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cc Kwame Nkrumah brought the Convention People's Party into power within two years of its formation, creating independent Ghana, writes Yao Graham. An overwhelming electoral victory gave Nkrumah a platform for mass anti-colonial mobilisation around Africa. Accra became a staging point for the African anti-colonial movement with the All-African People's Conference, drawing delegates from 62 nationalist organisations, including future ruling parties and post-colonial leaders, who were urged to 'fight for independence now'. Post-colonial construction, however, was different from bringing down colonialism and Nkrumah struggled to generate resources for steady improvement in the living standards of people with expectations fuelled by independence and his own visionary pronouncements. Today Ghana is seen as a development icon, but the challenges Nkrumah grappled with have not been overcome, argues Graham. Reliant on a few commodities for export earnings and aid for public investment, it is far from the independent structurally transformed model Nkrumah wanted to establish as a ‘black star’ for Africa.

Some 60 years ago, surveying the latest tinkering with the political system in the then model colony of the Gold Coast, the British constitutional expert Martin Wight declared that the 'people of the Gold Coast find themselves the pioneers of political advance and the touchstone of political competence in Africa'. Within two years the ordinary peoples of the colony would rudely intrude onto the political stage through the 1948 riots and sound the death knell for the preferred approach to politics of the Gold Coast elite – writing petitions to the governor and the king. Both the colonial government and local political class were caught off balance by the riots, in which 29 died and hundreds were wounded. It was triggered by the police killing of three and the wounding of many demobilised World War II soldiers, marching to present a petition to the governor about their entitlements. The emergence, a year later, of the Convention People’s Party (CPP), a radical mass anti-colonial party under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah, put the last nail in the coffin of the model colony. The whirlwind progression of the CPP from its creation in 1949 to power within two years remains an outstanding feature of Nkrumah’s much discussed place in Ghanaian, African and world history.

Amilcar Cabral, the outstanding African revolutionary intellectual and anti-colonial leader of Guinea-Bissau, described Nkrumah as ‘the strategist of genius in the struggle against classic colonialism’. ‘Seek ye first the political kingdom’ is one of Nkrumah’s most cited sayings. The Declaration to the Colonial Peoples of the World (written by Nkrumah) which was adopted at the 1945 5th Pan African Congress unequivocally pointed the road to the political kingdom. ‘Today there is only one road to effective action – the organisation of the masses’, it asserted. The creation of the CPP and its fashioning into the spearhead of a successful anti-colonial mobilisation which yielded an overwhelming electoral victory and placed Nkrumah and his colleagues in power was the foundation for all that Nkrumah was subsequently able to do in Ghana and beyond.

Anti-colonial struggles around the globe took two main forms – non-violent mass mobilisation, or armed struggle, although many armed movements were a response to the absence of space for open political activity. The ‘classic colonialism’ referred to by Cabral and prevalent in Africa was colonialism of extraction, exemplified by the Gold Coast. The white settler population was insignificant and government was based on co-opted traditional rulers and other indigenous elite. In almost all of these colonies, in contrast to the settler colonies, the successful organisational strategy of the anti-colonial movements centred on non-violent mass nationalist political parties of the CPP type. In Ghana the CPP united farmers, workers, ex-servicemen, petty traders and other lower middle class elements. The nationalist coalitions in other African countries, for example Guinea-Conakry under the leadership of Sekou Toure, through Congo Leopoldville led by Patrice Lumumba to Zambia under the leadership of Kenneth Kaunda, embodied various permutations of these groups.

Nkrumah explicitly acknowledged a debt to the mobilisational methods and successes of the Congress Party of Gandhi and Nehru, but the importance of the CPP’s success for mass anti-colonial mobilisation around Africa cannot be overstated. The CPP showed that what had worked in India and elsewhere could work in sub-Saharan Africa. Nkrumah did not simply leave the lessons that Ghana offered to be drawn. The turning of the Ghanaian capital Accra into a staging point for the African anti-colonial movement started almost immediately after independence and the lessons of the Ghana experience were pressed home.

When Nkrumah hosted the first ever meeting of independent African countries in April 1958 there were only eight such countries. By contrast, more than 200 delegates from 62 nationalist organisations, including future ruling parties such as the ANC (African National Congress of South Africa) and FLN (National Liberation Front of Algeria), took part in the first ever All-African People's Conference held in Accra eight months later. Against the background of the armed struggles in Algeria, Kenya and racist violence in South Africa the conference declared that ‘where democratic means are available, it guarantees its support to all forms of peaceful action. This support is pledged equally to those who, in order to meet the violent means by which they are subjected and exploited, are obliged to retaliate’.

Many future post-colonial leaders, such as Patrice Lumumba, Abdulrahman M. Babu, Joshua Nkomo, Franz Fanon and Tom Mboya attended the People’s Conference. (Fanon subsequently served as the ambassador to Accra of the provisional government of the Algerian FLN and played an important role in setting up a southern supply route for the guerrillas). In his closing address Nkrumah declared that the coming decade was one of independence and urged the delegates to go home and fight for independence now, an echo of the ‘self government now’ slogan which had proved such a powerful mobilising catchphrase for the CPP. Most African countries did gain independence in the ensuing decade, thereby improving the possibilities for the collective self-organisation of ex-colonial countries, not only in Africa around Nkrumah’s vision of African unity, but also around the principles of the April 1954 Bandung conference.

In discussions of Bandung, most attention has focused on the attempt of the non-aligned movement to find some political space amidst the Cold War rivalries. In his speech to his guests at Bandung Indonesia’s President Sukarno underlined the most important common challenge facing all former colonies. In the struggle against colonialism the target of weakening or destroying the power of the colonial ruler was clear. However, far from clear was how to respond to the challenge of using the new power to create a new society. Nkrumah and others may have been geniuses in the project of anti-colonial destruction but the challenge of post-colonial construction was quite a different ball game.

The Kenyan academic, Ali Mazrui, has argued that while ‘Nkrumah was a great African, he fell short of becoming a great Ghanaian’ primarily because of the authoritarianism into which his regime descended in its last years, along with what another writer has called a ‘grotesque personality cult’. Mazrui blamed Nkrumah for establishing the precursor single party regime in Africa. ‘He became Africa’s hero and Ghana’s dictator simultaneously’. Mazrui is wrong about Nkrumah’s standing in Ghana. More than thirty years after his death, Nkrumah remains the standard of leadership vision for national development and his years in power the reference point for what could be achieved by a committed government. The obsession of his political opponents of the right with disputing this legacy implicitly affirms that standing.

The repressive aspects of Nkrumah’s rule represent the greatest source of discomfort for his defenders and continue to provide the happiest hunting ground for his right-wing opponents at home who know they cannot affect his international standing. The authoritarian politics of the period did not only dampen public life crucially for Nkrumah and the CPP; it also ate at the insides of the ruling party. By the time of the 1966 coup the nationalist coalition that the CPP led to independence had decayed as an effective political force. This was somewhat disguised by the formal trappings of a bureaucratised single party with incorporated trade union, youth, farmers and women’s wings and Nkrumah’s frantic efforts to produce a new type of cadre through ideological training notwithstanding. In the years before the single party model ended across Africa in the 1990s, a similar fate overtook most of the mass nationalist parties that came to power at independence. The current debates and tensions in South Africa about the policy directions of the ANC, Mbeki’s style of leadership and the fate of the alliance involve some of the same issues that confronted the CPP and the other victorious nationalist parties.

The erosion of democratic space under Nkrumah was a function of both politics and economics. On the political side there were a number of elements. The violence unleashed by an embittered opposition, led by an alliance of elite elements who felt cheated of their ‘birthright’ to succeed the colonial rulers and chiefs who saw the end of colonial rule as offering the chance for a reversion to chiefly rule as opposed to the CPP’s drive towards a Republic, engendered a repressive response. From the mid-1950s the opposition, anchored in a number of separatist organisations under the spearhead of the National Liberation Movement (NLM), carried out bombings, attempts on Nkrumah’s life and generalised thuggery. Another political factor was the limitations of the internal culture of the CPP which came to power within two years of its creation with very little time to develop as an organisation before the temptations and corruption of power confronted its leaders and cadres. These limitations were compounded by Nkrumah’s dominance of the organisation and his increasingly towering above it, a process which was accepted and institutionalised in a personality cult. The challenges these factors represented were not helped by the fact that the CPP was born into an authoritarian culture of power and inherited an autocratic state.

The crisis of inner party democracy and the problems in the CPP regime’s relations with important segments of its historic mass constituency, such as the trade unions and the farmers, the autonomy of whose organisations had been abolished, has to be partly understood through the prism of the issue Sukarno posed at Bandung – the path of transformation for ex-colonial countries. Transformation implies disruption of existing patterns of doing things. Capital accumulation entails denial or postponement of consumption by some or all. This is an issue of continuing contestation in all countries; in countries seeking structural transformation there are issues of confrontation or repression in the absence of a hegemonic consensus. Even where consent is given upheavals may erupt if the project does not deliver.

In the Ghanaian case the challenge was: How do you generate resources for a steady improvement in the living standards of a people whose expectations have been greatly fuelled by independence and the visionary pronouncements of Kwame Nkrumah himself? How do you transform an underdeveloped economy and society, highly dependent on a single crop (cocoa) with unstable international prices for the bulk of its export earnings? How do you transform and raise productivity in a low productivity small holder based agricultural sector? How do you industrialise a country with a small home market whose foreign trade patterns were heavily locked into those of a few Western economies?

Many of Nkrumah’s critics as well as some of his supporters insist on describing his economic policies as socialist. Nkrumah was outspoken in his self description as a socialist influenced by Karl Marx, Lenin, Christ and Marcus Garvey. It was socialist if one accepts a broad definition of the term. In truth many of his policies sought to apply the lessons of the then dominant orthodoxy drawn from different models to Ghana’s development challenges, albeit with a growing attraction to elements of the Soviet and Maoist Chinese models during his last five years. In the 15 years Nkrumah was in power, a leading role for the state in the economy was the norm in both communist countries and the West where Keynesian economics prevailed. The experience of the Soviet Union offered lessons in rapid industrialisation which India had started learning before Ghana came along. The relative success of import substituting industrialisation in Latin America had made that strategy a respectable one by the time of Ghana’s independence. The Labour Party was undertaking extensive nationalisations in Britain when Nkrumah first came to power. Nkrumah’s pan-Africanism was powered by a grander vision and ambition than the modest European Coal and Steel Community, which has flowered into the European Union, but they were united by recognition of the benefits of regional integration.

Using existing resources Nkrumah rapidly expanded education, health and infrastructure and aided other newly independent countries such as Guinea. With additional borrowing, industrial and agricultural investments were made. Many of the agro-industrial projects, not all well conceived, were in their infancy when he was overthrown. He inaugurated the Akosombo hydroelectricity dam, the centrepiece of the Volta River project, which he saw as powering Ghana’s industrialisation a month before his overthrow. The many new factories were yet to be properly rooted in planned local supplies of raw materials central to his industrialisation policy. By that time the crisis in the international price of cocoa had wrought considerable damage to revenue and growth projections, putting pressure on imports and consumption. The shortages and associated discontent were a perfect climate for the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency, a US spy-organisation) sponsored coup of 24 February 1966 which placed the NLM cohort in power as ministers and advisers to the military NLC (National Liberation Council).

The turn towards the Soviet Union and China was an economic as well as political act. Nkrumah’s anti-imperialism meant that he did not believe he could rely on the West for full support for his transformational project, especially given the centrality of African unity with its implication for existing colonial spheres of influence as well as US intrusions into the continent. In the climate of the Cold War, a project combining Pan-African unity, economic nationalism and looking to the East for friendship and resources looked like communism from the standpoint of the White House and its NATO allies. The communism bogey was the great legitimating card played by the 1966 coup makers. In the weeks following the coup the mass media was filled with pictures of ‘communist subversives’ who were being deported from Ghana. The rubric covered a rag bag – hundreds of militants from national liberation movements based in or receiving training in Ghana and their military advisers from the Soviet bloc and China and industrial technicians from Eastern Europe.

In the fifty years since, Ghana has gone through many phases as a development fashion icon. The backers of the coup held up as a model the IMF stabilisation programme that the military regime initiated. The return to civilian rule through elections set up to put the civilian members of the junta in power was hailed as an African first. Submission to the IMF and the World Bank since 1983 has once more made Ghana an economic model. The World Bank reportedly recently described Ghana as among the top ten models of adjustment in the world. Four successive peaceful elections since 1992 have earned Ghana the tag of an island of peace in a turbulent region.

The political openness and stability are important. However, the transformational challenges that Nkrumah identified and grappled with have not been overcome. The country is still heavily dependent on a small basket of commodities for export earnings and aid is crucial for public investment. Most simple manufactures are imported. Martin Wight would be in comfortable company among those celebrating Ghana as today’s model African country. It is more in keeping with the model Gold Coast he was talking about 70 years ago than the independent structurally transformed model Nkrumah wanted to establish as a ‘black star’ for Africa.

* Yao Graham, an activist and writer, is the head of Third World Network Africa, a pan-African research and advocacy organisation based in Accra, Ghana.
* This article first appeared in the maiden issue of CHEMCHEMI, Bulletin of the Mwalimu Nyerere Professorial Chair in Pan African Studies of the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Editorial Board of CHEMCHEMI.
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This year, 2009, marks 100 years since Kwame Nkrumah was born in September, 1909. We publish this article by his compatriot as a sympathetic but critical tribute to the great Pan-Africanist leader. CHEMCHEMI Editors.