Part 3 of the Things Fall Apart series... I've been sidelined for the past few days by a flu - my body perhaps taking too literally the theme of this series, hence I'll extend my admittedly arbitrary week schedule, reorder things and take a brief detour to ponder some photos. Hopefully you won't detect fevered intensity in this and later writings.
Today is Ghana's 49th Independence Day, an occasion to look back in history in order to look forward. I've been thinking however not about the halcycon days of 1957, the celebrations, the happy shrugging-off of the colonial mantle, but rather about the year 1966, prompted by finally being able to obtain a copy of Africa Report magazine from that year. I scanned and uploaded a few of the photos along with some of the articles therein. Why 1966? I was asked. It was a significant year for Ghana but more generally, 40 years ago was "when West Africa lost its innocence", as a good friend put it. The military coups in Ghana and Nigeria were a major reason for this assessment; Ghana being the first country in sub-saharan Africa to gain independence and Nigeria being the largest on the continent and casting a large shadow. Thus there is a sense of wistfulness about the path of the continent, promise gone wrong barely a decade after the initial excitement and optimism of independence. To add more context for the Nigerian case, 50 years ago, 1956, was when oil was discovered in the Niger River Delta - perhaps a clue to part of the reason for the subsequent unravelling but that is getting ahead of ourselves.
The image is at once iconic and, if you consider what happened months later, ironic. It features the President-for-Life, Kwame Nkrumah posing surrounded by army officers some of whom would shortly overthrow him. Is the fact that they are looking over his shoulder a foreshadowing of the long arm of the military in African affairs? Should one read ominous portents as the magazine's editors undoubtedly intended with its selection? The president looks confident in white with his ceremonial whip in hand, as well he should. At that point he was in full bloom, the one-party state enshrined in the constitution, titles and honorifics proliferating - Osagyefo, he appears secure in his power, surrounded by the obsequious and the sycophants. Everyone is smiling. One wonders who that woman behind him is (the one on the right) and where she ranks in the hierarchy. And those black shades!
Still there is another reading of the image, and it comes down to ego and insecurity that translated itself into government policy. Thus Nkrumah's regime imprisoned leaders of the political opposition, legislated their parties out of existence, and sent away the best and brightest or any who were inclined to question. Thus Kofi Annan and many other bright young Ghanaians were gifts to the rest of the world, sent out to the United Nations instead of causing trouble back at home. For Nkrumah and the CPP apparachiks who surrounded him, cronyism was a mundane fact of life; it was the simple exercise of power embodied in the direct manner of minister-without-portfolio Krobo Edusei a larger-than-life power broker and fixer. As a sidenote, the president-for-life moniker is not hyperbole, it was a little noted executive instrument in the law books discovered after the coup. The logic being that once the state is the party and the party's will is embodied in the leader then, well you get the idea...
Now I suppose I shouldn't besmirch the legacy of a great man and erstwhile icon of pan-Africanism, black pride and the rest of it. It was said that the impact of seeing his triumphal trip to the United States and the image of John F. Kennedy holding up an umbrella to welcome him and feting him as he came to address the United Nations was to break a psychological barrier. Those countries that were perhaps hesitant about demanding independence could no longer wait. Sekou Touré of Guinea was one who succumbed to the irresistible glamour of it all. But still it is hard to bear the diversions into scientific socialism, the dissipation of the pan-African idea into overblown rhetoric, the sheer waste in other words... In Ghana, the popular overthrow of a regime that had started with much promise was perhaps a metaphor for the continent as a whole.
For those inclined for further reading, the feature articles in the issue may shed a little light
- The Winter of Discontent by Irving Markovitz - an article long referenced in CIA world factbook reports in years to come - but actually an article that is very difficult to obtain for some reason.
- The Men in Charge by Joe Kraus
- Nkrumah's speech at the inauguration of the Volta River project, perhaps his biggest achievement, delivered a month before his overthrow
These articles are obviously products of their time, let's start with the title of the first: Winter of Discontent. When was the last time there was a winter in West Africa? But that is nothing new, metaphorical excess is the rule in writing about Africa. Heart of Darkness ruled the roost long before Things Fall Apart came along.
Markovitz posited that Nkrumah's choices for Ghana ranged from "Chinese communalization to Moshavism or laissez-faire capitalism". When was the last time you heard about Moshavism? 1966, we must then remember, was the height of the Cold War; the great elephants, East and West, fighting for world dominance and using the rest of the world as their battlegrounds. It is hard to believe the mindset and rhetoric of that era but perhaps our own era has its own tropes. As it was, regardless of the choices made by governments in Africa, in many countries the military stepped in. Some of the coups were inspired internally, some were indeed popular but in others, either the CIA, the socialists - the USSR vying for influence, or the former imperial powers (France, England, Belgium) weighed heavily. In Nigeria, the military as an institution decided that it would hold the reigns of power. In Ghana, the NLC was rather wanting to return to civilian rule but the precedent had been set and later in the 1970s and beyond, those who did step in were less benign.
The enduring image of the year in Ghana is the sight of the political prisoners freed after the coup standing outside Ussher Fort being greeted by their families and friends. Some of the prisoners had been essentially starved to death or at best fed gari laced with sand - a quite macabre policy if you consider the already low nutritional value of gari. Well less said on that. I measure greatness based on what one does with power and on the whole African leaders have been poor in their exercise of power.
What of the rest of Africa in 1966? Here perhaps the covers of the issues of the magazine might shed some light.
Politically, personality cults and strongmen abound (from Mobutu to Jomo Kenyatta with Eyadema looming in the background). Hastings Banda became president of Malawi in 1966 and 5 years later declares himself President-for-Life following other precedents. The Rhodesia question is still unresolved. The Biafra civil war is just a year away...
A young Alfred Adu Boahen completes Topics in West African History, perhaps the most influential history textbook on Africa and one that revealed the undoubted depth of African scholarship and accessiblitity. It featured prescient analysis of colonial rule and beyond. On his road to becoming the most influential scholar on Africa, he was busy writing the follow-up West Africa since 1800.
Culturally, African literature, music and art in general is blossoming although there is a bittersweet tinge and here I'll simply note what was on the minds of the greats:
- Chinua Achebe publishes A Man of the People - a satire of corruption.
- Wole Soyinka publishes The Lion and the Jewel - a drama and satire of corruption.
Soundtrack for this note
Funkdadelic - Standing on the Verge of Getting It On
Riding High in 1961
Next in part 4: Chinua Achebe weighs in on the Voices Inside Things Fall Apart.
See also: The Busia Papers for another perspective.
File under: Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, history, politics, image, reflection, perception, essay, culture, observation, Things Fall Apart, toli