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10.08.2020 Article

Collateral Damage: The Promise And Failure Of Socialism In Ghana

By Yaw Kwakye, is a PhD student and co-Founder of TiDi Foundation
Collateral Damage: The Promise And Failure Of Socialism In Ghana
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When Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah ascended power after Ghana's independence, he sought to build an anti-capitalist economy that enhanced the social welfare of Ghanaians. To him, such an anti-capitalist economy complemented the communalistic nature of the Ghanaian society at that time.

Also, Nkrumah saw such an anti-capitalist economy to be a catalyst to the national liberation movement, as imperialism was founded on capital exploitation. He was however hesitant to fully employ the Marxist-Leninist scientific socialism that was dominant at that time, partly because he saw the society at that time to be classless, therefore there was no way class struggles that drove scientific socialism could occur.

He opted for a 'softer' version of socialism that matched the society at that time. Since then, socialist-draped parties have dominated the Ghanaian politics. How has socialism, particularly government apparatuses formed on socialist ideals, fared in Ghana so far?

The revolutionary waves that swept the globe in the post-world war II era cannot be understated. The war destroyed existing institutions that were based on defunct ideologies and conceptions. In the grand scheme, the war was a fight for ideological and/or geopolitical dominance across Europe and the Soviet.

Elsewhere, in most parts of Africa and Asia which were not directly involved in the war, it provided an opportunity for natives, who saw the weakening of the European institutions, to strengthen their fight for dominion over European forces which held grip over their political and economic power with brutal forces, and subjugated them to colonialism. From North, South, East to West Africa, ‘freedom-fighters’ proliferated and struggled to end colonialism. Indubitably, one of the most flamboyant of these freedom-fighters was Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.

Nkrumah contributed enormously to the fight for independence by natives in the then Gold Coast and will later become its first president. As president of the newly formed nation-state, which was renamed Ghana afterwards, he inherited the most politically and economically advanced nation-state across West Africa, if not of all the British colonies around the world at that time. He developed programs that would have put the newly formed nation-state unto a path of perpetual prosperity. In particular, he focused on education as a prime mover of the budding economy.

Also, he built infrastructures such as roads, railways etc., and developed industries, some of which are still the backbone of Ghana’s economy. Today, Ghana is far from what Nkrumah imagined more than 60 years ago. The country remains a stronghold of talents and potential, but has failed in many respects, or at least, not advanced as it was projected to decades ago. Why did a nation with so much promise fail (or been failing) to be more progressive as it was projected?

I argue that Nkrumah’s ideologies, and the movement he organized to start off the newly formed nation-state enormously has contributed to Ghana’s failure. As I make clear later, such ideologies linger, or has even dominated most of Ghana’s political organization and government structures since independence from colonial rule.

In the Fall of 1935, Nkrumah arrived in New York City, on his way to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania to start his higher education. His admission to Lincoln University, which took more than a year, as well as his journey to the university had not come easy. He traveled to Lagos, then to Liverpool, and later to London, where he had to wait for several weeks before getting his visa to travel to the United States to start his education.

He had enrolled in the university with insufficient funds for tuition for the first semester. During the first summer of his studies, he sold fish on Seventh Avenue in Harlem to raise funds. He spent most of his summers during his studies at Lincoln in Harlem, where most African students who went to schools in New York City lived.

As Anakwa Dwamena had stated in his essay, When Ghanaians put their arms around New York City , Nkrumah was greatly inspired by the people, especially the thinkers such as C.L.R James (who will later introduce him to Padmore, a socialist) he met during his sojourns in Harlem.

At Harlem, he met his first girlfriend Edith, whom, on some evenings, he went on walks with, gazing at shop windows as the only source of entertainment he could afford. For most evenings, he listened to soap-box orators at the street corners. These orators were not ordinary men. Carlos Cook, Suji Abdul Hamid, Arthur Reed were some of the prominent people present at these open forums. These people were involved in grass-root labor movements based on ideological frameworks that will later have enormous influence on Nkrumah’s political thought. He will also become conscious of the philosophy of Marcus Garvey through his engagement with these orators and thinkers.

In 1945, Nkrumah left the United States to London to pursue a doctorate degree in Philosophy or Law, but he forwent them and got engaged in movements that sought to improve the conditions of workers and students from British colonies in London. Aside Padmore, he met other socialist/communist intellectuals whose aim was to displace colonial rule.

He met Du Bois, who had written at the end of the 19th century that ‘Should the Negro become a factor in world history, it will be through a Pan-Negro Movement’. Nkrumah’s meeting with Du Bois, Padmore and other communist intellectuals, together with the nights he spent on the streets of Harlem will have a lasting impact on his politics, importantly socialism and pan-Africanism.

Nkrumah returned to Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1947 to become the secretary of the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), a party formed by natives to fight for self-rule. Two years after, he parted ways with UGCC, based on ideological and organizational differences, as Kwadwo Afari Gyan has noted. He formed the Convention’s People’s Party (C.P.P), with the so-called ‘verandah boys’ at its base.

The ‘verandah boys’ were young, energetic men and women who sought independence from traditional and elitist rule, similar to the hipsters that Nkrumah met on the streets of Harlem. His mobilization was effective and will eventually see his party lead the Gold Coast to independence, becoming the Prime Minister and later, the president of the Republic. The government he formed was replete with the 'verandah boys'. Upon his grip on power, he began to build the nation-state according to socialist and Pan-Africanist theories that had shaped his thoughts.

His plans were very successful at the beginning. He constructed railroads, dams and other structures that will facilitate economic activities, and also framed theoretical foundations for future projects. His imaginations can particularly be demonstrated by his efforts in education. He had imagined that, one day his motherland will be able to provide the same education that he had traveled abroad for, as can be seen in his inaugural speeches of the University of Ghana and the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi, which has been compiled as Flowers of Learning.

It has been speculated by various biographers of Nkrumah, including the very authoritative biography by Yuri Smertin, that Nkrumah’s ambition was to extend Ghana as a hegemonic nation-state in Africa, while he served as the leader of an union of African States. By 1964, Nkrumah had moved towards instituting a one-party system in Ghana. He was overthrown through a coup d'état, which will lead to the disintegration of his C.P.P.

This period revealed the blemishes of the political organization that Nkrumah mobilized around him. In particular, the so-called ‘verandah boys’ that he had mobilized were unable to reorganize the party in his absence-they did not have the education, exposure and theoretical foundations that Nkrumah had. Besides, as I indicated above, the 'verandah boys' disliked elites who could have understood Nkrumah’s ideologies and political thoughts, to reorganize the party and perpetuate Nkrumah’s programs so, they wouldn’t welcome them into their party.

Even if they had been able to reorganize the party to contest and win any future electoral processes, I doubt they (the 'verandah boys') could have been able to implement the programs like Nkrumah had put in place during his short term in office. That is one problem I find with socialism: a few people seem to be encyclopedia of the state and if they fail or are absent, the state gears towards total destruction.

In my opinion, if a socialist state should work, there has to be a huge investment in education that will enlighten the populace, enabling them to discern the highly theoretical framework the state is organized around. The C.P.P as a political party still exists, but only as a family heritage, with no representation in Ghana’s parliament.

What also exists today in Ghanaian politics is the apparatus that Nkrumah had used to organize his C.P.P. As the political scientist Jeffrey Paller has observed, this same apparatus has been used by The Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC), and later the National Democratic Congress (N.D.C) parties since the 1980s.

The years between Nkrumah’s overthrow to 1980s witnessed many political coups and upheavals that destabilized the state. By 1980, Jerry John Rawlings had led the final coup and employed the Nkrumah’s grass-root mobilization approach to organize a government that will rule the state for two (2) decades.

These two decades had its booms but did not progress the nation-state any significantly, at least as many political scientists had imagined at the time Ghana gained independence from the clutches of colonialism. Rather, these two decades were wrought with, corruption, excessive hunger, increasing inflation rates and poor education of the mass. The failure of the P.N.D.C, which later was changed to N.D.C during the two decades could be many. In my opinion, the grass-root mobilization that Rawlings had employed to form his government played major role in this failure.

Nkrumah and Rawlings utilized the same mobilization tactics but there was one striking difference between them: their approach to education. Nkrumah was largely enthusiastic about education, particularly the focus on science as a tool for progress. He believed in finding the nation’s soul through philosophical, sociological and historical inquiries, and his enthusiasm about education can be seen in the exhilaration piercing his speeches found in Flowers of Learning.

Such passion about education cannot be said of educational policies that were implemented by Rawlings and the political party he founded. Had he envisioned education from the lens of Nkrumah, Ghana would have witnessed social reforms that could have tremendously improved her economy. It’s understandable that Rawlings did not experience the same things Nkrumah faced, which could have led to their different approaches to education. It can also be speculated that, possibly, he might have known how such education could enlighten the populace leading to protests and agitations that could challenge the power he wielded.

The N.D.C continues its grass-root mobilization because the approach continues to work. Paller recorded that the people at the grass-root, mostly including the urban poor living in slums, marginalized rural areas that the N.D.C mobilize, see the party as way to access the government structures that seem far away from them. The other major political party, the ruling New Patriotic Party (N.P.P), which is to the right of N.D.C, is seen by the people living in urban poor and rural areas as an elitist party made up of ‘booklongs’ (i.e. theorists not pragmatists). The N.P.P seems distant from them.

Since 2000, these two parties have dominated Ghanaian politics. From 2000 to 2008, the N.P.P ruled Ghana. Those years saw social reforms that lead to significant growth in the economy compared to the previous 10 years. The N.D.C won power in 2008 and will rule the nation for the next 8 years. There were some growth and establishment of infrastructures, but those 8 years saw a deterioration of the economy, accompanied by power cuts and other hardships.

In 2016, the N.P.P won power, and in the last four years, there have been improvements in the economic metrics of the country, compared to the preceding 8 years. In the past few months, activities by this government, particularly the organization of the ‘Year of Return’ to mark 400 years since the first slaves from Gold Coast landed at the coast of North America, and in the past few weeks, at the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak the measures the N.P.P government has undertaken seem to have awaken the patriotism in the Ghanaian people. Such patriotic awakening hardly happened during the N.D.C’s last tenure in office, particularly between 2012 and 2016, which rather increased the Ghanaian people’s apathy towards government.

Admittedly, the present N.P.P government, as well as past government has had their economic downturns, but relatively, the social reformist policies they have implemented have benefited the commoner, than those the N.D.C, a party that presents itself as social democratic party, has implemented. This could indicate that the N.D.C only organizes on social democracy models, but their policies foster capitalist exploitation of the very grassroots they mobilize during campaigns.

This usually occurs at the local and district level governments that are mostly filled by people who form a petty bourgeoisie class and capitalize on their access to government to accumulate wealth. Regrettably, these people were rampant at the time of Nkrumah, and also in the governments formed by the more right leaning N.P.P. It is this sort of people that we need to uproot in order to collectively enhance the development of our nation.

Organizing at the grass-root isn’t bad politics. In fact, grass-root movements are fundamental to good politics. However, I'm suggesting that grass-root movements are far from being an ingredient for good governance, particularly when there are deficits in quality higher education for the mass.

Indeed, an investment in education that Nkrumah imagined; an education that finds the soul of the nation through the humanities and applying scientific innovations in agriculture, communication and health is the kind that can propel the mass toward an upward movement. Political parties that organize mainly at the grass-root should not shy away from investing in such education, for fear of awakening the mass who could protest and challenge the power they wield over them.

I have shown that the grass-root movements that have dominated Ghanaian governments since independence has damaged the economy. The situation has been worsened by the lack of investment in higher education. I recommend that, to reverse this failure, the state invest in higher education and promote research and scholarship. Also, the state can employ China’s 1000 Talent program that has been very effective in reversing brain-drain.

The N.P.P’s approach of involving Ghanaians in the diaspora is another way, but there should be proper channel spelling out how to ultimately see many of the country’s talents in other countries return home.

The Author,Yaw Kwakye, is a PhD student and co-Founder of TiDi Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to promoting undergraduate research in Ghana.

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