Listening to experts: What is politics?

Throughout the semester, we host a number of speakers who help us think about the central questions of the course:  What is politics?  What is democracy?  What is development?  What expectations do citizens have of the state?  Students read texts written by our visitors, who use their time to talk to us about the themes and arguments of their own work, their experience of fieldwork, and the students’ own research projects.  This semester we have hosted an extraordinary group of scholars in Detroit and in Accra.

We began the semester with a visit from Jeffrey Ahlman, whose work on nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Nkrumahism provided an excellent foundation for our ongoing questions about national identity, political participation, ideology, leadership, and state power.  In particular, Jeff raised a number of questions about the ideological roots of nationalism and both the promise and challenges posed by independence.  Nationalist movements like the United Gold Coast Convention and Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party were rooted in anti-colonialism – a rejection of colonial rule.  But those parties also had to craft compelling visions of what would take the place of colonialism.  What, in other words, would the nationalist government do that would be different from what the colonial government did?


For many, Ahlman argued, Nkrumah was associated with freedom – a symbolic and rhetorical connection that Nkrumah himself established through the honorific Osagyefo.  However, there were many other definitions or ideas of freedom beyond the symbolic representations of Kwame Nkrumah.  For many young people, for example, freedom meant that elders would relinquish control.  We can see these hopes articulated in highlife songs like the Black Beats’ “Telephone Lobi”, which highlights the breaking down of hierarchies based on age, generation, and gender.  In the political realm, Nkrumah’s “verandah boys” rise in some ways through the promise of these changes, both implicitly and explicitly.  Nkrumah’s government also created organizations like the Builder’s Brigade and the Young Pioneers, which encouraged young people to define lives outside of the control of elders, identifying and pledging allegiance instead to the new nation-state.

Popular culture also highlighted the limits of political rhetoric and ideology, however.  Musical cultures and state policies, which limited the influence of Pan-African musics like rock and roll and calypso raised questions about the realities of Pan-Africanist inclusion.  Nkrumah’s notions of “African personality” and Pan-Africanism emphasized the importance of rediscovering African values that predated European arrival and using them as the foundation for new national political, economic, social, and cultural consciousness and organization.  But Nkrumah’s vision for a Pan-African nation existed in tension with the strong national identity he sought to cultivate in Ghana.  Nkrumah’s own critiques of neocolonialism, underdevelopment, and African socialism further highlighted these tensions:  Does it matter that people see themselves as “Ghanaian” in the context of global inequalities and persistent poverty?


While the symbolic culture associated with Nkrumahist definitions of nationalism was widespread and powerful, Ahlman argued that nationalism itself was plagued by an intellectual shallowness that reflected the weak roots of popular nationalism as well as the limits of Nkrumah’s own democratic vision.  The end of colonialism brought new questions:  What happens when the system you are against falls?  What are you for?  The answers to these questions under Nkrumah, Ahlman argues, reflects a tension or contradiction between the project to create “we-ness” and encourage democracy.  The Nkrumahist state was simultaneously weak and ambitious, at the same time both different from and similar to the interventionist, paternalistic colonial state.

These questions cut to the core of this course:  What does it mean to be Ghanaian?  How do you create a nation?  What is the relationship between nation and state in postcolonial Ghana?  What does citizenship mean?  These questions are far more important than what political parties mean.  Nkrumah’s struggles highlight for us both the great promise and power of his visions as well as the great difficult to achieve fundamental structural changes – a task that was complicated significantly by the tensions and politics of the Cold War and the vulnerability of African economies in the context of global trade.

Jeff also helped lead the class in a discussion of some even more fundamental questions:  How do people define “government” or “the state”?  What is citizenship?  Is there an inherent or expected relationship with government just because you use government infrastructure or resources?  Does the relationship between citizens and the state have to be functional?  Or can it be dysfunctional?  Are government and “the state” the same thing?  Does you have particular responsibilities toward the state as citizens beyond the reactionary?

Through discussion, students highlighted a number of important points, namely:

  • If government are the people or representatives that you vote for, then is the state the regulatory bodies, institutions, and policies that government enacts (or creates)?
  • If “all politics are local”, then are politics really a question of who gets what and how much?
  • If we assume that government does things for the common good or the public good, what does does a government look like when it does not emerge out of a social contract?  When the state structures and policies that government representatives employ are not “of the people, by the people, and for the people” but rather a legacy of colonial rule?  Is everyone adequately represented by that government?
  • How do leaders and citizens understand and address these questions in an emergent country?  – Through trial and error?  Looking at examples/precedent?  Whose examples do you look to?  Are systems transferable/universalizable?  At what point are these questions specific to that country and at what point do they exist as part of larger systems and discourses?

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