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Seldom do days align like today; 02-02-2022, so let us dare a narrative of a perfect African Story. I launched my second book, ‘Be The Difference’ exactly two years ago, a book a senior journalist reviewed in pretty glorious terms (A book that makes a difference – Home | Goldstreet Business). The book has gone on to receive pretty interesting reviews and I recommend you get a copy (Be The Difference: A Leadership Roadmap for the New African | AfricaLearn). The point to be made however is that, as the book has evolved over the last two years, the world that existed at the time of the publication may never exist again (So much change has occurred, driven in part by coronavirus with its lasting impact for societies, leadership, businesses, trade and economics) and yet Africa, my beloved continent, suffers from a socioeconomic construct that dates the 19th Century- A European construct that was designed to optimise Europeans’ scramble for the continent. In the words of British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury: “We have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s feet have ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were”.
As I reflect on the nature of the world as it may exist in the future, I share with you some stories from the past, stories I hope will be relevant for the foretelling of the African future. First the Gregson of Liverpool in 1771.
William Gregson was born 12th January 1721 in Liverpool, a son of a porter and a man of poor means but appears of big ambitions. He worked in the shipping industry as a rope maker in his youth but formed a syndicate with his friends to invest in a ship, Carolina. Carolina was not exactly a pretty babe; she was a slave ship. The interesting thing is that, Gregson was twenty-three years old, yes 23 when he started trading in slaves from Africa to Liverpool. By the time of his retirement, Gregson had been in the business of slavery for half a century. At the time of Gregson’s death in 1800, he had become one of Liverpool’s leading citizens and businessmen and had branched out into the insurance and banking industries. Over the course of his life, it is estimated that he had a stake in 152 known slave voyages, and thus was responsible for investing in vessels that had carried over 58,201 Africans (out of which almost 10,000 died on the journey) to the Americas. It is also interesting to note that his first voyage records having tricked ‘32 Negroes’ to becoming slaves and oversaw one of the worst enslaved massacres-The Zong massacre (a mass killing by crew of about 130 enslaved Africans on 29th November 1781).
So there goes our first story, a noble Englishman who was nothing but a pauper who made wealth in a lifetime to honour a city’s recognition by tricking, raiding, killing, and selling Africans to work on plantations in the Americas.
The second story is from 1800 Nigeria: Jaja of Opobo. A boy of no means and perhaps of equal ambition as Gregson. Some say kidnapped as a boy and sold into slavery (others say a servant) to Chief Alali, the head of the Opobo people. The stories say Jaja bought his own freedom (or adopted into the family) and rose to become a leader of the house. In 1869 during a dispute over factions, he broke away to establish his own settlement and controlled significant palm oil trade. Some say, he killed his own people in order to maintain monopoly as a trader with the English. He however will not yield his land to the English who had become owners of modern-day Nigeria after the Berlin Conference, the Conference that drew the artificial border across the continent. His resistance led Henry Hamilton Johnson, the British vice consul to deceive him by inviting him for a negotiation where he was captured and exiled. The interest in Jaja is about his support to the Queen of England by sending soldiers to fight against the Asante people in Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) for which he was awarded a sword of honour in 1871. Jaja was therefore a man who chose to make wealth at the expense of his people, he profiteered and even fought alongside the slavers against other African communities in other to curry the favour of the English and yet even after a ‘medal of honour’ for fighting the Asante people for the English, he was captured by the English and exiled himself. If anybody knew the pain of slavery and harm of men like Gregson, it ought to be Jaja and yet, he saw his future only as the slavers, following after them painfully to his own betrayal after betraying many other Africans.
My final story is from the Asante people. The Asante people had several fights with the English in a series of wars known as the Anglo-Ashanti wars which span 1823 to 1900. The Asante people had lost the battle at Dodowa being the third of the wars. (Jaja’s soldiers may have fought in this war together with the British and the coastal forces from Gold Coast.) This loss was the beginning of the weakening of the warrior empire of the Asante. Not long after the defeat the Asante kingdom witnessed a civil war between Kumase and Dwaben for which Nana Kwasi Boaten sought refuge from Akyem Abuakwa.
Nana Kwaku Dua II became the leader in time, with efforts to rebuild the weakening empire but he died only after 40days on the throne. The kingdom had no king for 4 years between 1884 and 1888. No leadership for almost half a decade as within the four years, a fierce contest and another civil war ensued over who should be the next leader: Yaw Atwereboana or Prempeh? The civil war was bloody and Prempeh won, some say “coupled with the assistance given by the local British administration that led to the enstoolment of Prempeh in the presence of an English officer, Captain E.A Barnett in 1888.” It appears friendship with the ‘enemy’ was esteemed more valuable than reconciliation of brothers. A king who ought to rebuild a kingdom divided and under siege sought help from the same Englishmen who were conquering his kingdom, to pursue his own ends, to defeat his brother in a civil war in order to become king.
Just about a decade into his reign he is captured with 55 others (chiefs, wives and war generals) detained in Cape Coast and Elmina castle for 1 year and then taken to Sierra Leone and finally to Seychelles. It was during this time that the last of the Anglo-Ashanti wars were fought with Yaa Asantewaa leading, but Prempeh’s reign saw the complete ruin of the Asante Empire and the Confederacy itself (On Prempeh’s return from Seychelles, the Asante Confederacy was reconstructed on 31st January 1935).
To end my historical rant in pursuit of the perfect African narrative, I am reminded of the changing times and yet the unchangeable principle of leadership and influence, an art and a science the African must learn and master in this changing world. To conclude, this is the moral of my stories:
- Any race, including the colonisers, only seek to optimise their existence. Slavers may influence seemingly to the benefit of the enslaved but there is never a free lunch.
- We have been given an artificial border and a nationality that was drawn by Europeans. When they barely knew the land they took, they fought to possess it and have almost defined it in their image even after centuries.
- The stories of men like Jaja and Prempeh remind us of one thing: Do not seek help from they who seek your doom.
- Pursuing self interest, factionalism and disunity may appear human but it has become the bane of our enslavement.
- The African must learn the single most important lesson: Collaboration with other Africans.
The historical journey was only to say, I hope we stop fighting ourselves and recognise that the future is in our hands. I hope we can curate a perfect African story with a united front and not divisiveness and civil wars. The foundational tale of the formation of the Asante Empire was a dream by Nana Obiri Yeboah, a dream of a broom that cannot be broken together and yet easily destroyed as individuals. The future of Africa is limitless, but we must paint the picture-perfect tomorrow together, together as a people with a common heritage and a shared destiny. We must rise beyond the false nationalism cast upon us by artificial borders and remember our ancient civilisations were mightier and expansive and our sense of self was no diminutive because we saw ourselves in the image of God and custodians of His earth. My name is Yaw Sompa and my cry is Ubuntu.