Fanon and Nkrumah

There are, broadly speaking, two very compelling elements to Frantz Fanon’s thought, especially as presented in his magnum opus The Wretched of the Earth. First is his analysis, his clear-eyed assessment of what he had already witnessed. Second, is his fore-sight. There are moments where Fanon seems rather dull, where his recounting of the unfolding of African history since decolonization seems to needlessly recount facets of the African situation which are obvious to anyone who watches the news. It is at these very moments that one is jolted awake by the remembrance that Fanon died in 1961; years before he could have seen many of the outcomes which he recounts with as much clarity as if he had seen them on the news. It is at these moments, when Fanon, the revolutionary theorist begins to read like Fanon, the historian, that one realizes he is facing Fanon, the prophet; or, less mystically, the unnervingly prescient Fanon. These two broad aspects of Fanon’s thought will be central as we attempt to position Kwame Nkrumah’s career in Ghana within Fanon’s thought. In the nineteen year period from 1947 to 1966 Nkrumah went from political organizer, to revolutionary party leader, to revolutionary saint, to supreme leader of a one party state, to father-of-his-country-in-exile. His career is unique among African leaders of this period for several reasons, one, Ghana was the first African colony to gain its independence and it did so politically. Two, he was able to gain power and then lose it largely without bloodshed; he was therefore almost purely a political leader. Three, despite the internal issues which led to Nkrumah’s downfall and Ghana’s subsequent history, Ghana continues to stand out as one of postcolonial Africa’s success stories. Nkrumah’s period specifically will be considered because as the period of decolonization, it is the one to which Fanon’s thought is most relevant. Furthermore, since Fanon did not live to see Nkrumah’s downfall, it offers us an opportunity to consider Fanon’s prescience within a contained narrative. Contextualizing Ghana’s independence movement within Fanon’s thought poses several interesting problems. For one, Ghana was not a settler colony like Algeria, Fanon’s primary focus on the continent. Also, as has already been said, Ghana’s independence movement was nonviolent. This leads to questions about the role of Fanon’s famous theory of violence in Ghana. In this paper, I will first examine Nkrumah’s career from 1947 to 1966 in order to relate Fanon’s general analysis, parts of which explicitly draw on Ghana, to the Ghanaian situation. In doing so, we hope to make theory and events stand together on the stage of history.
In considering the period from Nkrumah’s emergence on the Ghanaian political stage to independence in the light of Fanon’s theories, there are two questions which can be fruitfully explored. How should one view the origins and development of the Convention People’s Party in light of Fanon’s analysis of parties? More specifically, what can Fanon’s theories elucidate about Nkrumah’s relationship to traditional leaders, the intelligentsia, and the general population? Nkrumah’s political career in Ghana began when he became the General Secretary of the United Gold Coast (UGCC) Convention in 1947. The, UGCC as an organization which purported to represent the Ghanaian people but which was in reality a self-appointed cadre of elites can be considered as an example the classic sterile bourgeois party which Fanon describes in The Wretched of the Earth, in the chapter entitled On the Weakness and Grandeur of Spontaneity. Fanon’s typical, flawed nationalist party has the following characteristics:
That it arises out of an intellectual and business elite,
That this elite substitutes a blind commitment to a vision of party politics inherited from the Colonizer for an analysis of the situation on the ground.
That this party appeals exclusively to the urban proletariat.
That its leadership resists all forms of innovation.
I will now consider if, and to what extent, the UGCC possessed these characteristics. Insofar as the UGCC had these characteristics, we may question whether or not, and to what extent, Nkrumah’s breakaway Convention People’s Party corresponded to Fanon’s ideal. The idea for the UGCC was formulated by the so-called “founder of Ghanaian politics” George Alfred “Pa” Grant, a wealthy timber merchant, Dr. J.B. Danquah, the first Ghanaian to receive a doctorate of law, and R.S. Blay, another attorney. As the party’s central “working committee” grew, its demographics reflected the class of the three founders and Nkrumah himself referred to the UGCC as a movement backed by “reactionaries, merchants and middle class lawyers.” Therefore, we can safely consider the UGCC, at least at the top, to be a product of Ghana’s business and intellectual elites. As to Fanon’s second criteria, to speak from a rather pragmatic perspective, perhaps the only proper language of politics; it is more difficult to judge than the first. Difficulties aside, it seems most logical to judge the UGCC’s command of the facts on the ground by considering how strategically ill-equipped these doyens of the Gold Coast seemed to resist the will of a young man who could not have paid his own way back from England without their assistance. Judging from its rapid slide into irrelevance as the CPP rose to ultimate power from its ashes: it seems safe to question the UGCC’s grasp of facts on the ground. Initially the UGCC was “wildly popular” due to skillfully inserting itself at multiple points into the numerous loci of political activity throughout the country; though even this might be attributed at least in large part to the political acumen of the convention’s able general secretary. After the February 1948 riots and the imprisonment of the “Big Six” including Nkrumah and Danquah, the extent to which Nkrumah’s understanding of the direction of events exceeded that of those he nominally served became increasingly apparent. While Nkrumah is as open as the rest of the UGCC to Fanon’s criticism of parties that leave direct resistance up to the “spontaneity of the rural masses” and fail to effectively direct the long overdue conflagration; Nkrumah, unlike his elders, had the political acumen to not distance himself from the riots despite the indignity of imprisonment. In fact, while the rest of the members of the UGCC were tripping over themselves to distance it from the riots (which they in fact did not spark) in front of the commission appointed to investigate them, Nkrumah took the opportunity to more closely ally himself with the radical youth of the districts. This was most clearly demonstrated when Nkrumah, on his own initiative and in his own name, established a school for the young people who had been expelled from their secondary schools for their sympathy with the imprisoned UGCC members. That Nkrumah was able to build a political brand on something which the UGCC’s elite members sought to distance themselves from is evidenced further by Nkrumah’s declaration as he inaugurated the CPP that he did so “in the name of………Sergeant Adjety and his comrades who died at the crossroads at Christianborg in the 1948 riots.” (Autobio 105) Under the UGCC’s initial mandate, drafted before Nkrumah’s arrival, the party was primarily concerned with gaining precedence for elite commoners over the chiefs under British suzerainty in the legislative council. This limited project, jockeying for position in a legislative body, was much closer to the role of parties in non-colonial situations. Therefore, absent Nkrumah, they can be accused of hewing too closely to the vision of party politics which they had received from the British. Furthermore, the rest of the working committee’s distaste for revolutionary politics, as demonstrated by its members’ stringent efforts to distance it from Nkrumah’s evolving political goals, makes them liable to Fanon’s criticism of those who fail to adapt the Western party concept to the exigencies of their own nation. As to the question of whether or not the UGCC only appealed to the urban proletariat: Strictly speaking, they cannot be accused of only attempting to appeal to the urban proletariat to the exclusion of the rural masses, they can however be accused of failing in their attempts once they had to compete with Nkrumah’s more appealing message. Furthermore, if we consider Nkrumah’s program to have been an innovation, we can say the UGCC resisted all forms of innovation, though this characterization seems to lack nuance.
As for the CPP, and the extent to which it matched Fanon’s “ideal” we can say that such a party would have fulfilled the following characteristics:
Ample engagement with the rural population
Willingness to engage in violent revolution
Radical criticality
Admittedly, Fanon says much more about what a party should not be, than what a party should be. This might be considered as a signal that he is not a fan of parties as such, or at least in the revolutionary context with which he is concerned. The CPP, while markedly different from the UGCC, was hardly an “ideal” party, from Fanon’s theoretical perspective. In fact, it sometimes seems as if Fanon is directly critiquing Nkrumah’s program. While Nkrumah’s engagement with the general population as general secretary for the UGCC was much broader than the UGCC as a whole, his penetration was primarily restricted to the coastal areas and urban centers a fact he alludes to in his autobiography:
Just a couple of branches had been established and these were inactive. I saw at once the urgent need for a country-wide tour with the object of setting up branches of the U.G.C.C. in every part of the country……within six months I had established 500 branches in the Colony alone.
The Colony referred to in this quote was the Gold Coast Colony proper, as opposed to the interior regions. Perhaps the most important demographic for Nkrumah’s movement was young men who had finished the six year course of schooling provided by the colonial government. These generally displaced young men, for the most part, gravitated to the cities where they became clerks, drivers, mechanics and laborers. This element loosely approximates Fanon’s idea of the Lumpenproletariat which he describes as: “That portion of the peasantry blocked at the urban periphery, those who still have not found a single bone to gnaw in the colonial system.” These so-called “Elementary-School Leavers” ran the gamut from government workers, and small business owners to truck drivers, market stall assistants, and the unemployed; depending, presumably, on what they had made of their six years of education. Therefore, they encompassed both the displaced urban periphery and what Fanon considered one of the privileged segments of the colonial population, the urban workers. As well as the dispossessed, marginally educated young men of the interior. This segment stood outside the three groups which typically vied for power; the chiefs or traditional authorities, the intelligentsia, which included: the leadership of the UGCC, the “merchant princes” of the coast, the lawyers and those who had received university degrees, and the British. In the rural areas, this looming “lumpenproletariat” disrupted direct rule by challenging the power of the chiefs. While Nkrumah’s “Elementary-School-Leavers” were somewhat broader than Fanon’s “lumpenproletariat,” they served largely the same function. They were a nexus of revolutionary activity at which town and country met.
In comparing the independence movement in Ghana to Fanon’s theoretical narrative in The Wretched of the Earth, it is safe to say that the two match up significantly but not perfectly. The fact that the UGCC seems to be a textbook version of a party which Fanon would have opposed does not, ex officio make the CPP one that he would have recommended. Even if it were, how well such a party would fit Ghana as it existed remains to be discussed. While Nkrumah as a political organizer and then the CPP were both able to cast a broader net than the UGCC, it was not able to lead the type of national, rurally based movement which Fanon envisioned in his theories. In considering the period from independence to Ghana’s first coup, it is useful to question the extent to which Fanon’s theory of violence may explain Nkrumah’s troubles as the leader of a new nation. Fanon theorized that violent revolution is necessary for decolonization because it liberates the people mentally and spiritually by allowing them to release the repressed tension of the colonial situation and achieve catharsis. This portion of his idea, of course, is difficult to interrogate from an existential perspective: How is one to judge when a people have undergone catharsis? More relevant, perhaps, is that as part of this catharsis, the colonized people are reunited and the national life which had been disrupted by colonialism resumes:
Decolonization unifies that people by the radical decision to remove from it its heterogeneity, and by unifying it on a national, sometimes a racial, basis.
Henceforward, the interests of one will be the interests of all, for in concrete fact everyone will be discovered by the troops, everyone will be massacred–or everyone will be saved.
According to Fanon, by resisting violently the colonized turn colonial violence back on the colonizer and: “that same violence will be claimed and taken over by the native at the moment when, deciding to embody history in his own person, he surges into the forbidden quarters.”
This theory lends itself to an interesting analysis of independent Ghana’s unity problems. Throughout Nkrumah’s tenure as the president of independent Ghana he was plagued by problems of class and region. Certain segments of the population, led by the National Liberation Movement, and supported by traditional elites as well as the classes represented by the defunct UGCC, regularly agitated for federalism and semi-autonomy. From a Fanonian perspective, this would appear to be the dual result of antagonizing traditional authorities, which the CPP did, and failing to engage the vast rural populations, which the CPP also did. This inability to mobilize the nation as a whole is evidenced by the fact that even at its height the CPP, despite universal adult suffrage and, never gained the support of more than 25% of the adult population. This indicates that despite the CPP’s clear popularity among the voting population, even when other parties were not outlawed, the majority of the country remained uninvolved in national politics. If this trend has continued, it may help explain why, despite suffering several coups throughout its history, Ghana has never experienced a civil war; vast segments of the population seem to have been unconcerned with who ruled. Fanon would likely argue that a violent revolutionary struggle would have both united the people, thus limiting federalism and tribalism; while also involving the people in the making of their own history. This involvement would likely have translated into political involvement post-independence. The fact that Nkrumah was apparently powerful enough to accrue almost absolute power to himself post-independence, yet politically unstable enough for his regime to be overthrown with a minimum of bloodshed in his absence, also causes one to wonder at the role of political apathy in the early history of independent Ghana. In his chapter On the Grandeur and Weakness of Spontaneity Fanon imagines the repressed and lethargic, though still latently revolutionary rural masses, being invigorated by disaffected revolutionary intellectuals expelled by the bourgeois movements. These masses would unite with those who existed on the periphery of urban colonial society, the so-called lumpenproletariat, to create The Nation by destroying The Colony. While Fanon does seem to acknowledge that violence can occur in non-physical ways:
[D]ecolonization is always a violent phenomenon. At whatever level we study it–relationships between individuals, new names for sports clubs, the human admixture at cocktail parties, in the police, on the directing boards of national or private banks–decolonization is quite simply the replacing of a certain “species” of men by another “species” of men. His glorification of revolutionary warfare as well as the apocalyptic all-consuming nature of his imagery makes it clear that he favors violence as a tool of true decolonization:
The naked truth of decolonization evokes for us the searing bullets and bloodstained knives which emanate from it. For if the last shall be first, this will only come to pass after a murderous and decisive struggle between the two protagonists. That affirmed intention to place the last at the head of things, and to make them climb at a pace (too quickly, some say) the well-known steps which characterize an organized society, can only triumph if we use all means to turn the scale, including, of course, that of violence.
In another place he says:
One step more, and he is ready to fight to be more than the settler. In fact, he has already decided to eject him and to take his place; as we see it, it is a whole material and moral universe which is breaking up.
It seems clear, therefore, that insofar as Ghana represents a Fanonian circumstance, he would criticize the process of Ghanaian independence with its constitutional methods, period of shared rule, and deliberate non-violence as a movement hi-jacked by intellectuals:
In the colonial countries where a real struggle for freedom has taken place, where the blood of the people has flowed and where the length of the period of armed warfare has favored the backward surge of intellectuals toward bases grounded in the people……..
In Fanon’s formula, it is the intellectuals who are hi-jacked, rather than goading the masses and through a dialectical osmosis, the intellectuals are revolutionized away from gradualism and set about rationalizing the people’s revolutionary praxis.
At this point, one must acknowledge one obvious way in which the Ghanaian situation and Fanon do not line up; the fact that Fanon seems to be referring in many places to a settler colony. One might compellingly argue that as a non-settler colony Ghana was better decolonized non-violently. However, the fact that Fanon seems to make no distinction between settler and non-settler colonies, drawing examples from both types, including Ghana; makes it seem that he saw no material differences between them as far as the methods required. It might be argued that a violent revolution would have benefitted Ghana by uniting the people and making them politically active enough to condition Nkrumah’s rule such that he did not have free rein to assimilate all power unto himself. This is a point, from an ethical standpoint, on which history and philosophy must diverge. It seems morally untenable to argue that a violent struggle which might have cost many lives was necessary so that Ghana could fulfill Fanon’s humanist concerns. One is then led to ask how it might have been possible to achieve the benefits of Fanon’s revolution, national unity and political consciousness, without bloodshed. The fact that Ghana has had a largely successful decolonization perhaps makes this a question which it is unnecessary to answer.

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