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Letter from Ghana

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.

THE PERTINENT QUESTION now, after the coup, is: Who has gained? A survey of the Ghanaian political scene leaves no doubt about the answer: the gainers are the same old elite whose dreams of power were so rudely shattered by Nkrumah’s phenomenal rise. The National Liberation Council itself, the group directly responsible for the coup, is made up of professional soldiers and policemen whose political inclinations may be expected to be quite nebulous. But the political coloring of the civilian allies of the NLC is unequivocally right-wing. The special Political Committee, for instance, which advises the NLC on all matters political, is a collection of men from the old elite group. On the Judiciary also, power is now firmly back in the old colonial hands, and the senior echelons of the Civil Service have begun to enjoy the power Nkrumah tried so hard to deny them. The Army and the Police, of course, have profited, most spectacularly in the higher ranks, where the new men of power soon after the coup congratulated one another by promoting one another. Apart from these groups there are the old chiefs, whose power Nkrumah was definitely aiming to abolish. These relics of forgotten days seem to believe that Nkrumah’s overthrow was a signal for their full resurrection. But, although a few of the most powerful, such as Nana Prempeh, the king of the ancient Ashanti tribe, have enough tribal support to create considerable unrest, the chiefs cannot exercise really effective power in a modern setting.

But what exactly have the new men of power gained? Problems and headaches, for the most part. Economically, Ghana’s problems are more serious than the NLC’s tendency to ascribe them all to Nkrumah’s extravagant spending would suggest. Ghana, after all, suffers acutely from a disease that is typical of underdeveloped economies: the country is getting increasingly urbanized, but the industrialization that could support an urbanized economy does not exist. What has happened in this situation is that an increasingly large portion of the urbanized population has acquired the habit of consuming a lot of modern manufactured goods without being able to produce anything. Even that sector of the Ghanaian economy which is indisputably productive—the agricultural sector—faces a frustrating problem: as agricultural production expands, agricultural prices on the world market go down, so that about twice the volume of cocoa earns the same total as a decade ago. Meanwhile the prices of imported consumer items rise quite steadily.

The social situation follows naturally from all this. There is the usual stream of migrants from the villages to the towns in search of jobs and a higher standard of living. When they get to the outskirts of the towns they put up the individual shacks that collectively make slums, while the able-bodied quickly swell the army of the unemployed, available for the desperate schemes of anyone who can pay.

So far, the policies of Ghana’s new rulers are likely to aggravate, not solve, these problems. There has been a drastic attempt to solve problems of the economy at the expense of the social structure; at least 10,000 people have lost their jobs since the coup as a result of the new economy drive. What the country needs, of course, is the creation of more productive jobs, which means, in effect, a program for industrialization. The new government has no such program. Its main economic technique so far has been to appeal to the sympathy and the altruism of European and American capitalists. Accra’s airport lounges are plastered with signs welcoming private investors; the road from the airport to town has billboards repeating the same message. It may be a bit ironic to note that the billboards were erected by Nkrumah for the 1965 conference of the OAU. Their message was originally DOWN WITH IMPERIALISM!

Politics? The elite has power within its grasp. Whether it is capable of holding on to this power is another question. For the old elite still has its old problem—it is incapable of establishing any real political contact with the common people. In fact, almost everyone in the elite would be happy if the matter of governing Ghana could be reduced to an administrative problem, with politics eliminated, and the elite would formulate policies which the ruled would implement or obey. At any rate, there is now a ban on all political activity, so that it is not possible to attempt any evaluation of political forces, though it is always possible to point to certain individuals who have a potential political importance. Of these the most important are:

Dr. Kofi Abrefa Busia, a sociologist of the old British school and a university professor before his exile under Nkrumah, now the most influential civilian in Ghana. Busia once led the opposition to Nkrumah. His leadership was so weak that the real control of his party was grabbed by a violent, illiterate tribalist whose wildest demand was that Ghana be split up and his tribe, the Ashanti, be declared an independent nation. The general impression seems to be that Busia is out of touch with today’s realities, and that even if he is manipulated into a position of leadership, the real power will be exercised by someone with greater personal strength.

Mr. Joseph Appiah, another leader of the old opposition now also an adviser to the NLC, is an aristocrat who calls himself a British-type Fabian Socialist and has considerable difficulty concealing his low opinion of the Ghanaian masses.

The intellectuals of Ghana, as a group, are quite close in temper to these men. How effective they can be as a political force remains to be seen. In general, their record under Nkrumah ranged from self-serving compliance through hypocritical declarations of loyalty to mute, impotent resentment. As for the students, their main concern seems to be how to raise their already high economic and social standing in the society when they graduate.

WHAT OF NKRUMAH’S MEN? Most are out of jail by now, but their performances after the coup should put them out of serious politics for life. All had found it profitable to themselves to serve Nkrumah; none had anything good to say of the man after his fall.

Mr. Krobo Edusei, best known as the Minister whose wife bought a solid gold bed in London and had it transported to Ghana “for private purposes,” is a man devoid of principle and thoroughly mercenary. In spite of his open corruption, however, he has always enjoyed a certain popularity with Ghanaians who are pleased to see that he distributes his ill-gotten gains freely among relatives and friends. Mr. Edusei has expressed a desire to return to politics at the next opportunity.

Mr. Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, Nkrumah’s old crony who broke with him years before the coup and is now back from exile in unknown places, is an experienced politician who did a lot to help Nkrumah organize the CPP in the early days. Given the chance, he might try politics again.

Mr. Alex Quaison-Sackey is perhaps, next to Nkrumah, the best known Ghanaian. After rising to the Presidency of the United Nations, he joined Nkrumah’s cabinet as Foreign Minister. He was with Nkrumah in Peking when the coup took place, but he deserted his master at the earliest opportunity. Back in Ghana, he proclaimed his eagerness to serve the new order “in any capacity.” He was promptly jailed. Since his release he has been serving the advertising firm of Reindorf Associates as a Consulting Expert.

NONE OF THESE MEN can be regarded as leaders, since, in the present freeze on political activity, they can have no followers. This does not mean that there are no social forces waiting for leadership. There are. First, there is the educated elite. This group, educated at the expense of the nation, and already well supplied with privileges, is actively demanding an augmentation of these privileges. The NLC, which depends heavily on the good will of this section of the Ghanaian population, will meet its demands. This will momentarily increase the power and the prestige of the upper crust of Ghana’s bourgeoisie and make more of the country’s wealth available for the purchase of the symbols of its success: the “Estate” house, the Mercedes-Benz car, the television set, the hi-fi set, and, for the women, the European hair wig.

On the other hand, there are the urban workers. Hit by serious unemployment since the coup, still saddled with laws against strikes and trade-union officials more eager to please the powers that be than to fight for workers’ rights, this class is likely to grow angrier as it sees the upper class getting fatter when workers’ needs are met with the official excuse: “There is no money.” But this anger is not likely to find expression in political organization, simply because under present circumstances any radical program will be labeled “Nkrumaist” and those supporting it will be suppressed. So the anger of the underprivileged will find expression in acts of individual and social hostility. Already crimes against property are sharply on the increase, and there have been several complaints against a rise in acts of personal violence in Accra’s daily papers.

Another group of great but somewhat latent importance is made up of the farmers. Actually this is not one group, but at least three: first, the rich “farmers” who are farmers only in the sense that they consume income produced by their farms; second, the agricultural laborers who, for incredibly low wages, work for these rich farmers; and third, small-time families with a bit of land. The well-being of the farmers depends to a large extent on conditions of the world cocoa market, and a government’s popularity with them would depend on its ability to create the illusion that it can conjure up a good international price for the crop.

THE COUP ITSELF, of course, has thrown up, from among the military and the police, people who may possess the capacity, or at least get addicted to the taste, for leadership. If, true to its history, the elite proves again incapable of leadership, we may have a repetition of the Nkrumah story, with some soldier or policeman this time playing the role of the “boy” who betrays his impotent master, the elite. Should that happen, who would be the “boy”?

Lieutenant General Ankrah, the present Chairman of the NLC, has limited appeal. He seems somewhat bewildered by the necessities of modern government as he fights his way through speeches composed for him by Anglophile advisers, and he suffers from a formidable lack of charisma. Besides, he does not have the prestige of the actual planners of the coup, since he was brought in as a figurehead. Police Chief Harlley is an ambitious man striving to impress all with his hostility to corruption. He is reported to enjoy the respect of the American Embassy. Major General Kotoka—who was the best of the lot—was killed in the recent attempt at a coup. Colonel Afrifa is the “baby” of the NLC. Only thirty years old, he could have gone to the University but chose the Army. He was the brains of the conspiracy. His youth and his good looks make him the most noticeable man on the NLC, and his liberal tendencies and statements have endeared him to the intellectuals. In the long run, however, his most important attributes are likely to be those associated with his tribal background. He is a member of the Ashanti tribe who, of all Ghanaian groups, were the most alienated from the Nkrumah regime. The established interests in Ashanti were treated with disdain by Nkrumah, and the new regime intends to rectify this. Colonel Afrifa is the only Ashanti on the NLC and cannot escape becoming the guardian of Ashanti interests. Indeed, the NLC recognized this from the start, making Afrifa responsible for the ministerial portfolios of finance and economic development.

IN THE FIRST YEAR of the NLC’s rule, the leading officers seemed to work together rather well. Rumors spread that serious differences prevailed among the military junta, especially between Lieutenant General Ankrah and the late Major General Kotoka. No untoward event occurred, but the NLC, aware that rumors in Africa have an uncanny way of becoming facts, enacted a law (NLC DECREE 92) making it a crime to utter or publish “any statement, rumor or report which is likely to cause fear or alarm or despondency to the public or to disturb the public peace or to cause dissatisfaction against the NLC.”

As events were to demonstrate, the NLC’s suspicion was not altogether mistaken: certain people did indeed harbor nasty and bloody thoughts against it. These people were not, as was suspected, among the public but in the Army itself: On April 17, 1967 three junior officers attempted a coup d’état. Launched under the code name “Operation Guitar Boy,” it seemed little more than a bid by younger officers to oust their superiors. Major General Kotoka, chief of the army, was killed, but the other members of the NLC survived and managed to repulse the coup.

The trial of the officers who led the abortive coup did not reveal any strong political motives on their part. Lieutenant Samuel Arthur, leader of the coup, was disturbed by little more than the NLC’s practice of packing the senior ranks with favorites and indulging, so he charged, in high living. Yet this was quite enough for him and his co-conspirators to take the drastic step of mounting a counter-coup, as has happened also in other West African states like Togo and Dahomey. The NLC, for its part, lost sight of the fact that the creation of a pecking order among military officers who must also govern can generate serious friction. Dr. Busia, himself surely no expert politician, nonetheless put the matter keenly and prophetically in a lecture on transition from military to civilian rule delivered at the University of Ghana one month before the coup:

If they [military officers] stay in power for long, serious differences develop among them; their relations become strained; their meetings become turbulent; there are frequent walk-outs; eventually there are counter-coups. Military regimes are notoriously and inherently unstable. Africa has so far not shown any signs that her military regimes will be an exception to the historical pattern.1

The sentences given the offending officers were emphatic evidence that the NLC intends to discourage foolhardy counterthrusts in future. One officer was given thirty years’ imprisonment and two others, including Lieutenant Arthur, were shot on May 9 by a firing squad. Their execution was carried out before 20,000 Ghanaians, who were transported to the firing grounds of the Ghana Army several miles outside Accra. (The Nkrumah regime, incidentally, executed only one political offender.)

Later, four civilians were charged with complicity in the coup against the NLC and three of them were also given death sentences by firing squad. Two of these men, both under thirty years of age, were associated with the Nkrumah regime—one as a student at the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute and the other as Administrative Officer of the Ghana Workers Brigade. The defendants declared their innocence to the end; but if they were indeed guilty as charged, it would suggest that some elements in the towns and urban centers have not merely shaken off the euphoria they wallowed in when the NLC was established in February 1966 but have now moved into opposition.

Of course it is hardly safe to generalize from the actions of two working-class Ghanaians. Yet even if we assume they were guilty, their actions are not unrelated to other evidence of opposition. For example, cocoa farmers, responsible for some 70 percent of Ghana’s foreign exchange, smuggled more than 10 percent of the cocoa crop (20,000 tons) into the neighboring states of Ivory Coast and Togo where the price is higher. This meant a loss of nearly twelve million dollars in foreign exchange to the NLC. There was also a marked increase in armed robbery, bank-raids, and similar crimes throughout the NLC’s first year. In May an ammunition depot in Accra was raided by a gang of robbers who made away with a large quantity of arms and ammunition.

Thus the NLC, as it nears the middle of its second year, has reasons to be anxious about its future. The decision to make a public spectacle of the execution of the conspirators in the abortive coup reflected this. But anxiety in Ghana today is not limited to the NLC; its allies share it as well. One of these is the British firm Ashanti Goldfields Ltd., whose Chairman, Sir Edward Spears, is reported by his secretary to have advised the NLC to execute the conspirators publicly in order to set an example.2

RATHER SURPRISINGLY, perhaps, some scholars at the University of Ghana also share the NLC’s anxiety about the future, and, through the editorial pages of their organ, the Legon Observer3 , have offered it some stern advice:

…One humble suggestion to the General (and the NLC)… Let us not hear any more of the reconciliation policy which has been applied to the CPP and has failed us so grievously. Let us not talk of reconciliation for those who murdered Kotoka and brought shame to this country. No more vacillation. The result of that might be worse than the loss of the lives of other members of the NLC and senior officers of the Forces.

Scholars would seem unlikely bedfellows of the experts of violence. But some Ghanaian scholars, obsessed by their status and material comfort—the latter even Nkrumah kept intact—view the Army-backed status quo with equanimity. After all, under the ancien régime the official glorification of the masses, phony though it was, irked most of the intellectuals; it deflated their prestige and the value of their work. Intellectuals, like God, can forgive much, but not quite this: the masses, especially those in towns and urban centers, must be shown salvation and pay for their transgression.4

Thus anxiety about the future is to be found throughout Ghana today, particularly in the NLC and among the favored groups who are its allies. But anxiety is stultifying unless it finds an outlet. Politics, alas, is not available for this because the military junta means to hang on to power indefinitely. But tyranny, a poor substitute for politics, is available, and if the public execution of the conspirators in the counter-coup is a guide, Ghana is hell-bent on that course.

Letters

Nkrumah’s Sponsors January 4, 1968

  1. 1

    Since the abortive coup a major reshuffling of the senior ranks of the Ghana Army has occurred which may have important consequences for the future stability of the military regime. The commander of the Navy, Rear-Admiral David Hansen, and the General Officer Commanding the Armed Forces, Major General C. C. Bruce, were relieved of their duties on May 2 and assigned to the Ghana Embassies in London and Washington, respectively. The Vice-Chairman of the NLC, Police Chief Harlley, said that the removal of Bruce and Hansen was due to the absence of “effective and inspiring Army leadership.”

  2. 2

    See West Africa (London, May 20, 1967), p. 674.

  3. 3

    The Legon Observer (April 28, 1967), p. 17. Another editorial in the same issue was apprehensive about the rising crime rate in the urban centers: “One of the disturbing features of life in the main cities of Ghana these days is the increase in crime and violence. Hollywood-type bank-raids and gang robbery, which have hitherto been unknown in this country, are now a common phenomenon, and the dailies are always full of heart-rending stories of the cold murder of watchmen, gate-keepers, etc. In a situation like this, one would expect that there would be increased effort on the part of the Police…. On the contrary, it is pathetic to observe that no such activity and serious awareness on the part of the police are evident.”

  4. 4

    As for the rural masses, the NLC intends to leave their salvation to the traditional Chiefs who, still smarting from the defeat they experienced under Nkrumah, are anxious to teach the peasants a lesson.

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