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Changing the Guard

African Tightrope: My Two Years as Nkrumah’s Chief of Staff

by Major-General H.T. Alexander
Praeger, 160 pp., $4.95

General Alexander, a British officer, became Chief of Staff of the Ghana Armed Forces in 1959, two years after independence. He succeeded another British officer, Victor Paley. Nkrumah sent him to the Congo very early in the post-independence crisis—mid-July 1960, and he carried out several subsequent missions there. He was dismissed by Nkrumah on 22 September, 1961, just after the “first round” in Katanga, to which the instrument of dismissal alludes:

I have also been greatly disturbed by the attitude which the British Government have taken over the question of Katanga in the Congo, and the assistance which the British Government have given to the secessionist elements in Katanga.

Since the other reasons given for the dismissal amount to no more than the general desirability of Africanizing the Army, it seems that the precipitating factor in the General’s dismissal was the British Government’s activity on behalf of Tshombe. The incident is rich in historical irony. The British Government probably did not foresee (and certainly did not desire) that their exertions in favor of Katanga would bring about the dismissal of their General in Ghana. But Nkrumah did not realize that in removing the British General he was removing the only solid barrier between himself and downfall. No British Chief of Staff could have taken part, or even acquiesced in, a coup ousting Kwame Nkrumah: On the contrary he would have had to exercise all his authority to prevent a coup. The Africanized Army suffered from no such inhibitions.

Thus the Tories, in propping up Tshombe, were unconsciously preparing the way—through an immediate consequence they did not intend—for a remoter consequence that would have pleased them, the fall of Nkrumah. The dialectical sequence does not end there, however. It remains to be seen whether the right is any the wiser to be pleased (or the left to be displeased) at the fall of Alexander. Jubilant though they are now, and are likely to be for some time, the neo-colonialists are not necessarily the ultimate gainers by the ending of the rhetorical phase in the history of African independence.

General Alexander, who inspires these reflections, himself foresaw the likelihood of a coup. In his account of his take-over from Victor Paley he has this to say:

In his speech, Victor made the point: “Keep the army out of politics, and politics out of the army.” It was a theme which I held to consistently in my advice to President Nkrumah, but I fear that this advice has now gone by the board and from now on appointments in the armed services may become more and more political. If Nkrumah survives his present crises, I am sure that he will eventually rue the day when he allowed politics to penetrate his armed forces. If, on the other hand, Nkrumah is overthrown, I am sure that Ghana as a whole will also rue the day when the armed forces were allowed to get mixed up in politics.

IN FACT THOSE WHO TOOK the decisive action were not the political appointees—at least one of them was killed during the coup—but those whom General Alexander would regard as non-political. In conditions—such as prevailed in Ghana under Nkrumah and also in the rigged “democracy” of Nigeria, and elsewhere in most of the “third world”—where the government cannot be changed except by force, the armed forces have no choice but to be in politics. If they obey orders and suppress rebellion, they are playing the highly political role of blocking the one route to political change. They cannot “stay neutral” in such a situation for they have to decide whether or not to obey the orders of the Supreme Commander and Head of State. Whether they obey or disobey, their act will be of political significance. Even without a rebellion, their very presence, in a condition of putative loyalty to the regime, is a major political factor, inhibiting the flow of political change through the only channel by which such change can come. The armed forces are therefore faced with the choice of guaranteeing the perpetuity of the regime or of overthrowing it. It is not the second option only that is political.

GENERAL ALEXANDER is not pre-occupied with problems of this order. He writes like a simple professional soldier, not seeking or desiring any political role, and not even seeing that a political role had inevitably been thrust on him—his Congo missions for example were willy-nilly political as well as military. He is no Blimp or racist, he obviously likes Ghana and Ghanaians and he is magnanimous about Nkrumah, whose celebrated charm he emphasizes. He has a pleasant sense of humor and is admirably free from the pomposity that so often afflicts senior officers. As his reason for accepting the offer of appointment in Ghana he gives, not something about an opportunity for serving a newly independent country, but simply: “I thought that unless I did so I had only a very outside chance of ever reaching the rank of Major General.” One has the sense, throughout his book, of listening to a reliable witness. African Tightrope is a useful contribution to the recent history of Africa, in relation to two key countries, Ghana and the Congo. His account of the early days of the UN experience in the Congo is interesting and recaptures the surrealist quality of the Secretariat’s concern for protocol amid the spontaneities of the Congo:

My interpreter, a Ghanaian, just managed to stop an enthusiast from sticking a knife in Mpolo’s back. After this little diversion we proceeded rapidly to the airport where I found Dr. Bunche. I told him what had been achieved and asked him whether he would like to talk to the Belgian commander, to persuade him that the next step was for United Nations troops, as they arrived, to replace Belgians on the streets. Bunche replied that, as the Belgians had no official status in the country, he could not talk to them direct, but that I could talk to them and tell him the result of my conversations. Although in theory Bunche may have been correct, it seemed to me that you are very unlikely to produce results and make peace between two antagonists if you will talk to only one side.

And again:

Brigade Major: “What action is to be taken if a person is threatened by a weapon?”

Berthiaume consulted Dr. Bunche, and said: “The arrest must not be resisted; the U. N. person on the spot who has not been arrested must effect a strategic withdrawal and allow the rest to continue.”

Brigade Major: “U. N. Operation Directive No. 2, just received, states that ‘unless members of a U. N. force are clearly employed on some serious breach of law, every peaceful effort must be made to prevent the arrest or effect his release.’ Should this be interpreted on the lines of your answer to my previous question?”

Berthiaume: “Yes.”

As General Alexander correctly comments:

This meant, in fact, that a U. N. officer, soldier, or civilian could be arrested and beaten up by Congolese and no effective action could be taken by U. N. soldiers witnessing the event.

THE DOCTRINE OF “strategic withdrawal” was later abandoned, but in the meantime some UN personnel suffered, as did the standing of the UN in the Congo. “The simple soldier,” as General Alexander says, “found it very difficult to understand why things like this were allowed to take place.” This observation deserves to be pondered in advance of any future UN peace-keeping mission. No such mission should be undertaken in the future without an unambiguous mandate, a clearly prescribed aim, and an understanding that both the Secretariat and the UN Command will be free to execute policy under rules framed to suit local conditions, and not just designed to sound well in New York.

Many of General Alexander’s detailed observations on the Congo are shrewd and sound but the whole picture is distorted by a failure to understand the political basis of the UN operation. The Lumumba government had invited the UN in to get the Belgians out of Katanga. Belgium, under UN and US pressure, withdrew its own armed forces, but only after gaining enough time (with the acquiescence of the UN and the US) to set up a Katangan armed force, with officers from the Belgian Regular Army, later supplemented, and later still replaced, by French and other mercenaries. In these circumstances a policy—once rather widely attributed to General Alexander—of disarming all the Congolese armed forces—the partly mutinous ANC, whether of “Léopoldville” or “Stanleyville” type and the secessionist gendarmeries of Tshombe and Kalonji—might perhaps have worked. What would certainly not have worked, politically, would have been what, it now appears, General Alexander actually did recommend: a “retraining programme” for all hands, including the Katanga gendarmerie. In this case the UN would have been imparting additional efficiency to a force whose raison d’être was to frustrate the fulfillment of the purpose for which the UN had been invited in. The proposal is made even less acceptable, from a UN point of view, by the idea that “some of the better mercenaries” might be included in the retraining program—scarcely a project that any Secretary-General would relish having to explain to the General Assembly.

TODAY, in both Ghana and the Congo, power is in the hands of the soldiers. Yet the situations are in other respects radically different. Mobutu’s rise was sponsored and guided by outside powers, especially the United States; his effective officers and men are white mercenaries, mainly South African. There are, I know, those who claim that the Ghanaian Generals Ankrah and Kotoka, like Mobutu, owe their power to outside interests. I know of no evidence for this, except the statement of the gentleman who claimed in London to have been trained by the C.I.A. and to have “masterminded the coup.” On his return to Ghana this gentleman, exhibited on television under guard, stated that he had master-minded a coup but that the particular coup that had happened did not seem to be the coup he had master-minded. The change in Ghana, unlike that in the Congo, seems to me to have been an indigenous phenomenon, motivated mainly by the Government’s combination of “austerity” for the people with conspicuous consumption for itself, and by the simple fact that there was no other way to change a government which had just declared all its nominees to Parliament “returned unopposed” (General Election of 1965).

How well—and how long—the soldiers will govern is another matter. It is clear that the reaction against Nkrumah’s rhetoric, and Nkrumah’s political friends—and also hope for American help in Ghana’s financial trouble—has carried them some distance towards the right and the West. The dangers inherent in this are obvious. Yet a government which is a resultant of forces outside the country itself should not be bracketed with governments installed and upheld by foreigners. The degree and nature of the interest which foreigners may usefully take in the two sets of cases also differs. The situation of the Congo is a legitimate object for the pressure of European and American public opinion, because European and American governments and interests bear the main real responsibility for what has happened to the Congo and what is happening there. This is not the case with Ghana. The right used to hector Nkrumah, as the left now hectors his successors, without much understanding in either case. It might be wiser to extend a certain continuing sympathy, understanding, and respect to the country itself, as it grapples by its own means with its own problems. If we want to promote political changes in Africa it is to the areas dominated by Western interests that we should look, since it is there that our responsibilities lie. Rhodesia remains at the top of the agenda.

Letters

The Congo July 28, 1966

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