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A Zimbabwean's reflections on Ghana's Jubilee



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By Dr Alex T. Magaisa

I REMEMBER my first trip to Ghana with great fondness. I had been looking forward to that trip in March 2004, hoping to catch a glimpse of how far the continent had come, as represented by the first African country to gain independence on 6 March 1957.

The circumstance of Ghana’s geographical location entails that temperatures are generally high and one is almost tempted to find a correlation between the warm conditions and the enormous warmth exuded by the wonderful people of Ghana, who, it seems, never tire of saying, “You are welcome”.

The experience was overwhelming and it’s fair to say, I fell in love with Ghana. But in some ways, it was also a painful experience, which left me wondering about the future of the continent I call home.

A trip to Nema, a severely run-down residential area in Accra, was particularly painful. There, one encounters structures strewn all over the places, in most cases structures that recall memories of houses that had once stood intact in a bygone era. It was difficult to imagine whether any politician since independence had ever sought to improve the conditions in this and similar areas. It was disheartening to even imagine what this place would be like in another 50 years.

But there were also smiles on kids’ faces playing in the streets, there was the banter and laughter of the men and women and the goodwill that lifted the battered spirit. I could not help but marvel at this display of humanity’s resilience, even in the most dire of circumstances. It brought memories of my own community in Zimbabwe. Somewhere in the midst of this pain and suffering, there is a positive story to be told – the story of how human beings manage to improvise and cope with hardships.

Ghana has an important place in Africa – the circumstances of history have meant that it remains the symbol of the advent of freedom in Africa. I wanted to hear the story of freedom from the people who started it all. I asked of Ghanaians to tell me more about the man whose name is almost synonymous with Ghana’s independence and the idea of African unity – Kwame Nkrumah. Growing up in Zimbabwe, he was the one Ghanaian we all knew. I wanted to visit the monument built in his honour, where his body lies in a mausoleum. Was this not one of the great sons of Africa?

This I did, but having spoken to the ordinary men and women in the chop-bars and markets of Accra, I got a far richer insight into the story of the Ghanaian struggle for freedom than I had ever achieved in my “O” and “A” Level history studies. I became aware of the wider story of the men and women whose efforts in the struggle had almost been written off the pages of history, so powerful was the historical account of Ghanaian politics built around the personality of Nkrumah.

I became aware of the stories of other men such as Dr J.B. Danquah, Obetsebi-Lamptey, Paa Grant, etc; stories whose representation beyond Ghana has often muted outside the dominant Nkrumaite narrative. It became clear that the story of Ghana’s freedom is not the story of Nkrumah alone. I became aware also, that in the end, despite his charisma and heroics, Nkrumah had his limitations, which eventually brought his downfall.

Nkrumah made good progress at the start, building vital and long-lasting projects such as the Volta (Hydro-electric) Dam and the Tema Habour but in the end the hand of political repression took over. Surrounded by sycophants and praise-singers who claimed that he was immortal and could do no wrong, critics said Nkrumah became detached from reality.

As the one-party state took hold, political opponents were imprisoned, including those that had been comrades during the formative years of the nationalist struggle. Loyal supporters of J.B. Danquah describe his demise in detention at Nsawam Medium-Security Prison in 1965 as a cruel assassination at the hands of his political nemesis. A year later however, the regime was toppled in a military coup, while Nkrumah was a on a trip to Vietnam.

Ghana would subsequently go though the phases, vacillating between civilian and military rule, returning more recently to a relatively stable constitutional democracy. It is now hailed, once again, as a source of hope for the continent. Therefore, at 50, Ghana has seen it all – the euphoria of freedom, the personality cult around the key independence leader, repression under one-party dictatorship, military rule and constitutional democracy.

And that too, in a nutshell, is the story of a continent. It is sad however, that after 50 years of freedom, it is almost as if Ghana, and indeed Africa, is starting all over again. It is almost as if it was, all along, at a standstill. I often wonder, as a Zimbabwean, whether we too are destined for a similar half century. And the pattern that we have followed – a fairly good economic start on the back of the colonial economy, detention of opponents, attempts at one-party rule, increased political repression, is all too familiar across the continent, as Ghanaians will testify.

Some readers would question the relevance of history, especially when Zimbabweans are trying to solve current problems. Being a lifelong student of history, I have always believed that experience is the best teacher; that, of course, history does matter, particularly when historical representations are used to justify claims to power and economic resources and in the same vein, to deny others the right to make similar claims. This is particularly relevant in the Zimbabwean situation, where the legitimacy of claims to political power and economic resources appears to be grounded on a particular version of history, in which one is judged on whether or not he or she is on the correct side of the liberation narrative.

There is a particular version of history, the so-called patriotic history, which dominates the landscape and is promoted by the ruling establishment and its loyalists simply because it paints them in favourable light, diminishing in the process, the contributions of those that have fallen foul of the ruling establishment. It is important of course, in those circumstances, that the story be represented fairly and accurately. That is why the wider stories of Ghanaian struggle for freedom, beyond the Nkrumah-dominated narrative, captured my attention.

Ironically, when others try, like veteran nationalist Edgar Tekere, to offer their own version of history, they are attacked and labelled as having lost control of their faculties. It is not that Tekere’s biography provides an authentic version of the liberation history, but like all stories told by participants and observers, it simply outlines his views, which are biased in accordance with the platform from which he writes. Ironically, the very act of suppression and attack on the likes of Tekere, provides publicity for their work and therefore demand in an otherwise uninterested market and more importantly, it appears to give his work the stamp of authenticity, as the market perceives these suppressed and reviled stories as the authentic versions of history.

The story of Ghana is an important story for Africa. 50 years of independence is a milestone and as the first African country to gain liberty, most observers will no doubt take the opportunity to take stock of the progress, if any, made by Ghana and with it, the continent. There will be latent questions about Africans’ ability to manage their affairs. Sadly, the record of most African leaders appears to have given the detractors of African independence and self-determination ammunition, to say, “We told you so”. But surely Africa has the capacity to do better than there is to show for the first 50 years.

One day, I hope to return to Ghana. And when I do, I hope to talk not only about Nkrumah but also about JB Danquah, Paa Grant and others whose stories I have only recently discovered. As one wise one said, the story of independence is not just the story of the lion, but the collective story of all animals. I hope to see the finished Tetteh-Quarshie roundabout, and sit and chat to the good men and women at the chop-bars of Accra. I hope to talk to a new generation of leaders, ready to take on the challenges that the next 50 years present.

I wish a great celebration to the people of Ghana and indeed Africa. I hope that in 50 years time, the men, women and children of Nema will be smiling and laughing in more comfortable surroundings.

Dr Magaisa can be contacted at wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk


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