Kwame Nkrumah PC (September 18 or 21, 1909[a] – 27 April 1972) led Ghana to independence from Britain in 1957 and served as its first prime minister and president. Nkrumah first gained power as leader of the colonial Gold Coast, and held it until he was deposed in 1966.
Kwame Nkrumah was born in about 1909 in Nkroful, Gold Coast. Although his mother, whose name was Nyanibah, later stated his year of birth was 1912, Nkrumah wrote that he was born on 18 September 1909, a Saturday. By the naming customs of the Akan people, he was given the name Kwame, the name given to males born on a Saturday. During his years as a student in the United States, though, he was known as Francis Nwia Kofi Nkrumah – Kofi is the name given to males born on Friday. The name of his father is not known; most accounts say he was a goldsmith. According to Ebenezer Obiri Addo in his study of the future president, the name “Nkrumah”, a name traditionally given to a ninth child, indicates that Kwame likely held that place in the house of his father, who had several wives. Kwame was the only child of his mother.[b]
Nkroful was a small village, in the far southwest of the Gold Coast, close to the frontier with the French colony of the Ivory Coast. His father did not live with the family, but worked in Half Assini before his death while Kwame was a boy. Kwame Nkrumah was raised by his mother and his extended family, who lived together in traditional fashion, with more distant relatives often visiting. He lived a carefree childhood, spent in the village, in the bush, and on the nearby sea.
Nkrumah’s mother sent him to the elementary school run by a Catholic mission at Half Assini, where he proved an adept student. He progressed through the ten-year elementary programme in eight years. By about 1925 he was a student-teacher in the school, and had been baptised into the faith. While at the school, he was noticed by the Reverend Alec Garden Fraser, principal of the Government Training College (soon to become Achimota School) in the Gold Coast’s capital, Accra. Fraser arranged for Nkumrah to train as a teacher at his school. Here, Columbia-educated deputy headmaster Kwegyir Aggrey exposed him to the ideas of Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois. Aggrey, Fraser, and others at Achimota taught that there should be close co-operation between the races in governing the Gold Coast, but Nkrumah, echoing Garvey, soon came to believe that only when the black race governed itself could there be harmony between the races.
After graduating from Achimota in 1930, Nkrumah was given a teaching post at the Catholic primary school in Elmina, and after a year there, was made headmaster of the school at Axim. In Axim, he started to get involved in politics and founded the Nzima Literary Society. In 1933, he was appointed a teacher at the Catholic seminary at Amissa. Although the life there was strict, he liked it, and considered becoming a Jesuit. Instead, he decided to further his education. Nkrumah had heard journalist and future Nigerian president Nnamdi Azikiwe speak while a student at Achimota; the two men met and Azikiwe’s influence increased Nkrumah’s interest in black nationalism. The young teacher decided to further his education. Azikiwe had attended Lincoln College, a historically black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania, west of Philadelphia, and he advised Nkrumah to enroll there. Nkrumah, who had failed the entrance examination for London University, gained funds for the trip and his education from relatives. He travelled by way of Britain, where he learned, to his outrage, of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, one of the few independent African nations. He arrived in the United States, in October 1935.
According to historian John Henrik Clarke in his article on Nkrumah’s American sojourn, “the influence of the ten years that he spent in the United States would have a lingering effect on the rest of his life.” Nkrumah had sought entry to Lincoln some time before he began his studies there; on 1 March 1935, he had sent the school a letter noting that his application had been pending for more than a year. When he arrived in New York in October 1935, he travelled to Pennsylvania, where he enrolled despite lacking the funds for the full semester. However, he soon won a scholarship that provided for his tuition at Lincoln. Nevertheless, he remained short on money through his time in the United States. To make ends meet, he worked in menial jobs, including as a dishwasher. On Sundays, he visited black Presbyterian churches in Philadelphia and in New York.
Nkrumah completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and sociology in 1939. Lincoln then appointed him an assistant lecturer in philosophy, and he began to receive invitations to be a guest preacher in Presbyterian churches in Philadelphia and New York. In 1939, Nkrumah enrolled at Lincoln’s seminary and at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He gained a Bachelor of Theology degree from Lincoln in 1942, the top student in the course. He earned from Penn the following year a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and a Master of Science in education. While at Penn, Nkrumah worked with the linguist William Everett Welmers, providing the spoken material that formed the basis of the first descriptive grammar of his native Fante dialect of the Akan language.
Nkrumah spent his summers in Harlem, a center of black life and thought. He found housing and employment in New York City with difficulty and involved himself in the community. He spent many evenings listening to and arguing with street orators, and according to Clarke,
These evenings were a vital part of Kwame Nkrumah’s American education. He was going to a university—the university of the Harlem Streets. This was no ordinary time and these street speakers were no ordinary men …. The streets of Harlem were open forums, presided over [by] master speakers like Arthur Reed and his protege Ira Kemp. The young Carlos Cook, founder of the Garvey oriented African Pioneer Movement was on the scene, also bringing a nightly message to his street followers. Occasionally Suji Abdul Hamid, a champion of Harlem labor, held a night rally and demanded more jobs for blacks in their own community …. This is part of the drama on the Harlem streets as the student, Kwame Nkrumah walked and watched.
Nkrumah was an activist student, organizing a group of expatriate African students in Pennsylvania and building it into the African Students Association of America and Canada, becoming its president. Some members felt that the group should aspire for each colony to gain independence on its own; Nkrumah urged a Pan-African strategy. Nkrumah played a major role in the Pan-African conference held in New York in 1944, which urged the United States, at the end of the Second World War, to help ensure Africa became developed and free.
His old teacher, Aggrey, had died in 1929 in the United States, and in 1942, Nkrumah led traditional prayers for Aggrey at the gravesite. This led to a break between him and Lincoln, though after he rose to prominence in the Gold Coast, he returned in 1951 to accept an honorary degree. Nevertheless, Nkrumah’s doctoral thesis remained uncompleted. He had adopted the forename Francis while at the Amissa seminary; in 1945 he took the name Kwame Nkrumah.
An influential 20th-century advocate of Pan-Africanism, he was a founding member of the Organization of African Unity and was the winner of the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962.Nkrumah read books about politics and divinity, and tutored students in philosophy. In 1943 Nkrumah met Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, Russian expatriate Raya Dunayevskaya, and Chinese-American Grace Lee Boggs, all of whom were members of an American-based Trotskyist intellectual cohort. Nkrumah later credited James with teaching him “how an underground movement worked”. Federal Bureau of Investigation files on Nkrumah, kept from January to May 1945, identify him as a possible communist. Nkrumah was determined to go to London, wanting to continue his education there now that the Second World Warhad ended. James, in a 1945 letter introducing Nkrumah to Trinidad-born George Padmore in London, wrote: “this young man is coming to you. He is not very bright, but nevertheless do what you can for him because he’s determined to throw Europeans out of Africa.”
United Gold Coast Convention
The 1946 Gold Coast constitution gave Africans a majority on the Legislative Council for the first time. Seen as a major step towards self-government, the new arrangement prompted the colony’s first true political party, founded in August 1947, the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC). The UGCC sought self-government as quickly as possible. Since the leading members were all successful professionals, they needed to pay someone to run the party, and their choice fell on Nkrumah at the suggestion of Ako Adjei. Nkrumah hesitated, realising the UGCC was controlled by conservative interests, but decided that the new post gave him huge political opportunities, and accepted. After being questioned by British officials about his communist affiliations, Nkrumah boarded the MV Accra at Liverpool in November 1947 for the voyage home.
After brief stops in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Ivory Coast, he arrived in the Gold Coast, and after a brief stay and reunion with his mother in Tarkwa, began work at the party’s headquarters in Saltpond on 29 December 1947. Nkrumah quickly submitted plans for branches of the UGCC to be established colony-wide, and for strikes if necessary to gain political ends. This activist stance divided the party’s governing committee, which was led by J.B. Danquah. Nkrumah embarked on a tour to gain donations for the UGCC and establish new branches.
Although the Gold Coast was politically more advanced than Britain’s other West Africa colonies, there was considerable discontent. Postwar inflation had caused public anger at high prices, leading to a boycott of the small stores run by Arabs which began in January 1948. The cocoa bean farmers were upset because trees exhibiting swollen-shoot disease, but still capable of yielding a crop, were being destroyed by the colonial authorities. There were about 63,000 ex-servicemen in the Gold Coast, many of whom had trouble obtaining employment, and felt the colonial government was doing nothing to address their grievances. Nkrumah and Danquah addressed a meeting of the Ex-Servicemen’s Union in Accra on 20 February 1948, which was in preparation for a march to present a petition to the governor. When that demonstration took place on 28 February, there was gunfire from the British, prompting the 1948 Accra Riots, which spread throughout the country. According to Nkrumah’s biographer, David Birmingham, “West Africa’s erstwhile “model colony” witnessed a riot and business premises were looted. The African Revolution had begun.”
The government assumed that the UGCC was responsible for the unrest, and arrested six leaders, including Nkrumah and Danquah. The Big Six were incarcerated together in Kumasi,increasing the rift between Nkrumah and the others, who blamed him for the riots and their detention. After the British learned that there were plots to storm the prison, the six were separated, with Nkrumah sent to Lawra. They were freed in April 1948. Many students and teachers had demonstrated for their release, and been suspended; Nkrumah, using his own funds, began the Ghana National College. This, among other activities, led UGCC committee members to accuse him of acting in the party’s name without authority. Fearing he would harm them more outside the party than within, they agreed to make him honorary treasurer. Nkrumah’s popularity, already large, was increased with his founding of the Accra Evening News, which was not a party organ but was owned by Nkrumah and others. He also founded the Committee on Youth Organization (CYO) as a youth wing for the UGCC. It soon broke away and adopted the motto “Self-Government Now”. The CYO united students, ex-servicemen, and market women. Nkrumah recounted in his autobiography that he knew that a break with the UGCC was inevitable, and wanted the masses behind him when the conflict occurred. Nkrumah’s appeals for “Free-Dom” appealed to the great numbers of underemployed youths who had come from the farms and villages to the towns. “Old hymn tunes were adapted to new songs of liberations which welcomed traveling orators, and especially Nkrumah himself, to mass rallies across the Gold Coast.”
Convention People’s Party
Beginning in April 1949, there was considerable pressure on Nkrumah from his supporters to leave the UGCC and form his own party. On 12 June 1949, he announced the formation of the Convention People’s Party (CPP), with the word “convention” chosen, according to Nkrumah, “to carry the masses with us”. There were attempts to heal the breach with the UGCC; at one July meeting, it was agreed to reinstate Nkrumah as secretary and disband the CPP. But Nkrumah’s supporters would not have it, and persuaded him to refuse the offer and remain at their head.
The CPP adopted the red cockerel as its symbol—a familiar icon for local ethnic groups, and a symbol of leadership, alertness, and masculinity. Party symbols and colours (red, white, and green) appeared on clothing, flags, vehicles, and houses. CPP operatives drove red-white-and-green vans across the country, playing music and rallying public support for the party and especially for Nkrumah. These efforts were wildly successful, especially because previous political efforts in the Gold Coast had focused exclusively on the urban intelligentsia.
The British convened a selected commission of middle-class Africans, including all of the Big Six except Nkrumah, to draft a new constitution that would give Ghana more self-government. Nkrumah saw, even before the commission reported, that its recommendations would fall short of full dominion status, and began to organise a Positive Action campaign. Nkrumah demanded a constituent assembly to write a constitution. When the governor, Charles Arden-Clarke, would not commit to this, Nkrumah called for Positive Action, with the unions beginning a general strike to begin on 8 January 1950. The strike quickly led to violence, and Nkrumah and other CPP leaders were arrested on 22 January, and the Evening Newswas banned. Nkrumah was sentenced to a total of three years in prison, and he was incarcerated with common criminals in Accra’s Fort James.
Nkrumah’s assistant, Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, ran the CPP in his absence; the imprisoned leader was able to influence events through smuggled notes written on toilet paper. The British prepared for an election for the Gold Coast under their new constitution, and Nkrumah insisted that the CPP contest all seats. The situation had become calmer once Nkrumah was arrested, and the CPP and the British worked together to prepare electoral rolls. Nkrumah stood, from prison, for a directly-elected Accra seat. Gbedemah worked to set up a nationwide campaign organisation, using vans with loudspeakers to blare the party’s message. The UGCC failed to set up a nationwide structure, and proved unable to take advantage of the fact that many of its opponents were in prison.
In the February 1951 legislative election, the first general election to be held under universal franchise in colonial Africa, the CPP was elected in a landslide. The CPP secured 34 of the 38 seats contested on a party basis, with Nkrumah elected for his Accra constituency. The UGCC won three seats, and one was taken by an independent. Arden-Clarke saw that the only alternative to Nkrumah’s freedom was the end of the constitutional experiment. Nkrumah was released from prison on 12 February, receiving a rapturous reception from his followers. The following day, Arden-Clarke sent for him and asked him to form a government.
Leader of Government Business and Prime Minister
Nkrumah faced several challenges as he assumed office. He had never served in government, and needed to learn that art. The Gold Coast was composed of four regions, several former colonies amalgamated into one. Nkrumah sought to unite them under one nationality, and bring the country to independence. Key to meeting the challenges was convincing the British that the CPP’s programmes were not only practical, but inevitable, and Nkrumah and Arden-Clarke worked closely together. The governor instructed the civil service to give the fledgling government full support, and the three British members of the cabinet took care not to vote against the elected majority.
Prior to the CPP taking office, British officials had prepared a ten-year plan for development. With demands for infrastructure improvements coming in from all over the colony, Nkrumah approved it in general, but halved the time to five years. The colony was in good financial shape, with reserves from years of cocoa profit held in London, and Nkrumah was able to spend freely. Modern trunk roads were built along the coast and within the interior. The rail system was modernised and expanded. Modern water and sewer systems were installed in most towns, where housing schemes were begun. Construction began on a new harbour at Tema, near Accra, and the existing port, at Takoradi, was expanded. An urgent programme to build and expand schools, from primary to teacher and trade training, was begun. From 1951 to 1956, the number of pupils being educated at the colony’s schools rose from 200,000 to 500,000.Nevertheless, the number of graduates being produced was insufficient to the burgeoning civil service’s needs, and in 1953, Nkrumah announced that though Africans would be given preference, the country would be relying on expatriate European civil servants for several years.
Nkrumah’s title was Leader of Government Business in a cabinet chaired by Arden-Clarke. Quick progress was made, and in 1952, the governor withdrew from the cabinet, leaving Nkrumah as his prime minister, with the portfolios that had been reserved for expatriates going to Africans. There were accusations of corruption, and of nepotism, as officials, following African custom, attempted to benefit their extended families and their tribes. The recommendations following the 1948 riots had included elected local government rather than the existing system dominated by the chiefs. This was uncontroversial until it became clear that it would be implemented by the CPP. That party’s majority in the Legislative Assembly passed legislation in late 1951 that shifted power from the chiefs to the chairs of the councils, though there was some local rioting as rates were imposed.
Nkrumah’s retitling as prime minister had not given him additional power, and he sought constitutional reform that would lead to independence. In 1952, he consulted with the visiting Colonial Secretary, Oliver Lyttelton, who indicated that Britain would look favourably on further advancement, so long as the chiefs and other stakeholders had the opportunity to express their views. Accordingly, beginning in October 1952, Nkrumah sought opinions from councils and from political parties on reform, and consulted widely across the country, including with opposition groups. The result the following year was a White Paper on a new constitution, seen as a final step before independence. Published in June 1953, the constitutional proposals were accepted both by the assembly and by the British, and came into force in April of the following year. The new document provided for an assembly of 104 members, all directly elected, with an all-African cabinet responsible for the internal governing of the colony. In the election on 15 June 1954, the CPP won 71, with the regional Northern People’s Party forming the official opposition.
A number of opposition groups formed the National Liberation Movement. Their demands were for a federal, rather than a unitary government for an independent Gold Coast, and for an upper house of parliament where chiefs and other traditional leaders could act as a counter to the CPP majority in the assembly. They drew considerable support in the Northern Territory and among the chiefs in Ashanti, who petitioned the British queen, Elizabeth II, asking for a Royal Commission into what form of government the Gold Coast should have. This was refused by her government, who in 1955 stated that such a commission should only be used if the people of the Gold Coast proved incapable of deciding their own affairs. Amid political violence, the two sides attempted to reconcile their differences, but the NLM refused to participate in any committee with a CPP majority. The traditional leaders were also incensed by a new bill that had just been enacted, which allowed minor chiefs to appeal to the government in Accra, bypassing traditional chiefly authority. The British were unwilling to leave unresolved the fundamental question as to how an independent Gold Coast should be governed, and in June 1956, the Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd announced that there would be another general election in the Gold Coast, and if a “reasonable majority” took the CPP’s position, Britain would set a date for independence. The results of the July 1956 election were almost identical to those from four years before, and on 3 August the assembly voted for independence under the name Nkrumah had proposed in April, Ghana. In September, the Colonial Office announced independence day would be 6 March 1957.
The opposition was not satisfied with the plan for independence, and demanded that power be devolved to the regions. Discussions took place through late 1956 and into 1957. Although Nkrumah did not compromise on his insistence on a unitary state, the nation was divided into five regions, with power devolved from Accra, and the chiefs having a role in their governments. On 21 February 1957, the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, announced that Ghana would be a full member of the Commonwealth of Nations with effect from 6 March.
Ghana became independent on 6 March 1957. As the first of Britain’s African colonies to gain majority-rule independence, the celebrations in Accra were the focus of world attention; over 100 reporters and photographers covered the events. United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent congratulations and his vice president, Richard Nixon, to represent the U.S. at the events. The Soviet delegation urged Nkrumah to visit Moscow as soon as possible. Ralph Bunche, an African American, was there for the United Nations, while the Duchess of Kent represented Queen Elizabeth. Offers of assistance poured in from across the world. Even without them, the country seemed prosperous, with cocoa prices high and the potential of new resource development.
As the fifth of March turned to the sixth, Nkrumah stood before tens of thousands of supporters and proclaimed, “Ghana will be free forever”. He spoke at the first session of the Ghana Parliament that Independence Day, telling his new country’s citizens that “we have a duty to prove to the world that Africans can conduct their own affairs with efficiency and tolerance and through the exercise of democracy. We must set an example to all Africa.”
Nkrumah was hailed as the Osagyefo – which means “redeemer” in the Akan language. This independence ceremony included the Duchess of Kent and Governor General Charles Arden-Clarke. With more than 600 reporters in attendance, Ghanaian independence became one of the most internationally reported news events in modern African history.
Nkrumah designed the new national flag of Ghana, inverting Ethiopia’s green-yellow-red Lion of Judah flag and replacing the lion with a black star. Red symbolizes bloodshed; green stands for beauty, agriculture, and abundance; yellow represents mineral wealth; and the Black Star represents African freedom. Nkrumah was the first of the new African statesmen to emulate the Ethiopian flag as a symbol of resistance to colonialism. The country’s new coat of arms, designed by Amon Kotei, includes eagles, a lion, a St. George’s Cross, and a Black Star, with copious gold and gold trim. Philip Gbeho was commissioned to compose the new national anthem, “God Bless Our Homeland Ghana”.
As a monument to the new nation, Nkrumah opened Black Star Square near Osu Castle in the coastal district of Osu, Accra. This square would be used for national symbolism and mass patriotic rallies.
Under Nkrumah’s leadership, Ghana adopted some socialist policies and practices. Nkrumah created a welfare system, started various community programs, and established schools.
Ghana’s leader (1957–1966)
Political developments and presidential election
Nkrumah had only a short honeymoon before there was unrest among his people. There was trouble in Togoland that required the moving of troops there. A serious bus strike in Accra stemmed from resentments among the Ga people, who believed members of other tribes were getting preferred treatment in government promotion, and this led to riots there in August. Nkrumah’s response was to repress local movements by the Avoidance of Discrimination Act (6 December 1957), which banned regional or tribally-based political parties. Another strike at tribalism fell in Ashanti, where Nkrumah and the CPP got most local chiefs who were not party supporters destooled. These repressive actions concerned the opposition parties, who came together to form the United Party under Kofi Abrefa Busia.
In 1958, an opposition MP was arrested on charges of trying to obtain arms abroad for a planned infiltration of the Ghana Army (GA). Nkrumah was convinced there had been an assassination plot against him, and his response was to have the parliament pass the Preventive Detention Act, allowing for incarceration for up to five years without charge or trial, with only Nkrumah empowered to release prisoners early. According to Nkrumah’s biographer, David Birmingham, “no single measure did more to bring down Nkrumah’s reputation than his adoption of internment without trial for the preservation of security.” Nkrumah intended to bypass the British-trained judiciary, which he saw as opposing his plans when they subjected them to constitutional scrutiny.
Another source of irritation was the regional assemblies, which had been organized on an interim basis pending further constitutional discussions. The opposition, which was strong in Ashanti and the north, proposed significant powers for the assemblies; the CPP wanted them to be more or less advisory. In 1959, Nkrumah used his majority in the parliament to push through the Constitutional Amendment Act, which abolished the assemblies and allowed the parliament to amend the constitution with a simple majority.
Queen Elizabeth II remained sovereign over Ghana from 1957–1960. William Hare, 5th Earl of Listowel was the Governor-General, and Nkrumah remained Prime Minister. On 6 March 1960, Nkrumah announced plans for a new constitution which would make Ghana a republic, headed by a president with broad executive and legislative powers. The draft included a provision to surrender Ghanaian sovereignty to a Union of African States. On 19, 23, and 27 April 1960 a presidential election and plebiscite on the constitution were held. The constitution was ratified and Nkrumah was elected president over J.B. Danquah, the UP candidate, 1,016,076 to 124,623. Ghana remained a part of the British-led Commonwealth of Nations.
Opposition to tribalism
Nkrumah also sought to eliminate “tribalism“, a source of loyalties held more deeply than those to the nation-state . Thus, as he wrote in Africa Must Unite: “We were engaged in a kind of war, a war against poverty, and disease, against ignorance, against tribalism and disunity. We needed to secure the conditions which could allow us to pursue our policy of reconstruction and development.” To this end, in 1958, his government passed “An Act to prohibit organizations using or engaging in racial or religious propaganda to the detriment of any other racial or religious community, or security the elections of persons on account of their racial or religious affiliations, or for other purposes in connection therewith.” Nkrumah attempted to saturate the country in national flags, and declared a widely disobeyed ban on tribal flags.
Kofi Abrefa Busia of the United Party (Ghana) gained prominence as an opposition leader in the debate over this Act, taking a more classically liberal position and criticizing the ban on tribal politics as repressive. Soon after, he left the country.
During his tenure as Prime Minister and then President, Nkrumah succeeded in reducing the political importance of the local chieftaincy (e.g., the Akan chiefs and the Asantehene). These chiefs had maintained authority during colonial rule through collaboration with the British authorities; in fact, they were sometimes favoured over the local intelligentsia, who made trouble for the British with organizations like the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society. The Convention People’s Party had a strained relationship with the chiefs when it came to power, and this relationship became more hostile as the CPP incited political opposition chiefs and criticized the institution as undemocratic. Acts passed in 1958 and 1959 gave the government more power to destool chiefs directly, and proclaied government of stool land—and revenues. These policies alienated the chiefs and led them look favorably on the overthrow of Nkrumah and his Party.
Increased power of the Convention People’s Party
In 1962, three younger members of the CPP were brought up on charges of taking part in a plot to blow up Nkrumah’s car in a motorcade. The sole evidence against the alleged plotters was that they rode in cars well behind Nkrumah’s car. When the defendants were acquitted, Nkrumah sacked the chief judge of the state security court, then got the CPP-dominated parliament to pass a law allowing a new trial. At this second trial, all three men were convicted and sentenced to death, though these sentences were subsequently commuted to life imprisonment. Shortly afterward, the constitution was amended to give the president the power to summarily remove judges at all levels.
In 1964, he proposed a constitutional amendment which would make the CPP the only legal party and himself president for life of the nation and the party. The amendment passed with 99.91 percent of the vote, an implausibly high total that led observers to condemn the vote as “obviously rigged”. Ghana had effectively been a one-party state since independence. The amendment transformed Nkrumah’s presidency into a de factolegal dictatorship.
SOURCE: FRANK OWUSU KOJO ASIAMAH(FOKA)