Mr. Walter Birmingham's article on Ghana since Independence in the July 1964 issue of THE FRIENDS' QUARTERLY has impelled me to write.
Ghana today has a one-party regime. It was imposed under a so-called referendum which all observers, from Britain, the United States, and other African countries, agreed to have been a fraud and a farce. No one can defend the results as true or as representing the will of the people. The one-party is officially declared to be supreme; it has swallowed all organizations. There are no free trade unions. Every group must be within the monolithic party.
The rule of law has been undermined. Outside bodies like the International Commission of Jurists, or Amnesty, have protested in vain. The Chief Justice and other prominent judges have been arbitrarily dismissed. The President is armed with powers to appoint judges and dismiss them at will; to set up a special court, and to revise or annul judgments of the Courts.
The Commissioner of Police and Senior Police Officers have not only been arbitrarily dismissed, but have been thrown into prison without trial. There are many others who are in prison without trial. They include men and women, young and old, literate and illiterate, from villages and towns; some of the best known and most prominent citizens of Ghana, as well as humble folk, hardly known outside their own homes. At the University where Mr. Birmingham spent "nine most fascinating and enjoyable years", professors and lecturers have been arbitrarily dismissed and deported by the President. One Master of a College Hall of Residence has been thrown into prison without trial, as have senior students who held offices in the Students Union. The arrests and detentions continue. There is no freedom of speech, no freedom of association, no freedom of movement. No one, not even a Cabinet Minister, is allowed to travel outside Ghana without permission or special visas, even if he holds a passport.But Mr. Birmingham writes:
"the most important thing to notice is that it is in the sphere of economic development that Ghana is most likely to get the greatest compensation for the loss of parliamentary democratic freedoms ... I am no friend of dictators or dictatorship but the first freedom is freedom from hunger."
Presumably, a full stomach is enough to compensate for the loss of all the other freedoms. I have met Russian professors, Communists and Marxists, who have also justified ruthless oppression on the same basis. I would like to point out as a matter of fact, despite all the figures Mr. Birmingham quotes, that for the majority of people in Ghana, the promised economic paradise is a long, long way off, and there is greater scarcity of food, common drugs, and essential goods than there was at independence in 1957.
The Times and the Daily Telegraph have just published the news that President Nkrumah has approached the United Africa Company and other foreign firms in Ghana begging them for import credits to the value of £11 million, for periods varying from 90 days for perishable goods to 5 years for some capital goods, because of Ghana's serious lack of foreign exchange. This is confession by President Nkrumah himself of the failure of his economic and fiscal policies. There has been extravagance on nonproductive projects. As The Times points out, the delicate question his request poses "is, in simple terms, what should the British Government do to save Ghana from bankruptcy". Nkrumah's policies have not provided the "freedom from hunger" which is to be "compensation for loss of freedom". Moreover, history offers many examples, including notable ones in the history of Quakerism, that men have cherished other values above full bellies; values such as religious freedom, or personal freedom from slavery, even if the slave owner provided food, and freedom meant unemployment and starvation.
Mr. Birmingham advances arguments for strong central government and one-party rule from an analysis of the "sociology of loyalty" in Ghana. In his so-called analysis, he looks at tribalism, and "the tradition of Africa's own type of democracy". On tribalism, the National Liberation Movement of the Ashantis, and the Togo Unification Movement of the Ewes are stated to be "essentially tribal in their loyalties... perilously disrupting forces which shook the unity of the emerging nation state", and consequently the "Down with Tribalism" policy of the Ghana Government showed "the wisdom of Ghana's rulers and perhaps even more, the ineptitude of its opposition leaders".
Mr. Birmingham claims "intellectual objectivity", but he did not even state the case of the two movements he cited. I wish, however, to discuss the issue he raises in a broader context, for as an issue of nation-building, it is a question which faces many other African States.
It is commonplace knowledge that all the new States of Africa are faced at independence with the problem of building a nation out of the Colony bequeathed them. They do not start with unity to be disrupted; their problem is how to build one; for a Colonial power holds a Colony together in the framework of an authoritarian administrative structure. A Colony is not a nation; it is held together by the force of the alien ruler. The question is how a new state builds a united nation out of the tribes of the former Colony. Mr. Birmingham dogmatically asserts that the diversity of tribes, and of tribal loyalties is an argument for strong central government, and further, that this inevitably means one-party rule.
Though some political scientists have also taken this line, the facts belie the theory. There is no inevitability about this. In West Africa, nine of the States have created one-party regimes. Six of these had opposition parties which were forcibly suppressed. In the other three, the opposition parties were absorbed rather than suppressed. The evidence in all of them makes it clear that one-party regimes are unstable. They are not the avenues to prosperity they are supposed to be. In the course of 1962 and 1963, Cabinet Ministers were arrested and imprisoned in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mali, Niger, and Liberia; there were military coups d'état which succeeded in Togo and Dahomey. One-party States rest on force, but they do not succeed in eliminating opposition. Mr. Birmingham thinks incidents like these support his case for authoritarian one-party rule. In my view they prove the contrary. Far from being a vehicle for progress the evidence from Ghana is that the one-party regime has paved the way for inefficiency, corruption, and dictatorship.
There is another approach to the problem of unity and nation-building. It is merely being dogmatic to assert that the alternative to one-party rule is chaos. There is the approach to nation-building through toleration rather than suppression; on the basis of willingness to live, together, and not on force. It is the approach which seeks to create a society in which each tribe is given the opportunity to make its own special contribution to the larger whole. It recognizes that a nation has to be built from the grass-roots, using the tribal pride of the Ashanti, or Ewe, or Ga or Fra-fra, or Fanti as a basis for a wider national pride in which each feels at home. This means building a satisfactory system of local self-government in which different tribes have their own local assemblies for dealing with their local affairs within the context of the Ghana nation. Nation-building by toleration is not easy, but it offers better prospects for stability and harmony. Showing contempt for the sentiments to which the people attach special importance, and suppressing them has not proved wise; it has not solved the problem. Nkrumah did not concede provincial self-government, that is why he has been driven to building an extensive secret police to maintain his one-party regime. He has not in fact "subordinated tribalism" as Mr. Birmingham thinks. Practical realities show that the idea that one-party regimes bring political stability can be rejected; yet stability is a necessary condition of progress and development in all fields.Mr. Birmingham draws justification also from his interpretation of the "tradition of Africa's own type of democracy". First, according to him,
"it is not one with any place for a continuing loyal opposition... And anyone, such as a destooled chief who cannot be expected not to oppose, is normally banished as a matter of course. No one expects him to be tried first nor indeed are any acts of disloyalty a pre-condition for his justifiable exile. Africans who continue to oppose recognize themselves as seditious in their own hearts, hence their secretive activities and their ready resort to illegal coercive action."
This betrays a misunderstanding of the tradition. The Akan system of chieftaincy has many checks and balances. A chief can be removed from office by constitutional means, and the people frequently exercised their right to do so; but no chief could be removed without trial; without the proper customary procedures being observed. It is a gross misrepresentation to say that destooled chiefs were "banished as a matter of course" and that "no-one expects him to be tried first". It is Nkrumah who has flouted tradition by destooling and passing laws to banish" Chiefs who opposed him. That is not the customary practice. The Akan system is such that at any given time, there are several people who have the kinship qualification for election to the position of chief. When a chief is destooled, the one who succeeds him is usually related to him by ties of kinship. A man who has been a chief may still have a lot of support, even though he may have merited destoolment, according to the customs governing his office. To make things easier for his successor the elders who constitute the Council may require the destooled chief to live in another part of the chiefdom, or in some other chiefdom; but this "banishment" involved the State making provision for his maintenance, for he may be brought back again. I know chiefs who were thus "banished" and brought back several times. The "justifiable exile" is no more than this kind of convenient arrangement.
It is very different from Nkrumah's preventive detention or destoolment and banishment without trial. I should also explain that the Akan system did allow opposition; there were customary channels open for grievances to be expressed; when they were not heeded, one could initiate destoolment. The resort to illegal action has resulted, not from tradition, but from the suppression of legitimate channels for the expression of opposition. Everyone accepted the decision of the community, because everyone had the opportunity of being heard; but that never closed the avenues open to him through customary channels for the expression of grievance or criticism. There is no support here for the justification of "strong central government" and "one-party rule", which has in fact meant dictatorship. The justification, if any, cannot be based on tradition, unless it is twisted for the purpose.
A country's political institutions must of course derive from its own social situation and social history. The oft-repeated idea that the Westminster type is not suitable for Africa merely evades the real issue facing Ghana, as well as other African countries. The contention is that there are certain values of human freedom and human dignity which are capable of universal application. We believe that Ghana had the necessary foundation for success in democratic government; that we could achieve prosperity in freedom—freedom of speech, of association, of movement; of an independent and impartial judiciary, of human dignity which includes the right not to be imprisoned without trial. Economic development which is used as justification for the denial of these freedoms could itself, on the contrary, afford opportunities for co-operation in nation-building in freedom. Ghana has not fulfilled the hopes of those who truly love her and believe in her peoples. Things have gone tragically wrong. Those who would help us best are those who will trust and respect us enough to hold us to the values of the spirit on which the quality of individual and social life which is the goal of all true development must depend.
The above article, published in The Friends' Quarterly, January 1965, was written in response to what seems to have been a fairly hagiographic article by Walter Birmingham extolling Kwame Nkrumah's reign. At that time Dr. K.A. Busia, the leader of the United Party was in exile and was directing a research project on Africa at St. Anthony's College, Oxford.
Another letter to the editor gives the flavour of the outrage that other readers might have felt.
Dear Margaret Hobling,
[editor of Friend's Quarterly]
I read Walter B. Birmingham's article in your July number with much unhappiness, in that he extols Kwame Nkrumah's personality and government with very little qualifications. Is it possible for a Friend who has the background knowledge to prepare such a paper, to be unaware of the blasphemous nonsense which the Young Pioneers are expected to recite, or the pressures brought to bear on even the most firmly established secondary schools to introduce this organization to their pupils; and if he knows of it, to make no reference to this anti-Christian imposition on youth?The article indeed says that Nkrumah "has accepted the adulation which is so easily offered by Africans". Is adulation the right word ? Two years ago the government owned Evening News had, in big type at the end of an article "We Have A God Of Africa And Kwame Nkrumah Is His Christ". The Young Pioneers repeat daily, with hands held up as for an oath,
Nkrumah Is Messiah
Nkrumah Does No Wrong
Nkrumah Will Never Die;
while The Times of June last year said that all youth organizations in Ghana are to be compelled to "take part fully in leadership courses and other training schemes of the Ghana Young Pioneers". This "adulation" is not disowned by the Leader. Nkrumah may "declare himself to be a Christian", but this would seem more like Antichrist. Of course it has been argued that "Messiah" means "liberator of oppressed people", but the great majority of education has come through the Christian church, and in Ch. 4 of John's Gospel we have "I know that Messiah (that is Christ) is coming".
I looked the references up in the Afro-Asian Centre here and the quote from John is N.E.B.Yours sincerely,