In Ghana, a political neophyte, with a household name, campaigns

Samia Nkrumah is the daughter of Ghana's first president. She's returned home to run for a seat in Parliament in Sunday's elections.

Peter DiCampo
FATHER AND DAUGHTER: Samia Nkrumah in front of a statue of Ghana's first president.

Samia Nkrumah, the daughter of Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, had been leading "an ordinary life" in Rome as a consultant and freelance journalist.

But after spending 24 years away, she's moved back to Ghana with her husband and 11-year-old son to campaign for a seat in parliament in the remote western district of Jomoro, where her father was raised.

Children capitalizing on their parents' name is not new in politics, as the Bush and Gandhi families can attest. But in postcolonial Africa, the children of the continent's elite are often content to attend university in Europe or the US and live a comfortable life abroad.

"I just felt that this is where I should be. I have a sense of responsibility to come back and honor my father's legacy," Ms. Nkrumah says. "Here, people give me the strength, they give me the blessing, they give me the push to go on."

Instead of writing about Africa from Rome, Nkrumah's days now consist of blazing across Jomoro's dusty, unpaved roads in a four-car motorcade, making campaign stops in village after village in order to visit all 54 villages in the district before elections for 230 parliamentary seats and president are held on Sunday, Dec. 7.

As her SUV approaches each village, she stands through the sunroof, smiling broadly and wheeling her arms in a circular motion. Crowds rush to meet her, dancing and mirroring her arm movements while shouting, "Yeresesamu!" (change).

Nkrumah's professed commitment to job creation holds widespread appeal in a district of some 11,000 people, most of whom struggle for basic necessities. Nkrumah's main campaign platform honors her father's legacy, and many of Jomoro's villagers have embraced it.

Yet her name will get her only so far, analysts say. Her political inexperience is a handicap, and her father, though beloved in his home district, nevertheless was exiled from Ghana – a shadow that hangs over her bid.

Still, in a year of election crises in Africa that saw Zimbabwe plunged into chaos, Kenya's relative stability briefly shattered, and Ivory Coast continuing to postpone elections that have been delayed since 2005, a return to the political stage for the Nkrumah name is viewed as a positive sign by some.

Her father is remembered as a champion of Pan-Africanism, and was chosen as African Man of the Millennium in 2000 by BBC call-in voters. The beginnings of his daughter's political career in a country that has enjoyed peaceful democratic elections since 1992 may be a welcome contrast for the continent.

Nkrumah's running with the Convention People's Party, which her father founded in 1949. Today, the socialist party is a minority one. The presidential race, according to polls, is a close match between the candidates of the National Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC).

Still, Nkrumah campaigns with her father's ideals, she says.

"There is no doubt that Kwame Nkrumah's vision for Ghana's development has to come back," she says. "It's the only thing that worked for this country.... We are his students, trying to abide by his teachings and rekindle his vision."

Kwame Nkrumah's efforts, which included overseeing the nation's independence from Britain in 1957; deepening the country's infrastructure by adding and improving schools and roads; establishing a welfare system; and cofounding the Organization of African Unity, precursor to the African Union, appeal to many in this impoverished district with only one hospital and two public secondary schools.

"In the Nzema [Nkrumah's tribe] areas, even younger people have been socialized to know that they produced this great man for the country," says Kwesi Jonah, a professor of political science at the University of Ghana and from the district adjacent to Jomoro.

"We like her because she's Kwame Nkrumah's daughter," says Bright Akah, a university student from New Nzulezo, during one of Nkrumah's campaign stops in his village. "That's why we trust her."

"Kwame Nkrumah did everything for us," adds John Etua, a farmer in Elenda, at another campaign stop. "He was our national hero. He gave freedom and justice to us."

But Kwame Nkrumah also suffered some setbacks. His attempts at rapid development accumulated vast debt, and he introduced policies restricting freedoms, even appointing himself "president for life." A military coup in 1966 ended his presidency, and forced the family into exile. Five-year-old Samia resettled in Egypt with her mother and two brothers; Kwame Nkrumah moved to Guinea.

Analysts consider her campaign an uphill battle. Incumbent Lee Okram "is ... very popular with the people. It would take a serious scandal for him not to win," Professor Jonah says.

She must also acknowledge her shortcomings, Jonah says. Nkrumah has no political experience; her background includes consulting on African issues for universities and work as a journalist for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo and the Italian National News Agency ANSA in Rome. Her long absence from the country also leaves her vulnerable to criticism.

Nkrumah returned to Ghana during her teenage years, attending high school in Accra before leaving again amid political turmoil in 1984. She attended the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies for her bachelor's and master's degrees and eventually moved to Italy, occasionally living in Egypt. She may be well intended, but her life has left her out of touch with Jomoro's needs, critics say.

"I don't think Samia Nkrumah is in the position to appreciate the basic elements of the crisis of day-to-day living," says Jonah. "The political goodwill of her father is still there, to be able to tap into it she needs to bring herself up to speed on these other issues."

But Nkrumah says the needs of the people are obvious.

"Anyone, even someone who is not Ghanaian, can see what needs to be done here by just traveling and going to visit the people," she says.

As the motorcade speeds home after a day of campaigning, crowds run to the roadside to cheer. Samia Nkrumah rolls down her window and waves to the people, who are wheeling their arms in motion and yelling for change.

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