(Lessons from the first (mis)steps following modern Africa’s independence)
There is a brief moment of opportunity, in the hour of freedom and liberation, when the momentum that is presented by the formation or regeneration of a nation-state gives to its chief policy-makers, its opinion-shapers and its mass-leaders the rare chance to hammer a brave new impulse deep into the orientation-seeking psyche of the nation and shift it unto a path of mutually supportive and constructive upbuilding. It is a moment in time, a window of opportunity. If missed, a sequence of events is set into motion which makes it progressively difficult to recapture the momentum and the opportunity. If grasped, however, the same occurs, in the opposite, positive, direction. Nelson Mandela and South Africa recognised it and took a chance on it. The leaders of South Sudan, so far, seem blind and immune to it. South Sudan has simply joined the long list of African nations in which independence was followed by disorientation, dis-unification, breakdown and destabilization. Examples, as I said, abound.
In Ghana, Africa’s black star, Kwame Nkrumah weathered hefty colonial resistance and, even from within the walls of his unjust imprisonment, forced and triggered Ghanaian independence, and then came to power in a blinding blaze of glory that inspired nationalistic fervour all over the continent, further fuelling the thirst for independence in black Africa. Nkrumah’s impact on the socio-political psyche of black Africans then and now cannot be over-emphasized. No other African independence leader so charismatically inspired, articulated and harnessed revolutionary zeal, black intellectual nationalistic self-confidence, and absolute disdain towards all forms of dependence and imperialism like Nkrumah did. He championed the search for innovative solutions to Africa’s economic problems and went ahead trying to implement his. He recognised the danger of tribalism and put forward policies to reduce its detrimental effects. He was the very spirit of pan-africanism, a driving force behind the forming of the OAU. But, while calling for pan-african unity on the continental stage, in his own country he banned opposition political parties, nationalised as much of industry as he could, put price controls in place, centralised power and placed his faith, like his friend Nasser did, in his own indigenous socialism hybrid. The toast of praise-singers and sycophants, he trusted no-one and placed the entire country under his personal control. He sunk huge sums into forward-looking industrialization schemes, but most got mismanaged by a dizzying number of state corporations that sprung up like mushrooms. Convinced that these and other unilaterally decreed measures would lead Ghana to the promised land, he never wavered in his fervour. The speedy decline of the Ghanaian economy which followed in the ensuing years was staggering and painful to all lovers of Africa and Ghana. Six years after independence, Ghana’s reserves stood at a shocking £500,000. Patronage and corruption flourished, discontent, division and internal resistance grew, the unwanted was ostracized, opposition elements imprisoned and silenced. There was no blueprint for an alternative solution or for a reshuffling of executive responsibilities. In Ghana, all roads led through Nkrumah. Less than ten years after his triumphant entry, in a country that had become riddled and debilitated by corruption and poverty, Nkrumah was unceremoniously overthrown in a coup d’etat, which was followed by another coup d’etat… then eventually by another… and Ghana was spiralling down a pit of retrogression unimaginable as at the time of its trail-blazing independence in 1957. It took decades before Ghana understood the painful lesson of the bitter pill of militarism and one-sided pseudo-democracy, and gradually began to build anew, a wasteland of wasted decades scarring its history.
In Cote d’Ivoire, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, feeling himself to be ideologically superior to Kwame Nkrumah, made a bet with Nkrumah as to which of their two nations would be better developed within the decade that was to follow. And, at first he might have seemed to have won the bet. He avoided communism like the pest and predicted, already way back in the sixties, the Chinese invasion of Africa. He was one of the few independence era leaders who went the way of economic liberalism. Spurning nationalistic zeal, he stayed in close contact with the French, his country’s former colonial masters, and gave French capitalistic endeavours a freehand in the Ivory Coast. Apart from that, he did nothing different from all the rest. The self-acclaimed crocodile kept a steely grip on government, permitted only a one-party state, devoid of democracy. He made no attempt to anchor democratic principles of equity, opinion-sourcing, power-sharing and broad engagement. No empowered participation, rotation of responsibility, the sharing of leadership responsibilities, socio-political unification of differing tribes and religions, the internal blending of a nation into one people. For twenty years no elections were held in Cote d’Ivoire, as Houphouët-Boigny cleverly left the country under the hypnosis of French economic control while perfecting the art of neutralising his opponents and critics by giving them tantalizing little morsels of pseudo-power in a system utterly dominated by him and him alone. For over two decades it seemed to work. When the collapse came, it was swift, brutal and sobering. Global prices of Ivorian exports like cocoa and coffee plunged. Oil prices shot up. French businesses repatriated their money to France. Ivory Coast was bankrupt. Inspite of all his efforts, Cote d’Ivoire’s economic self-reliance never materialised; and now that the bubble had bust, the missed opportunities in true political and democratic maturation became apparent. As Houphouët-Boigny’s health declined, “heirs” to the throne began to jostle for position. By his death, in office, in 1993, as the third longest serving leader in the whole world as at that time, the long ignored internal chaos and disharmony was all he left behind. What had once seemed like a model became exposed as a mirage. It was simply a case of delayed reaction. Cote d’Ivoire too eventually went the way of Nigeria, Ghana and so many others – coups, corruption, unrest, civil war, militant dictatorship, ethnic enmities, religious rancour, and division. Neither Cote d’Ivoire nor Ghana was better than the other. They were in the same boat.
… continued in PART 6
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije