A powerful African voice — Kwame Nkrumah

July 24, 2022

Nkrumah initiated a campaign of “positive action,” involving non-violent protests, strikes, and non-cooperation with the British colonial authorities

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If change is denied, or too long delayed, violence will break out here and there. It is not that man planned or willed it, but it is their accumulated grievances that shall break out with volcanic fury — Nkrumah

Kwame Nkrumah spearheaded the Gold Coast’s independence movement and its transformation into modern-day Ghana. As the most powerful African voice espousing freedom, Nkrumah inspired subsequent independence movements throughout the continent. Quest for freedom became a lifelong passion for the son of a goldsmith. His mother was a retail trader.

With relatively humble beginnings, Nkrumah scaled Olympian heights and became the most prominent African face. Trinidadian Marxist historian, CLR James, counts him among the 50 most influential individuals in history. This, of course, is an exaggeration. Nevertheless, his significance as Pan-African statesman can hardly be denied. That prominence and the influence he came to wield in Africa, became the principal cause of his downfall.

His unceremonious exit from power and death in exile were orchestrated by the neo-imperial order, Ghana’s military junta and the metropolitan bourgeoisie acting in tandem. Nkrumah thus warrants serious scholarly gaze.

Born in 1901 and baptised a Roman Catholic, Nkrumah spent nine years at the Roman Catholic elementary school in the nearby Half Assini. After graduation from the Achimota College in 1930, he started his career as a teacher at Roman Catholic junior schools in Elmina and Axim and at a seminary.

Increasingly drawn to politics, Nkrumah decided to pursue further studies in the United States. He entered the Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1935 and graduated four years later. Later, he obtained master’s degrees from Lincoln and from the University of Pennsylvania. He studied the literature of socialism, notably Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, and nationalism, especially Marcus Garvey, the Black American leader of the 1920s.

Eventually, Nkrumah came to describe himself as a “non-denominational Christian and a Marxist socialist.” He also immersed himself in political work, reorganising and becoming president of the African Students’ Organisation of the United States and Canada.

Nkrumah was a voracious reader. He read books about politics and divinity, and tutored students in philosophy. In 1943, Nkrumah met the influential historian CLR James, Russian expatriate Raya Dunayevskaya and Chinese-American Grace Lee Boggs, all of whom were members of an America-based Marxist intellectual cohort.

Nkrumah later credited James with teaching him “how an underground movement worked”. The Federal Bureau of Investigation files on Nkrumah, kept from January to May 1945, identify him as a possible communist. The categorisation is contestable. Nkrumah wished to go to London to continue his education there after the World War II 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.” That throws sufficient light on his political orientation, which had a ring of autochthony. He left the United States in May 1945 and went to England where he organised the 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester.

Meanwhile, in the Gold Coast, JB Danquah had formed the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) to work for self-government by constitutional means. Invited to serve as the UGCC’s general secretary, Nkrumah returned home in late 1947. In that capacity, he addressed meetings throughout the Gold Coast and started creating a mass base for the new movement.

After extensive riots occurred in February 1948, the British briefly arrested him and some other leaders of the UGCC. Nkrumah defined his belief system as “the ideology of a New Africa, independent and absolutely free from imperialism, organised on a continental scale, founded upon the conception of one and united Africa, drawing its strength from modern science and technology and from the traditional African belief in freedom.”

Following a split between the middle-class leaders of the UGCC and his more radical supporters, in June 1949 Nkrumah formed the new Convention Peoples Party (CPP) committed to a programme of immediate self-government. In January 1950, Nkrumah initiated a campaign of “positive action,” involving non-violent protests, strikes and non-cooperation with the British colonial authorities. That indicated a strong influence of MK Gandhi on him.

A crisis ensued, services throughout the country were disrupted and Nkrumah was again arrested and sentenced to one-year imprisonment. But the Gold Coast’s first general election (February 8, 1951) demonstrated the support the CPP had already won. Elected to parliament, Nkrumah was released from prison to become leader of government business. He became prime minister of the Gold Coast in 1952. Things were not easy for the polity that had just attained independence. Colonial structures were intact and had produced a certain mentality among the ruling elite.

Following a plebiscite in 1960, Ghana became a republic and Nkrumah became its president with wide legislative and executive powers under a new constitution. Nkrumah then focused his attention on campaigning for the political unity of Black Africa that was far too big an idea to be realised in the 1960s when Cold War had restricted options for the post-colonial states. He prioritised infrastructure development which was vital for the country’s economic growth.

Those initiatives were condemned as ruinous development projects, so that “a once-prosperous country became crippled with foreign debt”. Western media was rife with such propaganda. His government’s Second Development Plan, announced in 1959, drew great flak from the capitalist quarters. So much pressure was exerted on Nkrumah’s government that the plan was abandoned in 1961.

Contraction of the economy then led to widespread labour unrest and a general strike in September 1961. Nkrumah then began evolving a much more rigorous apparatus of political control and to turn increasingly to the communist countries for support. In hindsight the strategy is defensible because given the post-colonial context, political stability was sorely needed.

In 1964 Ghana was officially designated a one-party state and Nkrumah life president of both the nation and the party. It seems that politics in Ghana needed time to adopt a two-party system. While the administration of the country passed increasingly “into the hands of self-serving and corrupt party officials”, Nkrumah busied himself with the ideological education of a new generation of Black African political activists.

Meanwhile, the economic crisis in Ghana worsened and shortages of food and other commodities became chronic. On February 24, 1966, while Nkrumah was visiting Beijing, the army and police seized power in Ghana. Nkrumah was deposed by the National Liberation Council, under whose supervision international financial institutions privatised many of the country’s state corporations.

Nkrumah found asylum in Guinea, where he spent the remainder of his life. He died of cancer in Bucharest in 1972.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

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