A foremost Pan Africanist, Zizwe Poe is an American Professor at Lincoln University. As a scholar who has extensively studied Kwame Nkrumah and has been part of Pan African movements, the don shares his knowledge and experiences on diverse issues including leadership, Pan Africanism and neo-colonialism.
In this first part of an interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ team of Idris Akinbajo, Adenike Aloba and Richard Akinwunmi, Mr. Poe also speaks on the next generation of African leaders he believes have traits of genuine Pan Africanism.
PT: Your profile shows you did your PhD on Nkrumah and Africanism. How would you describe Nkrumah?
Prof. Poe: I think it’s clear to me Kwame Nkrumah was a Pan Africanist. What I mean by that is not that he was just interested in all of Africa, but that he had an identity. He was from Nkrofo from the gold coast colony at the time, but his identity in terms of where he was going to was as an African citizen. You know a lot of the time when they ask people in the United States where they are from and somebody says Africa, the next question of course will be “what part of Africa”. But Nkrumah must have answered that at the end of his life as “all of Africa” because he used Ghana’s independence and the resources of Ghana’s independence for the liberation of all of Africa. He was somebody who was inspired on one hand by Marcus Garvey, who was also trying to build a strong Africa, but he was also inspired by more contemporary people of his time. He was inspired by James Aggrey, Nnamdi Azikiwe, W.B DuBois, George Padmore and a number of other movements and organisations like that. So I think he was someone who gave his life for the freedom and the unity of Africa.
PT: Knowing his contribution to Pan Africanism and call for Africa’s unity, would you say current African leaders have really towed the part Nkrumah paved and followed?
Prof Poe: I like to travel around Africa so this answer of course will limit my travel. But, I think that a number of African leaders today, well there is a new generation coming, but the generation currently running things I don’t consider them really African leaders, I consider them managers and some despots but they are not the kind of African leaders that were the generation of Nkrumah. I see this new generation of African leaders that are coming; they may be the ones who represent the values of the African ancestors so that they can help teach this African elders who are currently leaders, who have somehow abandoned the ancestors for pottage of gold and small benefits.
Though, I think Nkrumah would have been somewhat disappointed, I don’t think he would have lost his energy. What he would have done is, he would have joined the youth in the current move and he will just try to get rid of these current leaders I believe. Just at near the end of his life, Glen Morrow was very close to him.
While he was in Guinea as the co-president, he was one of the advisers for the liberation movement that existed. People don’t realise it. They think he went into exile after he was overthrown by the coup de tat; but in fact, he went to Guinea and became the co-president. Sekou Toure really wanted to offer him the presidency but Nkrumah was like “nah man you crazy, I just left a place where they don’t want me as president anymore, I’m not going to come here and do it that way” but he said he would accept the co-presidency as long as his job will be to work at the African Liberation movement and that’s what he did up until his death.
PT: Can you give examples of those young generation of African leaders in whom you see these potentials? Countries and names.
Prof. Poe: I will go a little bit on a limb with one of the ones who are most familiar in online media, and I will have to say Malema from the EFF. I think you know people say that he is an opportunist and they don’t trust him and everything but I don’t judge him really only by his personal life, I judge him by the message of what he is saying about mass empowerment and returning resources to the masses, and I think for that, he is a good example.
Another is, because of the country he’s in, I can’t talk about him publicly without endangering his life. Others I won’t also talk about but I do know some, I have met some young leaders in West Africa, I met some in East Africa and because of the nature of the leadership in those countries, I will just leave their names under cover. But I do hear them talking about African Unity. Again I hear them say, while they are respectful for their elders, they have new ideas and I think that Africa depends on them. I speak of this as a Pan Africanist, as an African who lives in America, so I look forward to them. I see even some young leaders coming from Africa, from the Caribbean in other parts of the diaspora that give me hope.
As an elder myself, I need some hope right now because I have seen a lot of material corruption and I hope we can get past that. I have some hope in some interesting situation in Zimbabwe. I have had email contact with some of the young members of ZANU PF of Zimbabwe and I think that if they are going to be respectful for their party I think they have some new ideas. I don’t think they were necessarily anti-Mugabe as they were anti-old ideas not moving out for new ideas.
I think they love Mugabe for the contribution that Mugabe made for the Zimbabwe liberation movement. I know the western press like to use Mugabe as a broom to sweep dust around but I don’t speak of him that way because I know that in fact his inspiration for even being part of the liberation movement came from his connection to Ghana and the liberation movement back in the time of Nkrumah.
For a while, I thought he was going to go wayward when he had made the deal with the British government to have structural adjustment programmes with Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. When they all threw him under the bus and said they were not going to give back the land, I was happy that he at least began to give back the land. As wrong as the way he did it was, I was happy because I know people died to get the land back that have been taken by the imperialist. So I was happy that happened.
We know that when you take a young wife sometimes your brain doesn’t work as well. I imagine only, being that old with my wife, we have been married for 37 years and for this interview I would like to say that I will never do that because I’m sure she will read it. I think sometimes you can be a little wayward in your thoughts when you are still in power after all those years, I think that he should have had a group of young revolutionaries which supposedly his wife belonged to. But the group younger than her that is coming up to help Zimbabwe and South Africa continue to push forward with their movement of liberation.
PT: Talking about Zimbabwe and also Nkrumah, the major criticism of Pan African leaders who have assumed power in their countries is that they end up becoming dictatorial. Is there a reason why great pan Africanists tend towards dictatorship?
Prof Poe: Yes I think so. There is a reason for it. First of all, politics, especially if it’s supposedly democratic, is a dictatorship of the majority; supposedly, when these people claim to be representing the majority, this happens. Nkrumah, who I can speak of because of my strong studies, every few years would empower a group of youth under his wing and then these youth will go to war with those who are veterans in his organisation and so it always caused him strife. But Nkrumah was a person who really didn’t believe even in capital punishment.
You know there were five attempts on his life and one of the people that made an attempt on his life was given a capital sentence and it was because the organisation, the government itself had rules, they wouldn’t allow Nkrumah do his lack of capital punishment push because really, Nkrumah was a philosopher and an educator, an organiser of people at the mass level. He wasn’t really a kind of prime minister, presidential politician in the way that we know them. So he was hoping that he could convince people, you know if you go back to the ancient African history, the pharaohs, who are Africans, (of course you need to remind people because Disney and all of these other companies paint them as somebody else,) used to have when they were buried, two things across their chest. One will be like a crook, a crook with which you lead, and the other one will be a flail. A crook was representative of being able to convince the people with good policy and the flail was for being able to exact obedience in case you didn’t get them in line and in time. Well in governance this appears to be two ways of approach. The military, the police on one hand and the other hand is the diplomatic initiatives and education to try to convince the population. So for Nkrumah when he came to power, he came to power as a Pan Africanist, he told people at the independence day, he said your country is free forever but the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless its linked up to the total liberation of the African continent and everybody was like yes!!! We love Nkrumah, and then he began to use the money to go to all the African Liberation movement and then they began to love him less because their vision was for independence locally and not independence such that it was a means to the end of greater independence and inter dependence of African people.
So as we got closer to the end of Nkrumah’s rule, actually the people were closer to him especially the women and the children. They were closest to him and almost every attempt on his life killed women and children. And so it began to pull him back from going out in public because any time he appeared in public, attacks will come on him and it will come on the people around him and he began to be isolated by the advisors around him, some of them well-meaning and some of them dogmatist and in that case began to be very down about the whole situation.
So they called him a dictator. At the end, I will say he was always a dictator but when you are a dictator and the people love you then you are just a national hero; but when you are a dictator and you no longer can mingle with the people, then you become a tyrant.
I had an opportunity to visit Libya when Gadaffi was alive. I was there in Libya with Kwame Ture; he used to be known as Stokely Carmichael. I was there with him and I was part of Nkrumah’s organisation, an organization called the All African Peoples’ Revolutionary Party which Nkrumah started.
He wrote about it in 1966 before the coup, and after the coup was done and they took his manuscript, he re-wrote about it in a book called the Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare which I would suggest all your readers read. It needs to be updated but it has some basic general information that is good. In 1968, he said in order for Africa to finish the Africa’s revolution, he thought there should be an All African Peoples’ Revolutionary Party that will link up all of the struggling liberation movements as well as government so that they could form an All African community for political coordination. By the way, I should mention that December of this year is the 60th year of the first All African Peoples’ Conference so that will give you some writing material for later but Nkrumah began to organise in his way and by organise in his way, he had set a paradigm of how African unity and liberation were connected.
Like I said, after I belonged to this organisation, I was recruited by Kwame to represent this organisation. I was one of the representatives from the California chapter to Libya. I believe it was 1988/1989, I am not sure, and I had a chance to see Libya. I knew before I went that there was a problem with Arab racism because before Europe came to Africa, when the arrogance of Arab government began to make Islam an intolerant form, they brought with it their own racism also, so I expected this before I got there.
But I was totally amazed when I got there and saw bill boards that said the black shall prevail and I began to be very interested. I had read a green book, but the green book was a little bit of a ravel, especially the English translation but when I got there I was really impressed. But what impressed me most is that no Libyan citizen paid rent and right away I wanted to leave New York and go to Libya. No what? No rent? I was like you have to convince me on the other things but no rent was enough but I found out later that not only did they not pay rent but when they got married they will give them a $50,000 stipend and if they wanted to go to school and Libya didn’t have the education that they wanted, they can go to school anywhere and Libya will pay for it and that they even surpass Cuba in terms of health care.
Not only was health care free, but the medicine was free so I didn’t care about it at the time when Reagan was calling Gadaffi a mad dog and all that to me. For me he was the kind of mad dog people needed and he did do some crazy things. I mean Gadaffi was very eccentric but in terms of the people of Africa, I was in favour of especially, North Africa, having that kind of treatment and in my later years, as a matter of fact, I heard Gadaffi speak in Senegal in December 2010 at the 3rd Black Art World Festival. He was speaking in front of this very gigantic statue they had in Dakar, built by Koreans.
There were youth sitting on the steps and Gadaffi spoke, this is a month before the NASA invasion and he spoke and began to tell the youth “Look, Africa, like Nkrumah said, Africa needs to be united, we need one military”. He said our military right now can only beat their own people “they really can’t defend us against NASA” and it was almost prophetic, he saw it coming but at that time Gadaffi was the Fidel Castro of Africa.
He drove around Africa in a big mobile kind of entourage and he was probably the last state leader. I would say state leader because he wasn’t president, Libya did have a president and prime minister and all of that but the west did not want to recognise it because Gadaffi was seen as sort of a spiritual father of this Libya and he was probably the last one to really use the resources of his country toward a large Pan African movement; and also I’m sure that brought him the distrust of the world public, not the world public, the west; not the west but business interests, let’s just call it as it is. Those who did not want Africa to have an African currency that was based in Africa’s resources or its own military.
Mugabe started off as a teacher and in his own narrative, he tells the world that when Ghana became independent it was all this hoopla about freedom and as a youth he used to go to Ghana annually and get inspired by Nkrumah’s Ghana and he took his approach as a teacher and became a politician. As a matter of fact, ZANU kind of recruited him. At that time, there was an ANC in Zimbabwe and later there was ZAPU and it was really a strong world organisation that he came and kind of represented.
There was ZAPU and ZANU, and they were actually two different organizations. He became a leader within ZANU and they wanted him to take the inspiration he had gotten out of the national revolution, bring it down to then what was called Rhodesian Front in which Ian Smith was saying blacks will never vote in his life time; then later on he was saying well he won’t vote for a black man, lots of years later. And then finally they voted even while he was alive he joined a government that was controlled by Zimbabweans. But this was the young Mugabe and at the time he was pressured by what you call the front line states to begin to make a deal with the colonial forces because most of the war inside of this arm struggled states were supported by front line states.
The front line state as Nkrumah will say is every state in Africa but it was interpreted to mean those states closer to the fighting areas because they had put up the soldiers, the soldiers retreat into those areas, they will give resources and they were struggling to give resources so they encouraged, near the end stage of the liberation movement, they will encourage some kind of diplomatic compromise.
So Mugabe, when Zimbabwe became independent finally and they finished the bitter, Vorster regime and also defeated Abel Muzorewa who was really being used by the Vorster machine as a compromise to try to keep the Africans in place and to be supportive of the old regime. Once ZANU and ZAPU defeated those forces, Mugabe became president.
For a while he was a very victorious leader but at a time in which the African Liberation Movement was already becoming corroded and too much compromises were being made and eventually he made a compromise with the British government to try to get the land back for Zimbabweans to go along with structural adjustment programme.
It had three elements. One is that they will tell you to devalue your currency so that of course foreign businesses could have their way with you. Two: it was told to reduce social services because somehow the so called free western democratic world was anti-social services which to me made it anti-people. As a matter of fact, it made more sense when I heard late Fela say is it democracy or demo-cracy because I think it was more demo-cracy. And then the third, opening up your market so the west can make them free trade areas which may sound like a good idea but it is not usually a good idea to the masses that are providing the product.
So he went along with that for a while and as a matter of fact the people I knew in the all African Revolutionary Party, we were very anti-Mugabe at that time. We were like, you see, that this is new colonialism but he had to run the affairs of his state. And then finally England became who England always was and they said you know what, we are not going to honour that, we are not going to buy back any land, we are not going to do nothing. And so Mugabe had to run to the people and to his party and he became popular again because he began to hold up ideas of liberation movement. And then he got old and a young wife but I think as am looking at it from my side, I think I see that ZANU was brilliant in their removal of Mugabe. Brilliant because as the MDC and the other opposition movement almost had the chance to control the government. Zimbabwe removing Mugabe right before the election is going to bring a lot of people in Zimbabwe back to ZANU to the organization.
In a final analysis, this organisation have to continue the movement. Individuals are good for the first part of the leadership but if you just follow individuals, individuals will die and organisations have the ability to live longer and perfect themselves longer so I think it was a brilliant move. I know I’m a little off but Mugabe basically right now, he will be able to live as a hero like Nkrumah. When Nkrumah was overthrown, if you go back to look at what the press said about Gadaffi before they killed him, these were the same things they were saying about Nkrumah when they overthrew him.
Now Nkrumah is the hero and if you go to the head of the African union in Addis Ababa, there is one statue out in front of the head of the African union is Nkrumah. And you know time will really reveal how people look at these folks over time. There is going to be one of Gadaffi somewhere because of the example he was able to do with his population which no country has ever been able to emulate and Mugabe is going to get a statue right before he dies.
PT: Is it possible to have systems in place to prevent dictatorships because tendencies towards dictatorship may make people averse to the idea of a Pan African leader.
Prof Poe: Well they said democracy is a system but if they are not opposed to dictatorial politics then apparently democracy won’t work either. Democracy is dictatorship of the winner, so politics right now is kind of a dictatorship at least from the executive branch. So what these governments have done to try to limit the effect and influence of dictatorial lead is that they have made term limits on the executives, but they don’t make term limits on the legislature and ruling is not just from the executive branch.
I don’t know but in the country that I live in, you have two terms that you can be limited to as a dictator or the president, then your son can do it so I mean what difference has that made: from kings and hereditary kings. I think a lot of it as a ruse. I think the only real alternative that I have studied is a very informed public.
The more informed the public are, the less the dependence on a single leader. As a matter of fact this is one thing I would say about the United States. I won’t say so much informed but ideologically, the parties that run the United Sates make it such that even if a leader is killed, they just keep moving, put the next leader in place.
But in a lot of places when the leader is killed, well Libya is one example, Ghana when Nkrumah was overthrown, was kind of down for a long time because the military already came in; but when you have an organised body that is ideologically coherent and you have an organised populace that can evaluate that organised body effectively then I think we will be through with pharaohs. But we’ve had pharaohs for a long time and even pharaohs when they were in charge, they were the ones in charge of the religious entity of their state, pharaohs were the head priests and right now who do we have as a priest? No, but we have ideology all over the place. So I think what it is, is that the more the populace is informed and has the ability to evaluate information because we have more information than we ever did; but if you don’t evaluate it you will be stupid now than you ever were. So I think the more that we are able to evaluate these pros and cons and what is in the interest of the people, the more will be able to move away from popular dictatorship. But somehow, the people love publicity and popularity. I mean right now the real dictator in the world is Beyoncé.
PT: A lot of African nations are fashioning their democracy after the west, yet we exist in some level of neo-colonialism. Well, is there a way to localize democracy that will fit the African context?
Prof Poe: When we talk about democracy, in the real good intents of democracy, I think we are talking about really where the interest of the masses are represented. But people confuse the form of democracy for its essence. For instance, if a number of us go out to the parking lot and there is 10 of us and seven of us vote to steal one car instead of the other, we think that’s a democratic vote, so I think where we have to make a distinction between democracy and other forms of governance is what drives the governance.
Governance really is there to help manage resources and in the case where you have western democracy, western democracy is based on capitalism and it is not based on the masses having resource, so the value system that usually comes to bear is the kind that will support capitalist profit and capitalist profit doesn’t work for everyone.
For some of us, the system of capitalism is this system that could be best understood by the general population as the system of procurers, prostitutes for profit and I guess that will be about all of it. So a lot of people get an education so that hopefully they can start off as a high paid prostitute and walk their way up to a procurer.
The value system that attaches to that is one of individualism, hurtful competitiveness because I think there can be helpful competitiveness, like competing for who can help the people the most that’s good competition but that’s not the competition we are taught. In our school system, we are often taught competition of how to get over on others. As a matter of fact, there is something I do with my students, you know I am a teacher, so I tell them that they have been abused as children. And so right away they think about a clergy, altar boys and I say no, no, no, I’m not talking about that.
I’m talking about what you were taught when you were told to go to school and just listen to the teacher. I said there was something you were taught earlier and you don’t even remember when this happened to you and so I say I repeat one half of the slogan and you tell me the other half. I will say “finders’ keepers” and they will in unison say “losers’ weepers”. I said that’s about stealing, I said that you never knew when you learned it, do you? So right away in their memory earlier on is this kind of profit oriented stealing so even if later on they grow up, they get their master’s degree and doctors degree, if this is the value system that underlies everything they have; you know they are democrats, they will be democrats for theft and so eventually you are going to end up with a tyrant dictator, if not an individual one, one that’s a party. So I think that we might want to question the values that under lay the governing system. We have to look at that governing system connected to the economic system.
At first, I heard before I came, I heard there has been good relations and bad relations politically with the United States in Nigeria and I know that that’s true. However, whether they were bad relations or good relations, the business relations remain the same. So apparently, the politics is just the show for the rest of us because the real world is the business relations.