Ghanaian professors have launched a campaign for the removal of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi from their campus because they claim he was racist and considered Indians to be “infinitely superior” to Africans. The statue was unveiled at the University of Ghana in June by the Indian president, Pranab Mukherjee. But, this Indian lawyer argues, Gandhi’s thought had a huge influence in Africa during the struggle for liberation.
Mahatma Gandhi (b. 1869) was shot dead in India on 30 January 1948. “We too mourned his death”, wrote Kwame Nkrumah, “for he had inspired us deeply with his political thought, notably with his adherence to non-violent resistance.” As one writer would put it: “The message cabled by the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) on his death expressed the sentiments of all African nationalists, for whom Gandhi was the ‘bearer of the torch of liberty of oppressed peoples and whose life had been ‘an inspiration to colonials everywhere’.” The Sierra Leone economist-poet David Carney who, as the West African poet Abioseh Davidson Nicol would recall, wrote “poetry of a Miltonic grandeur”, resorted to verse: Carney’s poetic tribute “Gandhi” was “broadcast to millions” in Africa and Asia. Carney, who died only recently, was Sierra Leone-born and had spent many years in Nigeria.
What contributed to the significant impact that Gandhi’s passive resistance campaigns in South Africa and India had on West Africa? A few facts are worth retelling.
At the end of August 1931 Gandhi had sailed from India for Europe to attend the Second Round Table Conference called in London by the British Government to discuss the future constitutional development of India. With Gandhi committed to Indian independence, and to full Egyptian independence, his commitment to all of Africa could be no less. While in London, Gandhi was asked on October 31, 1931: “For some years Britain would continue certain subject territories like Gold Coast. Would Mr. Gandhi object?”
“I would certainly object”, was Gandhi’s reply. He continued: “India would certainly aspire after influencing British policy… I do not want India to be an engine of oppression”. He spoke on this occasion about the exploitation of Zulus and Swazis, which he described as “radically wrong”.
With Gandhi in 1931 having spoken against the colonial subjection of the Gold Coast, it was appropriate that Ghana was, after South Africa, among the first of the parts of Africa where Gandhian techniques were to be adopted. This was noted by a prominent Afro-Caribbean scholar statesman.
Following upon the economic boycott of foreign cloth that Gandhi had encouraged and sponsored in India, he had been recommending the same course to other Asians and to Africans. He had declared in 1926: “There is however no hope of avoiding the catastrophe” (of increased racial bitterness) “unless the spirit of exploitation that at present dominates the nations of the West is transmuted into that of real helpful service, or unless the Asiatic and African races understand that they cannot be exploited without their co-operation, to a large extent voluntary, and thus understanding, withdraw such co-operation”.
A most singular resort to the strategy indicated in Gandhi’s 1926 article was soon to present itself. In West Africa Gandhi’s influence had spread substantively. In 1935, four years after Gandhi had declared his support for a free Gold Coast, Gandhi’s friend and biographer C.F. Andrews had spent time in Achimota College. Andrews’ presence there had attracted significant attention. Meanwhile, a crisis was brewing in the then Gold Coast related particularly to the cultivation and marketing of cocoa, a matter which directly affected the African farmer. It presently came to a head. In 1937 the African-American press reported from London that “Gold Coast Africans by declaring a boycott of British merchandise have caused a panic among London and Liverpool export merchants”. According to the report the boycotters “had sparked the publicity by adopting the tactics of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, paralyzing trade and disrupting the lucrative cocoa industry”. European monopolists controlled the cocoa export trade with West Africa, buying cheap and selling at high prices abroad and were believed to have formed a combine in 1937. Reacting to this, “the chiefs and farmers unitedly took action by holding up cocoa and boycotting the retail stores of the firms connected with the pool. Not only the farmers and brokers and chiefs joined but there was unanimity of action….” The cocoa strike was investigated by the Nowell Commission which found that it had been a mass movement, ‘remarkable for its spontaneity and discipline over a wide area’; it remarked on its ‘protracted duration’ and described it as the ‘first instance of unanimous popular action’. As a consequence of the movement, “(t)he economic life of the Gold Coast was paralysed from October 1937 to April 1938”.
Writing in Dr W E B DuBois’ journal, George Padmore (Malcolm Nurse) related the tactics adopted in West Africa to Gandhi and his methods: “Trouble has broken out in the Gold Coast. An agrarian strike has been declared. Thousands of cocoa farmers, incensed by the attempt on the part of the British monopoly trading companies and merchants to obtain their cocoa below its real value, are holding up their crops. Motor transport workers and dockers are refusing to handle the goods of foreign firms, while a nationwide boycott of British commodities has been proclaimed. …The entire economic life of West Africa’s richest colony is at a standstill. Clashes have occurred between the people and the military…. (the) trouble began during the latter part of October, but the authorities are trying to prevent the news from getting abroad. According to authentic reports reaching London, thousands of native cocoa producers of the Gold Coast and Ashanti have been holding meetings at Suhum, Nsawan, Kibi, Dodowah and other cocoa-producing districts, for the purpose of discussing ways and means of defending themselves against imperialist oppression….The strike, coupled with the boycott, has drawn the entire country into action. The urban population, most of whom are related to the farmers, are also refusing to buy foreign goods. For the first time in the history of Africa, three million people have taken up the challenge against vested interest and have applied the economic strike weapon. This is symptomatic of the New Africa, which is gradually becoming conscious of its strength, and is learning to use Gandhi’s well-known technique, the boycott, with effect.”
It was the African farmer’s response to an elaborate economic stranglehold upon him which can be compared in some respects with the British trade in cotton and textiles with India in which Gandhi had so strikingly intervened. According to a summary of Sir Ofori Atta’s testimony before the Cocoa Commission in 1938, “….European merchants dictated the price at which the African farmer must sell his product, as well as fixed the price at which the farmers had to buy their merchandise; … irrespective of the quality of the cocoa, the farmer got a fixed price, since grading was done at a later stage; … when the world price of cocoa rose, the merchants increased the price of some staple goods most in demand, so that the farmer was deprived of the benefit of the increase in the price of cocoa; … by controlling produce prices and the prices of trade goods, the European buyer-merchant had made the African farmer a virtual serf.”
It was not merely in the economic sphere that Gandhi’s methods had influence. A few years later, in October 1945, the Fifth Pan-African Congress was held in Manchester, England between October 15-21, 1945 under inspiration from Dr W E B DuBois who was also personally present. George Padmore, the Trinidad-born activist, and Kwame Nkrumah, the future leader of Ghana, were the leading organisers. At the conference, the satyagraha methods of Mahatma Gandhi were discussed and “endorsed as the only effective means of making alien rulers respect the wishes of an unarmed subject people”.
On January 8, 1950 the Convention People’s Party (CPP) in the Gold Coast (later Ghana) “commenced Positive Action, a campaign of non-violent resistance modelled on Gandhian tactics”. There was even a small sartorial symbolism that underlined a symbiotic connection: “CPP members out of prison sported P.G. (Prison Graduate) caps, which were the Gandhi caps of the Indian struggle with the letters P. G. added”. Kwame Nkrumah himself took to wearing the cap. The “caps of the Indian struggle” had themselves originated in the prison dress to which Gandhi and his companions had been familiarised in South Africa. Other activists of the African diaspora, also committed to non-violent struggle and influenced by Gandhi’s example, converged on Ghana in support of the movement. These included the African-Americans Bill Sutherland and Bayard Rustin.
George Padmore of the Pan-African Congress wrote on June 9, 1953 to his old Indian comrade, N G Ranga: “ Do not be discouraged. Africa is on the march. Nothing can hold the Africans back. We shall suffer many blows before achieving freedom, but now that they have learned the Gandhian technique of non-violent non-co-operation they have a mighty weapon in their hands. I have discussed its application in the Gold Coast in my book ‘The Gold Coast Revolution’, a copy of which I have sent you. I hope the book will become a sort of textbook to guide other African movements which have not yet reached the stage of the G.C. Already the British are trying to divide up Nigeria along the lines of India – on religion and communalism but we are fighting it tooth and nail. Thanks for the warning and example from India, we are prepared to meet the imperialist challenge.” Ranga, along with Jomo Kenyatta and Dr Harold Moody, had founded the League of Coloured Peoples in England in the 1930s.
Another scholar assessed the significance of the events set in motion in Ghana: “Nkrumah’s declaration of Positive Action on January 8, 1950 was influenced by Mohandas Gandhi’s non-violent revolution in India. It constituted the first major political action in the history of the country. It was to bring to an end British colonial rule not only in Ghana, but also in the rest of Africa….The non-compromising non-violent Positive Action was also the second confrontation of this kind that the British government had to face after that of Gandhi in India years earlier.”
Visiting Africa in 1952, the African-American Bayard Rustin, who had been much influenced by Gandhi’s methods, found the continent “afire”, with “every imaginable form of resistance being used to break 300 years of … European domination”. In that year South Africa was boiling over with the Defiance campaign. Rustin met Nkrumah in Accra. And in Nigeria he met Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe (“Zik”) near Lagos. Rustin and Dr Azikiwe, “an eager student of Gandhi’s campaigns” discussed Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Later comparing Azikiwe and Nehru, Rustin recorded : “I have never met two men more alike than Zik and Nehru. Each is fiery and sensitive. Each has a worldview. Each has the love of his people.” The African-American added that “each respects the ideals of Gandhi and each is inwardly sorry he cannot see clearly to follow him all the way”.
Though diverse tactics would be available for adoption in West Africa as in other parts of Africa, Gandhi’s struggle in South Africa and in India continued to inspire activists and thinkers in and from the continent. There were parts of West Africa where Gandhi struck a chord. In the Ivory Coast Felix Houphouet-Boigny (1905?-1993), for example, regarded Gandhi as a source of inspiration and was himself spoken of as the “Gandhi of Africa”. Houphouet-Boigny was associated with the Parti Democratique de la Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI) and persuaded the French Constituent Assembly in 1946 to support legislation “to outlaw the forced labour system in all of France’s colonies”, a measure which ensured wide support for him among the people of West Africa.
As colonial repression mounted in some parts of Africa, independence dawned in others. The Gold Coast having become the independent state of Ghana in 1957, the first conference of independent African states was organised in Accra in April 1958. This was followed by the All African Peoples’ Conference, also in Accra, in December 1958. A posthumously published work by Kwame Nkrumah reproduces the provisional agenda prepared for the conference: “The main purpose of the All-African Peoples’ Conference to be held in Accra, Ghana, in December 1958, will be to formulate concrete plans and work out the Gandhian tactics and strategy of the African Non-violent Revolution….”
According to one contemporary observer, the final resolution was a compromise between what was described as the Algerian point of view, which considered “violence to be one of the weapons used by subject peoples to achieve independence from colonialism” and other Africans who “wanted non-violence and the policies of Ghandi (sic)”.
Violence was always lurking around the corner. In a pamphlet first written and circulated in the forties, Nkrumah, mentioning the Jallianwala Bagh massacre by British-led troops in Amritsar (India) in 1919, had referred to colonial policy in Africa which “in 1929 mowed down by machine gun fire poor defenceless Nigerian women for peacefully and harmlessly protesting against excessive taxation, the counterpart of India’s Amritsar.”
On April 7, 1960, in the shadow of the Sharpeville incident in South Africa, Nkrumah addressed the Positive Action Conference for Peace and Security in Africa. “The beginning of the year 1960”, he said, “has seen the climax of ruthless and concerted outrages on the peace-loving people of our continent. The explosion of an atomic device in the Sahara by the French Government and the wanton massacre in the Union of South Africa of our brothers and sisters who were engaged in peaceful demonstrations against humiliating and repulsive laws of the South African Government are two eloquent events in this climax, a climax which is a signpost to the beginning of the end of foreign supremacy and domination in Africa.”
“Positive action has already achieved remarkable success in the liberation struggle of our continent and I feel sure that it can further save us from the perils of this atomic arrogance. If the direct action that was carried out by the international protest team were to be repeated on a mass scale, or simultaneously from various parts of Africa, the result could be as powerful and as successful as Gandhi’s historic Salt March. We salute Mahatma Gandhi and we remember, in tribute to him, that it was in South Africa that his method of non-violence and non-cooperation was first practiced in the struggle against the vicious race discrimination that still plagues that unhappy country.
“But now positive action with non-violence, as advocated by us, has found expression in South Africa in the defiance of the oppressive pass laws. This defiance continues in spite of the murder of unarmed men, women and children by the South African Government. We are sure that the will of the majority will ultimately prevail, for no government can continue to impose its rule in face of the conscious defiance of the overwhelming masses of its people. There is no force, however impregnable, that a united and determined people cannot overcome.”
As late as the end of the sixties, the West African nationalist pioneer, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, wrote in the light of his own experience: “On Gandhi’s teachings of satyagraha, history has proved Gandhi right.” Dr Azikiwe understood a vital aspect of Gandhi’s method: it did not consist in mere expression of love towards the opponent, as is sometimes incorrectly assumed, but of a struggle to change the existing state of affairs. Dr Azikiwe elaborated: “Those Indians who tried to love and co-operate with the alien Sahibs who ruled over them, and continued to do their work without seeking a political means of effecting a radical change in their status, had learned from experience that they were living in the clouds. Who but a fool would co-operate with evil or with his oppressor?”
As Tom Mboya has noted, Gandhi’s influence in Africa was felt across “political or racial boundaries”. His impact, such as it was, appeared to cut across nations, races, linguistic areas and religions. Among his most ardent students, for example, were Nigeria’s Aminu Kano and the leading Algerian intellectual and Islamic scholar, Malek Bennabi. A devout Muslim, Aminu Kano, according to his biographer, “analysed Gandhi’s success in lifting millions of Indians to a high level of dedication and endeavoured to adapt Gandhi’s non-violent techniques to Northern Nigeria”. Kano came, at least according to one source, to be referred to as the “Gandhi of Nigeria” . A progressive Muslim and Secretary of the Northern Elements Progressive Union, Aminu Kano took several initiatives for land and social reform, supporting peasants’ co-operatives and advocating gender equality. The name of Aminu Kano came to be associated with high ideals and moral purpose.
Underlining the “importance to society of people like Aminu Kano or Mahatma Gandhi”, the West African litterateur, Chinua Achebe would write: “Gandhi was real; Aminu Kano was real. They were not angels in heaven, they were human like the rest of us in India and Nigeria. Therefore, after their example, no one who reduces the high purpose of politics which they exemplified down to a swinish scramble can hope to do so without bringing a terrible judgement on himself.”
There was another aspect of Gandhi – his strategy for national rejuvenation and reconstruction – which often interested West Africans. In Cameroon, for example, intellectuals closely studied Gandhi’s ideational resistance to colonialism. The influential journal Abbia was guided by Bernard Nsokika Fonlon who was “quite explicit” in his “resort to writings against imposed forms of education by Ireland’s Padraic Pearse and India’s Mohandas Gandhi, nationalist rebels who made those descents from elite to mass surroundings Fonlon called for and were respectively executed and jailed for their efforts”. “Their resistance served Fonlon as models for Africa’s leaders”.
Gandhi’s advocacy of African freedom led India in its support for freedom struggles in Africa. And with reconciliation stressed by Gandhi, most former British colonies opted to remain in the Commonwealth after independence. The extent to which Gandhian non-violent struggles came to draw upon the emphasis that Gandhi placed on a non-racialist construction of peoplehood, especially and expressly from May 1908 onwards (when he had spoken in Johannesburg looking forward to the day when “all the different races commingle and produce a civilization that perhaps the world has not yet seen”, the influences which served to bring this about, and Gandhi’s repercussions in West Africa remain a promising area for further extensive study.