Ghana’s first president accurately predicted what Africa’s former European colonizers would do

Image: Reuters/Noor Khamis
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Ghana’s president Nana Akufo-Addo has attracted international attention for emphasizing how important it is for Ghana to have a greater degree of sovereignty in its dealings with international partners. Less discussed is how much his impactful critique of aid dependency borrow from the ideas and sentiments of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, and his writings in the 60s and 70s on neo-colonialism.

In December, Akufo-Addo delivered a stern indictment of Africa’s aid dependency on (and implicitly, policy oversight from) European benefactors during an official visit by French president Emmanuel Macron. To the visible discomfort of Macron, Akufo-Addo remarked that relying on European development assistance “has not worked and it will not work.” He continued: “Our responsibility is to charter a path which is about how we can develop our nations ourselves. It is not right for a country like Ghana—60 years after independence—to still have its health and education budgets being financed on the basis of the generosity of European taxpayers.”

Nkrumah defined neocolonialism as a situation of infringed and compromised national sovereignty where foreign interests remain economically—and hence politically—dominant in strategic decision making. Nkrumah led the nation to a legal form of independence from Britain in 1957 and yet was toppled by a CIA-sponsored coup in 1966, in no small part due to the publication of his 1965 work condemning neo-colonialism in Africa as “the last stage of imperialism.”

Curiously, however, Akufo-Addo made no reference to Ghana’s founding father in his critique of aid dependency. This is perhaps explained by the lineage of Akufo-Addo’s New Patriotic Party (NPP), which is ideologically linked to Nkrumah’s rival J. B. Danquah. Moreover, the use of the language of neo-colonialism would have sparked even greater outcry from European partners than the stern words invoked by Akufo-Addo in his December remarks. The EU has historically sought to distance itself from the colonial past of its member states and is acutely sensitive to any accusations of violations of African sovereignty.

It is imperative, however, for progressive Ghanaian politics, and for African politics more broadly, to recover Nkrumah and the concept of neo-colonialism. Nkrumah accurately predicted how European former colonizers would manipulate newly independent countries through disadvantageous aid and trade relations. “The essence of neo-colonialism is that the state which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty.” In reality, its economic system and thus its political policy is directed by the outside’. Foreign “development” assistance and donor aid, he warned, allowed for “control over government policy in the neo-colonial state [to] be secured by payments towards the costs of running the state.”

In Nkrumah’s analysis, aid “is merely a revolving credit, paid by the neo-colonial master, passing through the neo-colonial state and returning to the neo-colonial master in the form of increased profits.” Accordingly, African states under the sway of neo-colonialism would enjoy a mere flag-independence, stripped of genuine state sovereignty. Nkrumah advised that only collective action through pan-African institutions would imbue African politicians with the necessary clout to resist foreign policy impositions and to diversify their economies away from colonial patterns of raw material production. Interestingly, the formation of sub-regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was seen by Nkrumah as a potential distraction and stumbling block to the urgent task of realizing a federal Union of African States.

Nkrumah’s diagnosis of neo-colonialism, and his calls for pan-African responses, remain vital in this contemporary period of Ghana-Europe relations, and of Africa-Europe ties more widely.

In 2000, the EU signed a treaty with African, Caribbean and Pacific countries specifying conditions under which aid would be given. The “Cotonou Agreement” (pdf), made Ghana’s receipt of budget support and Aid for Trade (AfT) dependent on the nation eventually agreeing to a controversial free regional trade deal called an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA). This EPA is still under discussion by the region, and Ghana has signed a direct interim deal with the EU in the meantime. But if fully enacted, the EU’s regional EPA would lock Ghana and its neighbors into an economic model premised upon premature tariff liberalization, with potentially devastating consequences for local entrepreneurs and workers in import-competing sectors such as textiles and poultry.

Additionally, the UK, Ghana’s former colonial power, is utilizing its aid monies for the roll-out of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (NAFSN)—a corporate-led initiative ostensibly for improving food supplies via the creation of agribusiness “land corridors.” This is despite the fact that the NAFSN has been widely condemned—even within the European Parliament—for facilitating ‘land-grabs’ by major corporations at the expense of subsistence farmers in Africa.

These recent examples fit a wider historical trajectory of neo-colonial relations between Ghana and the EU, abetted by conditional aid, since the overthrow of Nkrumah in 1966. The infamous imposition of structural adjustment policies—lubricated by conditional aid under the European Development Fund (EDF)—from 1983 onwards led to deindustrialization and economic retraction. Structural adjustment has “done untold havoc to workers by way of mass retrenchment, job insecurity, blatant abuse of human rights at workplaces, under employment, poor pension and mass unemployment resulting in social insecurity and armed robbery,” argues Ghana’s Trade Union Congress (TUC).

In a comprehensive book regarding Europe’s role in the imposition of structural adjustment in Africa, Dr. Obadia Mailafia corroborates this stark picture of economic malaise and suffering, arguing that European “development” intervention “proved to be a far cry from the project of ‘international social justice’ that it was made out to be.”

Nkrumah’s main treatises, Africa Must Unite (1963) and Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965), presciently outline the contemporary dilemmas facing Ghana, sixty years after he led the nation to independence.

This is a tragedy, one which Akufo-Addo acknowledges, and one which must be confronted by a clear-headed strategy focused upon the re-energization of pan-Africanism. Only by acknowledging the realities of neo-colonialism, and the necessity of establishing the African Union as a credible front for neutering foreign policy influence, can Ghana and its neighbours achieve the sovereignty necessary for economic diversification. The work of Nkrumah could, and should, play a crucial part in mobilizing and energizing progressive forces towards this urgent goal.