Deep down, the Ghanaian reaction to the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah and his parti unique, the Convention People’s Party, was an ageless, cynical coolness. There were no barricades erected by the party faithful, and the masses nowhere rose to defend their Osagyefo. On the contrary, the most prudent went out as soon as they were sure the government had really changed, to proclaim, in the exact words taught them by Nkrumah and his party bureaucrats, their “unflinching support” for the new men of power, even though most did not know for certain who exactly these new men were, or what exactly they stood for.
To many Africans outside Ghana and to many of the sons of Africa dispersed throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, especially those in any way involved in radical pan-African causes, this Ghanaian coolness has come as a cruel disappointment. Their questions have been filled with chagrin, even with bitterness. What happened to the revolutionary ardor with which all Ghana was presumed to be burning? What of the socialist zeal animating the country’s politics?
These pathetic questions are evidence of a schism in the current affairs of Africa: the tragic gap between words and reality. The people who now ask such questions about Ghana are people who used to read the flaming words of Nkrumah’s weekly Spark and the bold formulae of such books as Consciencism and Neocolonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism, and, having read them, felt relieved that Africa’s problems were being solved in all seriousness.
But, by and large, the Ghanaian people, most of them illiterate, were not readers of The Spark or the Nkrumah books, though of course the most prudent would have copies available in conspicuous places, opportune testimony to their loyalty to the Osagyefo. So for most Ghanaians it was not possible for the poetry and the beauty of the printed word to form a screen between themselves and cynical reality.
Nkrumah produced a lot of words—words full of the anger of the oppressed, words full of the pathos of the situation of the downtrodden, words of defiance hurled in the teeth of the powerful masters of the enslaved. Then Nkrumah produced plenty of action, even of deeds. But all too often, especially during the last days of his power, the deeds ran counter to the words. The words were those of a man bent on revolution they were austere, dedicated, powerful. The deeds, unfortunately, were those of a brash, newly successful tycoon eagerly searching for spectacular ways to make his grandeur manifest. And so between the words of revolutionary sacrifice and the reality of decadent narcissistic indulgence all possibility of reconciliation was lost. When, in February 1966, the coup came, Ghanaians had had a profound experience of something which moralists will call political hypocrisy, and which sociologists will label political schizophrenia. At the root of the chagrin of the pan-Africanists lies the schism; one of the black South Africans expelled from Ghana after the coup gave it perfect, anguished expression: “This was inevitable. The man Nkrumah only talked left. He lived right!”
In all fairness, it must be said that the sociologists are closer to the truth. It was not a case of simple deceit, for in one breast Nkrumah had two opposed personalities, one a charismatic revolutionary identifying itself with the wretched of the earth, the other an uninhibited exhibitionist intent on creating an extreme image of affluent voluptuousness, Ghanaians came to know these two Nkrumahs well; so well, in fact, that they even gave them names. The revolutionary Nkrumah was known as the “Verandah Boy”; the decadent exhibitionist was the “Show Boy.” The Verandah Boy was the homeless, propertyless, and jobless Ghanaian commoner desperate for change. The Show Boy was the Ghanaian who had arrived.
IN A WAY, Nkrumah, with his verbal preoccupation with revolution, was an unusual accident in Ghanaian society, for this society is not in the least revolutionary. It is, in fact, profoundly evolutionary in the plain sense that its members see themselves as operating in accordance with a world view whose evolutionary implications are familiar to all colonial peoples. To put it crudely this world view poses two extremes, the upper and the lower, of the ladder of life and reality. The upper extreme is the home of light, of spirit, and of mind. At the lower end there is only heavy matter, chaos, and darkness. On this ladder of colonial life the dominant European, with his civilized rationality and his light skin, was near the apex, ceding place only to the angels and to God. The African, childishly irrational, a brute creature of impulse, was given the lower rungs, far from the blindingly white grace of God, perilously close to total darkness and the devil.
In all aspects of colonial existence this philosophy was accepted, even if those who accepted it were not always aware of its clear nature. In education, which was of crucial importance because it was the process through which the ruling African elite was eventually formed, the philosophy found full expression. Schooling was in essence a way of salvaging savages and molding them into something close to the European human pattern. The phenomenon is well known all over Africa: the Portuguese assimilado, the French evolué.
The British were most skeptical of the ability of Africans to rise on the ladder, and made no serious attempts to assimilate their colonized. In Ghana, however, the coolness of the British was offset by the ardent faith with which the educated Ghanaians embraced the doctrine. A number seriously desired to become black Englishmen. The not-so-ambitious assumed as a matter of course that if they could acquire British habits they would eventually be invited to share the ruling of their less fortunate brothers with the white master, thus constituting a modern colonial ruling elite.
By the end of World War II Ghana already had the makings of such an elite, led by the more prominent professional men, such as lawyers and would-be merchant princes. But when these men talked of sharing power with the British, the British only laughed at them, for, in truth, they had no real support from anywhere.
This was only to be expected, for the education of the Ghanaian was nothing less than an organized, systematic flight from all things African—culture, values, roots—to things European. As a result, the educated Ghanaian had two very marked traits in his psychology: first, an uncritical adoration of everything British; second, a profound contempt for his own people.
Now, in order to convince the British masters that they were a serious force, the Ghanaian educated elite would have to demonstrate that they had the support of the people. Moreover, in order to build up this support it was necessary to go back to the same abhorred roots from which they had spent their lives running away: to establish intimate contact with the condemned masses. The problem, from the point of view of the elite, was a horrible one, for the job that was waiting to be done was dirty indeed.
In a colonial system the white men have a way of dealing with jobs that are either very hard or very unpleasant: they pay an African, a “boy,” a small wage and tell him to do the job. The Ghanaian elite followed this European pattern faithfully. To do the job of achieving contact with the Ghanaian masses, they went and searched for a suitable “boy.” They found one, and in 1947 they brought him back from his long stay in America and London. The “boy” was Kwame Nkrumah. His instructions were to organize the people solidly behind the elite, to give them the leverage they needed in their negotiations with the British masters.
The “boy” organized the masses, but, instead of delivering them to his masters, the Black Englishmen, he chose to lead them himself. The power the British had sneeringly withheld from the impotent elite they reluctantly gave to this Verandah Boy, under whose spell the Ghanaian people were ready to rise from the sleep of centuries. The elite burned with indignation, and set about trying to destroy their disrespectful “boy,” with every means available to them. The means included everything from voting ballots to plastic bombs. Against these Nkrumah used everything available to him, and at the height of his power his enemies were a sorry bunch of defeated men.
Among Ghanaian intellectuals, even before Nkrumah, perhaps the most often repeated quotation is that of the British historian, Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Nkrumah’s career, the degeneration of the dedicated Verandah Boy to the ostentatious Show Boy and finally to the haughty Old Man dispensing patronage to an increasingly narrow circle of personal friends and sycophants, was a tragic illustration of this famous aphorism. There is no doubt whatever that if Nkrumah had taken his own revolutionary words seriously, if he had in his own life practiced what he so often preached, no force in Ghana could have stood against him. But his blatantly insulting self-indulgence, his basic bad faith, and the blindness that drove him to showy excesses even while he was busily urging the Ghanaian people to tighten their belts, eroded the trust he had enjoyed and finally produced the apathy and the cynicism without which the coup would have been impossible.
THOSE WHO MADE the coup have stated repeatedly that they were motivated by two things: disgust with the ever-deepening filth, the immorality, and the corruption of Ghanaian life, and love for democratic liberty. Ghanaians, if they listen to these words at all, are likely to do so with an easygoing smile. For Ghanaians, having a colonial experience, have no romantic illusions about soldiers. No one supposes that military training is designed to give the recruit any great reverence for free speech and democratic argument. It is true that the Chief of Police can talk with eloquence of past corruption. But it is also true that in a society profoundly eaten up with all forms of corruption, the Police themselves have won the worst reputation for lack of integrity, to the point where ordinary people offer them bribes in self-defense, without even waiting to be threatened.
It does not seem that the coup was a well-organized conspiracy. Nkrumah had been actively and effectively hostile to all forms of political organization; so hostile, in fact, that in the end he destroyed not only the opposition, but also the mass base of his own Convention People’s Party, leaving himself surrounded by a small group of not very intelligent but very noisy sycophants. In this kind of situation the only groups in a position to exercise effective force were of course the Army and the Police—groups whose colonial origins and traditions precluded any sympathy for Nkrumah’s political aims.