Friday, October 22, 2010

Optimistic About Realising a Better Africa

Between 22–25 May 2010, an international centenary colloquium was held in Ghana to reflect on the ‘Contemporary Relevance of Kwame Nkrumah’s contribution to Pan-Africanism and internationalism’. Jointly sponsored by the Kwame Nkrumah Planning Committee of the government of Ghana (under Chairperson Professor Akilagpa Sawyerr) and the African Union, there was a series of events to engage with the ideas and practices of Kwame Nkrumah.

The Nkrumah Planning Committee brought together some renowned writers, intellectuals and cultural artists to celebrate Nkrumah. In the scholarly papers presented, the strengths and humanist foresights of Nkrumah stood out against the background of the present ‘leadership in Africa’. Nkrumah one of the leaders of the independence movement in Africa and a pre-eminent Pan-African thinker and organiser was born on 21 September 1909. This was a celebration of the one-hundredth year of his birth, and the celebrations started in September 2009. The decision by the African Union and the government of Ghana to celebrate Nkrumah’s life and work, and to reflect on the continuing importance of the ideas of Pan-African liberation helped bring to the fore, among other things, the growing influence of Pan-African ideas among large sections of the African youth. Numerous speakers addressed the vision of Nkrumah and called on the youth to carry forward the vision into the 21st century.

The centenary committee had been going around the country of Ghana for months meeting with youth groups, students and community groups. According to the testimony of Akilagpa Sawyerr, everywhere they went in the country, the youths were hungry for information on the life and work of Nkrumah. After nearly forty years of the denigration of Nkrumah by the elements within and outside Ghana, the moment demanded the ideas of Nkrumah, and the powers that be could no longer hide from the power of the ideas of people’s freedom and African Unity.

The colloquium brought together scholars and activists from all over the world. Issa Shivji, the Mwalimu Nyerere Chair and Professor of Pan-African studies at the University of Dar es Salaam reflected on the current thirst for information on radical Pan-Africanism from the youth. In his presentation, Shivji recalled the reality that five years ago, there was little interest in the ideas of Nyerere and Nkrumah but now there was such a demand that Pan-Africanism is now being taught from Dar Es Salaam to Dakar and from Ghana to Nigeria.

In their presentations, both Issa Shivji and Ama Biney zeroed in on the contemporary crisis of capitalism and the urgency for African peoples to unite and draw lessons from earlier organising efforts. Former heads of governments such as Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and current leaders such as the President of Ghana and the President of Senegal all spoke glowingly of the contribution of Nkrumah to the ideas of Pan-Africanism. The radical tone of the speech of President Wade of Senegal was a reflection of the insight of Issa Shivji that the spirit of Pan-Africanism was now so strong among the people that the politicians had to make radical statements on Pan-Africanism, even when they do not implement Pan-African policies.

This statement on the differences between statements and the practices of governments was made throughout the colloquium by youths who challenged the government and leaders of Ghana to make the ideas and books of Kwame Nkrumah more available. A youth summit that was held on the first day of the colloquium brought together youths from different parts of the continent, with one of the largest youth delegation comprising of a group that was brought by President Wade. Abdul Karim Hakih, secretary general of the All African Students Union, made a passionate plea for the governments and the African Union to redouble the efforts to ensure that the books and ideas of Kwame Nkrumah were made available to the present younger generation.

This plea was again made in the communiqué from the youth summit, which was presented to the deputy chairperson of the African Union Commission, Erastus Mwencha, at the close of the colloquium. In the resolution of the youth summit, there was a forthright call for the youth to form networks and coalitions to embark on sustained campaigns to build African unity while moving towards an African Union government. The resolutions of the youth summit stated inter alia that:

- A union government as a vehicle for the socio-political and economic development of the continent is imperative and long overdue and therefore we want it now
-Practical step be taken by governments to develop strategies and programs to realise a Union government now
- As a matter of urgency countries must implement the numerous charters that have been signed especially the African Youth Charter
- Emphasis must be placed on strengthening the role of existing institutions and structures to fulfill the core mandates and
- A clear strategy on the way forward and timelines for the continental government be outlined and put forward before 2015 by the AU assembly.


On Monday 24 May, the headline of one of the main newspapers in Ghana screamed, ‘Nkrumah Colloquium opens with pomp and ceremony’. This designation by the newspapers could not bring out the intensity of the discussions on the questions of health, peace, education and the challenges of lifting the quality of life of the people. Former President Kenneth Kaunda sang the song ‘Forward Ever, Backward Never’, and declared that the most important tribute to Nkrumah would be a dedicated fight to rid the continent of HIV/ AIDS. Many other presenters brought forward challenging issues such as global warming, the oppression of women and the contemporary drag on political mobilisation by religious fundamentalists.

As a participant in this international colloquium, this writer was struck by the enthusiasm of the youth and their eagerness to advance the agenda of the 1958 All African Peoples Conference. Despite the clear timeline of the Resolution of the Youth, Yao Graham in his paper on the present scramble for Africa pointed to the lack of seriousness on the part of the present leaders of the states of Africa. Graham detailed the contradictions between the avowed goal of moving towards a United Africa and the exiting regional blocs and their individual member states’ economic partnership agreements with foreign countries that thwart effort towards continental unity and freedom. Drawing attention to the present rush of governments from Turkey to Brazil and from China and Russia to instigate partnership agreements with Africa, Graham specifically outlined how partnership agreements with entities such as the European Union constituted a hindrance to the goal of African Unity.

The colloquium was organised around themes such as ‘the ideas and vision of Kwame Nkrumah’, the ‘institutions and structures’ that were created for African liberation and unity, ‘the rights of women and social issues’, ‘popular expressions’, ‘political and economic development’, and ‘Africa Unity and beyond’. In the main, the papers were inspiring with the convergence of the energy of the youth with the insights of veterans who had been together with Nkrumah. There were moving moments such as the introduction of one woman who had been shot and paralysed during one of the many attempts on the life of Kwame Nkrumah. Another elder recollected her place as one of the female member of parliament who was arrested at the time of the military coup recalled in the corridor to all who would listen the fact that the Ghanaian bourgeoisie wanted to bury Nkrumah even before he had physically expired.

This colloquium demonstrated the fact that for many of those who struggled for independence, the ideas of Nkrumah could never die. There were contemporaries of Nkrumah from the period of the independence struggle who reminded the youths that the achievements of Nkrumah belonged equally to the organised people of Ghana who had been the backbone of the struggle for independence. These veterans answered the youths who were asking what to do. They reminded these young aspirants that the generation of the anti-colonial struggle never asked permission to engage in the fight for freedom. The issues were burning then and are burning now.

Many of the presenters reminded those attending the colloquium not only of the many efforts to kill Nkrumah but also of the more successful efforts among western and local intelligentsia to distort the record of Nkrumah and what he stood for. Older trade unionists recounted the numerous incidents of intense labour struggles in the urban and rural area, with roots in earlier peasant and worker protests in the 1920s and the depressions of the 1930s. These presenters contextualised Nkrumah in order to provide a clear profile of the social groups involved in the independence struggles.

Bience Gawanas, commissioner for social affairs of the African Union brought her own personal story from one of the liberation movements in Southern Africa to affirm the importance of Nkrumah beyond Ghana. She recounted the fact that numerous freedom fighters in Guinea, Zambia, Angola, as well as from the numerous freedom parties from Southern Africa had found a home in Ghana.

The African Cultural Renaissance Campaign was also launched at this colloquium. The African Cultural Renaissance Charter of the African Union replaced the Cultural Charter for Africa adopted by the Organization of African Unity in 1976, and states clearly inter alia that, the objective of the charter was to ‘assert the dignity of the African men and women as well as the popular institutions of their culture.’

Both Kenneth Kaunda (former President of Zambia and Dudley Thompson (of Jamaica) recounted their work with Nkrumah and called on the youths to carry forward the work of African Unity. Dudley Thompson articulated a socialist base for African Unity. Dudley Thompson, celebrating his age of 93 years, reminded those present that he was in London in 1945 when Kwame Nkrumah brought the famous letter of introduction to George Padmore from C.L.R. James. Dudley Thompson, an attorney from Jamaica and formerly one of the defenders of Jomo Kenyatta, recounted the activism of the generation of Azikiwe, Kenyatta, Nyerere and those who had worked with Dubois and Nkrumah at the 5th Pan-African Congress. Dudley Thompson, currently president of the World African Diaspora Union (WADU), not only underlined the socialist content of African Unity but also reminded the Ghanaian participants of the role of the African Diaspora in the political life and work of Nkrumah. Thompson made a passionate plea for the regularisation of the citizenship status of African Diaspora community residents in Ghana.

Given the fact that this colloquium was organised by the government of Ghana and the African Union, one could not escape the ceremonial aspects of the programme and the ‘pomp’ communicated to those outside the conference. These state oriented aspects of the colloquium included the opening rituals with President John Atta Mills and the statements from President Wade and the commissioner for the African Union, Mr Erastus Mwencha.

These ceremonial rituals were again carried out on the morning of 25 May, African Liberation Day, when the government of Ghana raised the national flag and laid a wreath at the resting place of Kwame Nkrumah. The political leadership of Ghana was recognising the contribution of Kwame Nkrumah to the liberation of Ghana and of Africa. This was a public holiday in Ghana; this celebration of Nkrumah and African Liberation was only one indication of the massive efforts to restore the ideas of Pan-African liberation.

The presence of numerous progressive activists from all across Africa and beyond ensured that the ceremonial and state involvement did not dominate the celebration. Merika Sherwood read out various quotations from Nkrumah and reminded the audience of the unfinished tasks inside and outside of Ghana. Fatima Barak from Morocco recounted the years when the Casablanca Group of the African progressive formation worked with Nkrumah to push forward the ideas of independence. She reminded the audience that there was a time when Morocco stood within the ranks of those who were for freedom. She vowed that there was a Pan-Africanist constituency in Morocco working to bring Morocco back into the ranks of the progressive Pan African bloc. Reminding the audience that there were still parts of Africa occupied by Spain, (the enclaves of Keuta and Merida) she was one of the few who brought up the question of the outstanding issue of the independence of Western Sahara.

Because most of the present governments in Africa are opposed to the liberation of the peoples and the union of the peoples of Africa, the detractors of African Union do not refer to the sacrifices of the peoples of Africa for freedom. This opposition to liberation takes the form of the silences over the outstanding colonial enclaves, such as those in the Comoros and Western Sahara. In this work to denigrate Africa, these external forces have plenty of assistance from some of the present leaders of Africa. In fact in the closing speech, the Vice President of Ghana spent considerable time refuting the claim of some in Ghana who believed that the celebration of the life and work of Nkrumah was a waste of the money of the people of Ghana. The detractors who are opposed to the ideas of Nkrumah are from the same orientation as those who maintained during the time of Nkrumah that supporting the African liberation struggle was a waste of money.

On the last day of the colloquium I asked Professor Shivji what his impression was. He said some of the questions and comments from the youths reflected the tremendous damage done by the neoliberal propaganda in Africa. He was however, very encouraged by the new burst of energy. His watchword was that the progressives should be vigilant, organise and work for the building of socialism in Africa.

In the meantime, news came of the results of the elections in Ethiopia. The re-election of Meles Zenawi reminded us of many of those who were previously in the ranks of the liberation struggles but now stand as an obstacle to the freedom and dignity of the peoples of Africa. Despite such impediments as reflected in leaders such as Zenawi, the kind of energy and inspiration exuded by the celebration of the life and ideals of Kwame Nkrumah make us optimistic about the realisation of a better Africa by the younger generation. One speaker summed up this energy by reminding those present that, ‘Our political independence could not be procured without the need for Africa to unite. Today, let us rededicate ourselves to his (Nkrumah’s) ideals. Indeed this will be a true and lasting memory.’