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We owe it to Kwame Nkrumah, the continent’s time traveller who predicted our future history, to celebrate Africa Day


Eddy Maloka is Visiting Professor at the Wits School of Governance. He writes in his personal capacity.

Kwame Nkrumah was undoubtedly the most influential African of the 20th century. But his many writings never feature in the ANC’s political education programme. We misunderstood him, we mistrusted him. We mistook him for a utopian socialist who did not have a full grasp of class analysis and dialectics.

We owe it to Kwame Nkrumah that every year we celebrate Africa Day. It’s also thanks to him that we have an entity called the African Union (AU), a name he coined some 60 years ago before even the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) saw the light of day in 1963. 

His Africa Must Unite, published the same year the OAU was formed, observed that: “In the early flush of independence, some of the new African states are jealous of their sovereignty and tend to exaggerate their separatism in a historical period that demands Africa’s unity in order that their independence may be safeguarded.”

He argued that “the idea of African union is not just a sentimental one, emanating from a common experience of colonialism and a desire for young, untried states to come together in the effervescence of their new freedom, though sentiment undoubtedly has its part. The unity of the countries of Africa is an indispensable precondition for the speediest and fullest development, not only of the totality of the continent but of the individual countries linked together in the union.”

That’s how far-sighted this Ghanaian leader was. No wonder his ideas outlived the opinions of his critics, and he has been proven correct on some key questions. He was undoubtedly the most influential African of the 20th century.

However, Nkrumah is surprisingly not fully appreciated here at home; his many writings never feature in the reading list for the ANC’s political education programme which instead contains literature churned out by the likes of the erstwhile Progress Publishers of the Soviet days. We misunderstood him, we mistrusted him. We didn’t think he was radical or Marxist enough. We mistook him for a utopian socialist who did not have a full grasp of class analysis and dialectics.

But the man was a Marxist; his writings rely on class analysis in their diagnosis of the African condition. Some of his contemporaries even thought he was a communist, to the extent that the colonial authorities in Ghana instituted a formal inquiry into this suspicion. When it came to deciding on an organisational model for his Convention People’s Party, he chose Vladimir Lenin’s vanguard formula. Like his party, his writings gave considerable attention to working-class issues. His Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965) opens with a citation from Lenin’s famous essay on a similar topic. He was just a tactician who tailored his Marxism to Ghana’s conditions.

How we came to dismiss him as irrelevant to our liberation struggle was a function of two variables. First, is the big part the South African Communist Party (SACP) played in determining the content of the ANC’s political education syllabus. In the context of the Cold War, the SACP sided with Moscow, even in the Sino-Soviet dispute. Except for the likes of Amilcar Cabral and Samora Machel, for the most part, the SACP had no appetite for pan-Africanists, let alone their writings. Nkrumah was not the only victim of this intellectual gate-keeping; so was Frantz Fanon, another pre-eminent pan-African thinker. As a result, while both Nkrumah and Fanon remain intellectually dominant to this day, they are however still a rarity in the ANC’s ideological circle.

Second, is how pan-Africanism evolved in our country. We confuse it with the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) and unfairly juxtapose it to non-racialism. In the process, we threw away the baby with the PAC. Yet Nkrumah’s pan-Africanism is significantly distinct and different from that of the PAC. Unlike some of his contemporaries in the African diaspora, he categorically rejected race-based pan-Africanism and even married an Egyptian woman to drive home his point.

In his Ghana: The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah (1957), he was clear that “[Marcus] Garvey’s ideology was concerned with black nationalism as opposed to African nationalism.” A few pages later, he recalled his public address where he declared: “Africa for the Africans, but not the kind of philosophy that Marcus Garvey preached. No!”  

In Africa Must Unite he would state that “there are those who maintain that Africa cannot unite because we lack the three necessary ingredients for unity — a common race, culture and language.” Clearly, in his mind, there would be no contradiction between his pan-Africanism and our non-racialism.

He was a pan-Africanist in all its dimensions. Two West Indian Marxists and leading founders of pan-Africanism, CLR James and George Padmore, mentored him; and he opened the doors of independent Ghana to Africans from the diaspora, some of whom even served in his government.

Another icon of pan-Africanism, the prolific, African-American intellectual giant, Edward du Bois, spent the last years of his life in Ghana where he is buried. When we see today’s Black Lives Matter or Rhodes Must Fall movements, we realise how prophetic Du Bois was when he wrote in his The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903) that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour-line.” Nkrumah was equally prophetic when he foresaw in Africa Must Unite that African nationalism will be “the greatest political phenomenon of the latter part of the twentieth century”. But I am not aware whether Du Bois or any of James’ or Padmore’s writings can be found in our public education system.

Our street names tell it all. A visitor in Accra, Harare or Windhoek would see the names of pan-African leaders at every corner, but not here in the land of Nelson Mandela whose name is found in the streets of many cities across the globe. Some of our neighbours are ahead of us in encouraging their citizens to sing the AU Anthem and their governments to hoist the AU flag alongside theirs.

Had we followed Nkrumah’s idea of creating a union of Africa instead of sovereign, post-colonial nation-states, our continent would have fared better than it did. “The forward solution,” he stated in Africa Must Unite, “is for the African states to stand together politically, to have a united foreign policy, a common defence plan, and a fully integrated economic programme for the development of the whole continent. Only then can the dangers of neo-colonialism and its handmaiden Balkanisation be overcome.”

His motto was simple: “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else shall be added unto you.” He believed in the primacy of politics; that the immediate aim of any political struggle is to assume state power and then use this state to transform society. He applied this reasoning to his union of Africa: “Just as I was convinced that political freedom was the essential forerunner of our economic growth and that it must come,” he writes in the same book, “so I am equally convinced that African union will come and provide that united, integrated base upon which our fullest development can be secured.”

He argued: “In the face of the forces that are combining to reinforce neo-colonialism in Africa, it is imperative that the leaders should begin now to seek the best and quickest means by which we can collectivise our economic resources and produce an integrated plan for their careful deployment for our mutual benefit. If we can do this, we shall raise in Africa a great industrial, economic and financial power comparable to any that the world has seen in our time.”

He preferred integrated, central planning, as opposed to a laissez-faire approach to economic development. In fact, Chapter 17 of his Africa Must Unite can be mistaken for the AU’s Agenda 2063. It reads like a document written just yesterday; and sadly, this shows how we have indeed stagnated as a continent over the past six decades. Nkrumah recounted in this book: “When I sat down with my party colleagues after independence to examine our urgent priorities, we framed a short list. We must abolish poverty, ignorance, illiteracy and improve our health services.” These can easily pass for priorities of most African countries today, including ours. We are still where Nkrumah was 60 years ago! 

“But one thing is certain,” he warned us, “unless we plan to lift Africa up out of her poverty, she will remain poor. For there is a vicious circle which keeps the poor in their rut of impoverishment, unless an energetic effort is made to interrupt the circular causations of poverty.”

His union of Africa is more complex and ambitious than our AU. Besides its common foreign and defence policies, it has a common market, an African currency; it’s self-reliant, with its own resources generated through a common market and pooled resources; it’s industrialising, and focused on cutting-edge technology and impactful infrastructure development and integrating the African airspace. Today’s African Common Position is a step towards his common foreign policy. The African Standby Force that we are yet to operationalise is our way towards his common defence policy. The African currency is still in the pipeline like the financial institutions envisaged in the AU’s Constitutive Act. The AfCFTA is our version of his African Common Market.

Our Ghanaian was ahead of his peers. He anticipated that “the Inga project could go a long way towards electrifying the whole of the African continent”. But he was also spot-on: “The Inga dam, a blueprint dream for the Congo, may not get beyond that stage without the cooperation of other African states, for no single state could afford to build it.” He has been vindicated.

He predicted that China would overtake Europe and Japan in the long run.

In the end, he was human, and indeed a man of his time — the early 20th century, and the toxic environment of the Cold War. He was not immune to the contradictions and the trappings of a post-colonial state. But the power of his brain turned him into a time traveller to our era and beyond.

History is a great teacher. The Soviet Union that we held in high esteem is no more. We were not enthusiastic about China; today this country is a superpower.

Nkrumah didn’t make it into our syllabus, but his ideas outlived most elements of the dogma we imbibed. Never be too sure, because history can prove you wrong. DM


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