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Opinions of Friday, 7 October 2011

Columnist: Nelson, Ekow

Nkrumah the undisputed ‘motivating force’

Ghana and Africa: Nkrumah the undisputed ‘motivating force’

Ekow Nelson, London 2011

Ordinarily I would let Dr. Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe’s lamentably predictable gibes about Kwame Nkrumah pass without comment. But on this occasion I believe his puerile arguments and inaccurate attempt to credit Dr. J. B. Danuqah with Ghana’s independence (in his in Ghanaweb piece “Ghana and Africa: Founder’s Joke”, Oct 5th 2011) require a response.

Let’s start with the puerile. Most people typically refer to Nkrumah simply as Kwame Nkrumah or Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. But in his aforementioned Ghanaweb piece and many others before it, Dr. Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe pointedly refers to Ghana’s first President as Mr.(sic) Kwame Nkrumah. And he does so quite deliberately to remind himself and his readers that Nkrumah did not obtain a doctorate degree and so why accord him the honorific title he was first awarded by his alma mater, Lincoln University, in 1951?

Like many ambitious immigrant students to Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, Nkrumah did enrol on a doctoral programme but abandoned it in favour of his political activism and due to lack of funds; unlike Dr. Danquah he did not benefit from a royal largesse. While it is true many leaders who have been awarded doctorates, like Nelson Mandela and our past President John Agyekum Kufour, are not referred to by their honorific titles, others are. Famous among them is Samuel Johnson, the English author, essayist, poet and compiler of the first English Dictionary. Twenty-seven year after he first enrolled as an undergraduate, Johnson eventually completed his first degree just ahead of the publication of his first Dictionary in 1755. He dropped out of Oxford just over a year after enrolling as a student in October 1728 because he could not afford to pay his way. He did not pursue any formal academic qualifications subsequently but was awarded an honorary doctorate by Trinity College Dublin in 1765 and then by his alma mater a decade later. It was his lifelong friend and travelling companion, James Boswell, whose constant reference to him as ‘Dr. Johnson’ in his famous biography Life of Samuel Johnson, that made the sobriquet stick although we are told Johnson hated it. But Boswell was right: Johnson’s inability to complete his degree at Oxford on time or advance beyond his Oxford MA, was no reflection whatsoever on his intellectual capability. His monumental achievement in compiling the first Dictionary of the English Language elevates him above his contemporaries and that alone is worthy of a doctorate even if he did not achieve one through formal supervised study. Equally, Nkrumah’s political activism, his pioneering efforts in leading Ghana to independence and encouraging and enabling many other African countries to follow in its footstep which changed the direction of the history of the 20th century make him worthy of a doctorate even if he did not study for one.

Honorary degrees exist for a reason: to recognise the sterling contributions of those to whom they are awarded for distinction in specific fields of endeavour. Some choose not to use these titles but why begrudge those who do? Indeed Dr. Ebenezer Ako Adjei, Nkrumah’s contemporary at Lincoln University was also awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater in 1962 and he did not shy away from using the honorific title. Indeed the fact that these immigrants managed to self-educate and put themselves through University in a United States that was hostile to Black advancement in the 1930s is an achievement we should celebrate, not denigrate. But for segregation, racism and lack of access, Nkrumah and Ako Adjei could have completed PhDs in the United States as the likes of Dr. Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe did some half a century later. To mock and pretend that they are less deserving is not only childish; it disrespects the valiant efforts of many Africans who against all odds did the best they could to advance theirs and our cause.

The second juvenile comment, which I have also read from another member of the Danquah Institute, Mr. Gabby Otchere-Darko, is the suggestion that Nkrumah’s birth date is hypothetical because he did not know when he was born. And that is meant to be a slight? So what if Nkrumah did not know when he was born? What does it matter? It suggests, perhaps, that he came from an illiterate household. And so what? He was not a relative of a rich and educated Okyehene but does that make him less of person or less intelligent? Surely the fact that he was able, despite his dire beginnings, to pull himself up, to get the best education Gold Coast could offer at Achimota School and then at Lincoln University – the premier Black University of its day - the University of Pennsylvania and briefly at the University College London (alma mater of Dr. Danquah) is worth a ton of respect. Don’t you think? Isn’t it churlish to think that just because Nkrumah was born into an apparently illiterate household that may not have been able to pinpoint the exact date of his birth on a Gregorian calendar, he can be mocked?

If the point about the hypothetical birth date is that no date can therefore be dedicated in his honour then let me remind readers that the official birthdays of the Queens of England and the Netherlands are not their actual birthdays either. But are English and Dutch political commentators bothered about it? Not a jot!

The current Queen Beatrix of Netherlands was born on January 31st 1938. Yet every spring, on April 30th to be precise, the people of Holland take to the streets, partying dancing and making merry to celebrate her birthday. It is a national public holiday in Holland even though it was Queen Juliana, her mother, who was born on April 30th. But do Dutch professors and the chattering classes delegitimize the holiday and the celebrations because that it is not the current Queen’s actual birthday?

The official birthday of the Queen of England celebrated across much of what remains of the old Commonwealth is determined by Parliaments and that has been the case since 1748. Across the Commonwealth, the date even varies by country: in Australia it is the second Monday in June; first Monday of June in New Zealand and in Canada it is in May. In the United Kingdom regiments of the British Army congregate regularly on a sandy patch just outside the Queen’s London residence in Horse Guards parade to troop their colours in the first, second or third week of June to mark her official birthday. No one in Britain mocks that as hypothetical because Queen Elizabeth II was born on April 21st. But here we have grown-ups associated with the Danquah Institute revelling in this kind of pettiness that supposedly passes for serious intellectual discourse.

Now let’s turn to the substantive point about who is eligible to be described as the “motivating force” behind Britain’s granting of self-rule to the erstwhile Gold Coast on March 6, 1957. First some basics: it was Nkrumah who harried the Colonial Office into naming a date for independence. It was Nkrumah who tabled the motion for independence; it was Nkrumah who negotiated the terms of independence; it was Nkrumah who linked Ghana’s independence to total the liberation of Africa and who actively supported liberation movements all over the continent to follow in Ghana’s footstep against trenchant opposition from Dr. Danquah and Co.

Dr. Danquah was without doubt one of the pre-eminent native political figures of the 1940s. He and his Gold Coast Youth Conference even ‘claim’ (Lord Hailey’s word) to have secured the 1946 constitution. The United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) which he helped found supplanted the leading nationalist movement of the time, the Aborigine’s Rights Protection Society (ARPS) and side-lined its leader the essayist, playwright and member of the Legislative Council William Essuman Gwira Sekyi as the leading proponent of self-rule. By the mid-1940s it was clear that the ARPS had had its day and the UGCC had taken its place. Equally by 1951, it was obvious that Dr. Danquah’s UGCC was not fit for purpose and it was supplanted by the CPP and Kwame Nkrumah who dominated Gold Coast and Ghana politics that decade.

While Nkrumah and the CPP sought to advance progress toward independence, which Dr. Danquah had ostensibly been in favour of in the previous decade, the latter and his succession of opposition parties tried every trick in the book to stop Nkrumah from achieving the ultimate prize. I will not go as far as some to suggest Dr. Danquah was against independence but if it meant Nkrumah taking the prize, then he and his followers were prepared to do whatever they could to delay it or reduce its value through unnecessary arguments in favour of balkanization.

How can Dr. Danquah be the motivating force behind our independence when he and his party boycotted the government’s motion of August 3rd 1956 requesting” Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom …to procure the enactment by the United Kingdom Parliament of an Act to provide for independence of the Gold Coast as a sovereign and independent State within the Commonwealth under the name of Ghana.”? What type of independence was he for? Whatever Dr. Danquah was for is not what we got and so he cannot be credited with it. Sure, he was a motivating force in the 1940s but gave up and tried to sabotage any progress when he realized it was Nkrumah and not he who would lead Ghana to the Promised Land. His contribution to the independence struggle post the 1954 constitutional debates was peripheral at best - some will say disruptive.

Of course Dr. Danquah’s overall contribution to Ghana’s independence cannot be underplayed but to suggest that because he played an important role in the 1940s he was responsible for all subsequent progress - which he tried to thwart – is simply ludicrous.

Every struggle is the culmination of the efforts of many people and Ghana’s independence is not unique. William Wilberforce is commonly referred to as the British man who led the abolition of the slave trade but there was a long line of British abolitionists before him. The likes of Granville Sharp and Charles Fox who later became Foreign Secretary preceded him with their Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. While William Wilberforce led the campaign in the House of Commons, it was Lord William Grenville, the early 19th century Whig Prime Minister who made the case and helped secure the necessary votes in the House of Lords for abolition. With the possible exception of Wilberforce and Sharp, most people have not heard of Fox, Grenville or even Thomas Clarkson who nominated Wilberforce as the advocate for the cause of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade that led to his fame.

Nelson Mandela was not the sole motivating force to bring about the end of Apartheid. Robert Sobukuwe, Govan Mbeki, Albert Lithuli, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo, Trevor Huddlestone, Chris Hani, Desmond Tutu, Winnie Mandela among others played a significant part in the struggle. But Mandela’s leadership galvanized all their efforts and culminated into that truly historic moment we all witnessed in 1994.

No one has ever suggested independence was all Nkrumah’s effort. Indeed in his independence speech he thanked and paid tribute to those like the ex-servicemen whose march on the Castle in 1948 was seminal as well as the giants before him who made it possible. But like it or not, among the many that contribute, there is always an individual who, being at the right place at the right time, and imbued with the right combination of leadership and organisational skills, manages to achieve what eluded those before him on whose shoulders he stood. In Ghana’s case that was Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and to deny this self-evident truth is not only historically obtuse, it seriously demeans those who peddle that untruth. By all means let’s agree to disagree on the truly contentious issues but we are capable of better than the juvenile pettiness that emanates from the likes of the Danquah Institute.

© Ekow Nelson London, October 2011