Publication Date

March 1, 2017

Perspectives Section



Current Events in Historical Context

Soon after its unveiling, this statue of Gandhi at the University of Ghana in Accra became the center of a controversy over racism and colonialism in Ghana’s past. MEAphotogallery/FlickrOn June 13, 2016, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee unveiled a bronze statue of Mohandas K. Gandhi at the University of Ghana in Accra: a gift from his country to Ghana. Hoping to inspire students at the country’s most prestigious university to learn from India’s successful path to political stability and economic progress, Mukherjeecalled on them to remember Gandhi’s list of the seven social sins: “Wealth without work; pleasure without conscience; knowledge without character; commerce without morality; science without humanity; worship without sacrifice; and politics without principles.

Within three months, faculty petitioned the University of Ghana Council to remove the monument, noting some of the racist remarks Gandhi had made about black South Africans early in his career, when he lived in South Africa (1893–1906). The concerned professors also noted that they were not alone in seeking to eradicate symbols of slavery, racism, and colonialism. They pointed to efforts to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town in March 2015 and a Yale University employee’s destruction of a stained-glass window depicting slaves carrying cotton in July 2016. In the shadow of such events, the petitioners insisted on the immediate withdrawal of the Gandhi memorial. Despite uneasiness on the part of some Ghanaian officials, the government took action. In October, the Gandhi cenotaph was removed—just days after vandals defaced the effigy.

But this controversy was unique within the global movement to remove racist historical symbols from university campuses: the petition of the Ghanaian intellectuals also encourages us to consider the legacy of pan-Africanism and to interrogate the racial ideas hidden by Gandhi’s mythic stature.

The petition suggests the continuing importance of pan-African solidarity. The signers repudiated figures that disrespected the dignity and humanity of Africans, insisting, for example, that Gandhi’s use of the term “kaffir,” a racial slur for native South Africans, disparaged all black peoples. They also called for the erection of statues of African heroes and heroines in the most coveted spaces of Ghana’s premier university. Finally, they rebuffed the Ghanaian government’s efforts to strengthen strategic and financial partnerships with foreign nations at the expense of its own citizens. They cautioned: “It is better to stand up for our dignity than to kowtow to the wishes of a burgeoning Euroasian super power.” Although they chose to use “kowtow,” often considered language that disparages Asians, their words mostly emphasized pan-African solidarity and Ghanaian nationalism. The petitioners warned officials not to choose the benefits of short-term alliances with new global actors, whether India or China, at the expense of their own people.

It is not surprising that claims for black solidarity, antiracism, and anticolonialism came from this Ghanaian university. When Ghana gained independence from Britain in March 1957 (exactly six decades ago), the new state’s prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, inextricably linked its independence to pan-African unity. At his inaugural address, he declared, “The independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up to the total liberation of Africa.” Subsequently, Ghana became not only a model for other African freedom fighters but also a bastion of pan-African mobilization in the 1950s and 1960s. The newly independent country even attracted African Americans and West Indians, who relocated to share in Nkrumah’s vision of black solidarity. In reinvigorating pan-­Africanism as a strategy on the continent, Nkrumah’s actions recalled articulations of pan-Africanism going back to the 19th century among black Americans and West Indians, from Martin Delaney to Marcus Garvey.

Yet Nkrumah’s bold vision of a politically and economically united Africa never materialized. The military of his beloved country removed him from power in 1966. Exiled, he died in 1972. For many years, civilian and military governments never fully nursed a spirit of pan-Africanism. Like many parts of the continent, Ghana’s black star faltered in the bipolar world vision of the Cold War, in which officials struggled to manage the aspirations of the nation’s people.

Since 1994, however, Ghanaian and international observers have praised the country’s return to democracy and stunning economic growth. In recent years, news reports have routinely pronounced it the “rising star of Africa.”3 Those success tales often downplay the neoliberal policies that underlie this growth, particularly the role of foreign investors from Europe and Asia. American foreign policy makers and journalists worry that Africa is entering a new phase of neocolonialism led by Asia.1 Among ordinary Ghanaians, these concerns are growing, too. Ghanaian officials have also pursued haphazard policies to attract foreign investment through heritage tourism. While Nkrumah’s pan-African vision sought to include diasporic Africans as full partners in the shaping of the political, social, and economic future of the continent, Ghanaian heritage tourism has relied on festivals and historical sites like slave castles to lure people to visit the country in hopes of stimulating a tourism industry rather than fomenting true pan-­African unity.

Today, vestiges of Ghana’s historic role in anticolonial struggles can be found at the University of Ghana. Nkrumah’s name graces the Institute of African Studies, on the campus’s main road. Wandering around the picturesque institution, a visitor walks along streets named for Ghanaian nationalist and opposition figure J. B. Danquah and even pan-Africanist W.E.B. DuBois, who emigrated to Ghana at Nkrumah’s invitation to complete his magnum opus, The Encyclopedia Africana. These honors are mirrored in the capital city of Accra, where global anticolonial leaders from Egypt’s Gamal Nasser to India’s Jawaharlal Nehru have their own avenues and roads.

The university petitioners’ cries to with­draw Gandhi’s statue failed to reflect the clear and irrefutable link between India and Ghana. Mohandas K. Gandhi inspired Ghanaian anticolonial nationalists and helped shape the trajectory of the Gold Coast independence movement. Influenced by Gandhi’s strategy of noncooperation and civil disobedience, Kwame Nkrumah employed a similar approach: Positive Action. He led boycotts, strikes, and a leafleting campaign to raise the consciousness of Gold Coast residents. Like Gandhi, he was jailed for his actions. British colonial administrators quickly labeled him a communist. Despite these setbacks, the Gold Coast successfully won its bid for self-rule.

On the other hand, the University of Ghana controversy offers an opportunity to revisit the iconic image of Gandhi and examine his evolving racial ideas. Scholarship has often downplayed Gandhi’s anti-­black views during his South African years and focused instead on his efforts in India after his return in 1914. There, Gandhi did indeed question aspects of the caste system and global racism, but on these subjects his views had to evolve. Without such a narrative, it is difficult to understand Gandhi’s place in history. Emerging scholarship on his early career and his impact on black American civil rights figures now explains how his racist views changed as he encountered other people of African descent, including the ideas of self-help advocate Booker T. Washington, in the United States.2 These counter-­narratives depict the antiracist freedom fighter as a less-than-mythic human being and might clarify the actions of the Ghanaian university petitioners.

The outrage displayed over the Gandhi monument at the University of Ghana is not limited to Ghana—in 2015, an assailant vandalized a Gandhi cenotaph in South Africa—but it is unclear whether criticism of Gandhi is shared across the continent or the African diaspora. Put together with the Ghanaian petitioners’ demands to promote and honor African heroes, it may also suggest the resiliency of pan-­African solidarity—once viewed as an impossible dream to sustain. Their actions evoke Kwame ­Nkrumah’s words about a new African posture during his 1957 inaugural speech. “Today, from now on, there is a new African in the world! That new African is ready to fight his own battles. . . . We are going to create our own African personality and identity. It’s the only way that we can show the world that we are ready for own our own battles.”6 These words hold true in 2017 as they did in 1957.

is associate professor of history at the United States Naval Academy.


1. Howard W. French, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa (New York: Vintage Press, 2014); David H. Shinn and Joshua Eisenman, China and Africa: A Century of Engagement (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

2. See Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed, The South African Gandhi: The Stretcher-Bearer of Empire (Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press, 2015); Ramachandra Guha, Gandhi before India (New York: Vintage, 2015); Nico Slate, Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

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