“..the immense motivating power of a shared and inspiring vision for the future” (preface to the 2015 edition of The Mind of Africa, W E Abraham)
Last week’s column told of William Abraham’s early years, up till 1959 when he became the first African fellow of All Souls College Oxford. These were very exciting times in Ghana, following independence in 1957: “Ghana’s progress filled me with pride” he recalls.
After gaining his fellowship, William initially spent some time as a guest lecturer at the University of Ghana, but 1962 marked a watershed. He published his influential book, The Mind of Africa, an early systematisation of pan African philosophy; and he returned to live and work in Ghana.
William explains in his preface to The Mind of Africa that his aim was to “.. reveal not only the titanic forces fulgurating (meaning to flash like lightening, for anyone whose Latin is rusty!) in the continent, but also those silent adjustments which together fix the countenance of a people, their principles, their attitudes, their desires and aversions, and their spring of action.”
These ideas were influenced by Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s pan Africanist vision. Nkrumah, with his agenda for de-colonising mindsets and promoting education, decided to entice William back to Ghana. Over lunch, Nkrumah asked “You are the philosopher. Explain how it makes sense, when Ghana needs Ghanaians to teach and inspire the younger generation, that you are busy teaching white people in England?” William was convinced. He returned to Ghana to head the Philosophy Department at the University of Ghana, and become an adviser to Nkrumah.
Initially William focussed on his academic role and on leading numerous foreign delegations sent by Nkrumah to scour the globe for the best technical expertise to support Ghana’s development, and to promote African unity. William also received occasional late-night phone calls from Nkrumah, wanting to talk to someone outside his circle of political advisers, whom he often did not trust.
A key contribution was William’s editing and reshaping of the early draft of Nkrumah’s Consciencism (published in 1964), which set out a philosophy for Africa’s decolonisation and development, as Nkrumah gave him a free hand.
As economic and political challenges increased the pressures on Nkrumah, William was asked to take on additional roles. In 1964 he was appointed to chair the Abraham commission into Trade Malpractices in Ghana, following great public outcry about profiteering in the import control system. Despite some unwelcome redaction by government of the commission’s work, the final report strongly criticised both the administration of import licensing and the distribution of imports by the state-owned Ghana National Trading Corporation. Unfortunately, the issues identified remained largely unresolved.
In 1965, still just 31, William became MP for Cape Coast, and pro vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana; and with the departure in July 1965 of the then Vice Chancellor, also acting Vice Chancellor. This huge brief was made even more challenging by tensions between Nkrumah’s government and the University of Ghana, with deep disagreements about how far the University’s role should be to support Ghana’s development by combatting neo-colonialist thinking, and on academic freedom; not to mention the stresses for William of striving each month to extract enough money to pay University staff salaries from a broke Ministry of Finance.
When Nkrumah was overthrown by a military and police coup in 1966, it was almost with a sense of relief at escaping this impossible load that William went into “protective custody”, in Ussher Fort, Accra, for 7 months. As no evidence was found of any wrong-doing, he was released, and returned to head the Philosophy Department at the University of Ghana. However, the atmosphere remained hostile to those considered to be supporters of Nkrumah. A year later he therefore travelled to the USA to take up an appointment as a visiting professor (and later, various substantive posts, the last of which was at the University of California, Santa Cruz). He continued his academic teaching and research at the University of California till his retirement.
Nkrumah’s grasp of the vital role of shared vision remains unmatched. But with hindsight, the means he used to spread that vision, through a cult of personality, look crude and coercive. Despite the helpful context of popular enthusiasm stirred by Ghana’s recent independence, by the time of the coup that vision had been largely dissipated, with crowds in the streets rejoicing at his overthrow.
Ghanaians need to recapture the power of an inspiring vision, whilst using smarter means of communicating and promoting it. Our fragmented, multi-casting world requires open dialogue and emergent (rather than imposed) consensus, if shared vision is to become heartfelt and motivating.
A good start would be more honesty, thoughtfulness and focus on issues that unite rather than divide us in our political discourse. The law of supply and demand works in politics as well as in economics: if we citizens demand these things strongly enough, they will be supplied!
More information about William Abraham can be found at www.themindofafrica.com
The author, Henry Abraham, can be contracted at firstname.lastname@example.org