri. 1987. Kwame Nkrumah. New York: International Publishers.
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