By Nicholas Jones
This article was written in conjunction with a lecture which is available here.
Africa is a continent of enormous potential, cultural wealth and with the worlds youngest population, it is simply bursting at the seams for much needed development in all sectors of society.
Take Ghana as a shining example: Since the nation declared Independence in March 1957, her time as a Republic has been one of tragic circumstances while at the same time representing a massive opportunity to lead Africa into a long awaited future of prosperity. Both Ghana’s problems as well as Africa’s at large are not simple to solve and do not lie in the common black and white assumptions made in western magazines, but rather lie in places much more concealed to the eye. More often than not, they are tarnished with the same brush that the British Empire, amongst others too, pressed upon her during that awful period of colonialism.
Much was to be hoped for when the African nations and their people claimed their independence. Africans yearned hopefully for the ability to restore her former wealth to rejuvenate the continent with a new sense of national pride and spirit which sovereignty promised. Unfortunately due to the barbaric and unethical practices of the western financial system, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and other African nations have struggled in their rise out of the dust of colonialism and instead have been left scratching their heads as to what exactly has happened over the past 50 years and more.
The Berlin Conference and the Imperial Race to Africa
A great place to start historically is the not so great Berlin conference in 1884-5, otherwise known as the West Africa Conference. This was a conference which rather than be built on the Christian morals of the good Samaritan, ended up being a blatant land and natural resource grab; a kind of might is right approach which only serves those empirical powers and not the kingdoms and city-states that had already existed there for centuries (see figure 1).
This is the beginning of total colonial economic control over Africa at large. Now of course this is not the beginning of Africa’s problems with colonialism, as we all know from the history of the Slave trade system. This was a dark period of history between the 16th and 19th centuries where largely British corporations such as the East India trading company and the Royal African company went along the coastlines of this glorious continent, stole the livelihoods of innocent human beings and resources too and making fortunes back home. No, this is the beginning of the widespread control of the entire continent as a land mass.
Up until the late 19th century, most of the colonial activity was happening along the coasts of Africa where the trading posts had been set up… but the mass of land residing in inner parts of the continent were mostly untouched. In 1884 this all changed and the European colonial empires (Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Russia, Spain and Portugal) went about dividing up a self-governing African continent and by doing this they set into play the classic “Divide and Conquer” strategy of Empires. This not only pitted the Africans against each other eventually, but instantly set the Europeans on a confrontational path too.
Nowadays historians will excuse this conference as “a necessary evil” required to feed the industrial revolution that was taking place on the European and North American Continents at the time. To this assumption, I reply to them: “even if we assume Africa’s resources were needed for industrial progress, goods have value, and therefore should not those resources have been paid for? Why was it necessary to keep this continent subdued in under-development?”
Another question which may spring to mind is: “well given the fact that the continent had such enormous potential, why did the Colonial powers not choose the moral path and share this industrial revolution with the Africans at large so they could of helped them develop their knowledge of industry and science?”
Since all European empires professed adherence to Christianity, would not offering development and payment in exchange for resources have been a fair Christian decision during these years?
It is an uncomfortable irony that many western technological advances were materially fueled by the blatant stealing. Since I imagine this irony doesn’t sit well with many of you, we must continue this story to further understand the evil ways of empire so that we can end this tyranny once and for all.
Pan-African leaders – The Dawn of Freedom
Let’s take an 80 step forward in history at the dawn of the Pan-African movement which swept over the continent like the rays of sun sweep across our planet.
We find ourselves in an Africa which is shaped by a new generation of leaders inspired by revolutionary acts happening all over the world. While these acts are driven by a new found confidence and hunger for independence, it is not due to Communism’s rise as is commonly presumed today, but rather the founding principles of the United States of America that are cemented in that precious document- the Declaration of Independence.
This revolutionary period speaks of many great potentials for America and the world.
Kennedy is President in the U.S.A, and FDR’s policies for development are being revived, humankind is planning to land on the Moon by the end of the decade and people world over are witnessing change at such a rate that the hope for progress is felt in every corner of Earth.
This period is littered with some tragic ironies too.
The Cold War that gripped the world with the threat of a nuclear holocaust and the senseless Vietnam war are two examples. Another tragic irony is that the leading nation that first established a precedent for republics rooted in the principles of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, was now conducting an immoral war on an innocent people in far of lands.
One such man who is rising politically in these times is named Kwame Nkrumah.
This man, who will soon rise to become the most influential African statesman of his age stated most accurately that, for Africa to achieve a real and lasting independence, they would need to start by following those same principles that the U.S had established when declaring independence from the British Empire. To quote Nkrumah speaking at the 1963 Organization of African Unity in Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia;
“When the first Congress of the United States met many years ago at
Philadelphia, one of the delegates sounded the first chore of unity by
declaring that they had met in a “state of nature” in other words,
they were not at Philadelphia as Virginians, or Pennsylvanians, but
simply as Americans. This reference to themselves as Americans was in those days a new and strange experience. May I dare to assert equally on this occasion, Your Excellences that we meet here today not as Ghanaians, Guineans, Egyptians, Algerians, Moroccans, Malians,
Liberians, Congolese or Nigerians but as Africans. Africans united in
our resolve to remain here until we have agreed on the basic
principles of a new compact of unity among ourselves which guarantees for us and future a new arrangement of continental government.”
This quote alone should put to rest any ideas that Nkrumah was an “anti-American Marxist or Communist” as some not so diligent historians have stated. Not only that but Nkrumah had studied and lectured for ten years (1935-1945) at the U.S.A at the Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
Though this author does not doubt that he may well have sympathized with Marxist and Leninist social ideals, as many justly do, his social and economic policies make clear where his political foundation lies. It is also noteworthy that on that great day in 1957 when Ghana became the first African nation to gain freedom from the British Empire, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent his Vice-President, Richard Nixon, to join in Ghana’s celebrations.
It is quite clear from all this content that Nkrumah is following the fine example that the Americans had set in 1776. As a matter of irony, we find that history was repeating itself now in Africa, but unfortunately it was not to arrive at the same outcome as that attained in America (or at least not yet). Nkrumah envisioned a United States of Africa and stated it clearly in a speech that he made at the 1963 Conference from which the above quote was taken.
The name of the Organization is telling enough in itself but the reader will find watching that speech even more fulfilling.
Nkrumah was absolutely convinced that Africa and her many states had the means to develop herself without foreign interference and championed her Independence in much the same way that a Benjamin Franklin did for the Americans. He was a fine speaker with a broad smile from ear to ear that filled not just the Ghanaian’s, but the whole of Africa with a new found pride and spirit. We see his intentions with another grand quote from that very same speech and note when he talks of the Sahara, we are reminded of Franklin Roosevelt’s similar vision:
We have the resources. It was colonialism in the first place that prevented us from accumulating the effective capital; but we ourselves have failed to make full use of our power in independence to mobilise our resources for the most effective take-off into thorough going economic and social development. We have been too busy nursing our separate States to understand fully the basic need of our union, rooted in common purpose, common planning and common endeavour. A union that ignores these fundamental necessities will be but a shame.
It is only by uniting our productive capacity and the resultant production that we can amass capital. And once we start, the momentum will increase. With capital controlled by our own banks, harnessed to our own true industrial and agricultural development, we shall make our advance. We shall accumulate machinery and establish steel works, iron foundries and factories; we shall link the various States of our continent with communications; we shall astound the world with our hydroelectric power; we shall drain marshes and swamps, clear infested areas, feed the under-nourished, and rid our people of parasites and disease.
It is within the possibility of science and technology to make even the Sahara bloom into a vast field with verdant vegetation for agricultural and industrial developments. We shall harness the radio, television, giant printing presses to lift our people from the dark recesses of illiteracy”. – President Kwame Nkrumah
Compare this with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s African vision as recorded by his son and biographer Elliot Roosevelt from the 1946 book “As He Saw It” from which I will now quote:
“For a man who had never been in Africa before, he [FDR] had picked up an amazing amount of information, geographical, geological, agricultural. Of course, I thought I knew the country pretty well: I had flown over a good bit of it, months before, photographing it from the air. But somewhere he had had a chance to learn even more than I had. We discussed the great salt flats in southern Tunisia, which must have at one time been a vast inland sea. He reminded us of the rivers that spring up in the Atlas Mountains, to the south, and disappear under the Sahara, to become subterranean rivers. “Divert this water flow for irrigation purposes? It’d make the Imperial Valley in California look like a cabbage patch!” And the salt flats: they were below the level of the Mediterranean; you could dig a canal straight back to re-create that lake—one hundred and fifty miles long, sixty miles wide. “The Sahara would bloom for hundreds of miles!” It is true. The Sahara is not just sand, it has an amazingly rich potential. Every time there is a rain, there is a consequent riot of flowers for a few days, before the dryness and the sun kill them off. Franklin and I winked at each other: Father was having the time of his life, his active mind and quick imagination working overtime as we all speculated on what intelligent planning could do for this land. Wealth!” he cried. “Imperialists don’t realize what they can do, what they can create! They’ve robbed this continent of billions, and all because they were too short-sighted to understand that their billions were pennies, compared to the possibilities! Possibilities that must include a better life for the people who inhabit this land…”
In the same book, Elliot described the battle between his father and Winston Churchill when the great President made it known that the post-WWII world would be defined by development for all people and an end to colonialism. Elliot described Churchill’s rage when confronted with this challenge to empire:
“Mr. President,” he [Churchill] cried, “I believe you are trying to do away with the British Empire. Every idea you entertain about the structure of the postwar world demonstrates it. But in spite of that”—and his forefinger waved—”in spite of that, we know that you constitute our only hope. And”—his voice sank dramatically—”you know that we know it. You know that we know that without America, the Empire won’t stand.”
Churchill admitted, in that moment, that he knew the peace could only be won according to precepts which the United States of America would lay down. And in saying what he did, he was acknowledging that British colonial policy would be a dead duck, and British attempts to dominate world trade would be a dead duck, and British ambitions to play off the U.S.S.R. against the U.S.A. would be a dead duck. Or would have been, if Father had lived.”
Nkrumah Leads the Pan-African Movement
As the first President of Ghana, Nkrumah went about working with and organizing other Pan African leaders who were dealing with their own struggle against the British and French Empires at the time. These leaders included such names as Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Haile Selassi I of Ethiopia, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.
Nkrumah went about reforming every sector of government and society in such a drastic way that under his leadership Ghana had attained the highest GDP in the whole of Africa. He was also largely influential in helping other nations gain their independence, such as Guinea. After Nkrumah was finally overthrown in a 1966 coup d’etat (which was most likely organised by the British intelligence apparatus), Guinea was quick to offer him the vice-presidency for his services to their nation.
It is quite revealing that the coup was launched while Nkrumah was visiting Burkina Faso- another newly independent nation that even though now liberated, was still economically controlled by France at the time. Upon his return to Ghana, while being presented with a bouquet of flowers from a young girl, who was none the wiser to the plot at hand, he narrowly escaped death when a bomb went off inside the bouquet, killing the poor girl and leaving Nkrumah severely injured.
Empire knows no limit to the evils it will unleash to have its way.
Nkrumah had survived at least five known assassination attempts on his life and even though he finally passed away due to cancer, his daughter and many other scholars have presented reason to presume poisoning- though no one knows for certain. As fellow activist and friend Amilcar Cabral said “This man was a big problem for someone”.
Thomas Sankara Picks up the Torch
I want to end this article with a man who knew exactly how to handle the oppressor and how to give the land and people he was raised by, the liberty and freedom they so yearned for. His name is Thomas Sankara and he is known as the father of Burkina Faso, which in English means, “the land of Upright people” in their languages, More and Dyula . A name that he bestowed upon it, for he and the people did not wish to lead a nation, named by their former oppressor.
Sankara was a natural leader who came to power out of necessity (for he did not want to be leader) in 1983. He had a certain inner strength to his character while at the same time exhibiting kindness and a faith in people that was unbending. It is a bitter irony that this unbending faith in the wrong people brought about his untimely end… for he was betrayed by those closest to him.
He was educated mainly through military school in Burkina Faso but never was he the kind of soldier to take and follow orders blindly.
This man was not a simple soldier or militant, but was pivotal in reforming the military and ensuring that ordinary soldiers could receive a decent education in political thinking which not only shielded them from manipulation but ensured that the military as a whole would be resistant from following orders that were against the interests of the nation which they were meant to serve. Sankara wanted the military, from the highest ranks to the lowest, to think before they acted.
Looked at from the outside, it may appear to some that Sankara’s strong social reforms prove that he was a Marxist or a Communist. Like Nkrumah before him, anyone who didn’t follow the imperial ideology of the NATO led alliance during the Cold War, was simply labelled as such. But reality is more complex than simple labels suggest, and thankfully we can now apply reason over fear and conclude upon closer examination that this man was totally in alignment with the thinking of Kwame Nkrumah and his fellow Pan-African leaders. Yes he was anti-imperial, and yes he did lean towards socialism largely due to the unprecedentedly desperate situation in his country at the time and demands of the Cold War bipolarism. However he was not an ideological socialist or Marxist.
When Sankara became the President, Burkina Faso’s literacy rate was a mere 2%. This means that out of a population of 7,300,000, only 146,000 people could read, write and speak!
We talk about “standards of living”, but one should note that the situation in Burkina Faso at the time was not really a standard at all; Sankara was tired of watching is nation decay due to lack of development in all areas since their Independence was “won” in August 1960. He took a salary of $450 a month and his personal possessions were limited to say the least. He had a motto; two meals a day and ten litres of water a day for every person in the country. As he said:
“Here are just a few standard facts to describe what Upper Volta used to be like: 7 million inhabitants, with more than 6 million peasants; infant mortality at 180 per 1,000; life expectancy of 40 years; an illiteracy rate of 98 per cent, if literacy is considered to mean being able to read, write and speak a language; one doctor for 50,000 inhabitants; 16 per cent receiving schooling; and lastly, a gross domestic product of 53,356 CFA francs, that is, just over $100 per capita”.
A scenario like this makes creating a democratic republic a very difficult task indeed. How can a nation have freedom and liberty, if the people of that nation don’t have the freedom or liberty to educate themselves? Is the Freedom and Liberty of a nation not founded in the education of its citizens? How can a nation be considered independent when those citizens composing it don’t have access to their developed and independent powers of reason?
Sankara answered these questions in a way that few could.
Accepting his role as natural born leader who the people could follow by choice and not by force, he stepped out of the national struggle and now took it to the continent at large. During the 1987 OAU/ECA conference at Addis Ababa – (24 years after Nkrumah’s speech in the same city), we hear the virtuoso calling for “A United Front against Debt” and judging by the response from the chorus of leaders who were present, we hear a resounding yes.
A young man from a small country, Sankara had filled the vacuum of moral leadership created with the death of Nkrumah in order to lead this continental orchestra in a time of dire crisis. This young man understood that Africa needed a coordinated response against the economic enslavement of the continent from those very same colonial powers which orchestrated the 1888 Berlin Conference and made it clear that debt was the new form of slavery from which all must be emancipated. In his speech, Sankara explained how the free market IMF/World Bank hand had wrapped itself around every technical part of their financing models, forcing an already under-developed continent into more unsustainable debt acquisitions to the detriment of an ever growing population.
The virtuoso begins:
Mister President, Heads of Delegations,
At this moment I would like for us to speak about another pressing issue: the issue of debt, the question of the economic situation in Africa. It is an important condition of our survival, as much as peace. And this is why I have deemed it necessary to put several supplementary points on the table for us to discuss.
We think that debt has to be seen from the perspective of its origins. Debt’s origins come from colonialism’s origins. Those who lend us money are those who colonized us. They are the same ones who used to manage our states and economies. These are the colonizers who indebted Africa through their brothers and cousins, who were the lenders. We had no connections with this debt. Therefore we cannot pay for it.
Debt is neo-colonialism, in which colonizers have transformed themselves into “technical assistants.” We should rather say “technical assassins.” They present us with financing, with financial backers. As if someone’s backing could create development. We have been advised to go to these lenders. We have been offered nice financial arrangements. We have been indebted for 50, 60 years and even longer. That means we have been forced to compromise our people for over 50 years.
Under its current form, controlled and dominated by imperialism, debt is a skillfully managed reconquest of Africa, intended to subjugate its growth and development through foreign rules. Thus, each one of us becomes the financial slave, which is to say a true slave, of those who had been treacherous enough to put money in our countries with obligations for us to repay. We are told to repay, but it is not a moral issue. It is not about this so-called honor of repaying or not.
Mister President, we have been listening and applauding Norway’s prime minister [Gro Harlem Brundtland] when she spoke right here. She is European but she said that the whole debt cannot be repaid. Debt cannot be repaid, first because if we don’t repay, lenders will not die. That is for sure. But if we repay, we are going to die. That is also for sure. Those who led us to indebtedness gambled as if in a casino. As long as they had gains, there was no debate. But now that they suffer losses, they demand repayment. And we talk about crisis. No, Mister President, they played, they lost, that’s the rule of the game, and life goes on.
We cannot repay because we don’t have any means to do so.
We cannot pay because we are not responsible for this debt.”
Sankara now knew what those American founding fathers knew, (especially Alexander Hamilton, another revolutionary whose elimination was deemed necessary by the British Empire in 1804). Sankara knew that a nation must always aim at two preconditions for any genuine Independence worthy of the name.
The first kind is the abolishment of slavery of all forms. It is the end of a physical oppression which is right in front of your face, abusing your very real freedoms and liberties by putting a very physical constraint on your ability to act. The repugnance of this abuse we all know well because it is easy to sense… but the second element that I talk of is less sensual and because more difficult to “see”, it is ever more devastating in its effects and a more destructive form of slavery. I speak of a mental form of slavery which is built into the structures of our current financial architecture; it is Adam Smith’s high-interest monetary debt issuance designed to keep undeveloped nations indebted to developed nations and which as always been contrary to Hamilton’s low-interest credit issuance for national development (i.e: help undeveloped nations to rise to the modern standards of developed nations and beyond). In my next article I will dive into this issue more specifically but for this article, Sankara has something else to say:
“Mister President, my proposal does not aim to simply provoke or create a spectacle. I would just like to say what each one of us thinks and wishes. Who here doesn’t wish for the debt to be canceled outright? Whoever doesn’t, can leave, get into his plane and go straight to the World Bank to pay! All of us wish for this…my proposal is nothing more. I would not want people to think that Burkina Faso’s proposal is coming on behalf of youth without maturity or experience. I would not want people to think either that only revolutionaries speak in this way. I would want one to admit it is merely objectivity and obligation. And I can give examples of others who have advised not to repay the debt – revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries, young and old. I would mention Fidel Castro, for example, who said not to repay; he is not my age, even though he is a revolutionary. I would also mention François Mitterand, who said that African countries, poor countries, could not repay. I would mention Madam Prime Minister [Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland] – I don’t know her age and I would begrudge myself to ask her – but it’s an example. I would also mention President Félix Houphouët-Boigny; he is not my age but he officially, publicly, declared that, at least as far as his own country is concerned, Ivory Coast cannot repay. Now, Ivory Coast is among the wealthiest countries in Africa, at least Francophone Africa; that is also why it naturally has to pay a larger share here. Mister President, this is definitely not a provocation. I would like you to offer us some very intelligent solutions. I would want our conference to take on the urgent need to plainly say that we cannot repay the debt. Not in a warlike or bellicose spirit – but to prevent us from being individually assassinated. If Burkina Faso stands alone in refusing to pay, I will not be here for the next conference! But, with everyone’s support, which I need, with the support of everyone we would not have to pay. In doing so, we would devote our meager resources to our own development.”
His full speech can be viewed here:
Sankara was President of Burkina Faso for four years in total and it was only several months after this speech that the Empire found a way to get him, as he had predicted at this very conference, should Africa and African leaders not stand together with him as one chorus. The concerto, left incomplete because the orchestra, lacking the morality and courage, turned their backs on their virtuoso and now it was all to easy to drown out his melody under a new cacophonic noise.
The way this dissonance crept in was through Sankara’s supposed best friend, Blaise Compaore, who took control as a dictator essentially while his friend’s lifeless body was still warm.
Sankara was not willing to believe the intelligence provided him by his security minister indicating his friend held treacherous ambitions, and so he was tragically betrayed when his people needed him the most. The country fell into shock in much the same way that the U.S.A population fell into shock when the lives of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King were taken earlier. Note that JFK as President of the U.S.A, supported the development of Ghana and all African nations and had struggled to re-awaken that better American dream lost with the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. JFK was so admired by Ghana for defending her economic independence from London and ensuring U.S financial support for the building of Ghana’s great Volta dam, that a plaque dedicated the fallen president was placed on the Dam, where it remains to this day.
American and African Freedom Movements
I find the link between these events to be quite profound as you can see that the 1960’s was a period of massive opportunity and potential on one hand and massive tragedy on the other. It is this great potential that also made it clear why it was also the decade of assassinations and coup d’etats.
The empire had to find a way to restrain the wave of Independence that was sweeping across the world and the tactic they used was shock and awe. A planned procession of chaos, murder and war that stymied the rise of defiant voices of people like Nkrumah and Sankara was unleashed and tripped those nations in their march to freedom. It is as clear as day that Nkrumah and his leading allies of the Pan African movement followed in the footsteps of America’s founding fathers.
While admittedly less aware of the positive roots and traditions of Ameirca than Nkrumah, Sankara brilliantly took up the torch of freedom and pan-Africanism. We know he was well educated, devoutly adherent to his conscience, and we know that he believed in the equal rights of men and women (Sankara was one of the first leaders in the world to push for Women’s rights in all sectors of society). We also know that he was humorous and knew well how to use ironies and paradoxes to build his reason and organize others. This was not a man following blind orders but was a man willing to do whatever it took to bring prosperity to his newly founded nation and people whom he loved. He was well aware of Kwame Nkrumah, and personally knew Jerry Rawlings (President of Ghana at the time) who was following very much in Nkrumah’s footsteps even though the military junta that he led, may on first appearances seem to deceive that idea.
Since America has fallen into the practice of acting like the old British Empire in the years since John F. Kennedy died, the paradoxes I have laid out in this text may be hard to swallow for some. Whether we are speaking of the 13 American colonies in 1776 or the 54 African states today, Independence has to be won by the people and a nation’s legitimacy is always derived by the people, for the people and of the people and in no other manner. When that mandate is lost, so too does the soul of that nation get lost and abuses, crimes and enslavement of the weak will always increase with that loss of soul. Independence can not be given, it must be taken- for when the oppressed have no reasonable solution with their oppressor, then a struggle ensues and those who are just shall rise from the chaos and lead entire peoples and nations to glory.
To be continued….
For more on those two historical speeches watch the links here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-IPJdantKoU
And for the transcript of Nkrumahs speech:
Other speeches by Nkrumah and the Pan African leaders, visit the Kwame Nkrumah Digital Infromation Site:
BIO: Nicholas Jones is a professional dancer with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal who has performed around the world. He is President of the Artists Alliance for Africa and works regularly in Kenya teaching dance alongside other artists with the goal of establishing a permanent academy of arts. On August 9, 2020 he delivered a lecture based upon this paper which can be viewed here:
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