Who betrayed Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah?
Date published: February 24, 2011
By Bright B. Simons, IMANI
Since Dr. Kwame Nkrumah´s official election as the greatest African of all time, and even more so this year  because of the globally reported Golden Anniversary celebrations, many Ghanaians, whenever they encounter other Africans on the continent or in the Diaspora, feel increasingly under pressure to admit to guilt over the overthrow of Nkrumah, better known as Osagyefo.
The impression has been created that Kwame Nkrumah´s travails reflects the biblical saying: “a prophet has no honour in his own country”. We Ghanaians, according to this view, rejected Nkrumah´s ministry while the rest of Africa, and eventually the world, recognised his genius and hailed him as a visionary and seer.
The recent outpouring of affection, admittedly posthumous but touching all the same, has been interpreted as a deliberate or subconscious attempt to atone for our sins and make amends, even though the general consensus is that we still have a long way to go.
Honouring the great amongst our ancestors should not require any longwinding justification; the accusation usually is that we don´t do it often enough. But it goes without saying that adulation that comes from guilt is different from one that comes from true admiration.
The former sometimes borders on superstition; the latter allows for critical, thoughtful, tribute which is often a foundation for learning from role models.
So we want to examine, albeit briefly, the historical record for clues as to who betrayed Osagyefo, and having done so to try and determine what important insights we can draw to aid all of us as we seek to transform the legacy of Nkrumah, and indeed of all the great and good of Ghana´s past whose influence went beyond these shores, into a blueprint for plotting Ghana´s position in Africa and maybe even the world.
Let us begin with one of the episodes most often cited by those who hold that Africa embraced Osagyefo to the shame of us unfaithful Ghanaians. When Nkrumah´s government was overthrown in his absence he found himself stranded in Beijing, virtually homeless. What is worse, the Chinese had cancelled the rest of his peace-building mission, and were keeping him strictly quarantined from all the other guests, for to their oriental sensitivity he had become an embarrassment. His ideological comrade Sekou Toure of Guinea promptly extended a warm invitation to Osagyefo and upon the latter´s arrival in Conakry even made him co-President for a brief time. Sekou Toure was of course, together with Modibo Keita and Nkrumah, a member of the ideological triumvirate that through such programs as the Ghana-Guinea-Mali union strove to forcefully promote a federalist plan for Africa.
Sekou Toure´s action appears as an indictment on Ghana´s national conscience when viewed broadly. But as the memoirs of those closest to Nkrumah, such as June Milne and Erica Fowell, have revealed, it is not as rosy as all that. For Sekou Toure was a slightly paranoid sort of person.
Yes he did shelter Osagyefo in a villa, Syli house, but he forbade casual contact between his guest and his country folk with the sad result that the villa literally went to pieces around the great deposed president. The water soon stopped flowing, but plumbers weren´t allowed in, and then the lights went out too. The furniture was in tatters and the paintwork simply putrid by the time Nkrumah´s gilded captivity ended.
Despite Nkrumah´s failing health, Toure refused to consent to his being flown out of the country. He insisted that Guinean doctors could do the job even though it was painfully obvious that the only job they were doing was shooting their patient full of ineffective medication.
There is even evidence to suggest that the treatment was actually worsening his health. His family was not allowed to visit, and since he wasn´t permitted to leave the country either one can only imagine the psychological torment the man must have undergone.
When finally Toure gave his consent and relaxed the surveillance he had encased around his friend so Osagyefo could travel, it was to Socialist Romania that he was sent. But even there Toure ensured that he had only the barest minimum of material support. No wonder he never recovered from whatever ailed him.
Every indication is that the Guinean strongman did not trust his Ghanaian comrade.
Both were intellectual colossuses of the African socialism tradition and were certainly brothers-in-arms as far as ideology went, but interpersonal trust seemed somewhat beyond the relationship.
The trust and suspicion issue is interesting as they seem to have underlain the reception of Nkrumah and his Pan-Africanist ideology across the African continent.
The louder he was hailed the deeper mistrust and suspicion of him grew. Of all the African revolutionaries who learnt at his feet or by his side only Mugabe and Uganda´s Obote seemed to have been immune to this pathology.
Alhaji Sir Taffawa Balewa, Nigeria´s post-independence leader described Nkrumah´s conduct of foreign relations from Accra as `´the madness in Ghana´´. He was merely echoing the disaffection the Nigerian political elite felt about the state of affairs in Ghana dating back to Nnamdi Azikiwe´s famous bust-up with Nkrumah over the federalist/confederalist argument when both men were pan-African student activists in London in the late 40s.
Azikiwe was a confederalist, which these days will probably make him a `´regionalist´´. He wanted Africa to unite step by step through intermediate blocs. So he proposed a union of English-speaking countries in West Africa after independence. Nkrumah of course will have none of this. We all know the speech: `´Ethiopia will stretch forth its hand…Africa Must Unite!´´. He wanted a federal project or nothing: common unity for all Africa´s peoples regardless of colonial-imposed differences including language.
This stance coupled with his emphasis on political unity instead of economic cooperation generated much suspicion of Osagyefo´s motives across Africa. When the Congolese crisis flared up in the sixties, the opportunity appeared for criticism of the Osagyefo doctrine to mount.
Nkrumah, alongside his Afro-Arab allies in the Casablanca grouping, backed the pro-Lumumba rebels under Gizenga against Moise Tshombe the de facto ruler of Congo. 13 former French colonies promptly banded together in Nouakchott to undermine the Ghanaian position. They accused Nkrumah of sponsoring terrorism and even of harboring expansionary ambitions. Togo´s Olympio, foaming at the mouth, condemned Nkrumah´s alleged annexation plan for his country and was joined in the chorus of denunciation by both Benin and the Ivory Coast, with the latter exhibiting a band of guerrillas allegedly trained in one of Nkrumah´s jungle warfare schools.
Latter political historians have tended to dismiss this acrimony as simply part of the neocolonial resistance in the face of African Socialism´s march, and as such nothing to do with the particular merits of Nkrumah´s doctrine of African unity. The facts however are that even ideological comrades such as Nyerere viewed Nkrumah´s dogmatic approach very unfavourably indeed.
Nyerere´s counter-reaction to Nkrumah´s earnest disapproval of the former´s confederalist plan for East Africa bordered on contempt. He heaped scorn on Nkrumah´s popularly acclaimed title of `´Osagyefo´´. He described Nkrumah publicly as motivated solely by base motives of personal grandeur, and expressed an uncharitable opinion of Nkrumah´s doctrine as one designed for the acclaim of some `´stupid historians in the future´´. To rub it in, he called Osagyefo petty and mischievous.
Osagyefo´s soul mates abroad – the militant Trotskyites in Europe for instance- seemed to have shared parts of this perception. Peter Sedgwick the Communist commentator called Nkrumah´s African Socialism an `´empty gesture´´ and denounced what he described as Nkrumah´s suppression of the student movement and manipulation of the trade unions, something that in his view threatened the plural character of the budding socialism in Ghana and thus was likely to pave the way for it to become an elite tool of social control rather than a movement for the emancipation of the masses.
Everywhere he turned Osagyefo appeared to be under pressure. Barring his tactical genius it is impossible to see how he could have achieved any of his foreign policy objectives. He effectively had to blackmail the British Prime Minister by threatening to cancel a visit by the Queen to get the former to persuade the USA to fund the Akosombo dam.
Torn between Soviet and Western interests, as a consequence of his Non-Aligned doctrine, which effectively meant that the West considered him a dangerous communist while the USSR and China could never fully trust him, he was reduced to shuttle diplomacy.
Russia was assisting him expand his presidential guard with a view to creating a third counterweight to the national Army and Police Service, but was at the same time at odds with him over Zimbabwe and various aspects of the Congo question.
America was bankrolling his dam and at the same time bristling at his antics in southern Africa. It is not surprising that the negotiations of the Akosombo hydroelectric project´s financing agreement were described by Yergin and Stanislav as the most complex legal chessgame in history, at least since Queen Marie´s sale of Romanian bonds.
In fact that complexity has only recently been resolved with the closing down of Valco. Just as it was foreign campaigns, surrounded in equal measure by glory and opprobrium, that made Nkrumah `´Osagyefo´´, they were what in the end undid him.
In the commentary about the causes of Kwame Nkrumah´s overthrow, much has been said about the CIA´s complicity, but remarkably little attention has been paid to what the insurrectionists themselves said. According to (then) Major General Ankrah, the last straw that broke the Ghanaian Command´s back was Nkrumah´s decision to send Ghanaian forces to face off Ian Smith´s scouts and commandoes in Rhodesia (which later became Zimbabwe).
This added to considerable concern about the conditions under which Ghanaian service personnel were fighting in the Congo ostensibly to safeguard a fellow African nation from neocolonial exploitation. The problem of course was that the Congolese didn´t seem to appreciate this. Mobutu clearly viewed the Ghanaian contingent with exceptional unease.
The man may have been an ardent Africanist – probably the only African leader to have tried to expunge every detail of colonial heritage from his country – but Osagyefo´s pan-Africanism seemed to him a bit too much for his unsophisticated stomach. Nkrumah´s diplomats appeared blind to this reality, and so kept pushing the military contingent into compromising situations, leading to needless fatalities.
Similarly, to quell a growing plot to ensure the failure of OAU events hosted in Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah poured over 4 million pounds – several times the equivalent of the 10 million pounds reportedly spent on the recent Golden Anniversary celebrations – into job 600 in a bid to demonstrate Ghana´s eligibility for such high profile events and as part of an effort to showcase Africa´s growing technical and material achievements.
Unfortunately, many economists, even those who today passionately endorse Nkrumah´s overall economic strategy, accept that this and similar patterns of spending contributed to a growing national insolvency.
The history of Osagyefo Kwame Kofi Nwia Nkrumah´s experiences in Africa, and elsewhere, is altogether one of unrequited love. Sometimes, his political brilliance and tactical genius notwithstanding, Nkrumah was idealistic to the point of self-harm. Ghanaians certainly dealt him a raw deal when we sent him to exile and set about methodically unraveling his legacy, but we were singing as part of a continental chorus whose theme was the suicidal implications of towing Nkrumah´s doctrinal line.
Liberia´s W.V. Tubman summed up this sad but overwhelming consensus in this cynical statement after Nkrumah´s overthrow: “Nkrumah, Modibo Keita and others forgot that their citizens could not eat their many Young Pioneer slogans when hungry and wallowing in abject poverty.” Sometimes, idealism however earnest can only go so far.
Ghanaians kept faith with Nkrumah for close to 15 years. And contrary to what many have claimed, his overthrow did reflect a modicum of national sentiment. The assertions of tribal undercurrents are unsupported by the facts. A simple roll-call of the chief plotters debunks that notion. Ocran and Ankrah were Gas, Afrifa was an Ashanti, Harley, Deku and Kotoka were Ewes, and Yakubu was from the North. And while it is true that the aftermath of the coup cannot be said to have showcased Ghana at its best, it was far less brutal than has often been said. The first family was allowed to leave Ghana unharmed. Two Cabinet Ministers lost their lives, but given the uproar it could have been more. 25 members of the Government´s protective detail were killed, but once again this must be set against the background of a fully blown insurrection. Nearly all of Osagyefo´s staff was spared execution.
As Tubman´s statement above shows the coup was hardly greeted with denunciation on the continent. It is a myth that Africa embraced Nkrumah after he had been betrayed by Ghana. In the end it was Osagyefo who betrayed Osagyefo.
The principal lesson to draw from the Osagyefo´s story therefore is not the appropriateness of guilt or remorse; it is paradoxically an empowering rather than depressing insight. Nkrumah´s overall vision of a united Africa was a glorious one but his doctrines about how to get there stood in needless resistance to the consensus. Time has proved that his formula is unworkable. Regionalisation and economic cooperation have won against federalism and political union.
But it has been a pyrrhic victory. Remnants of the past tension still undermine progress. They should not. The great man accurately foresaw that African states are too small and too weak to be able to stand alone, it was his suggested cure to this diseased condition that proved too bitter to swallow. The diagnosis however still stands.
We must today work towards breaking the barriers of trade that straddle the continent. We must throw out the corrupt customs and immigration officers away from the border posts. It is a disgrace that there are no direct air links between Ghana and many other West African states and consequently that business people who do want to fly from one country to the other sometimes have to transit through France! It is a blot on Nkrumah´s legacy that some telecommunication links between African countries are still routed through Europe. Why must we continue to import en masse European models even when they do not have the remotest link to our own circumstances?
To most of these questions, the answer can be found in the continued suspicion about the market and the refusal to acknowledge its unmatched ability to link individuals across frontiers. Sekou Toure famously declared that capitalism is “an over-sophisticated pastime which we in Africa cannot afford to indulge in”. The truth is that centralist planning is even more complex and unbearably difficult to administer. African unionization has failed because for so long it was a centralist project run by elites. Individuals had few incentives to get involved. To many on the continent talk of continental unity is an elite hobby driven by bloated gas from too much meat eating.
The greatest generator of incentives for individual effort and participation that history has even known is the unfettered powers of Free AND responsible Markets. We must seek the economic kingdom of individual liberty before we embark on a search for the political kingdom of common unity.
Therefore, while we accept Osagyefo´s exhortation: “Africa Must Unite”! We must humbly also add: “But First, Africans Must Unite”!
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in 2007.
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