Now reading David Rooney’s Kwame Nkrumah – Vision and Tragedy (2007). I am generally interested in literature authored by Kwame Nkrumah himself or by others about his works and ideas. What I learnt about our first president and have committed to memory since my childhood years is biographical information. I remember joining the chorus in class when lessons were taught on him that “he was born in 1909, at Nkroful in Nzema. He was married to Fathia. He was the first president of Ghana” and so on…
Out of Kwame Nkrumah’s passion a nation-state was born; transitioned out of colonial rule, a modernity had been defined. David Rooney’s book has been an interesting read so far but I pick the book to highlight some controversial moments in his writing. Rooney describes Nkrumah as “Of medium height, he was a very black handsome man. He had an intelligent and expressive face, a very high forehead, soulful eyes and a ready smile.” He writes also about the Gold Coast at the end of 1947 to have “appeared superficially to be a happily and contented colony enjoying more prosperity than most parts of Africa.” He further goes on to quote Sir Alan Burns who he described also as “the experienced reforming Governor of the Gold Coast” in his address to the Empire Parliamentary Association in London on 24 October 1947 as saying “The people are really happy.”
Rooney does not state in explicit language what defined happiness for the Gold Coasters but talks of a “political sophistication unmatched elsewhere in Africa.” Regarding the system of “Indirect Rule” Rooney states “The chiefs had always played a significant role in the administration of their tribal areas, and their power had been increased under the system of Indirect Rule established by the British, who found it convenient and prudent to exercise their power through local hierarchies already in place.” This suggests that the Chiefs’ authority and power was given to them by the British and that they themselves had lost any implicit authority over their people. The Chiefs had always been the primary rulers of the land and to say that the Indirect Rule system “increased” their power made me think; how do two mutually exclusive systems of power co-exist? How does one “increase” the other’s authority without imposing its absolute superiority on it? If the Chiefs always ruled in autonomy their authority would not have been contingent to British rule and much less to the Indirect Rule system.
Lastly the writer states, of the Indirect Rule System, “It enabled British administer vast territories with minimum staff and at minimum expense. Indirect Rule upheld the power of chiefs, and respected local customs provided they were not repugnant to British law. For many African peoples, it brought peace, prosperity and progress.”
I had to pause after the above statements because of the many inconsistencies my mind was latching on to (mind you, at this point I had only read up to page 55). Let me unpack some of Rooney’s statements by dealing with it not from a historically savvy position but from a common sense point of view.
I questioned who was writing the text from the tone of the book. It has been evident that the so-called colonizers reserved the exclusive right to write about the people and lands on which they later settled. Writing became a political tool wielded by the privileged over whoever else was being written about. Their form of education necessitated a formal literacy; a literacy which rigidified knowledge in concrete and absolute forms. When Burns says “they are happy”, would this statement have been concurred by an other belonging to the oppressed group? I find it interesting that Kwame Nkrumah couldn’t have existed as a handsome man alone but had to be “a very black handsome man.” Ama Ata Aidoo in a series of tweets on 6th March 2013 directed at the BBC made the claim that there seemed to be no existing word which corresponds to the term “tribe” in any African language, yet Rooney’s book is replete with the term in his reference to cultures living on the Gold Coast, and on the continent.
The indirect system of rule employed by the British, of course, would allow them to administer vast territories with minimum staff because it used the Chiefs and their administrative council who were made to acquiesce to the system. If the Indirect Rule upheld the power of Chiefs and respected the laws of the land why did earlier rulers like Yaa Asantewaa in the 1900s vehemently resist British rule? Why did it come with the condition that the local laws had to be subject and not “repugnant” to British law? If respect was the underlying ethic why was the law not premised on the other party’s willful agency but on enforced compliance? Rooney equivocates on his use of “peace, prosperity, and progress” when the British had their foot on the necks of what he called the “African peoples”. Yaa Asantewaa and others of her ilk resisted oppression because ethnicity is sacred, and colonialism, much like racism, violates this intrinsic human right.
Bad writing is what it is — bad writing. Bad logic can be nothing less regardless of who is positing the argument. It is imperative on us (those who have borne the brunt of this horrible moment in human history), equipped with the baggage of this history in days such as ours to introduce our own politics into existing hegemonic orders of knowledge in order to affect some disturbance; particularly so when revisionists like David Rooney are busy at work. I am also pained by the situation aptly described by Jamaica Kincaid in “A Small Place” when she writes (also about British imperialism in her hometown of Antigua) “… and worse and most painful of all no tongue. (For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?)” (pp. 31). Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah- acutely aware of his place in a world dominated by white supremacist ideals – summarizes my argument poignantly in his book Consciencism: Philosophy And Ideology for Decolonisation:
“But however desiccated the new passions of some Western philosophers are, they can admittedly claim to share a continuity with a European cultural history. A non-Western student of philosophy has no excuse, except a paedeutic one, for studying Western philosophy in the same spirit. He lacks even the minimal excuse of belonging to a cultural history in which the philosophies figure. It is my opinion that when we study a philosophy which is not ours, we must see it in the context of the intellectual history to which it belongs, and we must see it in the context of the milieu in which it was born. That way, we can use it in the furtherance of cultural development and in the strengthening of our human society.”
*Here is another Ghanaian blogger I found raising arguments against David Rooney’s book Kwame Nkrumah – Vision and Tragedy.