Dennis Austin’s recent study of post-war Ghanaian politics, fruit of long residence and activity in Ghana and rich in narrative excitement, deserves a two-fold attention.footnote1 It is by far the most informed account we have or are likely to have of this exemplary decolonization; and it utterly and definitively reveals the sterility of a British liberal-democratic perspective upon the political development of new nations.

The author was for ten years (1949–59) at the University College of the Gold Coast, an early supporter of the cpp who became increasingly disillusioned by its ‘betrayal’ of transmitted political norms, and by what he regards as its wilful distortion of the whole trajectory of Gold Coast political evolution. ‘The politics of intrigue succeeded the party disputes of previous years to confound the hopes of those who, looking back to the first reforms of the postwar years and the first general election of 1951, had confidently expected to see the development of a parliamentary system under liberal laws and a freely administered franchise.’ Austin’s sympathy and understanding go hand in hand. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the reader’s irritation mounts as the narrative advances through the 1950’s. Put baldly, Austin’s preoccupations seem marginal to the main drift of post-independence politics in Ghana. His commanding focus excludes not only any serious appraisal of the inner characteristics of the new régime (difficult enough, admittedly) but equally of its political situation, possibilities and programme. Lacking any such firm setting, Austin resorts to perfunctory and personalized explanations of developments which are as offensive as they are inadequate. An elegy on the erosion of the inherited ‘multiparty’ system and its attached constitutional paraphenalia (i.e. political liberties as Britain has known them) is a legitimate, though perhaps unrewarding, project. What is less so is the malign teleology which serves as its explicative mechanism.footnote2 It may be that ‘personal power’ is, in this instance, the real correlate of ‘personality cult’—this is not the least problematic feature in Ghana’s opaque political system. What Austin entirely fails to show is how or why this should be so.

The book’s merits and defects spring from a single cause: the rigorous interdependence of its normative substructure and expository method. In essence, Austin’s basic assumption appears to be that true ‘polities’, universally and in the last resort, is synonymous with regular electoral competition of groups and programmes within a liberal-democratic institutional framework. Other forms of organization of political life are variously characterized as ‘palace polities’, the ‘politics of intrigue’, ‘autocracy’ and so on. The fundamental organizing principle, the Ariadne’s thread of investigation, therefore, is electoral analysis. The spinal column of Politics in Ghana, around which the material is structured, consists of earnest and sensitive studies of the sequence of national elections conducted by the colonial power (1951, 1954, 1956) as a preliminary to the final negotiation of independence. These studies are linked by recapitulative surveys of the mobile balance of political forces emerging from each of these electoral tests, as revealed in national and regional results and in the responses of parties to them. It is not too much to say that, for Austin, the supremely significant political event is the election; which, in this case, functions as a sort of pubertal rite in the emergence and maturation of a new social and political force on the post-war Ghanaian scene—the ‘young commoners’. The deforming and fetishistic character of such an approach is evident enough: broadly appropriate (though certainly not exhaustively so) to a phase in which the various political groups were above all preoccupied with electoral competition as a means of imposing themselves as legitimate interlocutors vis-`-vis the colonial power, this perspective rapidly loses any usefulness once a dominant political party has assumed control of the state apparatus and is faced with the serious responsibilities of decolonization, development and of giving some overall direction to the emerging national and social life.

Thus, Austin remains almost wholly absorbed in documenting such features as regional disproportions in voting, the elimination of the ‘opposition’ and the dwindling popular base of the present régime (propped up as it is with classical plebiscitary devices and manipulative political pseudo-events). This is unexceptionable. But questions equally important for our understanding of the political system remain unanswered—and sometimes unasked. What has been the political rôle and weight of the civil service? Is cpp ‘ideology’ (perhaps one of the most insistently elaborated systems of any ruling party in Africa) merely a baroque excrescence? Can Ghanaian politics’ be comprehended outside the given economic options and strategy? Above all, what about power and democracy within the Party? In short, there is little attempt to constitute the many discrete elements of Ghana’s into a meaningful structure. Instead, the ‘meaning’of this decisive experience of political transformation comes down to two banal and trivial insights: the imputed personal predilections of the leader; and the ‘accidental’ character of ‘events’ and ‘misunderstandings’ which, after 1954, inexorably led to ‘authoritarian single-party rule’.

Nevertheless, for the earlier period Austin provides material far richer than that found in existing studies (Apter, Bourret), and makes a more speculative discussion possible and useful.

The Convention People’s Party was publicly launched in June 1949, as a militant breakaway from the United Gold Coast Convention. Its organizational base was provided by the network of youth, workers’ and farmers’ associations set up or linked together by Nkrumah during the previous 18 months in which he had been secretary of the ugcc. Its ideological impetus was an uncompromising nationalism, expressed most succinctly in its slogan, self-government now. Following a phase of intense agitation and some repression, the party gained a startling and unnegotiable victory in the first national elections held in 1951, winning 34 of the 38 popularly contested seats. Subsequently, the cpp was never dislodged from this dominant position. Despite bitter, and frequently violent, opposition which culminated in the Ashanti ‘National Liberation Movement’ and which necessitated two further elections before attainment of independence, the party has enjoyed power uninterruptedly, first in partnership with the colonial authority (1951–57), then as legitimate monopolist (1957 on). The cpp, marking a clear and definitive rupture with the elitist, decorous politics of the old ugcc, is often cited as the pure type of the African mass party.

Three obvious questions are raised by this swift transformation of the political scene in post-war Ghana. What were its conjunctural conditions? What was its social meaning? What were its politico-hegemonic consequences?