“My Dear Osagyefo”

Posted on August 26, 2015 in Essays

Letters between Dr Banda and Dr Nkrumah

Dear Dr Nkrumah, “This is my usual periodic letter to you. It brings nothing new of importance.” So begins, evidently in mid-course, a fascinating correspondence between Dr Hastings Banda of Malawi and Dr Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (the original files are held in the Ghana National Archive in Accra, with photocopies in the Southern African Archive, University of York). The date is February 1956. Dr Banda is in his late fifties, and is writing from Kumasi in the Ashanti district of the Gold Coast, where he has been living since 1953.

His companion is Mrs French, former receptionist at his practice in North London, at whose divorce he had been cited as co-respondent. Dr Nkrumah, at forty-six, is prime minister of a territory that within fourteen months will become the first colony in sub-Saharan Africa to gain its independence.

Banda’s professional life as a general practitioner in Britain was over. His long political campaign against the creation of the Central African Federation had apparently failed. His lonely quest for acceptance in the homeland of that Presbyterian mission where he gained his first schooling and which set the standards he had lived by for thirty years had ended in scandal and flight. So he writes in some frustration from the fringe of great events, compelled to play courtier to a former protege. (“I doubt if there is any other person who takes a keener personal interest and pride in your achievement . . . . Nothing I can tell you will be new to you . . . if at all possible, let me hear from you.”) There are five letters from this early period, four of Banda’s and one of Nkrumah’s. Banda casts himself as elder statesman, congratulating “his friend” on this or that initiative and enlarging on his public speeches in a manner that flatters with judicious advice. Nkrumah is right not to be “too rigid” in negotiations over independence. But whatever concessions are necessary, and in politics concessions are often necessary, over the Volta Lake and River Project, “I would not give in if I were you”. He explains: “as you have, at least once or twice said, the economy of this country is weakened by too much dependence on one crop, namely cocoa . . . . How I wish it were possible for you to recruit labour from Nyasaland and Portuguese East Africa for your vast development schemes.”

Nkrumah’s reply, dated February 22, 1956, is so enviably ebullient it can only have been received with mixed feelings:

“I am very glad Mrs French thought I looked well. I must confess that I feel very well. Many people marvel at this, especially during the rather troublesome time we have been going through lately. I think they feel that I should, according to the book of rules, have a furrowed brow, an anxious eye and sunken cheeks though sleepless nights and loss of appetite. I have long known I am not true to type, but that I should flourish at such times is something that staggers even me! The whole answer, of course, is that I never brood once I have solved a problem to my own satisfaction. While I am busy solving it, however, I am told by my staff that I am as savage and unapproachable as a lion in his den!”

Then comes a small disaster. Nkrumah has written asking for advice on whom to invite from southern Africa to Ghana’s independence celebrations. The letter never reaches Banda, but the reproof does, conveyed through a minor trade union official. “Such a letter would never have been delayed in being answered”, he insists, commenting at length on the carelessness of postal clerks in Kumasi.

He is delighted that Colonial Secretary Lennox-Boyd has been invited (it might result in “the saving of faces”) together with Welensky of Southern Rhodesia and Strydom of South Africa, but does not think they will attend. He does not recommend inviting anyone from Northern Rhodesia, but he suggests three names from Nyasaland: James Chinyama of the Legislative Council, Manoa Chirwa of the Federal Parliament, and T. D. Banda of the Nyasaland African Congress. All three were later to become victims of Banda’s own rise to power.

Yet for all the frustrations of his position and the ironies of hindsight, Banda’s early letters are often deeply moving. “My Dear Dr Nkrumah”, he writes in April 1956, “please allow me to tell you what a joy it was to me to read the proposals for the independent Ghana. A lump came up into my throat and only with difficulty did I restrain myself from shedding tears of joy.” The passions of that generation of African leaders, bruised by their long contact with colonial racism, are too easily forgotten in the turmoil and horrors that have followed. There is innocence in Banda’s joy, the perfect foil to Nkrumah’s exuberance in power. “The birth of a truly independent Ghana cannot fail to arouse deep emotions of joy among all Africans, no matter what tribes or where they live. Because it means that at last, we have one truly independent African modern state, to which we can all look with pride.” Time and again he comes back to this theme: “if you succeed, the whole of Africa is redeemed. It may not be in my time, but it is redeemed. If you fail, the whole of Africa is doomed and doomed for centuries.” He recalls their meetings in London and Manchester. “Can you still remember that big map? It seemed a wild dream then. It does not seem so wild now, does it?” His marginal gloss explains, “I mean the dream of the redemption of Africa.”

But there is also a warning, increasingly ominous in their subsequent correspondence: “it has been a constant source of worry to me that through the action of some stupid and idiot fanatic . . . your great work might be cut short, that is, by their attempts on your life by one means or another”.

No further letters are available for the next five years. Banda’s career in Ghana was not a happy one. The relationship with Mrs French collapsed in acrimony, and she left for Britain with their son. There were rumours, perhaps malicious, about schizophrenia and illegal abortions. Then in 1958 his political career is revived when he is invited home by the new leaders of the Nyasaland African Congress to head the revived struggle against the Central African Federation. He is detained by the federal authorities, released by the British, and wins an election campaign. When his corres-pondence with Dr Nkrumah resumes in 1962, he is himself about to become prime minister of a territory on course to independence.

Between February 1962 and Malawi’s Independence in July 1964, thirteen letters exist. Ten are Banda’s, eight of them written from his private address in Limbe where he maintained a small practice. It continues, in short, as a private correspondence, though the letters are now addressed to “The Osagyefo”, and later “The Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah President”. This praise name he was later to copy and elaborate.

Banda’s letters share three concerns. The first continues to speak of Ghana as the pattern for African development. The ideological implications of this need not be taken too seriously. Banda was never the man to write off his Ghana years as irrelevant, and his habit of lecturing young associates on the lessons to be drawn from his own experiences continued into his old age. Nkrumah was offering aid from Ghana’s cocoa wealth to fund political parties in Southern Africa, together with personnel for development projects. It is fair to add that no other model existed of five years’ standing of how (or how not) to govern an independent African country. So Banda misses no opportunity to send his parliamentary supporters, party members, members of the Women’s League, and personal associates such as Cecilia Kadzamira his “secretary” to study “the progress Ghana has made under and through your wise leadership”.

Linked with this is his personal admiration for Nkrumah. “To me you have long since ceased to be a person or an individual. You are the symbol or personification of Africa and all that Africa means to true nationalists . . . No single African leader has done more for Africa: no single African country has done more than Ghana.” It is the kind of flattery Nkrumah was already demanding of his own supporters, but Banda’s words are not flummery. Nkrumah is cast as the man with the vision of a united, modernized, non-aligned African continent. Banda echoes this vision and supplements it with political gossip.

He regrets that other countries are not following Ghana’s example (“Independence seems to drive us Africans apart, instead of bringing us together”), and he blames Nigeria and Tanganyika for “trying to isolate Ghana and diminish the influence of yourself in inter-African affairs”. Increasingly, at this period, Banda’s letters invoke a world in which the righteous (Nkrumah, Banda himself) are surrounded by implacable enemies -the British press, all Americans, and a host of upstart, ungrateful Africans.

The bulk of these letters, then, are horrified reactions to threats to Nkrumah’s safety, specifically to the assassination attempts of August 1962 and January 1964, separated by the actual killing of President Sylvanus Olympio of Togo in January 1963. “Make certain that you surround yourself with trusted, tried and proven friends,” he writes on September 2, 1962, “both in the Government and the top layers of the party.” Then, on January 12, 1964:

“The news of yet another attempt on your life, through (sic) me into a frightful sense of horror from which I have not yet recovered. And this sense of horror was made worse by news that the man involved was, in fact, a policeman attached to your personal entourage. This worries me greatly. It worries me because I do not know, my dear Osagyefo, to what extent the whole Police Force is infiltrated by the enemy . . . . You have great work to do in Africa. Any attempt on your life, is an attempt on Africa itself.”

He reports on policemen “like those I knew in Kumasi” who were once Nkrumah’s opponents, yet now hold high office. Everyone must be investigated “preferably secretly”, even the intelligence services. Self-evidently, the horrors expressed here touch Banda in more ways than one. The measures he proposes were very soon to become his own practice.

Only three of Nkrumah’s letters from this period are in the file. Two are brief responses to the attempts on his life, again notable for the stylishness of their sangfroid (“This was certainly a very unpleasant business, but bad as such things are, very often good comes out of them”). The third, dated April 15, 1964, less than three months before Malawi’s independence, is a carefully argued document demonstrating a new concern.

The bearer is John Tettegah, dispatched by Nkrumah on a trip that took him to Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland to promote the latest of his panAfrican initiatives, namely, the all-African Trade Union Federation (and, incidentally, to field complaints about the non-arrival of Ghana’s promised aid). Nkrumah was sponsoring this Ghana-based federation, of which Tettegah was first secretary, as a rival to the existing organizations (the Industrial and Commercial Federation of Trade Unions and the World Federation of Trade Unions). He had recently experienced renewed labour unrest and was inclined to put the blame on “foreign interference”:

“The ICFTU and the WFTU are only interested in promoting their respective claims for recognition in Africa, whereas our interests lie in insulating our labour groups from the hostilities that have torn foreign labour organizations apart and created labour and industrial unrest among them for so long. For us in Africa, it should be clear that we cannot indulge in expensive industrial strikes and lockouts. We must concentrate our efforts and exert all enemies towards the urgent tasks of national reconstruction. The welfare of the African worker is therefore our first concern. This is the language which the capitalist power-groups in Europe and America have yet to understand.”

“Unfortunately”, he continues, the Nyasaland TUC continued to be affiliated to the ICFTU “which has been known to incite strikes against African leaders whose policies are not acceptable to the Western bloc”. Even “more embarrassing”, Yatuta Chisisa, one of Banda’s parliamentary secretaries, had recently attended an ICFTU meeting in Addis Abba. The letter ends subtly with an appeal to Banda to give Tettegah “sound advice and guidance”.

Banda’s response (in Tettegah’s report to Nkrumah) was that the contents of the letter were “true”, but that Trade Unions were “insignificant” . . . . “Dr Banda, I must mention, tends to under-estimate the power of Trade Unions completely.” It was the first hint of doubts in Ghana about the direction of Dr Banda’s Government, and the first time a direct appeal from Banda’s mentor was to be ignored.

Ghana was lavishly represented at Malawi’s independence celebrations with a delegation of five ministers, thirty-two members of the police band, twenty-seven members of the Institute of Arts and Culture, and the Uhuru dance band.

However, reports Krobo Edusie, Minister of Foreign Affairs, who led the delegation, “It became very clear to us that Dr Banda is not well grounded ideologically. In most of his speeches, save one, he never mentioned African Unity, etc. The stress was on the Commonwealth and on the United Nations.” Part of the blame lay in Malawi’s “land-locked problem” that, in Banda’s view, necessitated co-operation and good relations with the Portuguese in Mozambique, and with the United States who already had “about 3,000 Peace Corps” in Malawi. Interestingly, in the light of what was to follow, Edusie also blamed Tanganyika’s influence on Malawi’s young Cabinet ministers, in particular Kanyama Chiume, Minister of Information, for Banda’s “change of attitude”.

Four months later, in November 1964, Edusie was back in Malawi on a secret mission from Nkrumah with personal letters to Banda and to Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika. The context was the aftermath of Malawi’s Cabinet crisis, that defining event in the new nation’s history, when the most talented members of Banda’s Cabinet resigned in protest. Though Banda’s social and foreign policies were given as the cause, the real issue was his autocratic, increasingly messianic, style of leadership. New to power, the ministers were easily outmanoeuvred, overlooking the importance of the Malawi Congress Party, and losing a confidence vote in a parliament packed with Banda’s nominees. When violence erupted, several of the exministers, including Chiume, were given asylum in Dar es Salaam. In Nkrumah’s letters, Banda was “advised to visit Ghana during his U.N. trip so that he may have the benefit of Osagyefo’s counsel . . . and advised about the dangers of friendly overseas overtures to the Portuguese”. Nyerere was warned “that Banda would not tolerate any interference in the internal affairs of Malawi”.

By 1964, Nyerere, at forty-two, wielded more influence than Nkrumah in Eastern and Southern Africa, and Dar es Salaam was the principal base of the nationalist movements later to achieve power in Angola, Mozambique and South Africa. His response to Nkrumah’s assertion of seniority was cool: “He would obviously like a complete rapprochement with Osagyefo”, Edusie reported, “provided in his simple view Osagyefo would leave Africa alone and stop causing trouble”. But it was Banda’s response that caused heart-searching. His style of leadership was “unpopular because he was following Ghana . . . he used what he described as ‘his Ghana methods’ and he gave the impression that his actions had the support of the Ghana government”. This had caused, noted Edusie dryly, “some confusion in African nationalist circles”.

The file contains eight more letters and one telegram, and they bring the sad story to a swift conclusion. Two, from Banda, concern mundane matters -a visit by his security officer, a new High Commissioner in Accra. Nkrumah responds on April 24, 1965, with one of his last political statements. After promising that he has been “able to arrange some financial assistance from our limited resources for you”, he rebukes Banda for “compromising over Portugal”:

“Our only hope for survival against this deadly encroachment on our political and economic freedom is our ability to stand together against the imperialists and colonialists. As soon as we stand together in this way, the colonialists will be at bay, and we will not go to them cap in hand or be subjected to undue subservience to them. In my view we can protect ourselves best in Africa by uniting under a continental Union government which alone can help us solve our mounting problems in Africa. You should therefore proclaim this at the top of your voice on every suitable occasion.”

Banda’s next letter is stiff and formal, regretting that, with the change of date for the OAU summit conference in Accra, he will not be able to attend.

Warned by his High Commissioner that this is being interpreted as “a break”, he writes again personally with all the old warmth. “As you know, Kwame, you and I have been together for over twenty years now . . . . Whether I agree with you or not, I could never gang up with anyone against you.” He attends the conference in October, and is flown to Kumasi for a private visit.

The next item is a telegram from Nkrumah to Banda, sent in cipher through T. K. Owusu, Ghana’s High Commissioner in Malawi, and appealing for clemency in the case of Silombela, sentenced to be publicly hanged “for subversion against your person and government”. In the aftermath of the Malawian Cabinet crisis of 1964, Henry Chipembere, one of the dissident ministers, launched an abortive raid on the government capital Zomba from his base at Fort Johnson. It was an ill-considered revolt, ending for Chipembere in permanent exile. Silombela, one of his lieutenants, remained in the Fort Johnson area, organizing low-scale guerrilla activity until his capture in 1965.

Nkrumah continues, “I would like to make this special appeal to you to commute the public hanging to a sentence of imprisonment . . . on purely humanitarian grounds.”

Owusu’s return telegram describes Banda’s and his own reactions, not omitting to note the young pioneer connection. “He read through, held his chin up and replied he could not reconsider his original decision. Silombela should be hanged . . . . The inhabitants in Fort Johnson district are predominantly Muslim, and their belief in absurdities is profound . . . . I want to give them a practical demonstration that Chipembere and his henchmen are not superhuman beings.” Owusu’s telegram concludes, “It will be a horrible execution.”

On February 16, Banda wrote to Nkrumah requesting the closure of Ghana’s mission in Malawi. With deliberate cruelty, he chose March 6, Ghana’s Independence Day, for the break in relations to become effective. Nkrumah is unlikely to have seen this letter. He was on a state visit to China and on February 29 was overthrown by a military coup. In July 1966, Hastings Banda became President (later Life-President) of the Republic of Malawi with the praise name His Excellency the President, the Ngwazi, Dr H. Kamuzu Banda.

First published Times Literary Supplement, 17 August, 2001.