By Akin Adesokan
This month, this year, mark two unusual milestones: the anniversary of the birth ninety years ago of Amílcar Cabral, the much-lamented revolutionary leader of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, PAIGC, and the centenary of Robert Kweku Gardiner, a Ghanaian bureaucrat and statesman. Robert Kweku who? Yes, Robert Kweku Atta Gardiner. Gardiner was not well-known as an African statesman, much less as a thinker to warrant comparison with the immortal Cabral. But that is what makes the two anniversaries unusual, and worthy of commemoration. Together.
Gardiner was born on September 29, 1914, in Kumasi, and died in Accra, Ghana, on April 13, 1994. The bulk of his career unfolded as an administrator, and mostly with the United Nations, where he held the position of Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa between 1962 and 1975. But this position, which Gardiner assumed three years late, was a Godsend. He was the first Head of Service in Ghana at independence, and he might have stayed long on that job had political differences with President Kwame Nkrumah not set both men on a collision course. At the earliest opportunity, Gardiner accepted the UN job, avoiding a falling-out with the Osagyefo. He had barely settled into the position when he was asked to serve in crisis-torn Congo. Indeed, his work in the Congo made him indispensable to the various negotiations during the civil war in that country in the 60s.
I first encountered Gardiner’s name in an essay, “In A Colonial University” (1993), by Ulli Beier, the late German ethnographer and cultural critic. The essay is Beier’s account of his move to Nigeria in 1950 to teach in the Extramural Studies program at the newly founded University College, Ibadan. Thus did providence give him his calling—”discovering my ori,” i.e. discovering one’s purpose, was Beier’s own description—as an interpreter of African (especially Yoruba) society.
Of Gardiner, who had interviewed him for the job, Beier writes: “He was one of the blackest Africans I have ever seen…His expression was wistful, yet purposeful, like that of a man with few illusions but determined not to be got down by his experience…He was the only man who at that stage had a real insight into the political and social structures of the country and who was bold enough to challenge the narrow policy of the university. I spent as much time as possible with him, listening and learning.”
There’s the portrait of a principled, noiseless decolonizer, a “highly political animal,” according to Beier. Gardiner was also a thinker, and his book, A World of Peoples, developed from his BBC Reith lectures in 1965, is a most insightful analysis of racism and racial relations.
Taken together, these three moments of Gardiner’s life seem to me a fascinating opportunity to explore an idea which has preoccupied me for a long time: the compatibility of the radical, revolutionary spirit with the more sober, rigorous philosophical spirit of the thinker, both ultimately aimed, in my view, at the betterment of human life.
Reflecting on the tragic assassination of the Burkinabe leader, Thomas Sankara, in October 1987, I realized that almost all the progressive, high-minded champions of change on the African continent were murdered or toppled from power, while the authoritarian ones stayed long enough to run their countries aground. Think of Patrice Lumumba and Mobutu Sese Seko. Sankara was visionary, courageous and honest, but he could also be erratic. Leopold Senghor had a subtle, poised mind, but the sight of Ernesto Guevara horrified him. African history hasn’t found a figure that lastingly, effectively, combined the best of Sankara and Senghor.
Out of political optimism (you say idealism?), I imagine Gardiner in the same spirit as Cabral, a man in whom the visionary revolutionary and the convincing philosopher are all too briefly mixed with the humane leader.
A general outline of Cabral’s life chronicles a man from an elitist background. Born in Praia, Cape Verde, on September 12, 1924, Cabral was assassinated in Guinea on January 20, 1973, by agents of PIDE, the Portuguese secret police. He was educated in Lisbon, where he studied agronomy and was inspired by the writings of other metropolitan black colonials (Aimé Césaire, for example). He was a founding member of MPLA, the liberation movement that eventually took power in Angola. Yet Cabral did not have any chance of agitating within his country and spent most of his years of activism (1959-1973) out of legal sight.
Without questions, Cabral was a first-rate intellectual, a brilliant thinker on the political and cultural dimensions of anti-colonial struggle. His political ideas are often compared in quality to those of Frantz Fanon and Guevara, and their originality is not distrusted as are those of Nkrumah and Sékou Touré, his closest comrades. Anyone wishing to glimpse the dramatic differences between these unique personalities should consult Night of the Elephants, a fine play about Nkrumah’s Conakry years by the Nigerian dramatist, Femi Osofisan.
In an authoritative description of Cabral’s political temperament, Basil Davidson, the late British historian, writes in No Fist Is Big Enough To Cover The Sky: “Cabral’s constant policy was to try to recuperate [persons found guilty of political crimes]. He seldom lost sight of the frailties that derive from the colonial condition, and he held that it was part of the liberation struggle to make good such frailties whenever this was possible…It was a generosity of spirit; a characteristic one, but fatal now [on the occasion of his murder].”
No one would say this of Nkrumah or Touré, and it isn’t just because they never waged a war of independence. Gardiner and Cabral represent a missed encounter, two fragments from the ongoing African revolution: the possibilities of the finest ideas combined with the less attractive but no less fundamental temperament for making things work for all.
Professor Akin Adesokan, a novelist and essayist, teaches at the Indiana University, United States.