A view of Ghana

<strong>The New Statesman 19 October 1957</strong>
Ghana has been celebrating the 50th anniversary

It was the first sub-Saharan African country to leave the British empire as a "wind of change" swept through the continent, bringing an end to colonial rule. The New Statesman welcomed Ghana's freedom under its charismatic leader Dr Kwame Nkrumah. But within a few months, anxieties were growing as to whether it was becoming a dictatorship. The editor visited the country to find out.

Selected by Robert Taylor

Goldfish in a bowl of kaleidoscopic glass, likely at any moment to break and spill us into the outer space of infinity, we are all in some degree mixed-up kids. If we are less so than the generality of Africans, it is because we are more aware of the ingredients of the mixture. We are troubled, for instance, by the obvious contradiction between the good and evil we learned as children and our quite contrary practice of tribal warfare. The lumps of Christianity, paganism, scientific materialism, Socialism and anarchism within our western society makes a very indigestible pudding, but a pudding of a sort it is. Many Africans, suddenly educated and entrusted with their own destiny, deprived of the unifying hatred of alien rule, suffer form even greater confusion. The lumps do not coalesce at all. The morality they learned as part of a tribal family has been overlaid by the teaching of a mission school; this in turn has been contradicted by observation of the European's disregard of his own nominal religion of peace and racial equality and by the discovery that, at least as applied to Africans, Marxist doctrine has more appeal than liberal democracy. And so, while our ideas are muddled, theirs are inchoate. They share our knowledge, are no less clever than we, and in time will build their own society, perhaps on a firmer base than we offer them from our crumbling institutions. But in the meantime – and it took us some hundreds of years to make our society – they are unpredictable. Agreeing about the advantages of toleration and parliamentary government, they suddenly suspect that this is something that has been put over them by the British. A tribal upbringing makes tolerance to a less strong opponent suddenly look absurd.

Nkrumah, endowed with a winning personality, conscious of great achievement and a still greater opportunity, inspired with a desire to make Ghana a model for the world, is beset with advice from both sides. He has liberal advisers whom he respects; he also listens to Krobo Edusei, who represents the darker side of emancipated Africa. Whom will he trust, whom will he use? The answer is not yet known, and if anyone writes with conviction about the future of Ghana you may disbelieve him. The future is not determined; it is not yet written.

I attended a CPP rally in Accra, taking my place, not among the foreign journalists, but among the very young men who made up most of the audience. Once they were assured I was not writing for the Daily Telegraph or Express, they were full of fun, anxious to talk or explain everything to me. There was a speech by the Minister of Labour; promising to say nothing inflammatory, he explained that there were plots afoot to assassinate the Prime Minister and that any show of violence against him or other CPP leaders would mean that the 'decencies would disappear' and that Ghana would have a 'real dictatorship'. Then Krobo Edusei, wearing a red fez given him in Tunis, gave his famous comic turn. He would read his speech first for the benefit of foreign journalists who, oddly, seemed always to misunderstand him. After that – and how my neighbours relished the joke! - he would make another speech in his own language. His theme – the second, longer speech in the vernacular was obviously a repetition of the first in stronger, more homely terms – was exactly that of the previous speaker. Dictatorship would come to Ghana if there were any opposition violence. He was uproariously received; he has the clown's trick of finding a phrase for which everyone waits and at which everyone laughs before it is out of his mouth. Every time he waggled his stick and said 'speaking as Minister of the Interior', the audience had hysterics. Krobo was the boy for them; he would show them. The laughter was the kind that I thought could easily be switched into a mood that was not funny at all. The next item was a hymn – 'Lead, kindly light', sung readily enough by an audience which was no doubt largely composed of mission schoolboys. It was, after all, no more incongruous than the hymns we sing at some party gatherings and at recruiting meetings. A priest of the local fetish prayed in the Ga tongue and poured out libations from two bottles to the North, South, East and West. Again, though incongruous to me, no odder than our own Christian rites. In the meantime, Kwame Nkrumah had arrived with a steel-helmeted bodyguard. He told us he had come to dispel rumours; here he was, well and sane. His holiday had been devoted to planning in the interests of the people of Ghana who always came first in his thoughts. Membership of the Commonwealth was good; he had learnt much from association at the London Conference with men at the centre of world affairs. All talk of dictatorship was absurd; he would lead Ghana along the path of parliamentary. (Few cheers for this from the crowd, though it was often repeated.) Ghana must be a showpiece where everyone can walk safe and unintimidated. And then abruptly his words were in line with those of previous speakers. The opposition was plotting; any attempt at assassination or violence would be ruthlessly crushed. Would it be right to allow the newly-won liberty of Ghana to be destroyed by its internal enemies and their external backers? The crowd knew the answer to that, and Kwane walked round the platform calling them to witness that he was still the man who had won their liberty and whom they could trust.

The deduction easily made by the European listener and by the leaders of the opposition National Liberation Movement was that these speeches were the careful preparation for dictatorship. Was some incident to be provoked or created, a Reichstag fire to justify a one-party dictatorship? After all, Krobo had already talked about kicking the heads of the opposition down a gutters like a football, and if he did not say just what was reported he had said something very like it; he has already deported some opponents, was introducing a bill which would give him unlimited power to put his fellow countrymen into concentration camps, and was rumoured to be taking money from Syrian traders who feared that they would be deported. (I refer to this story, not as true, but as one of the innumerable charges of corruption against those in authority made by almost everyone I spoke to.) And had not Nkrumah himself said that everything in Ghana was quiet? Why, then, all this talk of violence and assassination? Here the foreigner finds it hard to judge. There have been murder and counter-murder on both sides. There are bodies of unemployed who can be recruited for gangster work as much by the NLM as by the CPP. No one who knows Busia, the leader of the NLM, a brilliant Oxford scholar, who has taken part in politics from a genuine concern to stem the tide which he believes is running towards autocracy, would think him a fomenter of violence. But the NLM has many discordant elements inside it, and Nkrumah seems to have been genuinely moved by the revolt among the Ga in his own area of Accra, and to be sure that this was partly fomented by the wilder spirits amongst the Ashanti. His own answer to the question of whether such threats of dictatorship are necessary is that in Ghana the government is expected to govern firmly; it will only win respect if it is stable. Parliamentary democracy will be saved if Krobo's threats frighten the opposition into renouncing plans of violence and so release him from the necessity of himself using violence.

I need not comment on the dangers of this argument. But in one respect Nkrumah's tough line has almost certainly done good. His proposed bill to make illegal any party based on tribe, religion or region has been promptly met by the opposition merging its component parts that might have come within this ban and forming a United Party with an avowed policy of preserving the constitution, freedom of the civil service and independence of the judiciary – all of which have been threatened by recent CPP utterances. The crux still lies in the remnants of 'tribalism'. The Ashanti will not easily submit to the reduction of their king, the Asantehene, to a cipher, and all over Ghana the chiefs are expressing their opposition. Whether Nkrumah is meeting this opposition in the wisest way I am not sure; why should they not be promoted to sit in the Ghanian equivalent of the House of Lords, honoured but without power? However that may be, Nkrumah is surely right that parliamentary democracy is incompatible with tribal loyalties. The strength of the CPP lies in the measure of support it has in all the regions of Ghana. Its contempt for the chiefs may be unwise; their autocracy was tempered by tradition; they never spoke without the authority of the elders. The NLM sees all the old checks on autocracy discarded and blames the British for leaving Ghana before western guarantees of minority rights and civil liberties have won any firm hold. It will be a great step forward in Ghana if the new United Party ceases to rely on tribalism and can base itself firmly on civil rights and a constructive economic policy.

Kingsley Martin (1897-1969) was editor of the New Statesman from 1930 to 1960.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the hidden cost of the war