Kwame Nkrumah: The greatest African
Written by Eric Walberg    PDF Print E-mail

“For centuries, Europeans dominated the African continent. The white man arrogated to himself the right to rule and to be obeyed by the non-white; his mission, he claimed, was to "civilize" Africa. Under this cloak, the Europeans robbed the continent of vast riches and inflicted unimaginable suffering on the African people.”

--- I Speak of Freedom: A Statement of African Ideology (1961)

(Spring 2008) -- The incessant stream of bad news — make that “flood” — from “the dark continent” gives the impression that Africa somehow missed out on the wonders of capitalist development which the West luckily reaped through some quirk of fate. No longer is it acceptable to attribute this discrepancy to skin colour, though that underlying prejudice still survives, seemingly corroborated by World Bank — even holier-than-thou United Nations — statistics.

So the words and works of Kwame Nkrumah, which inspired a generation, are well worth a second glance. In fact, the greatest African of the millennium, according to the 2000 BBC World Service listeners’ poll, is not Nelson Mandela or even Patrice Lumumba, but Kwame Nkrumah, the man who inspired the movement for African independence, but who has dropped out of Western discourse, for very good reasons.

Born in a village in the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana), he excelled in the new colonial school and managed to study in the US in the 1930s, where he graduated from the black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, travelling to Britain in 1945, where he organized the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester, and later the West African National Secretariat in London to promote the decolonization of Africa. He returned to the Gold Coast in 1947, where he was promptly arrested by the British colonial administration but released due to popular pressure and hopes that this bright and charismatic leader could be co-opted to help guide the colonies towards an imperial version of independence. He disappointed them, instead, hitchhiking around the countryside, proclaiming that the Gold Coast needed "self-government now." The cocoa farmers rallied to his cause, as did women and trade unions.

By 1949 he had organized these groups into the Convention People's Party, and led Ghana to a peaceful electoral transfer of power after a campaign of "Positive Action" which began in 1950 and included civil disobedience, non-cooperation, boycotts, and strikes. He was elected Prime Minister still under British supervision in 1951, but, by 1957, the Gold Coast territories were united as Ghana, the first truly independent African state after Egypt. In 1960, Nkrumah announced plans for a new constitution which would make Ghana a republic and boldly included plans for an eventual surrender of Ghanaian sovereignty to a union of African states. In 1963, Nkrumah was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union. Ghana became a charter member of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, with Nkrumah and Egyptian President Gamal Abdoul-Nasser determined to unite Africa economically and politically.

Gamal Nkrumah, Kwame’s son, comments:

“What distinguishes Nkrumah from other African leaders at the time was that his Pan-Africanism was not simply African nationalism. Nkrumah made it clear that he was a Marxist, and rejected the African socialism of Julius Nyerere the first president of Tanzania. Nkrumah’s Class Struggle in Africa was a very influential book at the time of its publication. For Nkrumah, socialism was the now rather unfashionable scientific socialism. Socialism was universal, and not African, Arab or Asian. Socialism was socialism. The other feature of Nkrumaism that distinguishes him from his contemporaries was that he stressed that only through continental African unity that Africa could develop and prosper. His book Africa Must Unite clearly demonstrates why continental development is prerequisite for African economic advancement and well-being.”

The Gold Coast was primarily a cocoa producer at the time of independence and Nkrumah benefited from the surge in cocoa prices to channel funds into development, concentrating on community health and education programs and infrastructure, in particular the ambitious Akosombo Dam, which still provides virtually all of Ghana’s electricity.

His career is a study in neocolonialism, the very term which he used to fashion a theory of how capitalism transforms political relations after the feudal and violent forms of colonialism outlived their usefulness. He attempted to move Ghana's economy toward a more industrial model, reasoning that Ghana had to break the hold that the colonial trade system had over it by reducing its dependence on foreign capital, technology, and material goods in order to become truly independent. Unfortunately, he faced Western opposition to his socialist platform, and he was forced to finance the country’s development by taxing Ghana’s cocoa farmers, soon losing their support. He also lost union support by taking away their right to strike in 1958, arguing that the times called for national unity and self-sacrifice. The US firm that built the Akosombo Dam imposed unfavourable terms, and he was not able to get the Soviet Union to bail him out, as Nasser was with the Aswan Dam.

In retrospect he is criticized for a drift towards dictatorship. Indeed, as presidential decrees replaced parliamentary consensus, lower level officials used their powers to arrest personal opponents, and economic planning resulted in shortages and graft. His attempt to take on the role of strongman/dictator as president for life in 1964, however well-intentioned, did not reverse the faltering of his idealistic experiment in anti-colonial development, and he was deposed in a CIA-backed coup in 1966 while on an official visit to Vietnam.

At the time of the coup, he looked like he was at the peak of power, as Chairman of the Organization of African Unity and only weeks after the official opening of the Akosombo Dam. But the coup was relatively bloodless, and the military regime that replaced him quickly brought Ghana back into the Western fold with little obvious show of force by the imperial powers. In the end, the various economic projects that he undertook were unable to release Ghana from dependence on the West. Nkrumah was a classic victim of the system he so devastatingly critiqued in his writings, especially Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965), finished less than a year before his overthrow.

As the US “comes out” as an imperial power, with its post-9/11 wars of conquest, a glance back at Nkrumah’s writings is useful.

From I Speak of Freedom: A Statement of African Ideology: “All we ask of the former colonial powers is their goodwill and co-operation to remedy past mistakes and injustices and to grant independence to the colonies in Africa.” Of course, no such good will could really be expected, and Nkrumah lived to witness that. Nor is it to be expected today. Yet, instead of sabotaging Nkrumah’s selfless aim of creating the foundations for a better life for his people, how easy it would have been to contribute in a “win-win” way to his well-meaning, if ambitious, attempts at egalitarian progress. Unfortunately that’s not the way capitalism works.

“It is clear that we must find an African solution to our problems, and that this can only be found in African unity. Divided we are weak; united, Africa could become one of the greatest forces for good in the world.” Such unity has been only superficial and the OAU takes second place to the WTO, not to mention AFRICOM and UN forces directed to trouble spots by the West, ensuring their continued guidance of Africa’s development within the global imperial framework.

“The economic development of the continent must be planned and pursued as a whole. A loose confederation designed only for economic co-operation would not provide the necessary unity of purpose. Only a strong political union can bring about full and effective development of our natural resources for the benefit of our people. There are at present some 28 states in Africa, excluding the Union of South Africa, and those countries not yet free. No less than nine of these states have a population of less than three million. Can we seriously believe that the colonial powers meant these countries to be independent, viable states? The example of South America, which has as much wealth, if not more than North America, and yet remains weak and dependent on outside interests, is one which every African would do well to study. The scant attention paid to African opposition to the French atomic tests in the Sahara, and the ignominious spectacle of the UN in the Congo quibbling about constitutional niceties while the Republic was tottering into anarchy, are evidence of the callous disregard of African Independence by the Great Powers. There is a tide in the affairs of every people when the moment strikes for political action. Such was the moment in the history of the United States of America when the Founding Fathers saw beyond the petty wranglings of the separate states and created a Union. This is our chance. We must act now. Tomorrow may be too late and the opportunity will have passed, and with it the hope of free Africa's survival.”

We can certainly see in retrospect how the principle of “divide and conquer” has been well served, as Africa continues to disintegrate into “independent” states, urged on by the West, just as this strategy is used today to create more and more statelets throughout the world subservient to Western interests. Meanwhile, NATO, with its shadowy Cold War origins, has been retooled to meet imperialism’s present needs — worldwide hegemony mobilizing the military might of the richest nations and incorporating all of Europe as soldiers in the service of the US.

"The essence of neocolonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside. Foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world. Investment under neocolonialism increases rather than decreases the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world. This does not mean that all capital from the developed world should be excluded, but rather from being used in such a way as to impoverish the less developed recipient.”

Nkrumah was not advocating isolationism or war against the West, but rather appealing to a sense of humanity from the colonial powers, now rich from exploiting their colonies, in the hope that they could share this wealth. Quixotic, perhaps, but the only hope for a peaceful transition to a non-exploitative future.

“The formal granting of independence created a more Manichean system of dependency and exploitation, since for those who practice it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress. In the days of old-fashioned colonialism, the imperial power had at least to explain and justify at home the actions it was taking abroad. In the colony those who served the ruling imperial power could at least look to its protection against any violent move by their opponents. With neocolonialism neither is the case.”

Briefly, it is manifested through economic and monetary measures. For example the neocolonial territories become the target markets for imports from the imperial centre(s); previous colonial masters are replaced or merely supplemented by new actors, including an array of international financial, monetary, trade, social and military organizations; open superpower conflict is replaced by proxy or limited wars in the developed world; as the ruling elites pay constant deference to the neocolonial masters, the needs of the population are often ignored, leaving issues of living conditions like education, development, and poverty unresolved.

In more recent days there have been attempts to frame such reactions to new forms of colonialism as simply "irrational" antipathy towards the West, as a type of resentment for the disparities between First and Third Worlds, and also as a way of explaining victimization. However Nkrumah's views on neocolonialism cannot be so easily explained away, because they predict many features of the post-colonial system long before they were clearly in place. Nkrumah sought to develop the idea of imperialism advanced by Lenin in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. This is not to argue that imperialism sustains itself because of the continued lust for power for the mere sake of power, but that there exists a higher logic of capitalism at work, the never-ending need for accumulation and production, now sustained on a global scale. Nkrumah picks up on these Marxist themes by noting how capitalism and its problems, including class conflict, which occur at the metropolitan centres, are "transferred" onto the periphery:

“Neocolonialism, like colonialism, is an attempt to export the social conflicts of the capitalist countries. The temporary success of this policy can be seen in the ever-widening gap between the richer and the poorer nations of the world. But the internal contradictions and conflicts of neocolonialism make it certain that it cannot endure as a permanent world policy.” While Nkrumah does not provide a solution to neocolonialism in Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism he makes a number of tacit suggestions, including the need for pan-African unity, to make the task more difficult for neocolonialism. Ironically, Nkrumah argues that neocolonialism is a potentially self-defeating project because of postcolonial resistance and revolt when it reaches an extreme in the periphery, indirectly destabilizing the neocolonial centre that practices it.

At issue in development and dependency theory is the difficulty for the Third World states to escape the Western notion of development. Classification, economic growth, the ways economic output is measured, and the progressive linear model of development have been so deeply entrenched that neocolonized states have no other recourse but to be part of that system.

“Lurking behind [who really rules in such countries as France, Germany, the UK, etc.] are the extended tentacles of the Wall Street octopus. And its suction cups and muscular strength are provided by a phenomenon dubbed ‘The Invisible Government’, arising from Wall Street’s connection with the Pentagon and various intelligence services. I quote: ‘The Invisible Government ... is a loose amorphous grouping of individuals and agencies drawn from many parts of the visible government. It is not limited to the Central Intelligence Agency, although the CIA is at its heart. The Invisible Government includes also many other units and agencies, as well as individuals, that appear outwardly to be a normal part of the conventional government. It even encompasses business firms and institutions that are seemingly private.” [1]

Words that we can take to heart after 9/11. And the same actors that many see behind 9/11 —namely, the Bush dynasty — were instrumental in overthrowing Nkrumah himself. George HW Bush, contrary to his protestations of innocence with respect to CIA covert operations when he was chosen by president Gerald Ford to head the institution in 1976, planned and carried out the coup against Nkrumah in 1966, as his son Gamal discovered when he gained access in the Library of Congress, Washington DC, to declassified CIA documents in the 1990s.

"Where the more subtle methods of economic pressure and political subversion have failed to achieve the desired result," Nkrumah wrote from exile in Guinea three years after the 1966 coup, "there has been resort to violence in order to promote a change of regime and prepare the way for the establishment of a puppet government." While neocolonialism worked, more or less, from the 1960s to the 1990s by mobilizing the institutional resources of the post-WWII international institutions such as the WB, IMF and the UN itself, this was just not enough for the greedy US, which decided, in the face of the collapse of the Soviet Union, to return to a more straight-forward policy of invasion, assuming its prestige and military might would be enough to nip any opposition in the bud.

Of course, we now know that things have turned out very differently. The Iraq war cost is already into trillions of dollars, which the Federal Reserve creates with continued expansionary credit policy, and which has already created the mortgage and 'sub-prime' crisis, and the collapse of the US real estate market, pushing gold over $1000 an ounce and oil to over $100 a barrel, precipitating the present economic recession — the Iraq recession, as it is already dubbed by Barbara Lee in a US Congress resolution.

The unintended consequence of the monstrous folly as laid out in the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) has been a revival of the anti-imperial struggle, this time encompassing intellectuals, peasants and workers on a world scale, though with former state supporters of this struggle — China, Russia and India — themselves transformed and playing different roles, with the exception of India, still in opposition to the US. Their embrace of capitalism and the rise of Islam as a political-economic rival in the place of state socialism provide a very different context for the anti-imperialist struggle. But the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Israeli war against the Palestinians, to name just the most egregious examples of imperialism today, have been sufficient catalysts to buttress opposition. A new generation of anti-imperial struggle is underway, centred around the World Social Forum which started in 2001, just a few months before what many consider to be PNAC’s brilliant if malevolent “new Pearl Harbour” and monstrous “war on terror”. The road is not easy, but we can take inspiration from the energy and insight that Nkrumah dedicated to this struggle against injustice.


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Eric Walberg

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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.