The 8 minute, 46 second cell phone video shot by a bystander of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis sparked a global wave of protests. On the African continent, eight countries held events to honor Floyd’s memory. On June 6th, members of the Ghanaian government and diaspora community in Ghana’s capital, Accra, held a memorial. The speakers included the US Ambassador to Ghana, the director of the Ghanaian government’s Diaspora Affairs Office, and Barbara Oteng-Gyasi, Ghana’s Tourism Minister.
In her speech, Oteng-Gyasi invited African-Americans to relocate to Ghana, an appeal that Ghanaian leaders have made since independence in 1957. “Please take advantage, come home, build a life in Ghana,” she said. “You do not have to stay where you are not wanted forever, you have a choice and Africa is waiting for you.” The memorial ended with George Floyd’s name being mounted on the wall of the Diaspora African Forum at the request of President Nana Akuffo-Addo. News of this was met, three days later at Floyd’s funeral in Houston, Texas, with a standing ovation.
The next day, the Economic Fighters League (EFL) Ghana, a radical Nkrumahist movement, also held a vigil in honor of Floyd at The Black Star Square in Accra. Like other vigils in the US and around the world, attendees chanted “I Can’t Breathe!” and “Black Lives Matter!” and carried signs demanding justice for Floyd, Breonna Taylor (murdered by police while she was sleeping; police had barged into the wrong house in Louisville, Kentucky), and Ahmaud Arbery (gunned down by two white neighbors while jogging in a suburb of Atlanta). But something else stood out: they also had signs that spoke specifically to injustices in Ghana. There were signs demanding justice for Eric Ofotsu, an unarmed man who was shot by a soldier in Ashiaman, a suburb of Accra; and for The T’adi Girls, three girls who were kidnapped and murdered in 2018.
By connecting the deaths of Floyd, Taylor and Arbery with that of Ofotsu and the T’adi girls, the EFL Ghana vigil put a direct spotlight on Ghana’s own issues with its police and military. The vigil ended violently when police and military arrested Ernesto Yeboah, the head of the EFL, and shoved attendees. Security forces later shot at people who had assembled peacefully in front of the station where Yeboah was detained, demanding his release. Yeboah was charged with not notifying the police of the vigil, although the EFL could prove the police were notified in accordance with the Public Order Act. “Never have we been prevented or inhibited in any way from holding such sessions,” Yeboah said, before he was arrested. “Only when it came to [acting in solidarity] with Black people all over the world, especially with Black people in America.”
Apart from security forces’ harsh response, critics also pointed to the hypocrisy of the government of Ghana, long associated as a leader of pan-Africanism, claiming solidarity with Black people globally against injustice and state violence when it is guilty of doing the same against Black people at home. But the whole episode also highlighted something else: Official Ghanaian pan-Africanism was now less motivated by African liberation and solidarity and more by profit incentives. Ghana’s Year of Return is the best example of this.
Ghana’s history of global Black solidarity goes back to the work of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president and an ardent pan-Africanist. Nkrumah used Ghana to promote a pan-African ideology that was rooted in the liberation and solidarity of people in Africa and of African descent. Nkrumah provided funds to African nations to support their liberation movements, allowed African freedom fighters to seek sanctuary in Ghana, and, looking abroad, supported the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
After Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup d’état in 1966, pan-Africanism lost its importance on the national level as Ghana faced political instability. Between 1966 and 1981, Ghana endured four successful coups and several other attempted coups. When pan-Africanism regained importance in Ghana, it coincided with the imposition of World Bank/IMF structural adjustment initiatives which introduced neoliberal policies to Ghana. It was during this period that Ghana’s pan-Africanism developed a focus on connecting with the African diaspora, especially African-Americans, through heritage tourism and the commodification of their roots.
Jerry Rawlings, Ghanaian head of state throughout the 1980s, created and promoted pan-African institutions and initiatives that are popular in Ghana today, such as the DuBois Center (in honor of W.E.B. Du Bois, the great African American historian who settled in Ghana after independence), the George Padmore Research Library (for the Trinidadian journalist and collaborator of Nkrumah), the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, and the PANAFEST theatre festival. In 2003, under then-President John Kufuor, Ghana’s Ministry of Tourism launched an action plan that focused explicitly on diaspora tourism with the desire to establish Ghana as the homeland for Africans in the Diaspora. The World Bank still encourages Ghana to use heritage tourism as a mechanism for increasing its economic development. It is in this context that the Ghanaian government is calling the African diaspora “home.”
While it may seem that Ghana has lost its way, all is not lost. There is still an opportunity for Ghana to reclaim its original pan-African heritage. If Ghana truly wants to be a pan-African nation, it can begin by treating its citizens with respect. Some of the issues that Ghanaians face on a daily basis, such as dumsor, corruption, and police violence, will also be waiting for the African diaspora if Ghana does not change. It is only by creating a Ghana that is safe for all its people that Ghana will become a safe place for anyone who wants to repatriate there. Or, in lieu of systemic change, Ghana’s government can at least be honest about the treatment people in the African diaspora can expect when they return. In the meantime, we are reminded of the words of Kwame Nkrumah: “The forces that unite us are intrinsic and greater than the superimposed influences that keep us apart.”