March 5, 2007 / 12:08 PM / 13 years ago

FEATURE-Ghana's Nkrumah set trend for big Africa leaders

(This is part of a series of stories on the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence)

By Orla Ryan

ACCRA, March 6 (Reuters) - Above the tomb of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s founding father and a trailblazer for African independence, a grey stone monument depicts thwarted aims.

"It is like a truncated tree ... It represents his unfinished works," said Edward Quao, head of the museum at the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park in Accra.

Led by Nkrumah, Ghana became free from British rule on March 6, 1957, the first state in sub-Saharan Africa to shake off its colonial yoke. The event electrified a continent still mostly subjugated under foreign rule.

In the span of a decade, Nkrumah’s example in Ghana changed the face of Africa, spawning a constellation of new independent states and leaders who heeded his messianic message of a New Africa united in freedom, brotherhood and racial equality.

Admirers worshipped him as the "the Star of Africa". Many others say he created the questionable model for "Big Man" leaders in Africa, whose initial drives for national unity and development often rapidly veered into repression and abuse.

Within that same decade, Nkrumah’s own star faded as his whimsical, profligate rule became more repressive and Ghana’s once-thriving economy plunged into virtual collapse.

In 1966, he was overthrown by a military coup while on a tour outside the country and Ghanaians danced in the streets of Accra, tearing down formal photographs of him from offices and billboards. He went into exile in Guinea, and later died in Bucharest in 1972.

In a reversal of pan-African hopes that blossomed with the dismantling of colonial Africa, bloody coups began in Togo in 1963 and swept like bush fire across the landmass, toppling regimes weakened by personality cults and corruption.

Decades later, many argue the planet’s poorest continent is still struggling to achieve the unity, peace and prosperity that Nkrumah envisaged in his dream of a United States of Africa.

"Nkrumah was a man ahead of his time and it was a wonder he lasted as long as he did. His quest for African liberation was strong, at the cost of maintaining his effort in Ghana," former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings told Reuters.


Rawlings is credited with restoring democracy to Ghana by allowing multi-party elections in 1992.

But this was only after he had staged two coups himself as a flamboyant young flight lieutenant in 1979 and 1981, earning the nickname "Boom Man" after the local slang for coup.

Pessimists note Africa, despite its consolidated political independence, is still mired in the poverty, ethnic violence and fragmented identity that hampered progress for centuries — as seen in the recent man-made catastrophes of the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the current slaughter in Darfur.

But others say Nkrumah’s pan-African vision has evolved and even progressed.

"Before, it was about rebuilding African identities, about the black man’s liberation," said Paul Omach, a political scientist at Kampala’s Makerere University.

"It’s much more about regional integration and trade now," he added. A cluster of disparate trade and cooperation blocs now spans the continent, although ties between them appear weak.

"We are seeing more and more regional integration in Africa, and consolidation of regional blocs. African governments are increasingly in favour of a combined Africa," said Ludeki Chweya, senior political science lecturer at Nairobi University.

"There aren’t as many wars in the region as there used to be, there is actually increasing political stability. For this reason Africa’s leaders genuinely believe in the need to integrate," Chweya said.

Makerere’s Omach saw a strengthening of continental unity through the revamped African Union (AU), the replacement for the discredited Organisation of African Unity, which had a reputation as a dictators’ club.

"The ideas being followed now — the African Union with a parliament and African court and a pan-African security force — all those were Nkrumah’s," Omach said.


Some analysts say Nkrumah, for all his idealism, actually set a bad example to other African states by quickly introducing a highly personalised style of authoritarian rule.

Ghana became a one-party state in 1964, amid a cloying personality cult which hailed him as "Osagyefo" (Redeemer), and legislation allowing critics to be detained.

Across the continent, from Guinea to Malawi, other independence leaders established similar systems, arguing that free Africa needed strong national chiefs to lay down the law.

Guinean leader Sekou Toure, for example, dismissed democracy as "an over-sophisticated pastime which we in Africa cannot afford to indulge in".

Former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, ex-Malawian strongman Hastings Kamuzu Banda and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, still in office, were all disciples of Nkrumah’s thinking, said Zimbabwean political commentator Bill Saidi.

"For Kaunda, Banda ... Mugabe, there was, and is, a fascination, if not obsession, with the one-party system," Saidi added.

Mugabe, who turned 83 last week and taught in Ghana in the late 1950s, has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980.

Critics accuse him of running a dictatorial regime that has committed widespread human rights abuses. Shunned by donors, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is in social and economic crisis, with inflation running at about 1,600 percent.

But admiration for Nkruma is still strong.

"Kwame Nkrumah was a great President to all Ghanaians," said John Quashigah, a 44-year-old nurse. "He did a lot, built roads, the Akosombo Dam and most of all brought independence."

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