Jonathan Zimmerman: The ghost of Kwame Nkrumah

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, is teaching this semester in Accra, Ghana. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century."]

'It's time for Africa to step up." That's what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a news conference last week, speaking of Zimbabwe's post-election deadlock.

President Robert Mugabe most likely lost the March 29 contest, but his handpicked electoral commission has refused to release the results. "Where is the concern from the African Union and from Zimbabwe's neighbors?" Rice asked.

I put the same question to a Ghanaian colleague the other day, and she grimaced. "Everyone wants Mugabe gone, but nobody wants to do anything about it," she said. "Too risky."

Part of the risk, of course, comes from democracy itself. If Zimbabwe successfully topples its longtime tyrant, other African despots fear, their citizens might be emboldened to do the same.

But there's more. Especially in Ghana, sub-Saharan Africa's first independent nation, Mugabe represents one of the last links to the heroic struggle against colonialism. But that struggle brought all kinds of evils in its wake, which many Africans would just as soon forget.

It also brought Mugabe to Ghana, where he worked as a teacher in the late 1950s and met his first wife. Like many other freedom fighters, Mugabe was inspired by the pan-African doctrines of the Ghanaian independence leader, Kwame Nkrumah. To throw off the colonial yoke, Nkrumah believed, African nations had to join together.

"I started telling people how free the Ghanaians were, and what the feeling was in a newly independent African state," Mugabe told a 2003 interviewer, recalling his return home in 1960. "I told them also about Nkrumah's own political ideology. Unless every inch of African soil was free, then Ghana would not regard itself as free."

But Ghana itself wasn't "free." A year after independence, Nkrumah's government enacted a law allowing it to jail anyone suspected of harming national security. By 1960, Nkrumah had bestowed a new title upon himself: Osagyefo, meaning "Redeemer." As the savior of Ghana - and, by extension, of Africa - he could do whatever he wanted to.

So he crushed a railway strike, deeming it a "neocolonial conspiracy." He banned opposition parties, interfered with the courts and jailed several of his leading critics. Two of them died in prison, under mysterious circumstances.

Instead of addressing this painful history, however, most Ghanaians prefer to airbrush it out. The new national currency features drawings of Nkrumah's two prison victims alongside Osagyefo himself, as if the three of them were bosom buddies. At Nkrumah's mausoleum here in Accra, an elaborate exhibit omits any mention of his dictatorial behavior. It does note in small type that Nkrumah was deposed in a 1966 coup, but the visitor is left to wonder why.

So it's no wonder, really, that African leaders are reluctant to condemn Mugabe. Like Nkrumah and so many others, he was a valiant anti-colonial figure who ended up tyrannizing his own people. Who wants to be reminded of that?...

comments powered by Disqus