Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Self-Sufficiency Despot: Nkrumah's Gift and Curse

by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Supermarket Bananas with Spider
In the last fifteen years, I have found two trends in Western news particularly fascinating; one is quirky and the other is odd. The first is the increasingly frequent articles showcasing some stunned family that has found a 'dangerous' tropical critter in their bananas or in the fruit aisle of their local supermarket and the second is the almost-as-regular opinion pieces on how governments ignore the voice of the majority. I think these trends fascinate me because in Ghana specifically and, perhaps, in the so-called developing world as a whole, these things are not news, just pesky thin-limbed things we would brush off our shoulders. However, with reflection, I am probably also drawn to these curiosities because they are metaphors for how the bad can lurk in the ostensibly good.

I think of these things today as a reflect on the 108th birthday of Ghana's first president, Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah and how, as a child, I would rarely hear good things about him outside of my own home, where my father had a near-complete library of Nkrumah's writings. My late father – firm friends with the daughter of J.B Danquah, a man famed as one of the most prominent victims of Nkrumah's Preventive Detention Act of 1958; and married to a niece of General Ankrah, the man who overthrew Nkrumah – was no apologist for Nkrumah's excesses, but was appreciative of his vision and the real positive changes that he had seeded in Ghana. He considered the man a flawed genius. It is in this ambivalent space that I came to know Nkrumah – all my history books painting him as a wasteful despot who had left Ghana in debt; my father insisting that we were the best-educated nation in Africa, even with a large number of skilled Ghanaians stranded in exile after the coup d'état of 1966 that ended Nkrumah's reign.

Doc Duvalier
With my own study of the history of the Enlightenment and Capitalism as a whole, as well as my almost natural interest in coups d'état given that I experienced my first when I was five years old, I have come to form a number of new opinions on Nkrumah, his successes and failings. There are two primary ones;one is that regardless of the economic system he was believed to have leaned towards, Socialism or Capitalism, they are both Western systems based on the notion of acquisition as development, and inherent within the quest to keep up with the Smiths and Joneses is a seed of despotism, which he could not escape; two is that his real crime, which rid him of the Western support that despots such as Pinochet of Chile, Mubarak of Egypt, Duvalier of Haiti, Mobutu of Congo, Jiménez of Venezuela, Marcos of the Philippines, Habre of Chad and Tito of Yugoslavia enjoyed, was that within his mission was a leaning towards self-sufficiency that would effectively impoverish the supply line of dependence pivotal to the West's economic and political leadership of the world as we know it. The first was his curse, the second was his gift (to us, not the West). To my mind, the second notion is what aligns Nkrumah with Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso and Patrice Lumumba of Congo.

Perhaps the greatest trick of Western-style development peddlers is the neglect to qualify that the engine of such development is subjugation. It's just like your organic fruit seller forgetting to tell you that not using pesticides means that you are more likely to get a friendly spider or scorpion from Panama in your bunch of bananas. They won't tell you that because then they can't charge you the premium you pay to eat organic fruit. Their aim is to sell fruit just as development peddlers aim to sell Western-style development. The Swiss-born philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau had plenty to say about the ills of the materialism and individualism that lies at the heart of this model of development, lamenting in his Discourses that it makes “all men competitors, rivals or rather enemies” resulting in “a multitude of bad things for a small number of good”.

Much of the wealth that became the engine for Europe's development was earned under Feudalism, with majority of the population barely paid for their labour, this was followed by largely autocratic regimes and, for the most economically successful, the Transatlantic Slave Trade and colonialism. In fact, it is stunning how soon after the beginnings of the decline of Feudalism (early 16th Century) the Slave Trade starts to flourish and how the legal abolition of Feudalism in England, for example (The Tenures Abolition Act 1660), coincides with the time when the English become the leading shippers of slaves from West Africa. With these immeasurable advantages in place, England exploded in wealth and edifices. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, celebrates in several writings the motivating power of competitiveness and vanity and, sure enough, the rest of the world has sought to display its own edifices and wealth since. Russia, in seeking to catch up with the English and French, were under the tyrannical rule of first Peter the Great, then his successors until Catherine the Great; the United States of America had chattel slavery. So, yes, governments ignore the voice of the majority when they seek material gain. (Anyone remember the Iraq War?) The Enlightenment and colonial era exploitations I mention are near impossible to duplicate and the closest a nation can get to those conditions is some form of despotism. Of course, this only counts if your notion of development is the Western model – and Nkrumah, with his Western education, could not help but be shaped by these ideas and therein lay his seed of dictatorship. People had to be dominated.

There is a quote from Rousseau on kings, which I believe speaks to both Nkrumah's gradual slide into despotism and the graveness of what I have called his real crime, which, of course, is no crime at all! “...political sermonisers may tell [kings] to their hearts' content that, the people's strength being their own, their first interest is that the people should be prosperous, numerous and formidable; they are well aware that this is untrue. Their first personal interest is that the people should be weak, wretched, and unable to resist them.” For Nkrumah, his primary desire was that the people should be unable to resist him, to see him as Osagyefo – the redeemer – and trust them to lead them into a golden era. This makes him no different from all the men – yes, men – I have listed above who put their people through hellish times far more extreme than Nkrumah ever inflicted on Ghanaians. So, why is he one of the leaders (like Lumumba and Sankara) that the Western powers sought to eliminate? The answer is simple – commerce. Nkrumah's plans were increasingly headed in the
Silos in Tema (image source njnrr)
direction of self-sufficiency and self-regulation. The silos he was building across the country were meant to address the rapid spoilage of primary commercial crops like cocoa, allowing Ghana to stockpile and sell when the price suited us. Given the Western world's addiction to chocolate – itself, ironically, linked to the slave trade and subsequent growth in the consumption of sugar and the development of the confectionery industry – it would not do for the world's largest producer of cocoa at the time to have that amount of leverage. Even worse than the silos were the factories being built across Ghana that would, if completed, drastically reduce Ghana's imports from the West as well as compete with the West for market share on the African continent. Not so different with the approach China took in the last 40 years (and mark how much they were vilified by the West). Contrast that with the dictators who enjoyed unlimited support from the West; Jiménez was selling Venezuelan oil to the United States at wonderful prices, Pinochet was one of the United Kingdom's largest arms buyers (as Saudi Arabia is now) and, in the Philippines, Imelda Marcos's appetite for shoes alone was a micro-economy worth maintaining.

Given these facts, it is no wonder that for years care has been taken to inform us that Nkrumah left Ghana in debt, but little light is shed on why the men who deposed him were encouraged to let every factory and silo that was in development waste away. The sad thing is that, the military goons (my great uncle included) in their sycophantic ardour didn't realise that if the factories didn't work, the money for the loan repayments would have to come from somewhere else. That's the other thing with the banana sellers; they don't tell you that if there is an infestation of African cockroaches you have to deal with them yourself. They can instigate coups d'état, but they don't erase national debt.

Ultimately, as Pankaj Mishra says in his recent The Age of Anger, “whether or not the non-West catches up with the West, the irrepressibly glamorous god of materialism has superseded the religions and cultures of the past in the life and thought of most non-Western peoples”; in many ways, the Nkrumah ship has sailed for Ghana, but our journey as a nation continues. Conditions as they existed during his reign will never return, but we can still learn from his philosophy of finding our own approaches to development, the innate instinct that made him deviate from a pure Western, global approach and look inside first. In the meantime, let's remember our self-sufficiency despot with a little more balance.

what i'm reading/listening to
Gene Ammons - Stranger in Town

Age of Anger

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