Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

A reflection on black Americans and West African politics

by Irenita Benbow Assensoh

West African economic and political problems through the eyes of a black American.

Mrs. Assensoh received her University training in sociology and social work. In New Orleans, she is a social worker. In 1980, she paid extensive visits to several West African nations.
There is no doubt about the passion which many black Americans hold for African nations, especially for many of the countries of West Africa. We do so because many of us still believe that our historical roots can reasonably be traced to various geographical areas of the area; a typical example was the widely acclaimed research efforts of Alex Haley in Kunta Kinte's Gambia which resulted in the publication of Roots in 1976.

However, the deep interests of black Americans who are sometimes referred to as African-Americans - in Africa are often undermined by the political and socio-economic anguish Africans are going through themselves because of the rampant military interventions, counter-military interventions, difficult and unpopular succession policies as well as outright economic and political mis- management of the various nations on the continent. In fact, it is often the contention of some of Africa's political strategists that there is the need for developing nations to experience a measure of benevolent dictatorship. Ghana's late President Kwame Nkrumah believed in it; yet, in many respects, that may be alright if the leaders in power are invariably enlightened enough and, as a result, they happened to know what they are doing in the process of governance.

Recently, several events on the African continent have pathetically tainted the optimistic view which many black Ameri- cans held of the various African nations.. These events include the sad state of poli- tical affairs in Liberia today, the seemingly confusing political scene in Sierra Leone, where a civilian leader has leisurely opted to hand power over to a career soldier, the sad state of Ghana's economy for many years, which is now picking up, and the sixth military coup d'etat in Nigeria, a nation which many black Americans often looked upon as the "mirror" of Africa because of its size, population and wealth.

In a recent interview, published in a London-based journal, the Liberian leader, General Samuel K. Doe, was quoted by the journal's Editor as asking: Why had the Americans never worried before about free and fair elections in the 138 years prior to the (1980) revolution?" Politically and strategically, that was a very crucial question, yet one wonders if the shortcomings of the erstwhile True Whig Party regime of the Americo-Liberians were not the primary reason which triggered the 1980 revolution, led by Doe; in General Doe's own words, the ruling political elite had, prior to that year, not allowed free and fair elections to be held and, as a result, President William R. Tolbert as well as over a dozen of his cabinet Ministers had to pay for their monopoly of the political process with their lives.

To outsiders, it was hoped that political matters in Liberia would be better handled after the revolution. Painfully, however, it is now easy to predict that although General Doe has won the elections, the various ambitious political lead- ers, whose political parties were not registered by the Special Election Commission (SECOM), may surely take steps to undermine the incoming civilian ad- ministration as their way of redressing the inequities of the current imbalance in the electoral process. General Doe and his supporters should, definitely, ponder over this plausible situation and, if possible, accommodate the other parties, if peaceful transfer of power is expected.

In political sociology, one hears about either a diarchy or a dyarchy, which is a system of government in which power vested in two rulers or authorities. In this instance, it can be military or civilian authorities selected to act in unison. Yet, what has happened in Sierra Leone recently lacks the fullest political expression and description, unless confirmation in the October 1, 1985 presidential elections is similar to the ill-fated attempts of Ghana's late General I. K. Acheampong to establish what he and his collaborators termed as "Union Government" (or "unigov." for short).

Sierra Leoneans are an enlightened group of people and, as a result, one wonders if they would continue to look on helplessly for retiring President Stevens to impose a military leader on an elected civilian administration. Probably, for the sake of political stability, or even exigency, General Momoh may be given the needed support, at least for Sierra Leon eans to see the amount of military prowess and discipline he can introduce into the body politic of this West African nation whose economy, like many others, is sagging rapidly.

At independence in 1957, Ghana was seen as a jewel in the Garveyian clarion call for all blacks to return to Africa, the place of their birth. But, over the years, this desire became an impossible task for black Americans to surmount because of the deterioration in the country's economy and politics generally.

Towards the end of President Nkrumah's leadership, many visitors from the United States to Ghana were suspected of various things, including intelligence- gathering, despite the glaring fact that some black Americans were even pre- pared to abandon the U.S. for a stay in that West African nation; some of these blacks did so because they were trying to avoid being drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in Vietnam. Also, there was the case of various professional blacks from the U.S., who were anxious to leave for African countries, including Ghana, to employ their expertise in contributing their quota to the development of the mother continent, an effort which could have helped many nations.

I still recall that during a "pilgrimage" trip to several West African nations in 1980, I found Ghana to be a lively place, although I was amazed by the long queues formed by very patient and orderly citizens to buy what was known as "essential commodities"

I vividly remember that one of the women waiting in line for their turn to do the purchase was a pregnant woman. Empathetically, I went closer to the preg- nant woman to find out what was being sold to them in the humid sun that day. To my surprise, she explained that she did not even know what was available for sale but, like many others, she saw the long queue and she decided to jump on the bandwagon because they desperately needed imported commodities.

However, a report from Ghana to some of us in the United States between 1982 and 1983 was that even with money, the essential commodities were not available to be purchased. In letters, we were told about the famine there and, as a result, some of us acted as "concerned blacks" to mobilise resources to send to friends and acquaintances. By mid-1984, many black Americans who travelled to Ghana sighed relief because they realized that food was in abundance.

Indeed, since many locally produced foodstuffs were reportedly left to rot because of inaccessible roads, it is very encouraging to learn from press and other reports that, as part of its priorities, the ruling PNDC was ensuring that "rehabilitation of poor roads is systematically tackled". Comparatively, therefore, some of us, as black Americans, feel that all Ghanaians must put their hands on the deck and co-operate with the PNDC to make Ghana the jewel it once was in the realm of African liberation, politics and unification.

To many black Americans, the Federal Republic of Nigeria is - by implication of its size geographically, population in excess of 90 million and oil wealth the gateway to Africa. Therefore, any visit to West Africa which does not include this giant nation is looked upon as being an incomplete "pilgrimage" and, invariably, friends would query, "You mean you didn't visit Nigeria? You are not serious!" It is, therefore, on the basis of our unalloyed interest in this West African country that the semblance of permanent instability there becomes a painful pill for American blacks to swallow.

In reports announcing the seizure of power by Major-General Ibrahim Gbadamosi Babangida, many reasons were offered for the exercise. Specifically, it was stated that the palace coup took place on August 27, 1985 because the initial objectives of the 1983 coup by dethroned General Buhari were betrayed and funda- mental changes did not appear on the horizon.

Surely, many military interventions in various African nations have very cogent reasons behind them. However, it is hoped that the late President Kwame Nkrumah's ironic February 1, 1966 sessional speech to the defunct Ghana National Assembly should guide new military leaders

It is sad that Nigeria is being made to go through such traumatic political experience. However, some of us, as outsiders, take solace in a statement by the legendary Chinua Achebe in The Trouble With Nigeria, published in 1983 by Heinemann: "The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership."

Surely, many military interventions in various African nations have very cogent reasons behind them. However, it is hoped that the late President Kwame Nkrumah's ironic February 1, 1966 sessional speech to the defunct Ghana National Assembly should guide new military leaders in any part of Africa: "It is not the duty of the army to rule or govern, because it has no political man- date and its duty is not to seek a political mandate. The army only operates under the mandate of the civil government. If the national interest compels the armed forces to intervene, then immediately after the intervention the army must hand over to a new civil government elected by the people and enjoying the people's mandate under a constitution accepted by them. If the army does not do this then the position of the army becomes dubious and anomalous and involves a betrayal of the people and the national interest."

It is also expected that, no matter how noble their aims are, all soldiers who inherit the reins of power by force of arms will, henceforth, measure their interests by the foregoing yardstick. If not, then some of us outside the continent, as black Americans, will surely continue to feel betrayed.

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