ROAPE’s Leo Zeilig talks to Yao Graham about radical political economy in Africa, structural transformation and the legacy of neo-liberalism. In the short video clip we include below Graham speaks about the struggle for social justice and radical change in Ghana. Graham is the co-ordinator of Third World Network in Accra and the Africa Editor of ROAPE.
So could you first tell me briefly about who you are and briefly about your political background and development?
My name is Yao Graham, a Ghanaian by birth. I was in secondary school in St. Augustine’s College the city of Cape Coast the late 1960s and early 1970s at the time when there were a number of very important things taking place globally. Some of my earliest recollections were my involvement around anti-apartheid activism in Ghana, discussions about pan-Africanism, reading books by radical African-Americans. I was profoundly affected reading Malcolm X’s biography. The school allowed us to charge subscriptions for magazines to our bills and I ordered Africa Journal and Newsweek which provided information about many things going on at the time – the Vietnam War, national liberation struggles across Africa; there were things happening around us.
But, in terms of direct political engagement, coming in contact with a friend’s uncle a student at the University of Cape Coast who was president of the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) was important. I was around 15 and through him a group of us met the leadership of the National Union of Ghana Students at the time. We took to spending time at the Cape Vars campus. They were beginning to re-establish Kwame Nkrumah’s legitimacy, because around that time the soldiers who had overthrown Nkrumah, and their civilian collaborators who succeeded them sought to erase Nkrumah from history. His works, images were banned. You’d be imprisoned if you were found with Nkrumah’s photo or writings. So we spent a lot of time with these guys. We were fascinated by their activism and their ideas; that was a very profound influence. We brought some of that activism to our school, initially in the students’ representative council. We began to even take part in some NUGs events. I remember three of us going to a National Assembly of Students and demanding that NUGS take on board the concerns of secondary school students. At this time we were prefects in St. Augustine’s, elected by the students. We reached out to prefects in other schools in Cape Coast about the formation of a national association of secondary school students. We did not succeed.
My years at the University of Ghana was in the period of some of the most intense student activism in Ghana’s post-colonial history. The military regime at the time faced a lot of student activism, initially against brutalities by soldiers then demands for it to go as economic conditions this transformed into a broad front movement against its attempts to entrench itself in power. So University led to a deepening of my activist engagements. I studied for a law degree and did not formally study political science or philosophy but I began to read political theory and philosophy. I was very interested in these. I began to read Marx, and radical literature generally, a fairly eclectic wave of books about anti-racism, anti-imperialist volumes on the Middle East, etc. so a fairly eclectic, intellectual formation.
By my late university years, I could say that I’d definitely become oriented towards a kind of Marxist politics. The first Marxist study cells were emerging on the campus. The embryonic foundations of what would emerge as the Marxist influenced political left which came to prominence in Ghana of the 1980s and 1990s were laid founded in the student movement of that period.
And this is the mid-seventies?
Yeah, this is mid to late seventies. This was a very important period in my formation.
Can you talk briefly about what your first involvement in ROAPE was?
I knew about the journal. I’d been reading after I came to England as a student in 1979, but my first direct involvement with ROAPE was in 1984. When I was invited from Ghana to speak at a ROAPE conference at Keele University, a conference on the world crisis and food security in Africa. I had suspended my PhD studies at the Warwick University and was in Ghana working as a full time political activist, in the Rawlings government and the New Democratic Movement (NDM). The upheavals unleashed by the Rawlings led coup of December 31 1981 and the regime’s initial anti-imperialism had attracted intense interest and I was invited to present a paper at the conference. At this time I was a leading member of the NDM also involved in the national leadership of the Defence Committees set-up by the Jerry Rawlings’ government. I presented my paper at the conference and subsequently wrote a piece for the journal on Ghana.
The Keele conference was a very lively experience, let me put it that way. By this time Rawlings relationship with his closest allies on the Ghanaian Left had started fracturing and a number of them who were in exile in the UK came to ROAPE conference and caused an uproar about my presence. This reflected the deepening rifts within the sections of the left who had supported the PNDC regime. These ex-comrades were in the crowd when I spoke in the plenary session and generated a huge uproar. Such was the heat that the organisers put on an emergency side meeting on Ghana. This was packed out and marked by sharp debates.
And the reason for the uproar was because you were being too critical?
No, I was being denounced as a traitor for continuing to work in the Rawlings government by those who were now in exile, who felt that the project of the revolution [as they described the seizure of power by Rawlings on 31 December, 1981 – LZ] had been betrayed. This was an important point of difference within the Ghanaian Left. Some of never thought it was a revolution rather something that offered possibilities for progressive work. So our expectations of the Rawlings regime were a lot less exaggerated. Our analysis of the twist and turns of the new government were different from those who thought it was a revolution. Such analysis is important, if you thought the coup d’état had been or ushered in a revolution then, of course, the revolution had failed. However if you didn’t think it was a revolution, but a coup d’état regime which had created some space for the progressive politics to operate, then you could continue to try and do your best in that space. My paper to the ROAPE conference reflected this standpoint.
The invitation from ROAPE was important for me, also, because it forced me to put down on paper my analysis of the context of Rawlings’ return to power and some of the features of the unfolding situation. In a situation of some fluidity and intensive day and night activism the pause to reflect and write the paper for the ROAPE conference was useful. So that was my first involvement in that way with ROAPE.
Brilliant and you were obviously aware of the journal before that?
Yes, I’d been reading it as part of my work as a student at Warwick and I met some of the editors involved in it at various political events in Britain in that period.
How would you assess the role of the journal? Did you regard it as a companion in some of struggles you were involved in?
I must confess that during the time that I was back in Ghana in the 1980s, during that seven year period, occasionally, you came across ROAPE but during that time I didn’t have much of an engagement with ROAPE, but when I came back to do England in 1989 to my complete PhD thesis it was something I returned to reading.
And, looking back at the history of the journal and your direct involvement in it from 1984 and then afterwards in the UK in the 1990s, how would you assess the contribution that ROAPE has made?
The invitation to me as an activist in Ghana to come to speak at the Keele conference in 1984 points to a recognition of the importance of that kind of dialogue, bringing activists into the space that the journal was creating. For me, as an activist it got me to work through my analysis of the context within in which I was working. Subsequently, I read ROAPE mainly, as a general analysis which offered ideas and, also, information about what was happening across the continent. I wouldn’t say that it occupied a particular place, because I was reading a lot of things and, also, during the period that I was working as an activist, I must confess that I was more in interested in reading about the experiences of people in building organisations; what happens in struggles; what people did to reform economies and so on and so forth, in a way that would help me with the work I was directly involved in. That kind of theoretical and analytical writing was very important to me at the time. Occasionally I read articles that touched on my concerns at the time. So there were those kinds of moments when I saw the value of the journal, but it was one of an array of publications that I looked at; and for a long period of the 1980s, when I was in Ghana, I didn’t have access to it at all.
If you look at the origins of ROAPE from 1974 in that second wave of independence, from the critical…of which, to some extent, your political history is borne. You know, a radical movement that comes about on the back of the failure of the 1960s and 1970s; the hope of that first wave of independence. ROAPE was borne in that period, particularly with the struggles in Angola and Mozambique. It then goes on to analyse and to critique structural adjustment in the 1980s and 1990s. How successful has that project been, in your mind, in providing, to some extent, radical analysis of the Continent’s political economy through that period?
I think the critique of structural adjustment and the role of those who provided the critique was an extremely important contribution in period. Why? Because, first of all, the discussion of the failures of the immediate post-colonial period to the crisis of the 1970s was presented in the dominant narrative as a zero sum way, that whole period was a kind of blank slate, that it was all a waste of time. And, yet, during that period there was important support for other national liberation movements to grow on the Continent. Within that period, people had some experience of what the state could do, in terms of welfare, education, health and so on.
I think a journal like ROAPE was very important in providing a critique of the World Bank and the IMF, providing a counterpoint to these institutions with their very large machinery of propaganda. Academia in Africa was increasingly was taken over by the politics and machinery of structural adjustment and neo-liberalism, so to have a minority of scholars and intellectuals who continued to offer an alternative perspective was very important indeed, in terms of keeping a view that something else was possible And, for those of us who were engaged in struggling against structural adjustment on the ground, having the sense of that community was quite important.
Tell me how do you see the challenges today for a journal of radical political economy? What are the important issues that need to be tackled? What’s the orientation, the thinking that needs to take place, in a fairly limited way, that the journal could make a contribution? How do you see that taking place?
If you look at the contemporary world and the African situation, ever since the global crisis of 2008-2009, neo-liberalism has been repositioning itself to maintain its dominance, by absorbing critical discourses. The current one, of course, is to reduce everything to inequality, without going to the foundations in the political economy. In the African context this approach is expressed in the strength of the Africa Rising narrative, which also sees a celebration of an African middle class, the rise of a consuming class in Africa and an occasional nod to inequality. Yet it’s also becoming clear that the colonial bequest of raw material export dependence continues to determine the fate of Africa and its people in in the global economy. Today the Continent is more entrenched in that division of labour than it was in 1974, when the global crisis began to take hold.
So, in a certain sense, the political economy of neo-colonialism remains highly active. Africa remains very much locked in that, although the global configuration has changed. Today there’s a new discussion about the fact that the Africa needs to implement structural transformation to escape this dependence. But, within that seeming agreement, there are different ideological positions and I think it is quite important for journals like ROAPE to become part of that debate, because it involves an examination of the legacy and the consequences of more than thirty years of neo-liberal dominance. It’s an analysis of what growth represents in Africa. It’s an analysis critical of the so-called Africa Rising narrative.
But the other dimension that is also really important has to do with the fact that political liberalisation in the early 1990s was significant in opening up space for popular organisation and expression. But there’s a growing realisation that electoral politics, what I call the ‘electoral carrousel’, is not the sum of democratic politics. Increasingly we see protests which are about people’s living conditions, protests about rights, protests around the new frontiers of capital accumulation – whether it’s land grabs or the growing movement to privatise services. These are the new frontier for making money on the continent, whether it’s the so-called public/private partnerships that reach into areas which, historically, everybody would have agreed were the realm of public goods, these have now all become issues of public concern and struggle. And I think, again, these are issues that ROAPE, as a journal, needs to connect itself with, in terms of analysis and engagement.
Because, you see, ROAPE’s project in the 1970s was easier, because the National Liberation Movement in Africa was internationalised, in terms of the support that they had. England was an important staging post for representatives of the National Liberation Movements. It was an important place for such movements to be located in exile. So academics, who were interested in working in Africa, in supporting African struggles, actually had a community here that they could work with and a community through which they could link quite easily with similar communities on the African Continent. So, in a certain sense, there was a community that stretched from inside Africa to outside it around certain kinds of questions. Today, that community doesn’t exist in the same way.
But the point I’m making is that with the shrinking of the historic community of activists from the continent in the North, how the journal builds a community with people, the involvement of activists and scholars in Africa, is vital in ensuring that the ideals that drove the foundation of the journal continue to be pursued in different conditions. The important question is how do we work out that continuity in a new period? If we do not it can become quite easy for the journal to become just another peer-reviewed publication where an Africanist will publish papers on Africa, without really engaging in the continent beyond seeing it as a site where you collect data. But the founders of the journal were involved with the continent as a place where they were reflecting on and supporting struggles to build a certain kind of economy and society; and saw the journal as a place where certain ideals should be pursued. So Africa was a laboratory where they were participating with African people as activists for change – as opposed to a place you can simply write about us, where you interrogate the concepts through which society is analysed. This the danger and the challenge for ROAPE.
Could you talk briefly about the relationship, between academic analysis and activist engagement and how when you came here in 1984 on an invitation from ROAPE you spoke as an activist, but also as an analyst. Please talk today about that relationship between academic analysis and activist engagement. How do we create the spaces where that can take place?
I think the business of interpretation, of course, is fundamental to being able to have a correct appraisal of reality, so as to work effectively for change. If you characterise something as a revolution, as many saw the Rawlings coup in 1981, then you have certain expectations of it and you would engage in a certain kind of political practice. Now, if you are wrong in your characterisation, your political practice is likely to be wrong and the consequences could be pretty appalling. So the analytical function is quite important, but, for me, the key think is how do we continue to create a dynamic where, as much as possible, ROAPE, in terms of its work, continues in analysing society but also creates a community where what is being discussed is influenced by what people are engaged in struggling around. We also need to make sure that the analytical work that is reflected in the pages of ROAPE is more widely available for activists to use. I think that process is quite important.
I say this, also, because on a continent where today some the most influential analysts influencing the orientation of people are religious figures; Christian and Muslim. A progressive, political economy and materialist analysis, which tries to ground people in the here and now, as opposed to the afterlife, is imperative. In a climate of pretty desperate conditions for many religion has mobilised people across the continent, so we must offer analysis and perspectives which help people to engage with their material reality as agents, who can actually make meaningful change, rather than leave human misery to some spiritual force to resolve. In Ghana with the collapse of manufacturing large buildings – warehouses, factories – which have been abandoned in the industrial areas of the capital Accra have been bought up by charismatic Christian and turned them into huge prayer halls. Material production has been replaced by the enterprise of spiritual redemption, you can’t get a more poignant symbolism than that.
Where the working class used to be gathered, where people used to work, organise and discuss as unions and discussed their material conditions, where people earned an income are now prayer halls. Today, people gather in their thousands to listen to sermons about how, if you continue to be a good Christian and pay your tithes to the pastor something good will happen to you.
What an astonishing example. On that question on the role of analysis and political activism the journal in different ways – and it was a mixed bag and a very broad church when it was formed – but did see a pan-African project with socialism as a project for national governments, but also regional and continental transformation. Do you still see that as a feasible project for the continent?
Yes. This morning I got a WhatsApp from my colleague who had gone to a meeting on a continental free trade area organised by the Africa Union Commission and he wrote, “I’m sitting here, feeling like a dinosaur. Everybody here wants liberalisation, liberalisation and more liberalisation.” I think, given the current state of forces, there’s a substantial challenge of defensive action that is required against the still quite strong forces of neo-liberalism on the continent. Because, whilst there are protests, their organisation and the strength of progressive forces, the organisation of alternatives across the continent is not at a state where one can feasibly talk about socialism as a near term objective.
I think, however, in terms of the demands that people are making for an alternative, the agenda remains unchanged. But the near term challenge, the frontline challenge, must be a complete and coherent replacement of neo-liberalism in Africa. I think that also retains important pan-African challenges for us, because the old arguments that were made about the smallness of African countries, as economies, as markets, the need to unite forces behind our common hurdles remains extremely valid. The work that we do in Third World Network-Africa, on trade policy, on the structures and inequities of Africa’s role in the global economy, is important work for everyone across Africa, because the regional and the continental have become key sites of policy making and decision making.. So it is quite important that in the context of global capitalism to see the limits of small national markets, that we accepts the limits of national economies. Policy-makers are also interested in expanded geographies, for investment, for selling goods and services and so on. So there is a dynamic process where the supra-national is becoming a more and more important unit for political economic activity in Africa, we have to respond to this as activists and intellectuals.
So our response, the response of progressives…
Has to engage with the regional and the pan-African, within a global engagement.
As a final question, can you reflect on your work as Coordinator of Third World Network-Africa
Third World Network Africa was created by a group of us, who were previously associated in Ghanaian politics. We set it up as a policy research and advocacy organisation with a pan-African remit. We are very clear about the limits of NGO, as a vehicle for transformative, progressive work. However what we have done over the years is to pick issues which we think pertain to the nature of Africa’s role in the global economy; trade and investment, finance, development issues, which determine the way Africa is inserted in the global economy and then try and work around those issues from the perspective of the defence of popular interests as well as pushing for alternative policies that challenge the dominance of neo-liberalism. Have we been successful? To the extent that the organisation has gained a lot of credibility as contributing to a progressive African alternative perspective, influenced debates and in some cases influenced outcomes of struggles, to that extent I think we’ve been successful.
So in Ghana, where it has been possible to organise and mobilise, for example around mining issues and the interests of mining affected communities, we have at least significantly transformed the debate on mining in the country. On trade policy issues, in about twenty years of working with others across Africa, around the World Trade Organisation, the EU’s Economy Partnership Agreements, we have had an important influence and exerted pressures on the debates and key institutions. An NGO is not a political party, you need to find the methods that optimise the influence that such an organisational form can exert. And we’re fortunate to be based in Ghana, where the laws on NGO activities are pretty liberal. We’ve also been lucky over the years to have been able to raise money, from like-minded organisations and also foundations, who find our work useful. Yet such dependence on other organisations for our funding is also a serious constraint on what you can do.
Brilliant, thank you. I’m going to stop the interview there and then we can decide what we’re going to do…
For more on the issues discussed in this interview please refer to our archive. Yao Graham’s article, referred to above, can be accessed here and Ray Bush’s 1980’s article What Future for Ghana? is also available in our archive.