Hugo Chavez's lessons for Africa

The day after Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s death, students in the West African country of Ghana were marching.

Together they gathered in Independence Square with military officials, traditional rulers, and current president John Dramani Mahama to celebrate Ghana’s 56th Independence Day, and the leader who championed the cause — former President Kwame Nkrumah.

There are important parallels to be drawn between Ghana’s first post-colonial President, who won his first election in 1951, and the recently departed “Comandante,” Chavez, who was first elected in 1998.

The legacy that will cling to Chavez years from now is his often-criticized brand of leadership, which took after 18th century leader Simon Bolivar’s quest for regional unity. The dogged pursuit of continental unity also echoes the vision of Nkrumah, a man who, like Chavez, went from prison to the presidency.

Both Nkrumah and Chavez were iconic leaders, despised by the West for their socialist leanings, who forged continental partnerships, which in their view, were in the best interests of unity, solidarity, and economic empowerment.

Chavez, however, fared better where Nkrumah failed: economics. While the Economist boasts of Africa’s rising countries and counts contemporary Ghana in its ranks, it seems there is an untapped potential that might be activated with a closer look at how Chavez managed his country’s oil wealth.

And unlike Chavez — who won four democratic elections, despite highly questionable activities regarding a free press, and who was reinstated shortly after a coup in 2002 — Nkrumah was ousted in 1966 while abroad, after he pronounced that he would be “President for life,” and outlawed all other political parties but  his own. In historical accounts, Nkrumah’s fate was a miserable one. Like Chavez, he died from cancer. But unlike the Venezuelan leader, who remained beloved by many of his country’s poor, Nkrumah was despised and exiled by his countrymen.

Yet, what historians remember, the next generation forgets.

‘An anti-colonial legacy’

Today in Ghana, the references to Nkrumah’s authoritarian rule and human rights record are gone. Nkrumah, whose name is rarely spoken in the country without the formal title of Osagyefo (Twi for “redeemer”), is revered as the father of Pan-Africanism. This credo was partly influenced by his friendship with African Diasporans George Padmore and W.E.B. Dubois.

Nkrumah’s claim to fame was the grassroots organizing model which allowed him to lead his countrymen in successfully overthrowing British colonial rule, and, in doing so, creating a model for more than 30 African countries to follow suit by the mid 1960’s.

Nkrumah utilized this momentum during his presidency and held several meetings with the growing number of states that had wrestled free from colonialism, to discuss the possibilities of a common government in Africa. By 1960, Nkrumah unified Ghana with Guinea and Mali and later he would utilize state coffers to aid what we now know as Zimbabwe in escaping colonial rule.