Carrying your own water

Carrying your own water
  • PublishedMarch 25, 2020

Independent Ghana is 63 years old but its lifetime has been one of missed opportunities. Baffour Ankomah reflects on the lost legacy of its first president, Kwame Nkrumah

“Once you carry your own water, you will learn the value of every drop.” These immortal words sent to me in early March by a friend on social media, sent me back 63 years in time. I am only three months older than independent Ghana, which achieved independence on 6 March 1957. Overcome with nostalgia, I have therefore been reading material pertaining to those early, some say halcyon, days. 

A ‘Special Report’ published in a newspaper on the first anniversary of Ghana’s independence (i.e., 6 March 1958) has been very eye-opening. Hopes were high in those days; the headlines were positive and inspirational in all spheres of life, it was a good initial year of independence. But can we say the same 63 years on? Methinks not! So where did we lose our way?

Come with me as I try to shake hands with history. Keeping in mind the saying, ‘Once you carry your own water, you will learn the value of every drop’, I reflect that there have been many lost opportunities to carry our own water in the last 63 years.

Clearly, we lost it when the opposition parties did not see eye to eye with our first President, Kwame Nkrumah, about the way forward, and thus contributed to his overthrow in February 1966. We are now left with the sad feeling of what might have been, and a curse in our mouths for those who were so myopic not to see the way forward.

My recent reading on those early days of independence led me to a newsreel produced by what is now known as British Pathé, the organisation founded by Charles Pathé that produced propaganda newsreels and documentaries for the British government between 1910 and 2006. 

One of those newsreels makes the extraordinary admission that “until 1946, our rule [meaning British rule in Ghana, then called the Gold Coast] was authoritarian via traditional chiefs everywhere except in the coastal areas like Accra. During the transition to independence, the Asantehene and other chiefs financed opposition groups which tried to break Ghana up into a loose federation on [a] tribal basis.”

That was the beginning of the woes that confront us 63 years later. Sadly, the attitude of the chiefs who wanted to break up the country into little tribal fiefdoms was in sharp contrast to Nkrumah’s wishes. “I am depending upon the millions of the country, and the chiefs and people, to help me to reshape the destiny of this country,” Nkrumah pleaded in his Independence Day speech on 6 March 1957. “We are prepared to pick it up and make it a nation that will be respected by every nation in the world. We know we are going to have difficult beginnings, but again, I’m relying upon your support, I’m relying upon your hard work.”

Nkrumah then hit his high note: “Today, from now on,” he said, “there is a new African in the world! That new African is ready to fight his own battles and show that after all, the black man is capable of managing his own affairs. We are going to demonstrate to the world, to the other nations, that we are prepared to lay our own foundation. We are going to create our own African personality and identity. It’s the only way that we can show the world that we are ready for our own battles.”

Nkrumah knew the value of carrying our own water. He had high hopes for both Ghana and Africa, and in striving to achieve those high aims, he became what the American journalist Peter Ritner described in his 1960 book, The Death of Africa, as “the most conspicuous political African on the continent”. Nkrumah’s wish was to build a model country out of Ghana from which, he hoped, the rest of Africa and Africans in the diaspora would take inspiration.

Stranglehold threatened

Before independence, Ghana had been ruled for 113 years by the British, starting from the signing of the Bond of 1844 (incidentally, signed on 6 March 1844) that gave the British control of the colony they called the Gold Coast – so named because of the sheer volume and depth of gold in the colony.

But the 113 years were mainly a time of exploitation by the British as, by the time of Ghana’s independence, much of the country was a virgin territory without much physical development.

Thus, Nkrumah’s work was cut out at independence. Fortunately, he had money on his side as Ghana, compared to other African countries, was relatively rich at the time and had contributed much to the British economy then recovering from the damage caused by the Second World War.

Not surprisingly, on 27 December 1957, only nine months after Ghana’s independence, America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) did an assessment on Ghana for the American intelligence community, and admitted that: “The fortunes of Ghana – the first tropical African country to gain independence – will have a huge impact on the evolution of Africa and Western interests there.”

They knew that Ghana was the ‘star of Africa’ at the time, and if they allowed Nkrumah’s ambitious development plans to succeed, which would have turned Ghana into an industrialised ‘economic tiger’ by the 1970s, the rest of Africa would have followed suit. That was bad news for the colonisers as it threatened their stranglehold on the continent. 

First the economic kingdom

In his book, Africa Must Unite (1963), Nkrumah was very particular about what he wanted Ghana and Africa to be. “Foremost of all,” he explained, “would be economic independence, without which our political independence would be valueless. Under colonial rule, a country has very restricted economic links with other countries. Its natural resources are developed only in so far as they serve the interests of the colonial power.”

He went on: “In the industrial sphere, our aim [in Ghana] has been to encourage the establishment of factories where we have a natural advantage in local resources and labour, or where we can produce essential commodities required for development or for domestic consumption. During 1961, over 60 new factories were opened in the country. For unless we attain economic freedom, our struggle for independence will have been in vain, and our plans for social and cultural advancement frustrated.”

By February 1966, when Nkrumah was overthrown in an American-engineered coup d’état which took Washington two years to plan, his government had built 68 huge factories producing virtually everything Ghanaians needed. Today, 54 years after the coup, almost all the factories Nkrumah built have been left to go to ruin. The country that produced nearly all its needs now imports everything except wives and husbands.

After the coup, the IMF sent a team from the Harvard Development Advisory Service to Ghana, headed by one Dr Gustav Papanek. The team advised the military junta that overthrew Nkrumah to cancel his industrial projects that would have seen a rapid development of the country, taking it from a dependent nation to an industrialised, self-sufficient republic in one generation. But it was not to be. Carrying our own water was aborted. (To be continued….) 

Written By
Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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