Unfinished liberatory agendas

Akua O. Britwum
Amina Mama

How Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere’s approaches to gender politics, help reshape feminist visions for reclaiming a developmental state.

Image credit Nii Nikoi (niinikoi.com) CC.

Akua O. Britwum (AOB)
Amina Mama (AM)

This article is part of the “Reclaiming Africa’s Early Post-Independence History” series, edited by Aishu Balaji, from Post-Colonialisms Today, a research and advocacy project of activist-intellectuals on the continent recapturing progressive thought and policies from early post-independence Africa to address contemporary development challenges. Sign up for updates here.


Akua, you and I have a shared historic, intellectual, and political vantage point as the generation that immediately followed independence, the first generation of nationhood, when most of our nations won flag independence. I call it flag independence, as many of us do, because of the incomplete nature of our struggle. And yet, despite realizing that the process that began with decolonization was incomplete, much of our generation sees independence providing the basis for feminism on the continent, because it did not afford equal freedom to women. This is also the basis for socialism because the freedom of all people was not completed. So, all this is unfinished business, and yet few of us have seriously studied the first attempts at building our nations. We are once again in crisis, to be hit with the COVID pandemic, while at the same time, Black resistance is re-forming under the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. This is also happening just after the “Year of Return” in Ghana, so it’s an especially good time to reappraise what Africa tried to do and what its revolutionary post-independence leaders tried to offer, because we’re in another moment, one that may be as significant as the 20th century decolonization period was for our parents.

I had the pleasure of reading your paper on development planning in post-independence Tanzania and Ghana, which is part of the forthcoming Post-Colonialisms Today publication. I’m looking forward to discussing it, but my first question is more personal: What are your memories of the years of Nkrumah’s government? I know you were young, but as someone born, like me, just before political independence, what do you remember?


My memories are more of what happened after the coup. In 1966, when the coup occurred, I was in what was called an experimental school, which were schools in the public education system that were experimenting with new teaching and learning methods. After the coup, family members and the parents of friends were arrested and, over time, the economic and political situation in the country took a nosedive. My mind goes back to some of the things I took for granted, thinking back to the systems and the structures that we had—the buildings, the washrooms almost surgically clean, and our teachers, and the classroom space—that disappeared. There was a sense of insecurity that emerged. There is a lot to be said of the broader political moment: we were told Nkrumah was bad, that he was going to institute socialism where you couldn’t speak your mind, but those very things increased after Nkrumah was overthrown. But my memory is of those privileges that my school represented that we lost, of being involved in an experiment that was going to revamp our public educational system, that was suddenly gone.


Yes, I’m currently busy retracing childhood memories and experiences of what were profound historic events that we didn’t realize at the time. When the coup happened in Nigeria, it affected all of us; I think many of our generation have an entry point where we knew there was great hope and then that great hope was crushed by decades of military dictatorship.

I do know that there were differences between Nkrumah and Nyerere’s philosophies. I understood Nyerere to be for the unity of separate nations, while Nkrumah’s vision was pan-African in the sense of a united states of Africa and very audacious. Was that the source of their different approaches to planning, or are there other factors—they were both socialist, but was their socialism different? Or was it the scale of their politics that differentiates?


I think it was more their politics that differentiated them, because, as I was pleasantly surprised to learn, Nyerere also had a Pan-African vision, but their two visions were very different. Both Nkrumah and Nyerere followed a socialist model because they saw capitalism was exploitative and felt socialism responded more to African communalist values. These communalist principles, almost humanist principles, were less adversarial and less exploitative, so they positioned African societies to leapfrog over capitalism straight into socialism, avoiding a disruptive socialist revolution. They were inspired by the gains Eastern Europe had made, with socialism giving them the basis to drive their economies and catch up with, and even overtake, the West.

The differences in Nkrumah and Nyerere’s politics become clearer when you compare who they saw as the economic agent and how this defined the problems of the nation state they sought to address.

Nkrumah sought to break away from the economic stranglehold of the West on Ghana, whereas Nyerere concentrated more on rural transformation based on a set of African values and thinking derived from his understanding of rural African ways of living. This is why Nkrumah recognized threats to the experiment more than Nyerere. In Nkrumah’s writing you find a certain clarity on the international political system that Nyerere never gained.


Yes, I came away from your paper with the sense of Nkrumah as a visionary on the world stage and Nyerere taking a more localized, rural-based perspective. And I know that the kind of support they got internationally was different, and it’s clear Tanzania did not run into confrontation with the US the way Nkrumah did. So, I wonder, perhaps it’s that Nkrumah confronted US capitalism because it was globalizing in a way that Tanzania didn’t, so Americans didn’t fear Tanzania.

Nkrumah and Nyerere also had different gender politics, and this is embodied in the difference between Hannah Cudjoe and Bibi Titi Mohammed. Cudjoe disappeared from the archives of national history but was a major woman leader in Ghana under Nkrumah, responsible for national security, national propaganda for the whole nation. She was highly educated and politically competent, and it seems Nkrumah then leapt ahead of Tanzania in putting women in his government and on the world stage. Bibi Titi Mohammed from Tanzania is different; she reminds me of Gambo Sawaba from Nigeria—non-literate, popular, a brilliant performer, and neither ever learned to read or write. So, what was the difference in the gender politics of the men and of the societies in the two countries?


Something striking in both countries was the role ordinary women played in the whole nationalist struggle. In Tanzania, if ordinary women had not devoted time and resources to the nationalist struggle, it would have suffered, because they had the networks and they mobilized resources for nationalist movements. They could also appreciate the politics, they knew how to play their cards, and they had nothing to lose because of their place within the economic system. This is often missing in our historical account; that these nationalist movements, their lifeline depended on the actions of all these ordinary women like Bibi Titi and market traders in Ghana.

The difference between the two men was that Nkrumah wanted to reward these women and recognize their contribution, so he created space for them in political decision making, which didn’t happen in Tanzania. Women’s groups that had supported the nationalist struggles quickly disintegrated, so there was demobilization. More efforts were spent trying to gain the qualifications, including through Western education, to benefit from the opportunities independence presented.

So, in Ghana, the face of women after independence was women with a Western education. These educated women were asked to “help their poorer sisters,” the very women who had led the national struggle.

Part of a broader tendency in Nkrumah’s government was the clear division between what was considered elite, often people who felt they had a better Western education, and Nkrumah’s “Verandah boys,” activists with less formal education who held important positions in the government. There were efforts to provide adult education but this tended to be apolitical, focusing on literacy and numeracy.


How interesting, and the only reason we know about women like these two figures that I picked out is because feminist scholars like yourself have actually excavated their role and brought them back into the national profile.

It’s hugely important you excavated these development plans, which didn’t fail because they were wrong; they were the first steps. And had it not been for global systemic forces and covert interventions, presumably those experiments would have continued, and they would have developed and grown. Instead, they were constantly interrupted, as you bring up quite clearly.

Today Africa is once again subjected to these global policies, which basically forbid African governments from investing in their people and their societies. The model has become more extractivist, more anti-people; Africans pursued independence for development understood as being people focused—to end ignorance, poverty, and disease, and bring public goods to the people from the wealth of their own nations. But, to date, we have not achieved economic independence, and women know this better than anybody else because of their double subjection, with the national government now collaborating with the global system in ways that are, to be frank, anti-African. Development is not what the state does anymore, so this work of revisiting what “development” is and re-reclaiming our right to develop.

All of that suggests that we’re thinking about freedom again, because half a century after we got flags and nation states and universities, we’re at a moment of stupendous failure, made even more evident by COVID-19. Looking at Ghana or Tanzania in the early post-independence period, what do you think we should reassess, and pick up again with new energy?


You’re right that it’s an important moment, it’s not just Africa questioning the system and what it has done to us, COVID has very clearly exposed the bankruptcy of capitalism. People are ready to listen to alternatives, but we also must recognize there’s a pushback and that this system is not going to go down gently, because the system is durable and adapts to mask its own contradictions.

In this moment we have to ask: How we can shape the discourse to highlight what our real problems are? A key difference between Ghana and Tanzania is the way critical scholarship developed in Tanzanian universities, something we didn’t have in Ghana. This was a result of the coup and the subsequent demonization of Nkrumah, so younger people in Tanzania perhaps have a bigger scope to frame their issues. In Ghana, people are realizing that what carries the country forward is the foundation Nkrumah laid.

A key consequence of structural adjustment is not just the collapsing of our economies, but the erosion of claims citizens could make on governments. With the retreating state, citizens have been finding ways to meet their needs, but now people are realizing there’s only so much we can do as individuals, the bigger system has to work, so how do we get it to work?


There’s a question about what our education systems were doing between independence and now, and I think you’ve flagged it. The great University of Ghana was intended to be for the whole continent, but that shifted during military rule, whereas in Tanzania, while Dar es Salaam was a much smaller institution, it’s where Africa’s radicals took refuge. Some individuals we know left Ghana and went to Dar es Salaam during those years, to sustain their radical political and intellectual development, so we still have an underground of radical thinkers that’s alive and well, but they are not the people in power.

The African public university can no longer serve its society because everything has to be income-generating. It is a very sad state of affairs, professors now have to go out and raise foreign money to teach and to maintain graduate research capacity. That compromises African academic autonomy. Governments have a big role to play in making intellectual freedom a possibility for Africans.

This forces us to take on the question of autonomy. I’d say that feminist movements have become particularly adept at negotiating autonomy in order to push for change. What will it take to get African people as a whole out from under the foot of global imperialism in its current extractive, militarized, diseased, and frightening form? What can we do at home?


What we can do at home really is about how we frame peoples’ conditions. How do we get people to frame their conditions and what accounts for them? I think that this is what is missing. I think education and the political discourse around alternatives are really very important. In short, it needs to begin with activists and intellectuals—intellectuals not necessarily based in universities, but who are interested in real change. We need to create spaces, in both rural and urban communities, where we can hold these discussions.

People feel they cannot make demands on the state anymore. More and more, especially in urban communities, people are developing their own subcultures that do not require the state. I think people need to make demands on the state, and that if the state cannot deliver, ask what kind of state can we put in place to deliver? Maybe, I shouldn’t use the term state here because I know there are also questions about the state as a capitalist institution. Maybe I’m talking about a centralized system because it can’t be just individuals doing things for themselves.


I share, and many Africans share, this desire not to throw the baby out with the bathwater—whatever good we’ve been able to do has been a result of strong states, so I think there’s a lot of new interest in the state. There’s nowhere you have a well distributed, equitable society without a state, so I hear you when you say we need to make demands on the state. Do you have any ideas about what those demands might be? We know the kinds of things that women, for example, have demanded of the state over many years—law reforms and policy reforms—and a lot has been achieved through that route, but it seems to me you’re proposing something a bit different.


Yes, the feminist space has really been exciting, and has offered opportunities in ways that other spaces have not. As we pursue greater demands to address women’s interests we soon come up against the bigger systems and structures, so the economic justice work of networks like NETRIGHT recognize that it’s not enough to pursue affirmative action policies or legal reforms, because if you don’t have adequate investment in those spaces then the legal reforms don’t work. If the state is unable to invest, it doesn’t matter how many women you put in parliament, it’s still the same patriarchal norms that you have to deal with. But it’s possible to take a critical look at development policies and the kinds of global policies we’re entering into.

Feminists also recognize that we have to work together at the continental level and at the global level. It is really within this feminist space, and the demands that we’re making on national, regional, and international institutions, that it is possible to talk about alternative discourses. And so, this is where I get excited. What I want is for all of us to invest our resources to ask the deeper questions that you cannot ask in the broader mainstream space.

Learn more about Akua O. Britwum’s research on Tanzania and Ghana’s early post-independence development plans:

About the Author

Akua O. Britwum, University of Cape Coast (PCT Researcher).

Amina Mama, Feminist Africa (PCT Advisory Group).

Further Reading