• Thursday, February 29, 2024
businessday logo


Alexander Kwapong and the ideals of African personality


Eulogies are not really my cup of tea. Some of them reek of hypocrisy while others are downright dishonest. But they are unavoidable. Remembering illustrious lives allows us to honour those who have gone before us; helping us, in the words of Holy Scripture, to number our days that we may apply ourselves on to wisdom.

It is in this context that I dedicate today’s column to honouring the life and work of the Ghanaian educationist, international civil servant and statesman Alexander Kwapong who passed away on the 9th of August 2014, age eighty-seven. He was buried in Accra on Saturday the 13th of September, leaving behind his wife, six daughters and several grandchildren.

The late Alexander Adum Kwapong was born on the 8th of March 1927. He attended a local Presbyterian school before going to the famous Achimota College where he was a star pupil from 1941 to 1945. He subsequently won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he majored in Classics, gaining a rare Double First in the final degree examinations. He did a PhD in the same institution, subsequently pursuing an academic career at the newly established University of Ghana at Legon as a teacher of Greek, Latin and ancient civilisation.

In1962 he was promoted to the rank of Professor of Classics, became Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University. In 1966 he replaced the controversial Irish intellectual Conor Cruise O’Brien as the first Ghanaian Vice-Chancellor. He was to serve in this capacity for slightly over a decade. During his time the university consolidated its standing as a great institution of learning. He created a new school of medicine while expanding the programmes in law, business and statistics. He partnered with the Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie foundations which resulted in considerable sums of money pouring into the university.

During 1976—1988 Alexander Kwapong was Vice-Rector of the United Nations University (UNU) in Tokyo. He was influential in establishing UNU as an intellectual and research agency of the UN system. He also played a key role in the creation of the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER) in Helsinki, Finland as well as the Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (INRA). After retiring from UNU he immigrated to Canada where he was appointed Professor of International Development at the University of Dalhousie. He was also Africa Director for the Commonwealth of Learning.During2001–2005 Alexander Kwapong was appointed to the exalted position of Chairman of the Council of State, the highest advisory body to the President and Government of Ghana.

Alexander Kwapong was a brilliant researcher who left a mark on scholarship in classical studies, educational planning, development policy and cultural theory. During his long and illustrious career, Alexander Kwapong  was elected to a number of learned societies while also being a recipient of several national and international honours: Chairman of the Education Review in Ghana (1966-67); President of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (1971); Simba Prize (1981) for seminal works on the history and civilisation of ancient Rome; Foundation Fellow, Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences; Board of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies; International Council for Educational Development; President, Association of African Universities; Vice-President of the Council for Philosophy and Humanistic Studies; Doctor Honoris Causa, Universities of Ghana, Warwick, Princeton and Ife.

I have often been in awe of those who have had the privilege of studying the Classics, an opportunity I never had. Our own University of Ibadan has a Classics Department which was almost shut down due to poor enrolment. I believe it is the only Classics Department in our nation of 170 million. Small as it is, that Department has produced some outstanding individuals, among them Christopher Okigbo, Nigeria’s poet laureate; Bola Ige, Cicero of Nigerian politics; Gamaliel Onosode, one of the princes of Nigerian boardrooms; distinguished literary scholar Isidore Okpewho; and diplomat and statesman Emeka Anyaoku.Anyaoku once remarked that while mathematics sharpens the analytical acumen, the Classics imbue a person not only with analytical sharpness but also with a humane disposition.

Alexander Kwapong was not only a beautiful mind; he was a gentleman and a humanist  — an embodiment of the African Personality that Ghana’s founding President Kwame Nkrumah spoke so much about. Nkrumah believed that nothing but the best is good enough for our Africa. He envisioned a new generation of Africans that will excel not only in the things of the mind but also in virtue and character, facing our cruel and racist world with self-confidence and self-assurance.

Despite his foibles, Nkrumah mentored a crop of brilliant young men who went on to achieve world renown in their chosen fields: the philosopher Willie Abraham who won a Prize Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford; Kenneth Dadzie who became Director-General of UNCTAD; and Kofi Annan who became UN Secretary-General. Alexander Kwapong belonged in that league, although he himself took exception to what he regarded as Nkrumah’s “despotic ambitions”.

Alexander Kwapong was a frequent visitor to Nigeria. As far back as April 1969 he delivered a public lecture at the University of Lagos on the role of classical studies in Africa. In the 1980s he was closely associated with Olusegun Obasanjo’s Africa Leadership Forum.

Tributes have flowed from all over. His former institution, UNU, described him as an outstanding international civil servant and educationist. Political scientist Michael Wolfers eulogised him as,“by any meaningful standard, a great man”. Ghanaian opposition leader, Nana Akufo-Addo, who happens to be his nephew, described him as a “Renaissance man…a great Ghanaian patriot”. “Like Pheidippides, he ran a great marathon,”declaims the poet Kwesi Atta Sekyi.

Soon, we shall breathe our last, laments the Roman Stoic, Seneca. What matters is that we make of ourselves genuine human beings while we live. Alexander Adum Kwapong was a genuine human being. In the company of our ancestors –of Aristophanes, Homer, Virgil, Sophocles and Catullus –he belongs among the noble and the great.