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THE LEGACY OF KWAME NKRUMAHpdf print preview print preview
21/03/2007Page 1 of 1
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
… Through the lens of Sir Shridath

       Former Secretary General of the
       Commonwealth and Foreign
       Minister of Guyana


Pleasure and pride conjoin in me as I honour the memory of Kwame Nkrumah. The pleasure is personal, out of my own respect for this man of many gifts; but I feel proud also on behalf of the Commonwealth, because it was Nkrumah who initiated Africa’s outstandingly constructive role in Commonwealth affairs.

The first Prime Minister of the first Black African state in this century to regain its freedom, Kwame Nkrumah, both the Chief Architect of Ghana’s Independence and the builder of much of her early development.

These were real achievements, which, because of their contemporary significance, their shock value to the old world-system, translated easily on to the symbolic plane, and enabled Ghana to play a frontline role in one of the noblest campaigns of our time, the struggle to bring freedom to colonized peoples in Africa and the world at large.

A man of ideas, who believed that ideas should find physical, institutional expression, he contributed creatively to the modern Commonwealth, was a founding father of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), a vigorous champion of the UN and a leader in the Non-Aligned Movement.

With any visionary it is the vision itself that distinguishes him from others. Once he has communicated the vision, and it has been consummated even partly, it easily becomes commonplace. To appreciate Nkrumah’s vision at its true value, we have to go back to the international system as it existed between the two World Wars. That was the period when the independence of African States was a far-off dream; when the European-oriented League of Nations showed itself less than resolute to help stricken Ethiopia; when other organizations of international and, especially African co-operation were not thought of, and the Commonwealth embraced only the old white Dominions.

… And enabled Ghana to
Play a frontline role in one
 Of the noblest campaigns of our time

Non-racialism, a generosity of mind and an intuitive internationalism all seem to have emerged naturally from Kwame Nkrumah’s early life. But what about that feeling for Africa’s limitless future, and that global vision?   Among many influences contributing to the commingling in his ideas of Africa and the outside world I think of the revered example of his compatriot, Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey of Achimota College, who infused Nkrumah with his belief in the role of the youth of Africa in a multiracial world of the venerable black American thinker, W.E.B. Du Bois, who chaired the fifth Pan African Congress in Manchester in 1945, where the direction of Nkrumah’s political career became plain; and men from my own part of the world, Marcus Garvey of Jamaica, and George Padmore of Trinidad – men whose forbears had traveled the cruel middle passage from Nkrumah’s West Africa and whose association with him would be a bridge that both they and he would cross.

The title of the journal that Nkrumah briefly published in Britain after 1945, the New African, is instructive; because he himself embodied that new African, restless to invent the future, passionate for change and freedom, and summoning all his powers to the supreme effort.

After he returned home in December 1947, he worked to create a national party drawn from the masses, which would reach beyond the inherited limits of tribe and language. His radical, populist approach was ideally suited to the task.

In the struggle for independence, it was Nkrumah’s achievement to be supremely a man of his times changed forever by World War II which brought the passion for freedom in its wake, Nkrumah grasped the need for political organization, had the ability to fulfill it and the flair for using the machine created to maximum effect. One of his best-known pre-independence rallying cries exhorted his countrymen: ‘Seek ye first the political kingdom’ – an affective adaptation of the Biblical injunction. And when the time came to agitate for complete independence, he was equal to the challenge, He knew that it was never too soon to be free; that freedom was a man’s inalienable birthright; often stolen, but never revoked.

“Seek ye first the
Political kingdom”

If Nkrumah’s role in bringing about Ghana’s Independence must be his great practical achievement, his contributions in realms beyond Ghana must rank high, for his ambition did not stop at the independence of his own country.

At the independence ceremony itself on the Polo Ground in Accra, he made perhaps his most celebrated and justly remembered assertion:

            “Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent”.

Freedom Nkrumah knew, brought responsibilities; a lesson which so clearly bears reiteration that in 1979, the joint OAU-ECA Symposium on the future development prospects on Africa towards the year 2000 declared that freedom should not be that of “a free fox in a free hen house”.

The moment of independence revealed Nkrumah at his greatest, at his most magnanimous, uniting in one instant, Ghana’s past and Africa’s future. He had a naturally centrifugal mind; it constantly whirled out ever-expanding political visions, sweeping a wide path in time and range.

The very name chosen for the new country illustrates this, because Ghana was not just a name from the history of the West African Region but an ancient empire which spread across the whole Southern Sahara. He craved for ever-broader political entities, in contrast to the balkanized Africa which European; colonialism had carved up “a yearning that, perhaps. derived from this experience; for in the process of balkanizing Africa, the colonizers blurred ethnic and linguistic boundaries, leaving behind a new kind of nation-state with a new potential for the future”.

Hence Nkrumah’s vision of a United Africa; accepting, as a modern man must, the realities of existing national boundaries, but recognizing from the very way they had been drawn that change needed not stop there. Hence, also, his support for a multiracial Commonwealth and for an internationalism rooted in the UN system.

This is not to say he was always right; indeed his critics might well argue, with reason, that realities cannot be changed by vision alone. But there are times when vision and reality coalesce into one entity. Midnight on March 6, 1957, with all the implications of that moment of the watching and waiting world, was one of those times. 

Let us remember that it would have been possible for African countries, attaining independence, to have voluntarily balkanized themselves, returning to older limits and narrower loyalties of tribe and language. That they did not, that grander, more modern visions have on the whole prevailed, has been due in no small part to the example of Nkrumah’s Ghana. He knew that Africa could be central in world affairs, but that it might well become marginal if its passion was the pursuit of narrow nationalism – mimicking the nationalisms of an era that was already passing in Europe.

From the moment of Ghana’s independence, the pace of change in Africa quickened inexorably, by the force of Ghana’s example, as much as by any physical assistance afforded to those working, and sometimes fighting for independence in other parts of Africa. In 1958, the Conference of Independent African States and the All–African People’s Conference kept up the momentum for change, as did Nkrumah’s personal tour of independent African countries.

The wind of change was indeed blowing through the continent; and it was blowing predominantly from West Africa.   It is singularly appropriate that Harold Macmillan’s famous phrase about the wind of change in his speech to the South African Parliament in February 1960, in fact first came to Africa in a speech he made in Accra three weeks earlier, and that Nkrumah himself qualified the phase by calling it ‘no ordinary wind, but a raging hurricane’?

In describing the impact of an independent Ghana on the process of decolonization in Africa, metaphors recalling an elemental force come naturally to mind. At any rate, the wind was a forceful and cleansing one. Three years after Ghana’s independence, 23 African countries had followed the trail blazed there. And now the number of independent African states in the UN has reached 50.

Freedom for other African States remained Nkrumah’s goal right to the end. After his loss of power, from exile in Conakry, he described how he looked towards the shores of then Portuguese Guinea, and thought of the liberation struggle going on there. How much he would have rejoiced in Zimbabwe’s freedom for which he fought so resolutely in so many fora; and how fitting a memorial to those efforts it was that one of his early young assistants – Sam Ikoku from Nigeria – should have been one of the team of Commonwealth Election Observers whose work made such a vital contribution to the consummation of the freedom struggle.


Nkrumah inevitably sought to bring
’s prestige and … but in the wider world


Nkrumah inevitably sought to bring Ghana’s prestige and influence to bear, not only in Africa but in the wider world. He offered to mediate in several conflicts, from the Middle east to Kashmir to Vietnam. And he contributed in important ways to a saner global society by his efforts to keep Africa a nuclear-free zone. He protested vigorously against atomic bomb testing in the Sahara, and in June 1962, convened a ‘World without the Bomb’ Conference in Accra. These particular efforts did not change the policies of the nuclear powers; but he showed that those policies were questionable and he created fora for the circulation of alternative ideas. The contribution itself might have been small.  Its significance, and it was a major one, lay in Nkrumah’s assertion of Africa’s right to contribute to the evolution of human destiny.

His adherence to non-alignment was a natural development of his own background and education. He saw it in ideological terms as enlarging Ghana’s freedom, and as an activist’s involvement in service to the wider world community.

The positive neutrality of which he spoke did not imply a passive spectator role. Ghana’s balance on the delicate fulcrum of non-alignment was, admittedly, not always steady; but in all this, Nkrumah was first and foremost an African working, as he often said, for African solutions.

As with the Commonwealth, So with the UN; Ghana
entered and Changed the organisation

After his loss of power, he still maintained, “The experiment which we tried in Ghana was essentially one of developing the country in co-operation with the world as a whole. Non-alignment meant exactly what it said. Nkrumah’s bent was towards a naturally open and eclectic ideological system and his commitment to it came under strain only in the disappointment of his final years.

He took a leading part in the famous initiative of the Belgrade Conference of 1961 in sending a letter in identical terms to Kennedy and Kruschev appealing to them to renew their negotiations in order to avoid the danger of war in the world and allow humanity to proceed along the road of peace. How near might we not be to the need for another such invocation in the name of Nkrumah’s early vision of non-alignment were it to be made today ?

If the strengthening of non-alignment as a worldwide movement was one of Kwame Nkrumah’s achievements, another which has a special meaning for me is that he led the way for independent African nations to join the Commonwealth. That in itself was not necessarily the simple step it had become. While India was the first Third World country to join, and also gave a lead in non-alignment, there was the example of Burma to suggest that Commonwealth entry was by no means a matter of course.

But it was clear at an early stage that the concept of Commonwealth family voluntarily joined appealed to Nkrumah; perhaps because, in its friendliness and flexibility, it resembled the West African extended family situation in which he had been so happy. At any rate, in the historic ‘Motion of Destiny’ of 1953 in which he called for independence, he expressed the country’s desire to become a member of the Commonwealth.

When he visited the US in 1958 he explained Ghana’s decision in what still remains one of the best definitions of the Commonwealth.

“We believe that the evolving form of the Commonwealth is an institution which can work profoundly for peace and international co-operation. It is the only organic worldwide association of peoples in which race, religion, nationality and culture are all transcended by a common sense of fellowship.

No policies are imposed on it from above. It does not even seek unity of polity. But it provides a unique forum in which men of different culture and different approach can sit down together and see what can be done to lessen tensions and to increase the economic and social well-being of themselves and their neighbours.

This is not a bloc. It is not a power grouping. It is a club or family of friends who see their continuing friendship as a strand of peace in a troubled world”.

Ghana joined the forces of change, especially Nehru’s India, that were already at work within the Commonwealth to make it a modern grouping aptly geared to our changed and changing world. In 1964, Nkrumah took the lead in proposing the establishment of a permanent Commonwealth Secretariat in order, as he put it, “to make the Commonwealth more in tune with the common aspirations of its members”.

The Commonwealth’s collective decision to set up a secretariat was not without its critics and there were those who would have limited it to being a mere conduit for Commonwealth Communications. Time and the many ways we have devised of working together for our collective and individual betterment have confounded the doubters and proved the wisdom of Nkrumah’s leadership and the validity of his vision, expressed in a working institution.

As with the Commonwealth, so with the UN; Ghana entered and changed the organization. Ghana was a leader in the vanguard of that great army of Third World (Afro-Asian-Pacific-Caribbean) nations which have fundamentally altered the nature of the world organization, complicating yet enriching it with a multiplicity of viewpoints, fortifying it as a force for peace, enlarging its role in development.

At the UN, Ghana came to be at the hub of the African group, which rapidly made its voice heard, especially in the continuing debate on decolonization, reaching always toward the goal of self-determination for all enshrined in the Charter. Nkrumah made the UN Charter a plank of his foreign policy, and the UN a forum for the practice of non-alignment as he worked with other Afro-Asians between the blocs and ideologies.

In the US in 1958, he declared that “our task as a group in the United Nations is to use our strength wisely and objectively on the side of peace”. When the Congo crisis arose in 1960, Ghanaians troops were among the first UN forces sent to the country.

They played their part with distinction, but the difficulties of the situation there seemed to have confirmed Nkrumah in his belief that African problems demanded African solutions, which, in this case, included an African High Command. The Congo strengthened his conviction of the need for Pan-African approaches and made him redouble his efforts to achieve a functioning Pan-African organization.

When the OAU finally came into being in 1963, it was not the decision-making African Parliament, the vital step towards the unity of the continent, for which Nkrumah had hoped. It was the result of the labours of many men and a compromise between many views. In itself, that was perhaps no bad thing.

The fact that a workable compromise was possible shows the power and the potential of the unifying ideal. And the important point is that the spirit of African Unity is captured in the OAU Charter, a precious spark which may yet light the lamps of the future. Twenty–three historians of the formative discussions agree that this vital gleam was infused into the Charter above all by Kwame Nkrumah, Twenty-four with the Commonwealth Secretariat, so with the OAU. The organizations exist; that is the legacy of Nkrumah and his fellow pioneers. It is for us to make of them what we will.

  • Culled from Essays in honour of Kwame Nkrumah.
  • Edited by:  Kwesi Krafona.

Daily Graphic   -     Wednesday, March 21, 2007.                   Pages:  15 and 33

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