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Opinions of Friday, 2 June 2006

Columnist: Akurang-Parry, Kwabena

In Memoriam: An Appreciation Of Professor A. Adu Boahen (1932-2006)

A. Adu Boahen, distinguished professor emeritus from the Department of History at the University of Ghana, Legon, has gone to the ancestral home. He died on May 24, 2006, at the 37 Military Hospital in Accra, where he had been hospitalized since 2001 after suffering from a stroke. Professor Boahen, whose death coincided with his birthday, was born in Oseim in the Eastern Region of Ghana on May 24, 1932. He attended Mfantsipim Secondary School, graduated from the University of Ghana in 1956 with a B.A. honors degree in history, and proceeded to earn a Ph. D. degree in African Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was appointed a lecturer at the University of Ghana in 1959 and rose to the rank of a full professor in 1971.

Professor Boahen?s life and career as a historian and a public intellectual were rewarding in many respects. Although, as a professional historian, his thematic preoccupations encapsulated several themes in African history, in this tribute, I pay homage to what has become synonymous with his luminary presence: his rethinking of African perspectives on European colonialism in Africa. And as a Ghanaian, I cannot beat the fontonfrom drums of eulogy without extolling Professor Boahen?s unsurpassed role as a public intellectual. Indeed, he singularly fought to adorn Ghanaians with the kente of democracy at a time when most well-known Ghanaian intellectuals and academics subserviently trooped to the Osu Castle of military dictatorship, masquerading as vampire socialists, to enjoy sanguinary crumbs of wealth and power.

Professor Boahen published numerous articles on precolonial/colonial Ghanaian and African history, but was better known for his monographs, namely Britain, the Sahara, and the Western Sudan, 1788-1861 (1964); Topics in West African History (1966); with J. B. Webster, The Revolutionary Years: West Africa Since 1800 (1975); Ghana: Evolution and Change in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1975); African Perspectives on Colonialism (1987); and Mfantsipim and the Making of Ghana: A Centenary History, 1876-1976 (1996). He was the editor of the UNESCO General History of Africa: Africa Under Colonial Domination, Volume 7 (1985). Apart from these stellar publications, Professor Boahen produced a spate of unpublished essays, some of which deal with postcolonial history and society and which have been edited and published by the prolific Nigerian historian, Toyin Falola, entitled, Africa in the Twentieth Century: The Boahen Reader (Trenton: New Jersey, Africa World Press, 2004).

Professor Boahen: The Historian and His Craft

On the whole, Professor Boahen?s scholarly preoccupations, both published and unpublished works, sought to exorcize the apparitions of Eurocentric interpretations that have informed the writing of African history. He was concerned that despite the popular reverberations of African voice and agency, carefully encoded in prefaces and introductions, scholars still position their accounts to mirror Eurocentric perspectives. Professor Boahen?s writings on colonialism debunked the staple Eurocentric view that on the eve of the European colonial conquest, African societies were firmly anchored in a static state of Hobbesian misery, consequently, Africans applauded the imposition of colonial rule with all the aplomb they could muster, seeing colonialism as an inevitable divine intervention.

One reason why Professor Boahen will continue to be popular among students of Africa is the incandescent beauty of his penmanship. In fact, like many of my generation in West Africa, I was attracted to African history after reading his Topics in West African History in high school at the Presbyterian Boys? Secondary School (Presec), Legon, Ghana. Throughout my high school years, I read it with profit, and my love affair with the luxuriant texture of the book undoubtedly buttressed my interest in history as a discipline. I must also disclose that my love affair entailed Professor Boahen?s unique writing skills and to this day my writing skills are deeply embedded in the fountain of his writing craft.

Overall, Professor Boahen?s works demonstrate readability, a patented trademark which must be the envy of many practicing historians. Crisp phrases and textual brevity inform all his writings. He was an unassuming critic who understood the organic nuances, theoretical currencies, and ideological positions that underscored the works he critiqued. In spite of the stern rigors of his scholarship he was generous in weighing various arguments on their own merits before drawing critical conclusions. One is tempted to say that Professor Boahen was ever the okyeame [Akan linguist-historian] who yarned the past with the thread of proverbial and metaphorical stretch. Thus, he was able to bring his readers to the living frontiers of history.

Professor Boahen was an empiricist to the core. His efforts to debunk the staple viewpoints of the Eurocentric cabal of scholars had been successful because he summoned overwhelming evidence and wove seamless webs of information as his counterpoints. His empiricism and revisionism were based on an arsenal of evidence that covered different regions of Africa. Professor Boahen?s use of evidence was unique: it was always spiced with refreshing comparative and epistemological insights; a dosage of historiographical overviews and theoretical perspectives; and typologizing, but devoid of essentializing and particularizing.

Professor Boahen: Rethinking European Colonialism in Africa

Among the eminent African historians of Africa and European imperialism, Professor Boahen offered some of the best theoretical overviews of the subject of colonialism. One major contribution of Professor Boahen was his explanation of the various forces that had reshaped Africa on the eve of the colonial conquest by 1880 and which had placed Africans on the pathways of change and revolution. According to him, in the aftermath of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, African societies began to develop viable political entities with vigorous modernization programs. Indeed, the processes of modernization in several sectors of society and economy had peeled off some of the retrogressive wrinkles of old Africa, and in addition to constitutional experiments, were remolding old Africa?s political economies. Professor Boahen?s resonating message was that those who had argued that the ?Dark Continent? continued to be ?darker,? necessitating colonial rule had failed as historians because they had abandoned an important cog in the historian?s craft: rigorous periodization that could unmask the dynamism and resilience of precolonial African societies.

Professor Boahen?s contributions to the framing of the reasons for the European colonial conquest, defined by historiographical overviews, periodization, and comparative history, are unique. Overall, his conclusions show that the period 1880-1900 witnessed the peaking of the European conquest and African resistance, but he was careful to show that in some areas colonialism had occurred much earlier and that African resistance had outlasted the European consolidation of colonial rule from about 1910. Drawing on comparative perspectives, Professor Boahen argued that it was not only Africa that was subjected to colonial rule in the late nineteenth century, but Asia and the Pacific as well. Thus, local factors had nothing to do with the imposition of colonial rule in Africa; rather colonial rule should be placed at the doorstep of Europe. It is important to stress Professor Boahen?s insistence that the ?most important and decisive of those forces were definitely economic;? thus, his conclusions support the Hobson-Lenin thesis.

Indeed, it is in the area of African responses to colonial rule that Professor Boahen made his best contributions to the subject. A close reading of his African Perspectives on Colonialism shows that unlike a great number of historians of Africa, he had explicitly divided the subject into two: African responses to the colonial conquest itself and African responses to the political economy of colonial rule. Due to their unique experiences, constituencies and groups/sub-groups responded differently to the colonial conquest. The littoral African intelligentsia, having assimilated aspects of European culture and the imperial ethos, covertly embraced colonial rule. In contrast, tucked away from the enclaves of the diffusion of Afro-European cultures, based on Euro-Christianity, Western-education, and incipient colonialism along the coast, the interior states sought to maintain the status quo. Professor Boahen showed that rather than being ?romantic reactionaries,? most African states and societies fought courageously but were defeated by the superior European-led armies. In spite of the failure to overthrow the colonial system, the anticolonialisms of the period 1919-1935 created a watershed of active resistance that peaked with the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1935. Professor Boahen strongly elucidated that but for the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the forces of African nationalism and diasporic African pan-Africanism, set in motion by the Italian invasion, would have led to the overthrow of the colonial system.

Overall, Professor Boahen?s assessment of the impact of colonial rule is different from the conclusions of the two major schools of thought: Eurocentric on one side and the underdevelopment theorists and Afrocentric school on the other. His conclusions are on the left margins of the historiography, yet he went to great lengths to show that colonial rule was not all about debits, but also included some credits on a time-scale of ephemerality and long-lasting trends. He was careful to show, however, that the positive effects of colonial rule are incidental and unintended, that is, to say that colonial agents did not knowingly initiate policies, for example, the building of railways, to benefit the colonized Africans, but rather to maximize the dividends from colonial rule.

Professor Boahen also took issue with the ?real significance of colonialism for Africa?: the extent to which colonialism had affected and will continue to impact the course of African history. One school of thought holds that colonialism was brief, but prone to impact African history, while the opposing school insists that colonialism is marginal to African history. Professor Boahen situated himself comfortably in the historiographical terrain, but leaned more to the left than to the right. His perspective is worth quoting at length: ?I believe that the issue at stake is not as clear-cut and simple as both schools of thought have made it look. In some respects the impact of colonialism was deep and certainly destined to affect the future course of events, but in others, it was not.? In sum, Professor Boahen believed that whatever happens and whatever it takes, Africa will continue to ?bear some of the impregnations and scars of colonialism.?

Professor Boahen: The Public Intellectual and the Seeding of Democracy in Ghana

Throughout his distinguished career, Professor Boahen did not only devote himself to the extirpation of Eurocentric violence in African history, but also political violence in Ghana and Africa as a whole. Some of the themes that inform Professor Boahen?s writings exemplify his pursuits as a public intellectual. He campaigned tirelessly to root out problems of social inequality, ethnocentrism, nepotistic brokerage of national resources, and political disorder championed by dictatorial military regimes in Ghana. In 1978, he championed popular protests against the military regime of General I. K. Acheampong. For his efforts, Professor Boahen suffered four months detention in the far away Tamale prison. Undeterred, Professor Boahen called into question the June 4, 1979, coup led by Jerry Rawlings that ended the Acheampong military regime and patented the most brutal political era in the postcolonial history of Ghana.

These and other noble preoccupations of Professor Boahen were further demonstrated by his glittering public lectures in 1987 that forcefully questioned the democratization of violence as an instrument of political intimidation of the opponents of the Provincial National Defense Council (PNDC) led by Rawlings. Indeed, Professor Boahen?s public lectures created a political watershed for the demise of the endemic ?culture of silence? imposed on Ghanaians by the PNDC regime.

Professor Boahen was instrumental in the emergence of the People?s Movement for Freedom and Justice (MFJ) in 1990. The MFJ relentlessly championed anti-military rule thereby empowered Ghanaians to seek democratic governance. During the 1992 presidential elections, Professor Boahen was the presidential candidate of the New Patriotic Party (NPP). Unfortunately, he lost the election to Rawlings, the incumbent military dictator. Professor Boahen later made clear in a political treatise on the 1992 elections entitled, The Stolen Verdict, that the PNDC rigged the elections. There can be no doubt that Professor Boahen?s 1987 ground-breaking public lectures were what shook the very foundations of the dictatorial PNDC. More significantly, the public lectures gave Ghanaians the populist voice to articulate democratic governance. Thus, the credit should go to Professor Boahen for having summoned courage in the face of overwhelming political intimidation and violence of the times to champion anti-military rule.

Professor Boahen: Obenfo Odupon Nantew Yiye [Eminent Intellectual Rest In Peace]

Very recently, Professor Boahen?s peers and former students have honored him with a festschrift, edited by Toyin Falola and entitled, Ghana in Africa and the World: Essays in Honor of Adu Boahen, (Africa World Press, Inc., 2003). This book, a testimony to Professor Boahen?s enduring scholarship, lauds his role not only as a pacesetter in Africanist historiography, but also as a popular intellectual who fought for democracy and human rights at a time when Ghana was planted in a pit of military dictatorship. Overall, ?even in death,? as the Akan eschatological saying goes, Professor Boahen has bequeathed to generations of historians an eminent chronicler?s craft pivoted on intellectual capital, unvarnished statements of facts, and an edifice of theoretical precision. Indeed, in the area of methodology, his use of solid evidence, appeal to historiography, and recourse to comparative historical perspectives is commendable. His methodological fortifications leave little room for his critics, but enable him liberate African history from unwarranted universalism of Eurocentricism.

Indeed, as long as there is abakosem [a history] of the Europeans in Africa, Professor Boahen?s ideas will continue to be an illuminating frontispiece to whatever discussions that will emerge. That Professor Boahen applied his historian?s craft to liberate his native Ghana from the political debauchery of military dictatorship is now a part of Ghanaian history. His evergreen ideas of democracy will forever serve as signposts along pathways of democratic governance in Ghana. In sum, Professor Adu Boahen?s place in the kinship of eminent African historians is assured, and Ghanaians, including his avid political detractors, will forever remember him as the prolific public intellectual, who used his monumental historian?s craft to deliver them from the vortex of military dictatorship, thereby anchoring Ghana in a congenial democratic precinct.


**WITH PERMISSION: Parts of this Tribute are Excerpted and Abridged from Kwabena O. Akurang-Parry, ?A. Adu Boahen? in Toyin Falola (ed.), The Dark Webs: Perspectives on Colonialism in Africa (Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press, 2005), 379-398.

Kwabena O. Akurang-Parry, a poet and historian, holds a Ph. D. in African History. He is an Associate Professor of African History and World History at Shippensburg University, Shippensburg, PA, USA. He has authored more than forty-five peer-reviewed articles on Ghanaian and African History and is presently completing two book manuscripts. He can be contacted at:

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.