Educator, sociologist, anthropologist, politician, statesman, and Prime Minister of the Second Republic of Ghana, the life of Dr. Kofi Abrefa Busia was a truly remarkable one. Born into the Sofoase Yefiri ruling clan in Wenchi Brong Ahafo, on 11 July 1913, Dr. Busia was the eldest of thirteen children. These factors helped shape the path of his life from his childhood to his dying days. The sense of both private and public responsibility that came, so to speak, through his mother’s blood made him dedicate his life to the service of his people. From his earliest years he was determined to make his world a better place, not just for the fortunate, but for the poor and disenfranchised, and it was a blessing to the nation that the sense he had of the world grew beyond the confines of the family, or even his immediate communities of home and the academy, to include the peoples of this nation, and indeed the world. He became not simply a politician, but a great statesman, and a visionary beyond his time.
We have few more moving examples of this dedication than are found in a letter he wrote from Oxford in 1939, at the age of twenty-six:
“I have always felt it a duty laid upon me by God to pursue knowledge and I am both glad and grateful to have achieved something of which my countrymen may be proud. The best is yet to be. My great purpose is to study all I can, and then when the time comes to pour out my life in the service of my God and my country. Learning without God is empty. Knowledge is useless, unless it makes us better servants of humanity. ”This deep sense of a life dedicated to God through service to his fellow citizens was never to leave him.
The stories of his humble beginnings- talking his way into primary school and walking an hour each way, each day, at the age of six to pursue his studies; at the age of nine, at the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone for Wesley College, handing the golden trowel to Governor Gordon Guggisberg and making a speech of such extraordinary eloquence it brought fame throughout the colony to “the prodigy bush boy from faraway Wenchi”; his struggles to stay in school away from his family in Kumasi despite ill-treatment, abandonment and the bubonic plague; the prodigious brilliance that brought him to the attention of Methodist educators and earned him a Methodist Synod Scholarship to Mfantsipim are all now part of the lore of his life.
On completing Mfantsipim with characteristic excellence, he started teacher training at Wesley College, Kumasi, in 1931 at the age of eighteen, and taught as a student-teacher at Achimota College in 1935. Busia was then selected for an Achimota Council Scholarship, and after sitting for an external BA Honours Degree in Medieval and Modern History from London University, traveled to England, to study for his BA. Honours Degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, at University College, Oxford. After studying for only two years instead of the customary three, Busia received his degree in 1941, his MA in 1946, and his D. Phil in Social Anthropology in 1947, all at colleges in Oxford. Dr. Busia was in fact the first person of African decent to attend University College, Oxford. His distinguished career also saw him become one of the first of two Africans appointed to the British Colonial Service as a District Commissioner in the Gold Coast Colony in the early 1940's. Whilst serving as a D.C. he indicated that natural concern for the interests of rural people which, along with the encouragement of local private enterprise was to become the hallmark of the Progress Party administration, by encouraging farmers in the Western Region to form co-operatives to press for fairer prices.
Although by the end of his life a great deal more attention was being paid to Busia’s political career, he had an equally prominent career as an academic and teacher. He was an activist-scholar and for him, the two activities were necessarily intertwined, and were rooted in his work in this his native land. His appointment as Professor of Sociology in the newly established University College also made him the first African Professor at the University of Ghana. Subsequently, his academic career as a sociologist of the culture of Africa, pursued while in political exile, led him to professorships and chairs at institutions around the world including the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, as well as to other firsts, most notably his two inaugural Professorships at the Afrika-Studiecentrum at the
University of Leiden(which made him the first African to hold a professorship in Holland, since Johannes Capitein in the 18th century) and at El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. His last academic appointment was as a Fellow of St. Anthony’s College in Oxford, from 1962 until he resigned to run for office in Ghana in 1969.
As an academic Busia is best known for his landmark study, The Position of the Chief in the Modern Political System of Ashanti (1951).
A study of the influence of contemporary social changes on Asante political institutions, this work, along with his earlier Social Survey of Sekondi-Takoradi (1950) are considered among the more authoritative works on social change in Ghana. The quest for an understanding of the dynamics of social change can perhaps be seen as a key uniting all of Busia’s seemingly disparate corpus of published works ranging from parliamentary speeches to cultural and sociological studies. True to his African traditions, Busia saw the mythical and the mundane as mutually co-existing and co-dependent.
The detail of information in his two Ghanaian studies reveals his skill as a sympathetic researcher with a keen understanding of urban anthropology. This understanding is also evident in his study of church life, undertaken for the World Council of Churches, Urban Churches in Britain. A study of the interrelatedness of church life with social and public life, published in 1966, this book established Busia as the first African to undertake such a sociological study of the British, rather than, as had become common, the other way around.
In his three later works contemplating the continent of Africa undergoing rapid social transformation, The Challenge of Africa (1962), A Purposeful Education for Africa (1964) and Africa in Search of Democracy (1967), Busia considered traditional ideologies and practices and the institutions they supported, to understand the influence of native institutions and systems of thought on the modern nation state and to reflect on their continuing role in a healthy democratic environment. Whether discussing purposeful educational planning for modern Africa or delineating the manifold challenges of culture, colonial history and emancipation, or a common humanity and morality, the questions always asked were: what sort of human being? What sort of society? What moral universe?