Kwame Nkrumah (c. September 21, 1909- April 27, 1972) led the Gold Coast to independence in 1957 as the state of Ghana, and thereafter, first as prime minister (1957-1960) and then as president (1960-1966), was the dominant figure in its policies. An able political organiser, he was the subject of acute controversy both at home and abroad, being regarded by his critics as a dictator who ruthlessly overrode opposition and electoral procedure, and by his admirers as a progressive force in national and continental affairs. By the time of his death, nobody had done more than him to promote the Pan-African ideal.
He was born at Nkrofro (Nkroful), a village near the coast about 10 mi (16 km) northwest of Axim, in the southwest of what is now Ghana, to Opanyin Kofi Nwiana Ngolomah, a goldsmith, and Elizabeth Nyanibah, a retail trader. His exact date of birth is unknown, but his official birthday is September 21, 1909. He attended elementary school at Half Assini, a fishing village close to the frontier with the Ivory Coast, where his father worked as a goldsmith. In 1927 he was admitted to the Government Training College in Accra. After it was merged with Achimota College in the same year, he continued his studies at Achimota, where he came under the influence of Dr. J. E. K. Aggrey (q.v.). In 1930 he obtained a teacher’s certificate from Achimota.
He began teaching at the Roman Catholic school at Elmina in 1931. In 1932, he was promoted headmaster of the Roman Catholic Junior School at Axim, from where he went to teach at the Roman Catholic Seminary at Amisano near Elmina. While at Amisano, he thought of becoming a priest, but abandoned the idea. Instead, he decided to go to the United States for further studies. This was in part because of the inspiration Dr. Aggrey had given him, and in part because of the writings of the Nigerian nationalist Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, then living in Gold Coast, in the Accra African Morning Post.
In 1934, he was accepted for admission to Lincoln University in Lincoln, Pennsylvania, and in 1935 travelled to the United States. His passage money was provided by two relatives, the chief of Nsuaem in the Wasa Fiase state, northwest of Tarkwa, and another relative who had moved to Lagos, Nigeria. Towards the end of October he arrived in New York, and soon after began his studies at Lincoln. Four years later, in 1939, he obtained his B. A. degree from Lincoln, and in 1942 graduated as Bachelor of Theology. He also studied at the University of Pennsylvania where he became a Master of Science in Education in 1942, and obtained an M. A. in philosophy in 1943. Because he had little or no money during his stay in the United States, he had to undertake menial tasks to enable him to finish his studies. These included working in a shipbuilding yard in Chester, Pennsylvania, in a soap factory in New York, and for several summers as a dishwasher and waiter on a shipping line sailing from the United States to Latin American ports.
Between 1939 and 1945, in addition to giving instruction in philosophy, he combined his studies with a part-time lectureship at Lincoln. So popular were his lectures in Negro history and social philosophy that the Lincolnian declared him “the most outstanding professor of the year” in 1945. By then Nkrumah had completed most of the requirements for his Ph.D. degree at the University of Pennsylvania, but was constrained by poverty and ill-health to leave the United States.
It was while in the United States, however, that Nkrumah began his career as a political organiser. He had met with C. L. R. James, the Trotskyite historian from Trinidad, then living in the United States, and through him learned about underground organisation. He was also particularly inspired by the thought of Marcus Garvey, the charismatic Jamaican who initiated a “‘Back to Africa” movement, although he did not meet with him. At the University of Pennsylvania he helped to found the African Studies Association, and also began to organise the African Students’ Association of America and Canada, of which he was elected president.
In May 1945 he arrived in London with the aim of studying law and completing his thesis for his doctorate. But upon arrival he was met by George Padmore (q. v.), the Trinidad author, who immediately involved him in preparations for the Sixth (then called the Fifth) Pan African Congress, of which the two men were joint political secretaries. The Congress was held in October in Manchester, England, under the chairmanship of Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois (q.v.), and was an outstanding success in focusing attention on the question of decolonisation. After the congress, Nkrumah continued his work for decolonisation and also became vice president of the West African Students Union, participated in other African organisations and was the leader of a secret organisation dedicated to West African unity and national independence named “The Circle.” He had discontinued his law studies, but enrolled instead at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He also wrote his first book, Towards Colonial Freedom (1947).
In 1947 Dr. J. B. Danquah (q.v.) founded the United Gold Coast Convention (U.G.C.C.), and on December 16 Nkrumah, in response to an invitation from the leadership of the party, returned to the Gold Coast to become its general secretary and to assist in the struggle for political independence. He took up his duties in January 1948. Two months later, on February 28, 1948, colonial police opened fire on demonstrators at Christiansborg crossroads, after which rioting broke out in Accra and elsewhere. The executive of the U.G.C.C., and its general secretary promptly dispatched telegrams to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Arthur Creech Jones (term of office 1946-1950), requesting that the administration of the Gold Coast be transferred to an interim government of chiefs and people as a solution to the political crises. The governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Gerald Creasy (term of office 1948-1949), reacted by declaring a state of emergency and detaining the leaders of the U.G.C.C. Nkrumah was detained at Lawra, in the extreme northwest of what is now Ghana, while others – Dr. Danquah, Edward Akuffo Addo, William Ofori Atta, Ako Adjei and Obetsebi-Lamptey (q.v.) – were detained at various other places in the north. They came to be known as the “Big Six” and their detention gave a fillip to the nationalist cause.
The “Big Six” were released on the orders of the Watson Commission, appointed by the British government in April 1948 to investigate the causes of the disturbances. A 40-member all-African constitutional committee, led by Sir James Henley Coussey (q. v.), an African judge, was appointed to draw up a new constitution for the Gold Coast. The committee sat from January to August, 1949, and submitted its report on October 26. Danquah, Akuffo-Addo, and Obetsebi-Lamptey were appointed to the committee, but Nkrumah was not.
Meanwhile, while the committee was sitting, serious differences had arisen between the U.G.C.C. “moderates,” and the party’s “radicals,” headed by Nkrumah. Earlier, on September 3, 1948, Nkrumah had established his own newspaper, the Accra Evening News, which appeared on the same day that his “moderate” colleagues relieved him of his post as general-secretary, using the paper to advance his views and criticise his opponents. The differences caused a split which led to the resignation of Nkrumah from the U.G.C.C. and to the formation of the Convention People’s Party (C.P.P.), led by Nkrumah, on June 12, 1949. By the time the Coussey committee’s report was published, the C.P.P. was firmly established.
Nkrumah and his party rejected the report because it did not advocate the granting of complete self-government and dominion status. Instead, the C.P.P. put forward its own draft constitution, prepared with the help of the Ghana Representative Assembly, representing more than 50 organisations. When the Gold Coast Legislative Council accepted the Coussey report in December 1949, thereby implicitly rejecting Nkrumah’s demand for immediate self-government, Nkrumah declared a campaign of “Positive Action”, his version of the Gandhian concept of satyagraha (literally “firmness in truth”, but denoting organised non-violent resistance to injustice), to attempt to coerce the British parliament to grant dominion status to the Gold Coast. The campaign was launched at 5 p.m. on January 8, 1950 at the West End Arena in Accra, with a call to all, apart from the hospital staff, the police and those employed on essential services, to go on strike from midnight onwards. The call was heeded by some sections of the workers. But bloodshed resulted, and Nkrumah and several of his associates were arrested on January 20, and the Accra Evening News banned. Those arrested were then tried, convicted and imprisoned.
During Nkrumah’s imprisonment, the legislative council debated and approved the provisions of the Gold Coast’s new constitution, based on the Coussey Report, and the government fixed a general election for February 8, 1951. From prison, Nkrumah communicated with Komla Gbedemah, a C.P.P. member who had been released earlier from prison and was acting as party chairman, and decided that the C.P.P should contest the election. Although he had condemned the Coussey constitution as ” bogus and fraudulent”, Nkrumah nevertheless directed the party organisers to contest every seat in the election. He himself contested the seat for Accra Central, and obtained 22,780 votes out of a possible 23,122 “the largest individual poll so far recorded in the history of the Gold Coast,” in Nkrumah’s own words.
The C.P.P. victory led the governor, Sir Charles Arden Clarke (in office 1949-1957), Creasy’s successor, to release Nkrumah from prison on February 12, 1951, and to invite him to Christiansburg Castle, the residence of the governor, the following day to request him to form a government. Nkru mah was appointed Leader of Government Business in the new legislative assembly which met for the first time on February 20. About a year later, on March 21, 1952, an amendment to the constitution made Nkrumah prime minister. In 1954 a new constitution was introduced which called for an all-African cabinet and a directly elected assembly. The C.P.P won the elections, although with a reduced majority.
In 1955-1956, Nkrumah was faced with political problems from his opposition, in particular the National Liberation Movement (N .L .M.), which had been established in Asante in September 1954, and which demanded federation. It was joined in its demands by two other parties, the Togoland Congress, and the Northern People’s Congress. The unity of the country was threatened. The British Colonial government, which supported Nkrumah, decided, after several attempts at reconciling the different views, to call a general election on the understanding that independence would be granted to the party which won the majority. Nkrumah’s party won the elections, which were held on July 12 and 17 1956. On August 23, Nkrumah made a formal approach to the governor to request the Secretary of State for the Colonies to make a firm declaration of the date of Ghana’s independence. The following month the date of March 6, 1957 was named as Independence Day. When the day came, Nkrumah, a few moments after midnight, announced independence to a crowd of about 100,000 which had gathered at the Accra Polo Ground.
Since the time that Nkrumah had become Leader of the Government in 1951, he had been faced with many problems. It had not been possible to carry out the development plans that had been formulated. There were few good roads, and there was no railway line linking Accra and the port of Takoradi. There were very few hospitals and clinics, and not enough places in the elementary schools for children of school age. The stability of the economy was threatened by the swollen shoot disease, which jeopardised the production of cocoa, the country’s principal crop. With the goodwill of the nation, Nkrumah and his ministers tried to tackle all these problems, achieving successes, but also making mistakes because of unwillingness to take into account some opposition views.
His administration dealt first with education. In 1952, primary school education became free but not compulsory for school age children. There were not enough trained teachers, so pupil teachers had to be employed. In the years that followed, the deterioration of educational standards in free public schools led to the founding of expensive private schools which were the only avenues leading to the good secondary schools. There was a sharp rise in the number of elementary and secondary schools and training colleges, although the status of teachers and the quality of teaching progressively declined. University education was expanded, universities being established at Kumase and Cape Coast which, in addition to the existing one at Legon, near Accra, brought the total to three. University education was free, and free text-books were supplied to all pupils in primary, middle, and secondary schools: A compulsory free education act was passed in 1961, but could not be implemented because of lack of funds as well as means of enforcing the provisions of the act.
In the field of communications, the achievements of Nkrumah’s administration were also remarkable. A new network of good roads was built. A new port was built at Tema, east of Accra, and was linked with Accra by rail. A new line linking Akyease (Achiasi), on a line linked with the port of Takoradi, with Kotoku on the Accra to Kumase line, shortened the journey between Accra and Takoradi. The Adomi Bridge, opened in 1956, facilitated travel between the Volta region and the rest of the country. In 1958 a national shipping line, the Black Star Line, and a national airline, Ghana Airways, were established. Agriculture and industrialisation were given special attention. But bad planning and corruption sometimes led to waste of public funds, and the rural areas remained depressed until the end of Nkrumah’s administration. Problems for his administration were created because, though the output of cocoa increased, world prices decreased sharply after independence, particularly in the latter years of his presidency.
The most outstanding achievement in his program, however, was the construction of the Volta Dam, more correctly known as the Akosombo project. Financed in part by Ghana, but mostly by foreign aid, it was completed by the end of 1965 at a cost of $140,000,000, and was formally opened by Nkrumah on January 23, 1966. The project provided enough electricity to meet all domestic and industrial requirements at the time it was built.
It was, however, in the field of foreign affairs that Nkrumah made his greatest impact on Africa and the world. On independence day, he had declared that the independence of Ghana was meaningless unless it was linked up with the total liberation of the continent. From that day on he did his best to hasten the liberation of the African territories from colonial rule. Paradoxically, however, although he advocated African unity, he dismantled the common services of British West Africa, such as the West African Currency Board, the West African Airways Corporation, the West African Court of Appeal, and the West African Research Organisation.
On April 15, 1958, he convened in Accra a conference of the independent African states, then numbering eight – Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Libya, Morocco, the Sudan, Tunisia, and the United Arab Republic (now the Arab Republic of Egypt) – to discuss matters of common interest. In December 1958, he convened the All African People’s Conference in Accra, which was attended by nationalist leaders from both independent and dependent African states and territories. A substantial portion of Ghana’s annual budget was set aside for the support of African freedom fighters, thereby adding to Ghana’s financial burdens and helping to undercut domestic support for his administration.
Also in 1958, Nkrumah married an Egyptian Coptic girl, Helen Ritz Fathia, a relative of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. There were three children by the marriage – Gokeh, Samia Yaba, and Sekou Ritz.
In May 1959, Nkrumah, as a step towards African unity, established the Ghana-Guinea Union, after granting a loan to Sekou Touré, the leading Guinea politician, who in 1958 had rejected the proposals of French President Charles de Gaulle (term of office, 1958-1969) to join a federal French Community, and instead had opted for Guinea’s independence. The union, which was intended as “a nucleus of the Union of African States”, was enlarged by the admission of Mali on December 24, 1960. After the establishment of various rival blocs on the African continent, it was finally decided to establish the Organisation of African Unity (O. A. U.) at Addis Ababa on May 25, 1963. Nkrumah’s dream had been partially fulfilled, since his aim was continental government.
In his preoccupation with foreign affairs, Nkrumah neglected to pay enough attention to domestic matters. In the years which followed independence, several sections of the Ghanaian citizenry became disillusioned with his regime. Allegations of corruption, nepotism, ostentation and inefficiency were made against Nkrumah and some members of his administration and his party. Although Nkrumah’s “Dawn Broadcast” of April 8, 1961, an appeal for austerity, showed that he was aware of these lapses, he was either unable or unwilling to take remedial action. Meanwhile, his administration used the Preventive Detention Act of 1958 to discourage dissent, and several of his political opponents were imprisoned under its provisions. Two of the “Big Six” – Dr. Danquah and Obetsebi Lamptey – died in prison. When, following a referendum, Ghana became a republic on July 1, 1960, the new constitution gave Nkrumah powers to make laws without consulting parliament. He used his powers to restrict freedom of the press, and to suppress debate and dissent. Several people were imprisoned on false charges, and some of those imprisoned for political reasons died in detention. Meanwhile the courts became increasingly impotent before the expanding power of the president.
His economic and political problems increased from 1961 onwards, leading him to turn towards the Soviet Union, China, and the Eastern European countries for support. In August 1962 he was the target of an assassination attempt at Kulugungu (Kulungugu) in northeast Ghana, and other assassination attempts followed. After this, in addition to expanding his internal security forces, he established the President’s Own Guard Regiment, and this made him enemies among the Army regulars. The worsening economic situation, and the establishment of the one-party state with Nkrumah as life president of party and state in 1964, and his earlier acceptance of the title of “Osagyefo,” (“Hero and Warrior”), and similar developments made several sections of the army and the civilian population wish for a coup.
On February 24, 1966, while Nkrumah was in China en route to Hanoi, North Vietnam on a peace mission, a coup by members of the Ghana army and police overthrew his regime. Giving up his mission to Hanoi, Nkrumah returned to Africa, spending his last years living in exile in the Republic of Guinea. He died in a hospital in Bucharest, Rumania in 1972. The government of Guinea, after months of negotiations with Ghana, allowed his body to be returned to Ghana for burial on July 7, 1972.
Kwame Nkrumah was a controversial figure while he was alive, and the debate about him still goes on. But few people will deny that he worked tirelessly for African freedom from colonialism, though not for individual freedom in Ghana or for stability in Africa. He was the most effective and the most widely known black African politician for over a decade, and his place in history is assured beside revolutionaries like Lenin (1870-1924) of the Soviet Union and Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) of turkey.
He wrote a number of books and pamphlets. Among his works, Ghana: The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah (1957)covers the years of his life up to the time of independence, while Africa Must Unite (1963) is a plea for Pan-African unity. Consciencism (1964) is a theoretical and somewhat abstruse work concerned with the philosophy and ideology of decolonisation, while Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965) is a Marxist critique of the operations of finance capital in Africa.
After Nkrumah’s fall, the shortcomings of his administration were exposed by his political successors, who inherited the burden of debt that he had incurred on the nation’s behalf from both the Western and Socialist states. But to many, both in his own country and abroad, his name has become legendary.