Last week I wrote here about Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, asking what lessons we could learn from his panAfricanism, dictatorship, ideological and decolonisational battles with the West, and eventual deposition leading to a miserable life and death in exile.
In some shrewd machinations, as part of Cold War mischief, the US ably took advantage of some of Nkrumah’s weaknesses to disastrously play him against his people - resulting into a humiliating overthrow.
But what remains vividly cast upon Nkrumah’s image, like for many of his contemporaries, is his ideological clarity and commitment. It was kind of trendy at the time for African leaders to be socialist, especially because of their residual anger with colonialists and their appreciation of socialism’s emancipatory focus on subjects.
However, Nkrumah’s version of African socialism came closest to Marxist ideology. Many of his contemporaries, partly in fear of explicitly aligning with the USSR socialist bloc thus becoming direct target of the capitalist West, tempered their brands of socialism with other elements to claim some sort of politico-philosophical novelty.
Nevertheless, in both strong and weak versions, in this epoch we see profound attempts at routing leadership in ideology. Nkrumah, perhaps one of the most prolific writers among them, came up with his philosophy of consciencism, which was to be the foundation of his socialist political ideology.
In his book, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonisation and Development with Reference to the African Revolution (1964), before going into a detailed philosophical and strategic discussion, his rationale for such a project was that: “action without thought is empty; thought without action is blind.”
Similarly, and perhaps with more social success than Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere embarked on his Ujamaa socialist ideology – which he as well extensively wrote about in explication of its tenets, goals, and practicalities. Apart from the Arusha Declaration, these ideas were further propounded in his Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism (1968); Freedom and Socialism (1968); and Man and Development (1974).
In Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda came up with what he called ‘African Humanism’ which he elaborately detailed in his book A Humanist in Africa (1966). In Senegal, President Leopold Senghor, another avid writer, was busy with his Negritude Movement that was as well of socialist inspiration. The leadership intellectual bar of the time was clearly high, seeming as though whoever had no clearly spelt ideology had no right to speak politics.
Ahead of the founding of the Organisation of African Union (OAU) in 1963, in an attempt to convince his fellow African leaders into buying the African unification idea, Nkrumah authored and distributed amongst them a book titled Africa Must Unite. He urged them:
“We need the strength of our combined numbers as a resource to protect ourselves from the very positive dangers of returning colonialism in disguised forms. We need to combat the entrenched forces dividing our continent and still holding back millions of our brothers. We need it to secure total African liberation. At present most of the independent states are moving in directions which expose us to dangers of imperialism and neo-colonialism”.
Though not heeded, his foresight still stands exceptional. Nevertheless, from snippets of some of the OAU discussions that I have read, the quality of debate comes across as exceptional – especially in the arguments between Nkrumah and Nyerere.
These intellectual presidents appear to have set a scholarly culture amongst themselves, to the extent that everyone else had to find a way of fitting in – even by faking it. In Uganda, Apollo Obote was as well to pronounce his pseudo socialist inclination in the name of the Common Man’s Charter. By gesture, he as well adopted the name Milton in admiration of John Milton, author of the epic poem Paradise Lost.
Whereas many of the ideas of this generation of African presidents could be questioned in terms of their viability at the time and philosophical soundness, the lived commitment of the leaders to them seems pronounced.
With a few exceptions, of people like Jomo Kenyatta that were openly capitalist, many of these leaders hardly ever engaged in today’s greedy accumulation of personal wealth amidst widespread poverty among their people.
For instance, many Tanzanians were willing to forgive Nyerere for Ujamaa’s economic failures. Amidst all Ujamaa’s misfortunes in their lives, it was clear that much of what he did was in good faith and in genuine benevolence for his people. Unlike many of today’s malignant parasites that posture as caring leaders, the people were poor, but Nyerere didn’t personally own any much either.
After the Nkrumah generation, ideology as a driving element in African leadership appears to have progressively deteriorated into empty sloganeering and then to a chaotic mix of uncoordinated ideological direction that cannot even be explained by its agents.
Coming after Jomo Kenyatta’s reign, in some book that was philosophically neither here nor there, titled Kenya African Nationalism: Nyayo Philosophy and Principles (1986), Arap Moi claimed that his was to simply follow in the footsteps (nyayo) of Jomo!‘Ideology’ evolved into a buzzword for convenience in speech and keeping up appearance.
From the lips of many current leaders what one hears is an eclectic song with no title, flavoured by loud adlibs against ‘ideological disorientation.’ On both government and opposition sides, the stage was taken over by sweet-sounding populism and opportunism that is more focused on the ‘cosmetic now’ in national matters and on the future of personal interests.
What seems to be constant all through from independence to date in many African countries though, is the tendency of both altruistic and selfish leaders to act like monopolies of national vision.
Many countries’ failure is in not effectively trimming the powers of presidency for a possibility of checks and balances between the different organs of government. We mostly count on the luck of getting a benevolent leader. Many other problems are secondary.
The author works with the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.