A new Nkrumah rises

2014-11-16 15:00

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If the election goes her way in 2016, Samia Nkrumah could keep Ghana’s presidency in the family

In the year that will mark the 50th anniversary of her father’s ousting as Ghana’s president, Samia Nkrumah could be making a bid to revive his legacy.

There’s a lot of speculation about her presidential ambition, but the modest and unassuming woman talks away from it when we chat at a restaurant at the Brooklyn Lodge during her brief visit to Pretoria last week.

She flew in from Accra to give a speech at the SA Literary Awards – her second visit to South Africa after coming to Cape Town earlier this year to see visiting Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

“It is up to the party to decide [who is the presidential candidate],” she says.

It could be that the same coyness about ambition applies there, as in the ANC, or perhaps her putting her hand up would open her prematurely to attacks by opponents.

Her Convention People’s Party in 2011 elected her as the first female leader of a political party in Ghana, but a few months ago, some detractors in the party now infamous for its internal wrangling, accused her of being an autocrat.

Nkrumah had a cruel introduction to politics when she was five years old. Her father’s government was overthrown in a military coup in 1966. He was away on a state visit to Hanoi. His 15-year rule saw him becoming increasingly autocratic and unpopular.

Nkrumah says her Egyptian mother, Fathia Rizk, told her and her two siblings to pray as gunshots rang outside.

After the family left Ghana with the help of the Egyptian ambassador, Nkrumah was on the phone with her father.

“He said ‘Yaba’, which is my Ghanaian name, ‘don’t be afraid’. I remember him saying ‘the secret of life is to have no fear’. Later, I discovered this was at the beginning of his book, Axioms of Kwame Nkrumah.

“I remember saying ‘yes, yes, I wasn’t afraid’, but I was terrified. It was so traumatic and the change was so quick. We were uprooted, literally.”

The family was kept out of the country for many years. “It took a lot of courage and healing, because understandably the party he led, the assets were confiscated, fragmented, his books were burnt and banned, his pictures, so it was quite...”

She doesn’t finish her sentence, and takes another bite of her salmon salad.

Her father’s teachings inspired her to become a politician.

“It’s reading his books, understanding his political thoughts, ideology and mission that really brought me back into active politics.

“I thought this is something we must pick up and promote. We must demonstrate this ideology of self-reliance, self-determination, make sure we produce more, focus on industrialisation and mainly manufacturing.”

It is about adding value to raw materials and decreasing the reliance on imports, she says. “We are producing very little, and it’s not just bad for the budgets, but it also diminishes your confidence.

“When you don’t produce things, you lose out on technological know-how, you lose out on confidence.

“Even your human resource isn’t very developed, because it’s not used to being productive, basically. Most countries that develop, produce. This is an unfinished business because we have not yet done it.”

Nkrumah says the development plans in her father’s time could have seen Ghana have a gold refinery by the late 1960s.

“Today we have none.”

Time and the liberation nostalgia in Africa have blurred a lot of the negative sentiment against Kwame Nkrumah.

In 2000, the father of Pan-Africanism and the Organisation of African Unity, the forerunner of the African Union, was voted the BBC’s Man of the Millennium in Africa by listeners on the continent – over living leaders like Nelson Mandela.

The family’s exile meant Samia grew up in Egypt and obtained a master’s degree in Arabic studies from the University of London in 1993.

She worked as a bank clerk and a journalist before returning to Ghana to become an MP for the Convention People’s Party in 2008.

Now one of the opposition parties, it struggles to get even 2% of the vote, but Nkrumah got in without having to resort to alliances.

Outside Ghana, the charming and charismatic Nkrumah enjoys respect. She recently received the Pilosio Building Peace Award in Venice for her work on the Kwame Nkrumah Presidential Library.

The library is meant to inculcate her father’s spirit of “we can do it” in the new generation of Ghanaians.

The 54-year-old provides a refreshing counter-narrative to that of the old male leaders in Africa.

Female representation in Ghana’s legislature is a mere 12%, even though Kwame Nkrumah wanted more women to be involved in decision making in his time.

“That whole project was truncated. So there is a need. We need more women,” she says.

Being a woman is, however, not enough for leadership. “It is about what kind of developmental policies you have,” says Nkrumah.

The ghost of her father’s teachings have provided her with that substance.

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