Africa must unite: But why? And how? OLÚFÉMI TÁÍWÒ
African scholars and other intellectual types have a penchant for refusing to recognize, celebrate, criticize and, generally, engage our indigenous thinkers because we have reason to believe that they, by their conduct, especially in the political arena, have persuaded us that their ideas are not worthy of our scholarly exertions. This attitude is not only unacceptable, it is also unwarranted. It rests on the dubious assumption that we cannot or may not separate ideas from persons who advance them, or from the behaviour that is claimed to be based on them. Yet, it takes little reflection to realize that the dominant metaphysics of the modern age, in which Africans are participants, by both design and default, is one of disjunction. This means that we are called upon often to separate persons from their ideas and consider those ideas in their integrity, exploring them for internal consistency and pragmatic implications. In so doing, we build up the secondary discourse that is a prerequisite for the creation and sustenance of domestic intellectual traditions. It is in light of these considerations that I offer this presentation. I assume that regardless of our view of Kwame Nkrumah as a person or, in part, as a politician, his ideas are worthy of our energies and a critical engagement with them is likely to enhance our understanding of political philosophy in the African context.
I have chosen to dilate on Kwame Nkrumah’s Africa Must Unite1 both for its sheer philosophical relevance and the insights it provides for our understanding of the current state of affairs in the global African world, especially where the fortunes of Pan-Africanism and the dynamics of the African Union are concerned. It is the argued assumption of this essay that Nkrumah’s text is, in essence, a roadmap for Pan-African unity and the continental government that is meant to be built on it. Yet, a close reading of Africa Must Unite, when juxtaposed with the practical manifestations of the African Union as presently constituted, will reveal a wide gulf between what the ideals were that informed Pan-Africanism – the theoretical bed from which the African Union germinated – and what the reality is of the plant that has sprouted from that bed. What follows makes a case for reconnecting the institutionalization of the African Union with the wider movement for Pan-Africanism and both with their enabling philosophical grounds.
The African Union and Pan-Africanism
The formation of the African Union in 2002 was meant to be the beginning of a process that is ultimately to lead to the creation of a single government for the African continent. The call for and the movement towards the emergence of a continental government for Africa has always been a part of the ideological goal of Pan-Africanism. At the present time, though, the enabling ideas that inform this ideological goal of Pan-Africanism do not seem to feature much in the practical exigencies of the African Union (AU).
To start with, the Pan-African idea itself originated in the African Diaspora, specifically from individuals of African descent in the Caribbean region. Examples include Henry Sylvester Williams, Martin R. Delany, Edward Wilmot Blyden, and W. E. B. DuBois. It became a dream shared by their local equivalents in West Africa, for example, James Africanus Horton, S.R.B. Attoh Ahuma and J.E. Casely-Hayford. Those Diasporic thinkers who originated the idea dreamed of a united Africa that would use the continent’s resources to generate prosperity for Africans and people of African descent everywhere. While they realized the inherent worth of the goal of building a prosperous Africa, their dream included using African prosperity for two related purposes.
In the first place, it was part of the Pan-Africanist dream that a prosperous Africa under a union government would provide a homeland for all peoples of African descent which they can claim and to which they can always return to make a life. One cannot overemphasize the importance of this goal.2 Although space does not permit me to expound the core ideas of nationalism and the relevant debates in the nineteenth century in Europe and Africa, the idea of African peoples forming a nation, in spite of the traditions of particularism occurring in the continent, was the theoretical bedrock of Pan-Africanism.3 As members of this putative nation, every African can always look forward to finding a home in which she and her progeny can have, hold, and seek to attain their conception of the good life. In case anyone doubts the cogency of this claim, consider the role that Israel plays for Jews, the steady return to and prospering of countries such as China, India, and Vietnam, at the present time, by their diasporic members whose citizenship their homelands are busy restoring in spite of the other citizenships their nationals now possess.4 Can anyone seriously suggest that the current AU and its intellectuals take seriously this gathering-the-nation component of the Pan-Africanist project? Nkrumah’s Africa Must Unite clearly articulates this element and provides solid philosophical justification for it.
Secondly, a prosperous Africa under the direction of a union government is meant to reclaim for all peoples of African descent their dignity and respect. Few would deny that the centuries of the trans-Saharan slave trade, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism and neo-colonialism have severely depleted the dignity of peoples of African descent. When such a prosperous Africa becomes reality, Africans and peoples of African descent, wherever in the world they happen to be, can hold their heads high secure in the knowledge that, on one hand, they are inheritors of a glorious civilizational legacy and, on the other, participants, direct and remote, in an ongoing project that is the envy of the rest of the world. That Africa will be a much-desired destination for people seeking appropriate locations for realizing dreams of the good life and the means of attaining same for themselves and their children.
It is, therefore, no accident that the first formal conference, in 1900, for the articulation and realization of this dream was inspired and put together by a scion of the Caribbean region: Henry Sylvester Williams from Trinidad and Tobago. That the subsequent congresses had at their spearhead another notable diasporic African, W. E. B. DuBois, only underscores the point being made here. From Manchester 1945 onwards, continental Africans became more prominent in the Pan-Africanist movement and the activities of Kwame Nkrumah must be noted in this respect. The Pan-African idea received its first institutional embodiment with the inauguration of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) on 25 May 1963, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in commemoration of which this day is celebrated as African Liberation Day, subsequently renamed Africa Day. By then, the rallying cry of the restoration of freedom and dignity to the peoples of Africa and its diaspora was on the lips of the new leaders at the helm of affairs in Africa’s newly-minted independent countries.
The OAU lasted from then until 2002. It expired after a transitional period that lasted from the Extraordinary Session of 1999 in Sirte, Libya, where it was decided to establish an African Union, to the 2000 Summit in Lome, Togo, where the Constitutive Act of the prospective Union was adopted. This was followed by the 2001 Summit in Lusaka, Zambia, where a road map for the implementation of the Union was drawn, and then the 2002 Summit in Durban, South Africa, where the African Union (AU) was launched and the first Assembly of the Heads of State was convened.
It will require quite a stretch of the imagination for anyone to suggest that the present incarnation of the African Union and the ongoing moves towards a continental government pay any significant attention to the aims and objectives I described above. If indeed it is the case that the AU and the OAU before it both aim to speak to and work for an audience beyond the continent, one would expect this commitment to be reflected in the articulation of the AU’s vision, aims, and objectives. Alas, that is not so! I am suggesting that there is now an absence or, at least, a diminished importance of the diaspora in the activities and deliberations of the AU. If one were to go to the AU website [www.african-union.org], one is not likely to be put in touch with the Caribbean branch of the global African world there.5 One will have to peruse the AU Strategic Plan, in the section dealing with the realization of the Pan-African idea, to see that the diaspora is a key part of the project:
‘The seventh key idea concerns the African Diaspora. The Constitutive Act of the African Union calls for total mobilization of all segments of the African population for accomplishment of the set objectives. Undoubtedly, the Diaspora is a particularly important part and vital segment in this regard. It is, in fact, in a position to mobilize, for the Continent, the requisite scientific, technological and financial resources and expertise for the successful management of the programmes of the AU Commission.6 Besides, it can form an abiding bedrock of support in the partnership which Africa would like to see develop with industrialized countries of the South. On this score, the immigration issue and the question of return to, and retention of, African human resources on the Continent, will continue to claim the attention of the African Union.7
One is right to wonder about the quality of the commitment of the AU to the issue of the diaspora and its place in the evolution towards a union government in Africa. An acknowledgment such as is contained in the above passage concerning the importance of the diaspora to the continent ought to be reflected in programmes and processes that seek to encourage the return of diasporic Africans to the continent in ways that would enable them to contribute their quota towards Africa’s uplift. As far as I know, no African country has made any serious move towards providing a home for diasporic Africans in its boundaries. One often encounters the frustrations of immigrant diasporic Africans in their encounters with the bureaucratic and political institutions of their host countries in the continent. African countries need the equivalent of the ‘law of return’ in Israel that guarantees every Jew of whatever colour a home in Israel. If little Israel can do it, why can’t the whole continent of Africa? It is not enough to write policies in Addis Ababa and pretend that all is well or on the way to being well in the various countries where the fortunes of our diasporic relations are concerned.
Why is there this absence or, at least, diminished importance of the diaspora in the current exercise towards unification and union government in the continent? I argue that the philosophical foundations of that ideal have been lost in the shuffle of political expediency and, dare I say, the amnesia, witting or unwitting, of the principal proponents of the African Union as presently constituted. This is discernible in the present context marked by fracture where there once was solidarity between continental Africans and their diasporic cousins.8 Yet, it takes only a cursory look at the writings of the principal philosophers of Pan-Africanism from its inception in 1900 to find that their motivation went beyond the pragmatic dimensions of the idea. At a certain level, they were philosophers of nationalism who sought, inspired by the discourse then prevalent in much of the modern world, to work out conditions for creating an African nation out of the motley traditions of particularism to be found in the African world. In this, they were no different from similar thinkers in Europe in the nineteenth century who were also trying to create nations out of the motley particularist traditions they were heirs to.
What this means is that the question of how to attain their idea was inseparable from their serious efforts to provide a philosophical justification for Pan-Africanism and its related institutions, processes and practices. A seminal contribution to that justification is to be found in Kwame Nkrumah’s writings, especially Africa Must Unite. In fact, part of my motivation for settling on this text is to restore it to the pride of place that it deserves in the discourse of Pan-Africanism and, by so doing, reintroduce my audience to those philosophical foundations. Those foundations are more important now than at any other time in African history since the struggle for independence from colonial rule.
Why Must Africa Unite?
Why must Africa unite? Should Africa unite? The philosophical import of these questions should be obvious. There is a reason why Nkrumah stated his project in the affirmative. Yet, it is clear that his preferred locution is not without significance. He did not say: ‘Africa Can Unite’, or ‘Africa Will/Shall Unite’. At the same time, we may not construe his locution as the articulation of an inevitable, inexorable outcome in the manner of the working out of a law of nature. Quite the contrary, Nkrumah’s affirmation can usefully be construed in its moral, imperative, inflection based on which he is to be understood as exhorting Africans and peoples of African descent everywhere to come together under one umbrella and act as one people. It is something we ought to do not merely for its pragmatic implications but, more importantly, for it being the right thing to do, in light of the aims and objectives that I earlier adumbrated in this discussion.
Nkrumah did not waste any time in articulating the goal that impelled the movement of which he was a part and the struggle of which he was one of the most influential leaders. At the very beginning of Africa Must Unite, we have the following: “Freedom! Hedsole! Sawaba! Uhuru!” (p. ix), all linguistic variations on the simple idea of freedom. African thinkers’ engagement with freedom started in the nineteenth century. It is very easy to believe that when African thinkers deepened their participation in the discourse of freedom in the nineteenth century, they were limited to the immediate object of their animus back then: the subjugation that they suffered first under slavery and the slave trade in the New World and the subsequent colonialism against which their twentieth-century cohort had to struggle. However, Nkrumah was writing in the period when quite a few of Africa’s colonial dependencies had won independence and the independence of the remainder was only a matter of time.
Of course, some might still read his asseverations in the text as being directed at those who were still in the thrall of colonialism. A closer scrutiny would show, however, that Nkrumah was addressing himself to conditions beyond the winning of independence in African countries. I am arguing that in order for us to come to grips with the philosophical justification for the call to the unification of Africa and the installation of a union government, we must take very seriously the discourse of freedom engaged in by Nkrumah and other philosophers of Pan-Africanism.9
Freedom for them meant much more than the mere overthrow of colonialism or the demise of apartheid. Although I do not do so in this essay, it can be argued that the idea of freedom that motivated African thinkers in the modern period owed something to the philosophical discourse of modernity. To this extent, freedom from colonial subjugation was one small part of a much larger idea of freedom that predated colonialism and the struggle against it. African thinkers in the nineteenth century had already become ardent singers of freedom’s songs long before colonialism was imposed on their lands. They sang those songs as integral elements of a world they believed was superior to that in which they then found themselves [This substitution does not accommodate an additional aspect that the original phrase alluded to: they were also critical of their indigenous societies and culture. The present version makes it seem as if they only had problems with colonialism]. Furthermore, it was part of their embrace of the philosophical template in which freedom was the core that led them to accept the claims later made by their colonizers that theirs was a partnership designed to tutor Africans in the ways of modernity as a preparation for eventual African self-rule. It was when it became clear to African thinkers that they had been baited and tricked that they rose against their rulers and demanded to have restored to them their right to govern themselves and be masters in their own houses.10
Their freedom discourse is part of what is often forgotten or, when remembered, is not accorded the seriousness it deserves: the philosophical discourse of modernity. Needless to say, our philosophers themselves have no problem acknowledging the fountain from which their discourse of freedom is derived. And Nkrumah is no exception in this connection. However, this is hardly remembered, much less acknowledged, at the present time. It is a very important point. It is what makes the aspiration towards Pan-Africanism such a lofty philosophical endeavour. Africa was to be united in part to secure the freedom and further the prosperity of Africans in the continent and peoples of African descent the world over.
Nkrumah wrote: ‘Men, women and children throughout the length and breadth of Africa repeat the slogans of African nationalism—the greatest political phenomenon of the latter part of the twentieth century. Never before in history has such a sweeping fervour for freedom expressed itself in great mass movements which are driving down the bastions of empire…’ (p. ix). And what is the content or the main element of this freedom for which there was so much fervour among ‘the great millions of Africa, and of Asia’? Again, Nkrumah could not be more definite in his intimations. ‘In this [twentieth] century there have already been two world wars fought on the slogans of the preservation of democracy; on the right of peoples to determine the form of government under which they want to live. Statesmen have broadcast the need to respect fundamental freedoms, the right of men to live free from the shadow of fears which cramp their dignity when they exist in servitude, in poverty, in degradation and in contempt’ (p. ix).
We need to be clear about the source from which Nkrumah and others of his cohort draw the inspiration for the ideas contained in this quotation. It is a modern idea derived from his education in and acceptance of the core tenet of modernity in which freedom is the primary way of being human. It is this attribute of the human subject that is writ large in the right to self-determination that was the basis of the struggle for independence in the colonial territories. ‘The right of peoples to determine the form of government under which they want to live’ became part of the heritage of political philosophical discourse only with the inauguration of the modern age in Western Europe, starting around the sixteenth century. It is commonly identified as the principle of governance by consent and it is built on a metaphysical foundation of the formal equality of all and the sovereignty of the individual subject. It is at the root of modern liberal representative democracy and it is the solicitousness around the fortunes of the individual and her freedom that exclusively characterizes the modern arrangement that Nkrumah and his fellow philosophers embraced.
This is not the place to specify the details of the core tenets of modernity that undergird the preference for democracy built on the subject. Some gloss is in order, though. The right of peoples to determine their form of government is founded on the modern principle that no one should be under the rule of a government that s/he has had no hand in installing. The right of humans to live free is based on the fundamental idea that individuals are free by nature and may not be coerced to live in any way or embrace any conception of the good life based on any template other than one of their own making. This is what outlaws slavery or its many equivalents. It is captured under the rubric of the sovereignty of the subject.
Certainly, as Nkrumah hastened to point out, the authors of the Atlantic Charter and the Charter of the United Nations sought to exclude the colonized from the purview of their respective declarations. However, the natural human proclivity towards freedom made the colonized and the enslaved of the world appropriate the provisions of those documents and insist on the right to the dignity of their persons as free beings.
‘The realization was breaking upon the vast world of subject peoples that freedom is as much their inalienable right as it is of those who had set themselves over them on the pretext of bringing them Christian light and civilization. The ideas of freedom and democracy, which the Western world was busily propagating to engage support for their cause, were being eagerly absorbed by those to whom freedom had been most strenuously denied’. (p. x)
Nkrumah’s language is redolent with the spirit of what we generally identify with the Enlightenment project in which the primacy of the subject is a core tenet, with associated rights that are deemed inalienable. Hence, it is no accident that Nkrumah immediately alluded to the fact that the Western world was using the ideas of freedom and democracy to mobilize the rest of the world in support of its war against fascism and communism and that the provenance of these ideas was no barrier to their appropriation by Africans for their liberation.
Freedom, Unity and Development
There should be little doubt about the source from which Nkrumah and many other African leaders drew their inspiration for laying claim to freedom as their natural and inalienable right. It is instructive that in their indictment of the Western powers that colonized Africa and dominated the rest of the world for not being true to their proclamation of the universality of the human right to be free, our thinkers did not make the mistake of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. On the contrary, they appropriated the discourse and argued for their collective right to self-determination for their countries and their individual rights to freedom and control over the conduct of their lives. Meanwhile, the scope of this freedom is not limited to the fortunes of states, nations, and other collectivities. They extend to, if not centre on, the ability of individuals to exercise freedom regarding the choice of who rules over them, how they wish to live and, generally, over the constitution of their societies and what the dynamics of their relationships within those societies will be.
What, one might ask, is the connection of this concern with freedom to the idea of African unification and continental government? Recall that Nkrumah was writing after the attainment of independence and he sought to restate the same goal that had driven the movement for independence. The same goal had been the focus of the even earlier movement for the remaking of African society in the modern image that one could discern in the activities and discourse of African thinkers ranging from Horton in the nineteenth century to Casely-Hayford at the turn of the twentieth. Nkrumah and many other leaders of the independence struggle were inheritors of their legacy and they wanted to show that there was a connection between freedom and political union in the continent.
‘We have dedicated ourselves to the attainment of total African freedom…. Since our inception, we have raised as a cardinal policy, the total emancipation of Africa from colonialism in all its forms. To this we have added the objective of the political union of African states as the securest safeguard of our hard-won freedom and the soundest foundation for our individual, no less than our common, economic, social and cultural advancement.’ (p. xi)
Political union serves a practical purpose of securing the hard-won freedom. It is also meant to provide the economy of scale that will be requisite for an economic engine to power self-sustaining growth.
The linking of freedom and unification that is presaged in the introduction to the book is carried through the rest of the text and at no time did the desire for and concern with freedom take a back seat to economic prosperity or political unification. Some might still think that the concern with freedom was instrumental. But I would urge them to look more closely at the expostulations of African thinkers, including Nkrumah, in the last two centuries.11 As for Nkrumah, he devoted chapter 6 of his book to the idea of freedom. What idea of freedom motivated Nkrumah in his perorations? I dare say that it is to be found in modern Western philosophy. He declared:
‘It is my deep conviction that all peoples wish to be free, and that the desire for freedom is rooted in the soul of every one of us. A people long subjected to foreign domination, however, does not always find it easy to translate that wish into action. Under arbitrary rule, people are apt to become lethargic; their senses are dulled. Fear becomes the dominant force in their lives; fear of breaking the law, fear of punitive measures which might result from an unsuccessful attempt to break loose from their shackles. Those who lead the struggle for freedom must break through this apathy and fear. They must give active expression to the universal longing to be free…’ (p. 50)
Colonial rule was an exemplar of arbitrary rule. The colonized did not choose it. The people did not have any say in how it came to be constituted. Even if we could say that people acquiesced in the rule, they could not have accepted it; a condition that could only have been met if they had had a hand in its original constitution, had considered its rule one of legitimacy and right rather than might.12 Indeed, the conditions that Nkrumah went on to iterate are quite consistent with rule that is not rooted in acceptance by those whom it binds. It was a regime that sustained itself by instilling fear in its victims. It is no wonder that Frantz Fanon would emphasize that force was the primary currency in the transaction between the colonizer and the colonized in the African context.13 This legacy had to be dismantled if genuine decolonization was to be achieved.
The relationship between governor and governed should be radically altered and the principle of governance by consent must be the currency in the new post-independence dispensation. Nkrumah was concerned that the regime of fear not be replicated in the new post-freedom order. For this to happen, it is imperative for the new power holders to be beholden to their citizens who must, as part of their subjectivity, be the real authorizers of the power wielded by the rulers. The citizens must be active participants in and authorizers of their own governance. They must not be afraid of their governors. As much as possible, fear should not be a presence in their lives and the law should not be a shackle from which they would need to break loose. Their wish to be free must not be fettered; on the contrary it must be enhanced.
Elections based on universal franchise remain the preferred vehicle for attaining legitimate power in the modern polity. Giving ‘active expression to the universal longing to be free’ means all the things that we normally associate with the fundamental tenets of modernity: the right of individuals to be left alone; their right not to be bound by a government they played no role in installing; the equality of all before the law; the prohibition on retroactive laws; freedom of conscience, including especially the freedom of religion; right to privacy; and the rest of the prohibitions and forbearances that we associate with the politico-philosophical discourse of modernity. It is this complex of rights, prohibitions and forbearances that Nkrumah had in mind when he placed freedom front and centre in the struggle, initially, for independence and, later, for life more abundant for Africans. He concluded that ‘every movement for independence in a colonial situation contains two elements: the demand for political freedom and the revolt against poverty and exploitation’ (p. 51).
Although the demand for freedom under conditions of subjugation is easily assimilated to freeing a people as a group, one should resist this temptation. As important as the discourse of freedom is in the struggle for independence, it is even more so on the day after independence and the days thereafter. This is where the centrality of freedom to African unification becomes of utmost importance. And there is no doubt in my mind that Nkrumah was seized of this consideration and it compelled him to devote a chapter to what he called ‘problems of government’:
‘In our struggle for freedom, parliamentary democracy was as vital an aim as independence. The two were inseparable. It was not our purpose to rid the country of the colonial régime in order to substitute an African tyranny. We wanted to free our people from arbitrary rule, and to give them the freedom to choose the kind of government they felt would best serve their interests and enhance their welfare’ (p. 66).14
This confirms some of the points made above regarding Nkrumah’s idea of freedom. For those who are familiar with modern philosophy in the Western tradition, the parliamentary democracy that Nkrumah adjudged to be ‘a vital aim’ of their struggle on the same level as the winning of independence is what is variously called liberalism, liberal democracy, representative democracy, and so on. This originated in Europe and it is where Nkrumah and other African thinkers of this mode derived their inspiration from.15
Once this is so understood, the winning of independence and freedom for any people must be seen as the first step that must be followed by the extension to ordinary people, the individual citizens, of the many privileges and forbearances that form part of the core tenets of modernity of which liberal democracy is but a mere part. We may, indeed, use this as a measure of how far a country has travelled on the road to delivering on the promise of independence to its citizens. Again, Nkrumah was very clear about this implication:
‘Our struggle was fought to make our people free to practice the religion they chose, to give them the liberty to associate in whatever groups they wished, to create an atmosphere in which they could say, write and think freely, without harming their neighbour or jeopardizing the state” (p. 66).
What happens when a post-independence government impairs the citizen’s freedom of conscience, or tries to turn ‘the country into a prayer camp’ in violation of the supposed constitutional separation of church and state? It is obvious that Nkrumah would have considered such a state of affairs as unsavoury. However, it would be even more so were a state to declare itself a religious one by attaching a religious adjective to its substantive designation as a ‘republic’ (as done by some current members of the African Union). The same strictures would apply where a state infringed upon citizens’ right to ‘liberty to associate in whatever groups they wished’, be it to form trade unions or political parties.
Certainly, their liberty ends where they begin to ‘harm their neighbour or jeopardize the state’. Yet, whether or not they do so is not summarily or solely established by the state’s say-so. Rather, a properly constituted impartial tribunal—the judiciary—is empowered to investigate whether or not such harm has occurred and whether or not the accused party can rightly be held responsible for having caused injury to another. Notice that the state is not permitted to act to pre-empt the exercise by citizens of their liberties; it only exacts restitution or inflicts punishment when it shall have been established that the liberty concerned had been exercised without due regard for the welfare of neighbours or the integrity of the state.
Summarizing the fundamental situation, Nkrumah declared:
‘We introduced principles basic to the settled and established democracies of the world, such as the separation of powers, between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. As the repository of the people’s will, the legislature is supreme. It is sovereign and unlimited in its enactment of laws, which are binding upon the people and the government. Election to the legislature is by universal adult suffrage, and men and women enjoy equality of rights and duties. That all persons in the state are equal before the law is another principle well enshrined in our constitution’ (p. 66).
The aim, in short, was to adapt to the African context ‘principles basic to the settled and established democracies’. An unstated assumption of this aim is that the mode of life within those polities is a better one than alternatives in then socialist polities of Central and Eastern Europe. And I hasten to add that this preference for liberal democratic principles was without prejudice to the choice of socialism as the preferred vehicle for realizing the good society. Indeed, for Obafemi Awolowo and Léopold Senghor, there was no incompatibility between liberal democratic principles and socialism; they styled themselves democratic socialists.16
We can now begin to see the necessary connection between the idea of freedom and the case for the unification of Africa. I have deliberately ignored the historical fact that Nkrumah himself was not true to his own liberal pronouncements. That is a task for another occasion. However, his abandonment or, at least, subversion of his own commitment to liberal principles must be noted even if only in passing. And if what we have said so far is plausible, then Nkrumah stands condemned by the principles that he himself enunciated. Needless to say, the same strictures would apply to other African leaders, both of Nkrumah’s own time and our own, who have subverted or are subverting the principles enunciated by Nkrumah.
Nkrumah and the Practice of Freedom in Ghana
Our admiration for Nkrumah, our celebration of his legacy, requires us to confront his failings, else we slip into hagiography. The truth is that he subverted his own principles. Excoriating him for it strengthens our hand in condemning contemporary instances of similar subversions in current African Union member countries. The seeds of his own subversion of the principles he so clearly enunciated were sown in his failure to follow strictly the logic of the liberal idea that insists that the solution to the problems thrown up by freedom is more freedom. No doubt, he was dealing with a very strong internal opposition that could not even be said to have shared Nkrumah’s commitment to liberal democratic principles. Nor do I want to make light of the many acts of violence that were perpetrated against the state, other Ghanaian citizens, and Nkrumah’s person during the period in question.
Add to that, the fact that Nkrumah’s advocacy on behalf of full African liberation and the restoration of the dignity of peoples of African descent wherever they may be in the world had aroused the ire of various imperialist forces led by the United States of America. He was a marked man whose demise, we now know, was being actively plotted by forces in and out of Ghana. Did this mean that the only option available to him was to jettison, as he did, the ‘principles basic to the settled and established democracies of the world’? I don’t think so. That his resort to what he had railed against in the colonial situation – arbitrary rule, rule of fear, the consolidation of power in the presidency – culminated in the imposition of extra-constitutional rule on Ghanaians must count as evidence for the inefficacy of illegitimate, arbitrary rule.
Why did Nkrumah fail to follow the logic of his principles? In my humble opinion, he fell in love with power and sought to rationalize the power grab that he enacted by a distortion of the time honoured principles that he so eloquently defended in other parts of his book and which he claimed in other sections needed to be abandoned or abbreviated in the face of what he considered to be unacceptable behaviour on the part of his opposition (see especially chapter 9). That he subverted his own principles is no reason for us to abandon them. Nor will it provide a justification for thinking that liberal democracy or the representative government that it requires as a preferred vehicle of government has no place in Africa on account of its exotic provenance. In the final analysis, however, at least in theory, Nkrumah never abandoned the necessary connection between freedom in all the senses I have described above and the unification of Africa and the establishment of a continental government.
Thus, to the question of why Africa must unite, Nkrumah was unequivocal in his answer: ‘We have to free ourselves from the grip of economic imperialism, and protect our freedom. We have at the same time to work ceaselessly for the complete liberation and unity of Africa’ (p. xvi). The unity thus procured is not its own justification; rather, it is a bulwark to any threat to freedom. ‘Our freedom stands open to danger just as long as the independent states of Africa remain apart.’ (p. xvii) We need not belabour the myriad ways in which the proliferation of small, resource-poor, landlocked countries in Africa has made them easy prey for those wishing to make mischief in the continent. This has in turn sabotaged the freedom of those countries and that of individual citizens in them. Meanwhile, the countries with large populations and abundant resources have not been able to advance towards the economies of scale that would have made them the engines for development in Africa. There are deep and complex descriptions of how Africa’s wealth could be used to prosper Africa’s peoples in the enjoyment of their several freedoms and make Africa a popular destination for common humanity seeking to improve its fortunes.
In his speech at the founding conference of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), Nkrumah exhibited the boldness of vision that is no longer part of the inventory of African leadership at the present time. ‘Our continent certainly exceeds all the others in potential hydro-electric power, which some experts assess as 42% of the world’s total. … Experts have estimated that the Congo Basin alone can produce enough food crops to satisfy the requirements of nearly half the population of the whole world, and here we sit talking about regionalism, talking about gradualism, talking about step by step. Are you afraid to tackle the bull by the horn?’17 Of course, how else could the riches of the Congo Basin be used to ensure that there is no hunger in Niger? Or the hydro-electric potential of the Congo, the Kunene, or the Niger rivers be tapped to ensure that South Africa and Nigeria have the requisite energy resources to power a modern economy in which Africans can find work and live in dignity with the future of their progeny assured? The answer, Nkrumah insisted, lies in unity. How was Africa to ensure that its brittle independence did not break under the weight of neo-colonialism and thereby jeopardize the freedom of African peoples, once again? In other words, the preservation and expansion of the freedom of African countries and the capacity of Africans to live jointly and severally as free beings could not be separated from the imperative of unity of will and purpose in the aftermath of independence.
I doubt that many would object when I say that the ideal that Nkrumah canvassed remains as relevant today as it was in the immediate post-independence period. Indeed, the history of failures at democratic governance in most African countries for the better part of the post-independence period underscores the need for us to take another look at this much neglected inheritance. What is more, with the current accelerated pace towards a continental government, it cannot be overemphasized that if Nkrumah were right, the arrangement must be characterized by those ‘principles basic to the settled and established democracies of the world’. We should not allow anyone to persuade us that we should trade freedom for prosperity: that Africans must suspend their right to free existence until their bellies are full; that we must embrace so-called republics under arbitrary rule because ‘they take care of their people’. Africans are not pets; they should lead lives of freedom and respect for their inviolate dignity.
Now that we know why Africa must unite, it is time to consider how it is to be brought about. If, indeed, it is granted that ‘it is the idea of the universality of freedom that has impelled the struggle for independence’ (p. 193), there are serious implications for how we go about procuring the installation of the union and the continental government that will furnish the vehicles for the realization of the two ideals that I claimed at the beginning of this discussion inform the movement for Pan-Africanism from its inception: prosperity for Africans and the restoration of their freedom and dignity.
If the quality of a union is a function of the quality of its constituent elements, then we may not be indifferent to, or uninterested in the quality both of the processes at work in the constitution of the African Union to date and in the behaviour of its leading lights in the countries over which they preside. We must ask whether or not contemporary African leaders evince the appropriate temperament conducive to the installation of democratic principles in their respective countries; and whether or not the foundations and operations of government and its ancillary institutions are bound by democratic principles. I argue that the less presence there is in African countries of the principles basic to democracy, the less likely it is that the African Union that emerges will resemble the ideal that animated and should continue to animate the movement for continental government in Africa.
Nkrumah was not alone in his dream of Pan-African unity and continental government. Another African philosopher who was agitated by the dream of uniting Africa was Léopold Sédar Senghor. In spite of what has come down to us as the rivalry, maybe even antagonism, between the two, they were convergent on the importance of building that unity on the freely exercised will of free Africans working from within the boundaries of independent African states as they were then and are now constituted. In other words, unity is best that adheres to those ‘principles basic to the settled and established democracies of the world’, especially those regarding the consent of the governed as the basis of legitimate rule symbolized in the centrality of the electoral principle based on adult universal suffrage wielded by men and women who are all equal and whose will is freely expressed.
This is where I must register my profound dissatisfaction with the current methods of achieving the twin objectives of unification and continental government. It is bad enough that no one talks anymore of the philosophical justification that I have been concerned to explicate in this essay. It is worse that the continent, represented in the AU, has remained largely indifferent to or, at most, lukewarm in its reaction to the many subversions of democratic principles and practices in many African countries. It is not insignificant that no one has raised the issue of keeping the headquarters of the African Union in a country under a clearly undemocratic regime, a regime that is marked by egregious violations of the right to life of political protesters, the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association by Ethiopian citizens. This is a mere continuation of the unsavoury situation that marked the very beginning of the Organization of African Unity when its birth was midwifed by an absolute ruler whose very embodiment was at variance with the principles that Nkrumah embraced: Emperor Haile Selassie I. Little wonder then that the OAU, throughout its existence, never embraced the idea of freedom for Africans in their individual lives and had little qualm, under the guise of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states, supporting member states that committed grievous crimes against their own citizens. One would have expected that with the global movement towards liberal democracy and the African Union’s stated preference for representative democracy and strong recognition of human rights, there would be a renewed commitment to the principles articulated by Nkrumah. This is hardly the case at the present time.
A few years back, it took protests by the rest of the world and a handful of African countries to stop the African Union from passing into the chairmanship of the Sudanese dictator, Omer El-Bashir. It is no less detestable that, as at this writing, the AU is under the superintendence of another brutal dictator, Teodoro Obieng Nguema, the president of Equatorial Guinea. And I cannot fail to remark the unseemly haste with which another long-standing dictator, Muammar Gaddhafi, wanted to stampede Africa into what would, at best, have been a shot-gun union. One wonders why more African countries do not emulate the examples of Botswana, South Africa and, lately, Ghana in embracing wholeheartedly the principles basic to the established democracies. Given the antecedents that I have reported in this essay, I doubt that Nkrumah would have approved a union brokered by one whose accession to power can only counterfactually be said to derive from the people and whose inhabitants are more subjects [as in a monarchy] than citizens of a republic. And many countries in Africa continue to subsist under regimes that fall far short of the “principles basic to the settled and established democracies of the world”.
Examples abound. Egypt remains under authoritarian rule.18 This has not diminished its standing in the AU. Neither has that of Equatorial Guinea. Swaziland, under its absolute monarch and with its routine disregard of its subjects’ rights, suffers no opprobrium. Uganda, in spite of its constitutional tinkering to extend the mandate of its ruler, suffers no consequences. And Gambia, with its ruler’s penchant for manufacturing coups d’état as a pretext for removing troublesome opposition figures and journalists when the ruler does not liquidate them outright, has not been censured by the AU. What is worse, Gambia is home, in the ultimate irony, to the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights. An AU with these blemishes cannot begin to approximate the ideal set out by Nkrumah as we have shown repeatedly in this discussion.
Thanks to our amnesia regarding the crucial role of liberal democracy in Nkrumah’s conception of Pan-Africanism and continental government, we are not as engaged as we should be in rejecting anti-democratic processes and practices in many African countries that are members of and are playing important roles in the ongoing constitution of the African Union. This explains, in part, the top-down character of the processes and operations of the extant AU. I believe that the dream of Pan-Africanism was to install a continental republic peopled by citizens with the rights, privileges and forbearances associated with liberal democracy and the much larger movement of which it is a part: modernity. I contend that we need to restore to our deliberations and institution-building processes the centrality of that freedom and the restoration of the dignity of African people the world over used to have in the theory and practice of Pan-Africanism. I cannot think of a better tribute to the memory of Kwame Nkrumah than a united Africa whose peoples are free and prosperous. Anything less dishonours his memory and his work