To begin with, I am no fan of any of these two former leaders. I have contempt and revulsion for both in equal passion and proportion. But that caveat alone ought to make me objective enough in my assessment of these two men who ruled Ghana. I have no incentive to skew my judgment in favor of any one of these wayward presidents.
The commonality is that both attended Achimota school. And both never really amounted to much in the aftermath of their education. Nkrumah stowed away to America where he became a virtual tramp. There is no record that he passed any exams, and it is debatable if he acquired any certificate of note. If he did, where are they now? What are the names on the certificates he acquired in Lincoln and Pennsylvania? Did they bear the name of Kofi Nwia Ngolomah or Kwame Nkrumah?
All these are worth knowing because Kofi Kwabena Kwame Nwiah Ngolomah Nkrumah changed his name to Kwame Nkrumah only after he left the US to the UK in May of 1945. He also had multiple birth names that don’t correspond to his multiple dates of birth. And when he arrived in Ghana in 1947, he claimed to possess a Ph. D which he didn’t. His so-called mother, Nyaniba, could not even identify him.
And so, when we speak of Nkrumah, we must take care to scrutinize his record as we would do to that of any other impostor to know of the small details like the names that are inscribed in his records, and the attendant histology and historicity of his many metamorphoses. This is because they all go to the authenticity of his academic certificates, and in fact to the authenticity of every one of the claims he ever made.
Right now, everybody knows that he flunked all his exams to become a lawyer, failed to become a Jesuit priest and failed to acquire a Ph.D. Despite this latter-day failure, his minions insist on calling him “Doctor” just because he was later accorded the honorific title by his so-called alma mater.
That is all well and good. He could still not afford his passage in spite of his presumed academic credentials and had to cadge his fare from J. B. Danquah’s UGCC. He arrived in Ghana with a briefcase and borrowed his first decent suit from friends. Joshua Ato Quarshie, one venerable contemporary of Nkrumah, has even intimated that he was in fact pumping toilets abroad. In lieu of any certificate to confirm Nkrumah’s academic credentials, we are inclined to give Mr. Quashie’s claim a fair weight.
Of Rawlings, he was generally a failure in life too, having been co-opted into the Ghana armed Forces with only one credit in English in his O’ Level exams. He was later to become a heavily indebted person with no prospects for promotion in the army, until waived in by Boakye Gyan, the best man at his wedding whose brother he later tortured and killed. His only recognizable achievement in life was that he was awarded a speed bird trophy for being a good army pilot. We would not begrudge him his capacity to do what every average person can do if trained to do it……
And of both men, we can say with certitude that whoever helped them accede to their high position of power, they either maimed or killed or exiled with aplomb. Nkrumah jailed Ako-Adjei, his benefactor who recommended him to the UGCC. He caused the untimely death of J.B. Danquah under whose auspices he was invited to Ghana. He caused the untimely death of Emmanuel Obetesebi-Lamtey who was persecuted and jailed although he was terminally ill with cancer. He was rumored to have been buried alive at Nsawam prison.
This may well be metaphorically true if not proven to be literally true. Nkrumah exiled Gbedemah who organized the campaign for Nkrumah to be elected Prime Minister. Nkrumah lodged a direct persecution upon the intellectual jewels of this country through his Preventive Detention Act which gave him power to put citizens in jail for up to ten years. In short, Nkrumah wasted the lives of the intellectuals of the country in an apparent attempt to make himself the fountain of wisdom. Of those who mounted the stage to declare Ghana’s “independence”, none was spared.
And based on his intellectual purge of the country, he proceeded to ban all parties and to appropriate for himself the franchise of the citizens. And in a final show of political foolhardiness and arrant stupidity, he made himself president for life, sealing his own fate as a rogue leader waiting to be deposed.
In Nkrumah’s political naivety and extreme ignorance, the more opposition rose against him, the more he clasped on the shackles of dictatorship against the people, thereby displaying his own ignorance of contemporary politics and the zeitgeist of the Ghanaian people.
But Rawlings was indeed far ahead of Nkrumah in his thinking and foresight and actions. Although Rawlings imposed five years of curfew on the country, and killed and tortured citizens without due process, his was a trajectory from dictatorship to democracy.
To the extent of his philosophical predilection, Rawlings was no democrat at all; only that he had the uncanny ability to read the signs of the times of which Nkrumah was as blind as a bat. This may well be because unlike Nkrumah, Rawlings surrounded himself with intellectuals, and did not antagonize them or send them to prison. He in fact invited the best talents in the country to govern with him even if some rejected his invitation. And these people guided his leadership trajectory towards eventual democracy.
He did not make himself Life President, and when the time came for him to become a turncoat from a socialist to a capitalist, he allowed the system to play out; he opened the door for a vigorous democratic culture wherein people freely spoke their minds. During this time, he was subjected to the most notorious of insults, but as a democratic turn-coat and a past dictator of no mean record, he parried off all this cacophony of insults, and was quite successful in applying the tenets of the constitution to his latter-day democratic governance: There was freedom of the press, the freedom of the franchise, vibrant and virile parliamentary debate and due process and procedure of law. For a person who vaulted to power on the wings of blood and violence, all these were remarkable achievements………
Not so with Nkrumah. He came to power in peace and democracy. He came promising independence, freedom and justice for the people. Mind you, he did not specifically promise any industrialization or infrastructure as such. And so even if we were to accept that he did all he could in these two narrow areas, they were not visceral to the standard upon which we will judge his leadership.
The measure of Nkrumah’s contract with the Ghanaian people was that he promised them independence, freedom and justice. And so the narrow question we can ever ask is whether he delivered on these terms. Everything else is not so relevant in our assessment of him.
He abolished the vote and made himself president for life. He by law imposed the Preventive Detention Act on the people wherefore he could imprison citizens for up to ten years without trial. He could also dismiss judges, muzzle `the press, intimidate traditional chiefs and unilaterally gift the national treasure to other countries without compunction. And with hindsight, none of these things were necessary to his survival as a leader.
Rather, he created the perfect storm for his own overthrow for which the people rejoiced. In fact, he could have been a life president without so much as inscribing it in law. Once inscribed in law, the detractors could fathom a legal basis for getting rid of him. And why make any law about imprisonment without trial? The people were going to resent the law anyway! So in a sense, Nkrumah dug his own grave. He was just too naïve as a leader!
This is how far Nkrumah betrayed the public trust. After all, if Ghanaians then living, had a long view of what Nkrumah would become, they would have rejected him from becoming their leader. And so Nkrumah reneged on his promises to the people and broke his contract with them, leading to his demise.
In the end, Nkrumah himself had incarcerated most of his supporters and aides who helped him to power. When he was overthrown, the country jubilated, and the people heaved a long sigh of relief. Nkrumah went to stay in Guinea and dished out millions of pounds to destabilize Ghana, hoping to return to exact vengeance on his perceived enemies.
Nkrumah’s stint in leadership was therefore characterized by a wanton disappointment in the population because of his persistent movement from democracy to totalitarianism. When he died, the country did not mourn. He died all alone in far away Bucharest, Romania, not ever setting eyes again on his wife and children for the entire five years that he stayed in exile in Guinea. When people reflect on this, they would be humbled of his poetic justice.
This was opposite with J.J. Rawlings. As horrifying as most of what he did may seem to Ghanaians, everything he did brought us to this pass where we have a stable democracy under laws which guarantee our freedoms. There are no political prisoners here. There is no law authorizing the incarceration of citizens without trial. There is no life president. There is no one-party state. And nobody has any power to dismiss our judges or override our constitution.
There is even a rather sardonic and cynical way to construe the Rawlings killings and to conclude that they were all mostly sacrifices that led us to the stability of our democracy. Rawlings himself did not intend this outcome, and there is no way these killings could be logically or rationally justified. But if you look at the issue with a philosophically stoic perception, one could conclude that with the killing of all these coup-prone generals and soldiers and citizens creating instability in the country, or very likely to create instability in the country, the nation incidentally purged itself of those citizens most likely to destabilize its government. That may well be the reason why we may not experience any coup again in Ghana. The Rawlings terror and era led to the unintended consequences of a stable democratic culture in which coups have become anathema, and in which democracy thrives.
And to get to this stage where we are, many countries have sacrificed more innocent blood and done far worse. We needed to travel the path to democracy with its attendant danger and to reach a destination of true freedom and justice and independence. And that is what Nkrumah unconsciously meant when he said we preferred freedom with danger……..
And of this statement, Nkrumah obviously did not understand his own language and thought of freedom and independence as his personal property to dispense or withdraw from the people. He did not also understand the mood of the people he was ruling, naively thinking that the more he restricted their freedom, the more he could subdue them and keep himself perpetually in power.
But Rawlings knew better. When the time and tide ran out for him, he instinctively knew, and begrudgingly condescended to step down from power. He thereby saved his own life, and that of his kin and his kith and preserved himself in virtual peace and comfort until he died in his native country.
In retrospect, therefore, Rawlings performed a lot if evil deeds which led to the unintended consequence of our present democracy. But Nkrumah performed a lot of evil deeds which led to the path of autocracy and calumny. He would have constricted the nation into a stalemate of despotism.
If we invoke Nkrumah and his legacy, we cannot move past his era of dictatorship to honor this legacy, unless of course, we are hypocrites and intellectually dishonest. As true patriots, we can only trounce that legacy as treasonable and undesirable. And so, Nkrumah has no leadership legacy for the country Ghana. And his one-party state is indeed dead. His life presidency is dead. His imprisonment without trial is dead. His CPP is virtually dead!
Rawlings however, left all our freedoms intact: People can speak freely, vote their choice of leaders freely, and challenge their governments freely without any fear that they will be incarcerated without trial. And no matter what anybody thinks of Rawlings, he is far ahead of Nkrumah in his leadership instincts and relevance to the present Ghana’s democratic dispensation.
Dr. Samuel Adjei Sarfo, Esq.