Article: Reflections on Prof. Adu-Boahen’s famous lectures

The man as I knew him: Professor Adu-Boahen is a man about whom not much more can be written. My recollections of the man are those of a kid of his own sons’ generation. As a young boy growing up on Legon campus, I remember Prof distinctly as my own father’s classmate in Mfantsipim. K.B. Dickson, E.V. Doku, J.K. Nsarkoh and A.A. Boahen were all from MOBA ’50, and they all became Professors in the Univeristy of Ghana, Legon. Then we moved on to Achimota School – Livingstone House. Prof. Adu Boahen was a regular presence at the cadet square, as a visiting parent in search of his sons, Kofi and Kwaku. I therefore remember Prof., also through his cars: a Peugeot 504, then Peugeot 505, the Volvo 244, which was the target of UNIGOV sponsored arson ( and would have succeeded but for the ferocious intervention of his dog, Topsy) and the Honda Civic. I remember the trademark spectacles – many times dressed in his political suit, many other times in a smock, once a while, in his tennis attire and on the formal occasions, Adu Boahen in his cloth or suit. That was the Professor to me – he had a reputation even among Professors for being very bright.

In 1987, I recollect distinctly, he and my late mother chatting on the Cadet Square of Achimota School. The History professor in explaining why he was wearing a collar, made references to how he had strained his problematic neck writing an explosive set of lectures he would be giving soon. I heard the conversation, it passed, we were after all hungry young men then – eager to take the food we had been brought by our visiting parents and then content to leave the adults to their arcane conversations. Alas, the aftermath of those lectures he referred to – when I was then in Upper Six in Achimota School, is what I now write about.

Many can say an unlimited number of things about the Professor – I knew him first and foremost as an ordinary human being, a friend of my parents and a parent of my friends. He was full of humour and the man who yelled back, “Kontopiat,” when we addressed him as such.

The culture of silence: It is perhaps a good thing that the culture of silence is now a memory. We lived through a period of very little activity from the private media; a period of no social media; no constitution, an era of scant official criticism of government. This was the time when dissenter was synonymous with dissident. It was an era of pervasive fear among citizens. Adu Boahen had much to say in his famous lectures but this quote illustrates the spirit of the age in which he delivered the lectures. The political environment in which the historian chose to make a blistering attack on what in those days seemed like the immovable object of military dictatorship was hostile to criticism. “We have not protested or staged riots not because we trust the PNDC but because we fear the PNDC. We are afraid of being detained, liquidated or dragged before the CVC or NIC or being subjected to all sorts of molestation.”

 It is instructive that a couple of weeks after Adu Boahen ‘struck’ in Ghana, another African voice in the academie lashed out in Nigeria. Wole Soyinka made the now historic statement that the divine rights of kingship in Africa had given way to the divine rights of guns! Such were the times.

The lectures:  Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences – J.B. Danquah Memorial Lectures Series 21, February 1988; immortal! That is the way I often write about what Prof did in those lectures. Adu Boahen was already a towering intellectual, a prominent historian – internationally respected, and never a stranger to controversy, when it came to speaking out against what he considered to be wrong. He had been detained by a previous military regime and was therefore not naïve to the dangers of what he was embarking on. And yet, with senior members of the military top brass in attendance, Adu the historian and activist, armed only with his reading glasses and his speech, launched an unblinking, scathing and remorseless attack on military rule. These lectures shook the very foundations of our political constructions in Ghana at the time. It was a political earthquake, a sonic boom.

My own view of history is collectivist, seldom attributing complex events to any one individual. Therefore, in respect of breaking the culture of silence, I stop at saying: without a doubt, Adu Boahen erected a major monument to freedom and courage in his name with these lectures. But there were others who made other kinds of contributions, and given our fractious attitude towards attribution, let the claim to who broke the culture of silence be reserved for many. It does not have to be exclusive for Adu Boahen to be great – he was.

In a closed society, governed by less than fully transparent devices and configurations of power, such as military regimes tend to degenerate into, people find their ways to vent at the system. And so it was in Ghana – at bars, in places of worship and on farms; in the bustling markets and the energetic commercial transport stations; within the then underground political movements of opposition; deep in the recesses of the Trade Union movement and in the Bar Association; among the demoralized academie and within the ranks of the teeming lumpen proletariat; at funerals and at sports stadia; in many such gatherings, our collective yearning for freedom as a people found expression.

Adu Boahen was equal parts an intellectual and a man of the people. Indeed in the famous lectures under review, Prof. noted: “I have been spending most of my time since the last three years among these farmers in the rural areas and I know that the quantity of the food they eat, the water they drink, the clothes they wear, the houses or huts they live in and the beds they sleep on is simply appalling.” God knows he was no aloof and detached intellectual content to loiter in esoterica.

The lectures created a firestorm. Adu Boahen and his family were pilloried by the junta – no aspect of his life shielded. He was at the same time hailed as a hero by many, and in no time, it is no surprise, the clamour for him to stand for President reached a climax.

Adu Boahen is gone but his work lives on: This is too brief a write-up to do full justice to the life and works of Adu Boahen, as a scholar and activist. He is a straddling feature of the decolonization process – the young Adu Boahen, was an unrepentant and fearless campaigner for the history of Africa to be told fully and fairly. His scholastic “assaults” on many a clueless “authority” – people like Hugh Trevor Roper are known and documented. During his Inaugural Lecture in History at the University of Ghana, the young but accomplished Adu Boahen – even then, already a Full Professor of History, had lashed at Professor Trevor Roper of Oxford University with double fists. Adu Boahen described the infamous statement by Roper that African history was only a history of Europeans in Africa and beyond that darkness, as wrong and eccentric!

Several military governments and the one-party government system in Ghana, his view of dictatorship, fell under the scrutiny and censure of his sharp tongue. Not even his own political tradition – how many others, aspiring to lead the Danquah-Busia tradition would have gone on record, and in public, to describe the Aliens Compliance Order’s implementation as characterized by stupendous blunders? This was a scholar par excellence – a man whose memory, I like to think is sometimes lost in the wrangles of politics of the partisan kind! We can never fully, or should never fully celebrate the freedoms guaranteed by the Fourth Republican Constitution, without remembering Adu Boahen’s scholastic and activist contributions.

Adu Boahen’s influence on me:  The boy, that is I, did grow up. In the last days of his healthy life, I did manage to spend some time with Adu Boahen. His mind still sharp as ever – he always called me my father’s son. The very final time I saw him was at the Great Hall in Legon, where considerably weakened by illness, he came in a wheel chair to see his friend, Ali Mazrui. I remember that day with tears in my eyes – for gone was the physical fire of the diminutive Professor who had punched way above his weight in the struggles for freedom. Adu was physically weakened by illness.

I always considered the Professor an accidental politician. His calling was scholastic activism, a public intellectual, in my view. Party politics and its need for incessant trade-offs was not, in my view, Adu Boahen’s natural habitat. I found it impossible to see his energies best used in that sphere but that was the choice he made. And he had a right to.

It is my personal conversations with Adu Boahen, my insight into his struggles and triumphs, his willingness to mentor a dispersed crowd of us, that convinced me fully, that not all of us should end up in party politics. There are many other ways to serve and to contribute.

I believe part of our duty to him, those of us who saw Adu Boahen, the scholar and activist as an example, is to ensure that this episode of democracy lasts and that it yields development.  That the breaching of the culture of silence matures into a culture of sane and respectful conversation, aimed at sparking learning in its broadest and most far reaching forms in the broad society. That we as a people, will use the Fourth Republic as a vehicle for the delivery of broad based prosperity to our people – not just a divisive variant of partisanship. In some ways, Adu Boahen sacrificed everything for the causes he believed in. We celebrate his scholastic diligence, we honour his undying fearlessness in the advocacy of his views and positions, we salute his patriotism.

After these J.B. Danquah Memorial Lectures, the historian delivered another set of very highly rated lectures in the US of A, this time on “African Perspectives on Colonialism.” For those who are only able to read the Professor’s work through partisan lenses, it is worthy of note how politically ‘polytheist’ he was in reviewing the decolonization process. Adu Boahen made the noteworthy observation, celebrating, “radical African leaders who demanded this time not the reform of the colonial system but its total abolition and the restoration of African independence, sovereignty and dignity.”  He then listed names like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, Patrice Lumumba and others. Often he remarked that he did not believe in mental enslavement to any particular ideology – that is my view too. It can only be hoped that he will be remembered by many, as a scholar, not caged in the dysfunctional partisan constrictions that our society has fallen prey to. For, let the heavens say it aloud, this was no linear historian.

Final words: Whatever its imperfections and features, and there are many; whatever our disappointments may be with the progress of the Fourth Republic in Ghana, we must work to create a society in which broad-based prosperity becomes a reality.

For as long as there continue to be many poor and marginalized peoples in Ghana and Africa, for as long as there are reasons for people to live in fear of the deprivation of their political, socio-cultural, legal, economic  and all other tissues of comprehensive human rights; for as long as all power retains its capacity to corrupt the powerful and to intimidate the objects of power – for as long as the possibility exists of such deformity in the organism called society, there will be need for people like Adu Boahen. In his work as a scholar and activist, he taught us that the world needs us all.

I end here, as always when I remember the Professor in deep terms, a bit shaken – for I saw the adulation but also saw, at close range, some of the damnation he suffered from friend and foe alike in the topsy-turvy of his political life. It is only fitting that my final words, be his – in the published version of his lectures. Thankfully, I have been given a copy of the original hand-written notes he made for these lectures as well.

“And so I am done. To end as I began, our country is one of the best endowed countries in Africa in terms of both human and material resources, and there is therefore no real reason why we should be confronted with such a sphinx riddle. But I hope the features of that riddle have been accurately delineated and some of the measures towards its solution have been proposed. It is up to you and me, to all of us, …to add to these solutions and above all to see that they are implemented. If we do not, to borrow the phrase of the late James Baldwin, it may be the fire next time!

By Yaw Nsarkoh, Adenta

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