Chavez and Nkrumah
The day after Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s death, students in the West African country of Ghana were marching.
Together they gathered in Independence Square with military officials, traditional rulers, and current president John Dramani Mahama to celebrate Ghana’s 56th Independence Day, and the leader who championed the cause – former President Kwame Nkrumah.
There are important parallels to be drawn between Ghana’s first post-colonial President, who won his first election in 1951, and the recently departed “Comandante,” Chavez, who was first elected in 1998.
The legacy that will cling to Chavez years from now is his often-criticized brand of leadership, which took after 18th century leader Simon Bolivar’s quest for regional unity. The dogged pursuit of continental unity also echoes the vision of Nkrumah, a man who, like Chavez, went from prison to the presidency.
Both Nkrumah and Chavez were iconic leaders, despised by the West for their socialist leanings, who forged continental partnerships, which in their view, were in the best interests of unity, solidarity, and economic empowerment.
Chavez, however, fared better where Nkrumah failed: economics.
While the Economist boasts of Africa’s rising countries and counts contemporary Ghana in its ranks, it seems there is an untapped potential that might be activated with a closer look at how Chavez managed his country’s oil wealth.
And unlike Chavez – who won four democratic elections, despite highly questionable activities regarding a free Press, and who was reinstated shortly after a coup in 2002 — Nkrumah was ousted in 1966 while abroad, after he pronounced that he would be “President for life”, and outlawed all other political parties but his own.
In historical accounts, Nkrumah’s fate was a miserable one.
Like Chavez, he died from cancer. But unlike the Venezuelan leader, who remained beloved by many of his country’s poor, Nkrumah was despised and exiled by his countrymen.
Yet, what historians remember, the next generation forgets.
• Anti-Colonial legacy
Today in Ghana, the references to Nkrumah’s authoritarian rule and human rights record are gone.
Nkrumah, whose name is rarely spoken in the country without the formal title of Osagyefo (Twi for “redeemer”), is revered as the Father of Pan-Africanism.
This credo was partly influenced by his friendship with African Diasporans George Padmore and WEB. Dubois.
Nkrumah’s claim to fame was the grassroots organising model which allowed him to lead his countrymen in successfully overthrowing British colonial rule, and, in doing so, creating a model for more than 30 African countries to follow suit by the mid-1960s.
Nkrumah utilised this momentum during his Presidency and held several meetings with the growing number of states that had wrestled free from colonialism, to discuss the possibilities of a common government in Africa.
By 1960, Nkrumah unified Ghana with Guinea and Mali and later he would utilise state coffers to aid what we now know as Zimbabwe in escaping colonial rule.
A United States of Africa was never born, but much of Nkrumah’s efforts laid the groundwork for what we know today as the African Union.
Sadly, Nkrumah bankrupted his own country in the process, leaving Ghana almost US$1 billion in debt.
So what can African countries like Ghana learn from Chavez in the week when we remember the legacies of these two important and complex international figures?
Most notable is that regional unity doesn’t always have to come at the exorbitant expense of one’s own country.
In Venezuela, one of the dominant themes of Hugo Chavez’s presidency are the gestures for unity among Latin Americans, exemplified in the way Chavez handled the country’s oil reserves.
In his documentary “South of the Border” Oliver Stone notes that “after the (Chavez) government got control of the oil industry, the economy doubled in size over the next six years, with poverty reduced by half and extreme poverty by more than 70 percent”.
The documentary also traces the rise of leftist presidencies in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Bolivia, and Ecuador, where Chavez was an admired fellow leader and mentor to countries whose economies had been crippled after adopting policies put forward by the IMF.
Chavez’ oil wealth, which enabled him to lend billions to Argentina and Bolivia to clear their monetary fund debts, and to retool their economic policies, earned him the reputation of being the number one enemy of the IMF.
Yet Chavez simply gloated and, in another gesture towards Latin American unity, in 2009 he forged ahead with plans to open a Bank of the South in Venezuela to lend to Latin American countries in times of crisis.
This is the type of infrastructure people will remember decades from now.
In a move to further entrench solidarity in Latin America, Chavez held the first ever meeting in Venezuela in 2011 of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.
At the meeting, which drew attendees from 33 nations, Chavez proposed plans for regional railways in South America and other aspects of economic development.
Chavez’ aspirations didn’t stop at South America.
Even at his most infirm, he had his eye on Africa. In his final weeks, he penned a letter addressed to the 53 African countries participating in the third Africa–South America Summit (ASA).
Chavez argued that “the pace of integration between the two continents be picked up”.
He wrote of the “natural, political, and historic resources” that the countries shared and urged leaders “not to miss the opportunity … to unite the capacities of our nations into a true pole of power”.
In 2011, I spent six months in Ghana, during the beginning of Ghana’s oil boom. The general sentiment from Ghanaians is that many were not benefiting from oil wealth despite the fact that oil production was at 80 000 barrels a day and oil exports netted US$1.97b.While I wouldn’t identify as a socialist, I admire leadership that prioritises the welfare of people above business interests.
As Chavez is put to rest and African leaders are trying to capitalise on economic gains, the management of Venezuela’s oil wealth and its promotion of regional unity deserve a second look from African leaders who have Pan-African legacies to uphold. – The Grio