On the night of March 6, 1957, as Kwame Nkrumah was wiping away tears, he declared the former British colony of the Gold Coast, renamed Ghana, independent. The Ghanaian prime minister proclaimed that “From now on there is a new African in the world … ready to fight its own battles and to show that after all, the black man is capable of managing his own affairs.” According to Nkrumah, the “African Personality”—a confident, independently-minded African—had to be promoted if the African version of modernity was to have any impact. Nkrumah’s words, however (like the declarations and ideas of other postcolonial leaders) have often been labeled as inconsequential, obscure, and utopian. Instead, leaders of newly independent states in Africa and Asia in the 1950s were seen as forging fragile alliances with each other out of fear of being crushed by declining empires or ascending Cold War superpowers. They maximized their interests within a bipolar world by playing off the Soviet Union and the US against each other.
It is clear that our thinking about international relations still suffers from a myopic focus on Europe and the Cold War. Since 1945, Washington and Moscow have had their own spheres of influence in Eastern and Western Europe and have sought to carve up the rest of the globe. What is absent in those narratives, however, is the centrality of ideology and worldviews in the formation of those poles, something historians have picked up on.
After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, historians now contend, the US came out on top after a four-decade-long standoff with its ideological rival the Soviet Union. Both superpowers were locked in an ideological competition for the soul of mankind because they regarded themselves as the defenders of the Enlightenment, an 18th-century intellectual movement shaped by thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke whose obsession with modernity and reason had brought down kings and queens in the French Revolution. The US, seeing itself as the empire of liberty, and the USSR, an empire of equality, channeled their animosity into a Cold War battle for hearts and minds in Europe because atomic weapons made all-out war impossible. When Sputnik, a Soviet satellite, was launched into space on October 4, 1957, both superpowers stepped up their battle to prove the potency of their own social model for modernization. The United States Information Agency and the USSR’s propaganda agency, Telegrafnoye Agentstvo Sovetskogo Soyuza (TASS), set up exhibitions to show who was at the vanguard of science and technology.
In the Global South, American and Soviet officials (and from 1963 onwards the Chinese) wanted to prove how effective their societal model was as a medicine against underdevelopment—forcing postcolonial leaders to choose between one of these ideologies in their own struggle against poverty. With the choice of an ally came money for development. The tyranny of that choice, historians claim, sparked bloody civil wars among opposing factions within newly independent states. For example, as the war of independence against Portugal heated up in the 1960s and 1970s, Angola was torn apart by the struggle between the communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
In this analysis, the agency of leaders in the Global South is thus limited to harnessing the Cold War to maximize potential benefits. Nkrumah was seen as playing off East against West to obtain as much funding as possible for the Akasombo Dam, a hydroelectric project on the Volta River that was to provide electricity for the aluminum industry and is still in operation today. At the same time, Nkrumah and others within the Afro-Asian coalition tried to preserve a non-aligned position: neutrality between the two Cold War blocs, a stance enshrined at the Belgrade Conference of September 1961 and the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement. The Group of 77 and the Global South coalition within the present-day UN Climate Panel claim to be its successor. Nkrumah, who as leader of the Gold Coast’s Convention People’s Party rose to political stardom in 1952 for demanding immediate independence, supposedly was only able to resist or exploit the pressures of an unchangeable and hostile international system beyond his control.
Cold War historians consider the Congo crisis, which erupted after June 30 1960 when the Belgian colonizers left, to be emblematic of this dynamic. After a scathing speech by Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba condemning the racism of the Belgian colonizer on Independence Day, soldiers rioted, Sud-Kasai province and the mineral-rich province of Katanga seceded, and Lumumba asked the Soviets for assistance because he felt the UN troops were dragging their feet. Through his actions, Lumumba ushered in an era of US-Soviet competition on the continent, while more seasoned pan-Africanists like Nkrumah, who had sent troops within the context of the UN operation in the Congo, realized they could no longer afford Cold War neutrality. After Nkrumah’s pan-African ally Lumumba was assassinated, he increasingly embraced the Soviet model while also receiving aid for his Akosombo dam from then-US president John F. Kennedy and US entrepreneur Edgar Kaiser. Depending on who you asked, Nkrumah was branded a communist or a capitalist, an ambiguity the Ghanaian leader exploited to guarantee the survival of his newly independent state.
This narrative however narrows the diplomatic skill of leaders such as Nkrumah to their ability to play realpolitik. The profound ideological commitments and visions of the future that animated the fight against empire were supposedly cast aside as soon as postcolonial leaders entered the international arena. Nevertheless, as Nkrumah’s nightly speech and Ghana’s archives reveal, the spread of pan-African modernity was a key objective of Accra’s foreign policy in the 1950s and 1960s. Unlike the powers in the Global North, African leaders believed that the civilizing mission—the belief that whites needed to psychologically and economically develop non-whites, incapable of self-government—and not tradition, was the enemy of progress.
Strikingly this ambition to correct European modernity by embracing an idealized “authentic” image of the past, something Nkrumah called the “African Personality,” did not follow the laws of Cold War realpolitik. Pan-African modernity did not emerge in opposition to or in alignment with US or Soviet ideology. Instead, Nkrumah and other freedom fighters on the African continent shared a common ambition to attain anticolonial modernity and make real the promise of the Haitian Revolution. In 1791 a charismatic Black general, Toussaint Louverture, staged a revolt in the French colonial possession of Saint-Domingue (in the area of modern-day Haiti) after the Napoleonic state reversed the abolition of slavery, in effect limiting the French revolutionary values of liberty and equality to whites. The values that European empires and the Cold War superpowers turned into the core of their respective social models, and which led them to colonize and intervene in societies beyond their borders, was from the very beginning met with resistance for being exclusionary and racist.
We should therefore understand Nukrumah and other anticolonial leaders in a new light—not as a disjointed group of men and women who resisted Cold War pressures, but as actors who held influential opinions about the precise meaning of the Enlightenment values that structured the 20th century. Anticolonial intellectuals were 19th-century revolutionaries who wanted to chart an inclusive route to progress promised by the Haitian Revolution, and independent states afforded them that opportunity. They were not very different from other revolutionaries who had also successfully embedded their beliefs within the newly created states that their revolutions afforded them. Marxists in the Soviet Union wanted to achieve the aims of the Bolshevik Revolution, capitalists in the US were eager to export the ideas of the American Revolution, and imperialists within European nation-states sought to spread the benefits of the Industrial Revolution.
African nationalists in the 1950s were steeped in the Haitian revolutionary intellectual tradition by way of the French and British West Indies. St. Lucian economist Arthur Lewis was flown into Ghana to devise an economic development strategy in line with Africa’s precolonial culture and history, because he famously did not subscribe to a single economic growth theory and attached more weight to the sociological and historical characteristics of underdeveloped societies. Nkrumah believed modernization and industrialization were powerful tools that had been wielded by people who had erroneously believed modernity meant the end of tradition instead of the end of the civilizing mission. Foreign aid could therefore be accepted from every quarter, but always had to be accompanied by ideological education in the service of psychological liberation: the freeing of Africans from the inferiority complex of the civilizing mission.
While propping up the Ghanaian economy with British, American, and Soviet funds, Ghana’s Office of the President prioritized the production of The Ghanaians, a movie that urged African countries to follow modern Ghana by showing students engaging their lecturer in a building that was still under construction. Cartoons and postcards conjured up a rich African past. Nkrumah instructed the freedom fighters who attended the All African Peoples’ Conference in Accra in 1958 to not ignore the “spiritual side of the human personality,” because Africans’ “material needs” made them vulnerable to subjugation. The liberation of African psychology also guided Kenyan leader Tom Mboya, who claimed Kenyans were “capable of gauging the ulterior motives” of those who offered assistance, while Julius Nyerere of Tanzania wanted education to liberate body and mind because “colonial education” had “induced attitudes of human inequality.”
The nerve center for psychological and cultural liberation from empire was Ghana’s Bureau of African Affairs. With its printing press, library, linguistic secretariat, conference hall, and publications section it had to spread the “African Personality,” the notion that Africans should embrace African culture and reject the colonial inferiority complex. By uniting the continent, the second pillar of pan-African modernity, Africans could be shielded from ideological alternatives, and psychological liberation could be accelerated. In Pan-Africanism or Communism? The Coming Struggle for Africa, George Padmore, one of Nkrumah’s closest advisers, sought to create an autonomous pan-African ideology better able to meet the challenge of underdevelopment. Pan-African and pan-Arab schemes were ranked beside imperialism, communism, or capitalism and were not understood in solely political or racial terms, but viewed as alternative development models. Even for astute theorist Immanuel Wallerstein, this was self-evident. “The strength of the pan-African drive,” he wrote in 1961, had to be “attributed precisely to the fact that it is a weapon of the modernizers.” If the pan-African project failed, modernization would also be set back.
Under a sky filled with fireworks on the eve of independence, Nkrumah had already made clear how total his vision for the world was and what was at stake. Independence would be “meaningless” unless it was “linked up totally” with that of the “continent.” Finance minister Komla Agbeli Gbedemah agreed, declaring during his visit to India in September 1957 that freedom was “indivisible.” In the words of the All-African People’s Conference Steering Committee: “stable peace” was impossible in a world that was “politically half independent and half dependent.” If Ghana’s anticolonialism stopped at its borders, the country would not be able to remain independent. Pan-African modernity had a continental focus but aspired to remake the world as a whole. In the words of C.L.R. James, “the modernization necessary in the modern world” could only be attained “in an African way.”
Ghana did not shy away from projecting its brand of anticolonial modernity to other parts of Africa. To convert Ghana’s symbolic strength into real influence, Nkrumah and his ministers developed a network strategy. After spinning webs of freedom fighters, political activists would convince the general population and, once in power, fix their gaze on Accra, ultimately leading to African unity. To that end, Accra was converted into a revolutionary Mecca, and the Conference of Independent African States (CIAS) held in April 1958, and the All-African People’s Conference later that year were organized to attract leaders and activists. In November 1959, Nkrumah announced his plan to convert the Winneba Party College into an institute where selected members of all nationalist movements could be trained to “propagate” the “essence of African unity . . . throughout the continent of Africa.” This place, which became the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute and also the Kwame Nkrumah Youth Training School, and the Builder Brigade for unemployed men, was exemplary of the Ghanaian modernization model, which fused African culture and progress. Since most students came from other African countries that were not necessarily wedded to socialism, the Bureau of African Affairs, which had devised a 10-week training program, decided to remove socialism from the curriculum. Instead, public relations techniques and courses on political party organizing—with topics such as elections, party branches, and propaganda vans—were foregrounded to strengthen the drive toward African unity and encourage the African Personality.
“Immunization” and “vaccination” were commonly relied upon by European and US psychological warfare experts in the 1950s, but were also employed after 1960 by African nationalists, who discerned a potential threat to authentic African culture, and worried about the repercussions of interference. Nkrumah believed Ghanaians and Africans had to be immunized from foreign ideas and the continent sheltered from neocolonial propaganda—the most recent iteration of a long history of continental exploitation that originated with the slave trade and evolved into the colonial project. Likewise, Hastings Banda in Malawi was adamant about African uniqueness, El Ferik Ibrahim Abboud of Sudan defined “political ideology” as a type of intrusion because it led to “political indoctrination,” and Haile Selassie talked about “engorgement”—a gradual process that destroyed identity. A non-aligned position, therefore, had to include active resistance against non-African ideologies and neocolonial intrusion. Africans had to keep an eye out for neocolonialists, who even after independence sought to undercut Africa for their own gains through all kinds of subversive activities ranging from economic penetration and cultural assimilation, to ideological domination, to psychological infiltration.
A worldview in which neocolonialists could psychologically and culturally undercut the African Personality, not the Cold War, shaped Nkrumah’s understanding of nonalignment. Nkrumah had always shied away from exploiting the Cold War rivalry, because “when the bull elephants fight, the grass is trampled down.” Playing off the USSR and the US against each other would not yield benefits, but rather result in the destruction of weak nations and make it more difficult to attain African unity. While leaders such as Julius Nyerere also expressed their fear of becoming trampled grass, Nkrumah’s Monroe Doctrine for Africa made Accra’s stance distinctive. In a speech to Congress in 1958, Nkrumah linked his reading of Marcus Garvey’s “Africa for the Africans” with the US foreign policy doctrine of 1823: “Our attitude … is very much that of America looking at the disputes of Europe in the nineteenth century. We do not wish to be involved.” Even after Lumumba’s assassination in January 1961, the archives show Nkrumah did not want to give up his nonaligned position even though an aid tried to convince him “to play the East off against the West.” Within pan-African circles in Ghana Lumumba’s assassination was seen as a vindication of the view that Africa had to unite if it wanted to safeguard its own road to progress. The Congo crisis was not a defeat, but proof that “the colonial regime” was “gasping its last breath.”
The East and the West were barred from using Ghana as a “propaganda forum” after Nkrumah learned that psychological warfare plans were developed in NATO meetings. Permanent secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Michael Dei-Anang ordered an investigation into the press releases of every embassy in Accra after he stumbled on a US research project on psychological methods “used by the Capitalists and Colonialists to win over Ghanaians.” Nkrumah also tried to personally convince other African leaders of the need to immunize their populations against neocolonialism. In a letter to Nyerere, in December 1961, Nkrumah wrote about how successful African economic integration hinged on a “stable political direction,” which only a common ideological project could provide. In a letter to Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta, Nkrumah conveyed that public opinion had to be managed because the press was a “deadly weapon” that remained in the imperialists’ arsenal and required an “effective antidote.” He offered to send an expert from the Guinea Press, a government-sponsored corporation, to assist local journalists.
The story of Ghana shows how leaders of the Global South did not just emerge in world affairs after the fall of the Berlin Wall or as a consequence of explosive economic growth in the 2000s. Rather, they have always been involved in struggles over the direction of the globe. Nationalist leaders were not only forced to make a choice between a capitalist or communist pole, but sought to correct and improve European modernity by eliminating racism and disdain for precolonial culture while promoting their own anticolonial modernization project that saw precolonial culture not as an obstacle but as a precondition for effective development.
An acknowledgment of that history helps us view the enduring influence of anticolonial critiques as expounded by countries that cry neocolonialism, such as China, India, or Brazil, as something more than hypocrisy. The defiant posture is an expression of deep-rooted ideas about a better version of modernity that are as much part of the 20th century as communism and capitalism. The debates on climate justice and social justice are therefore not a breeding ground for multipolarity, but simply a reminder that there have been multiple routes to modernity ever since modernity and progress were identified as policy objectives after World War II.