Nkrumah, Kwame 1909–1972
Kwame Nkrumah 1909–1972
Former head of state of Ghana
Even decades after his death in 1972, Kwame Nkrumah remains a symbol of the movement for African independence that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. He assumed a position of leadership in the struggle for African freedom by becoming prime minister of the Gold Coast—the first African-born prime minister of a sub-Saharan British dependency. When the Gold Coast achieved independence as Ghana in 1957, Nkrumah became its head of state. Within a few years, he attained cult figure status and became the country’s sole decisionmaker. Nkrumah wrote extensively and was a leading philosopher of Pan-Africanism, the movement toward African unity. Though generally recognized as a brilliant leader, he was overthrown by a bloodless military coup when his policies led to widespread discontent in his own country.
Nkrumah grew up in a typical African village. Although records of his exact date of birth in 1909 vary and are not considered official, he reportedly celebrated his birthday on September 18. Nkrumah attended a local elementary school run by a Roman Catholic mission, where he was baptized. He did well at school and became a pupil teacher. In 1926 he was sent to the Government Training College(GTC) in the seaport city of Accra, which later became the capital of Ghana. Two years later, the GTC became part of Achimota College, a Christian foundation open to all Africans. It was a challenging curricula, and Nkrumah took part in such extracurricular activities as drama and debate.
Around this time he became exposed to the Pan-African ideas of American social and political activist W.E.B. Du Bois and Jamaican black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey. Nkrumah left Achimota in 1930 and took a teaching post at Elmina Roman Catholic primary school. After a series of promotions, he joined the staff of the Catholic seminary at Amisso in 1933.
In 1935, having failed the entrance examination for London University, Nkrumah decided to apply to an American university. On the advice of Dr. Azikiwe, a Nigerian journalist who had attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, he applied there. With the aid of his extended African family, he was able to travel to America and enroll at Lincoln. It was the beginning of ten difficult years in America.
Nkrumah graduated from Lincoln in 1939 with a bachelor’s
Born September 18, 1909, in Nkroful, British West Africa; died of cancer, April 27, 1972, in Bucharest, Romania. Education: Attended Roman Catholic missionary schools; attended Government Training College, Accra, 1926-30; Lincoln University, B.A., 1939; Lincoln Theological Seminary, B.A., 1942; received M.A. and M.S. from University of Pennsylvania.
Began career as a teacher at Roman Catholic schools and seminary, Gold Coast, 1930-35; traveled to United States, 1935, to attend Lincoln University; organized and became president of African Students Association; returned to Gold Coast, 1947; became secretary of the United Gold Coast Convention (political party); established Convention People’s party (CPP), 1949; elected prime minister of Gold Coast, 1951, reelected 1954 and 1956; became head of state when Gold Coast achieved independence as Ghana, 1957; overthown by military coup, 1966, and forced into exile; named joint head of state of Guinea by Sekou Toure while in exile.
degree in economics and sociology. He took a post as an assistant lecturer in philosophy to support himself. He also enrolled in graduate classes at the Lincoln Theological Seminary and at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1942 he graduated as the top student from the seminary in the bachelor of theology program. He also earned master’s degrees in philosophy and education from the University of Pennsylvania.
Devoting more time to political activities, Nkrumah joined a group of African students and helped it become the national African Students Association, of which he was elected president. He participated in several conferences on the independence and development of Africa and began setting down his political and philosophical ideas in a pamphlet that would be published in 1962 as Towards Colonial Freedom. Completed during his stay in London in 1946, the work reflects a wide variety of revolutionary influences and denounced Britain’s colonial rule in Africa.
In 1947 the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) was established, and Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast from London to become its secretary. This national movement was essentially middle-class in origin and conservative in its policies. Within two years, Nkrumah broke from this moderate organization and, together with like-minded radicals, formed the Convention People’s Party (CPP), which adopted the slogan “Self-Government Now.” It was supported by many segments of Gold Coast society that wished to see the end of British rule, including army veterans, small traders, and other nationalists.
Nkrumah’s protests were eventually successful. After the British jailed him in 1950 for political agitation, they allowed a new national constitution to be drafted, with elections to be held in February of 1951. Although still under arrest, Nkrumah became the continent’s first African-born prime minister. After winning the 1951 election, Nkrumah’s CPP went on to win subsequent elections in 1954 and 1956.
Nkrumah pressed for full independence, and on March 6, 1957, the Gold Coast became the first black African colony to be liberated from British rule. It merged with the former British Togoland to form Ghana. As the initial experiment in independent African democratic socialism, Ghana was subject to high expectations, and Nkrumah assumed a position of leadership among African as well as Western intellectuals and ideologues.
During the first years of his rule, Nkrumah and the CPP were faced with opposition in the form of the United Party (UP). In general, the CPP was socialistic in nature and sought to centralize power and ownership in the government. The UP, on the other hand, championed a federalist philosophy that would allow for a greater distribution of power; the party also espoused the cause of Ghana’s capitalists, supporting private ownership and a competitive free market system. With Ghana’s economy largely based on the production of cocoa, the UP found strong support among the nation’s cocoa farmers, who opposed the CPP’s state-controlled cocoa marketing system.
Nkrumah and the CPP set about to weaken their opposition. Opposition leaders who would not merge or compromise with the CPP were eventually harassed or placed in preventive detention. The Preventive Detention Act of 1958 enabled the government to imprison opponents for up to five years without a trial. Press censorship was practiced, and the right to hold public meetings was sharply curtailed. The CPP, with headquarters in Accra, became the center of the nation’s political activity. The party’s central committee became responsible for selecting members of parliament and filling other government positions.
A wide range of institutions were created or influenced by the CPP to gain more control over Ghana’s population. Through party appointments, the CPP put its own people into positions such as regional commissioners, district commissioners, and town or local development committee posts. The CPP also created a wide range of functional groups, including the Ghana Trade Union Congress, the United Ghana Farmers Council, the Young Pioneers, the Workers Brigade, and organizations for women, all of which worked to neutralize the opposition. In case these measures failed, vigilante groups garnered support for the CPP with the aid of Nkrumah’s private security forces.
By 1960 Nkrumah and the CPP had consolidated their power and were ready to implement their political policies. The government’s policies were guided by Nkrumah’s personal philosophy, which came to be known as Nkrumahism. According to Ghana: Coping with Uncertainty, “Nkrumahism rejected the rigidity of existing traditional institutions and opposed all manifestations of colonialism, neocolonialism, and external interference.” In other words, Nkrumah opposed the influence of outside powers on his country. He steadfastly resisted the exertion of political or economic power on Ghana from any other source.
The basic tenets of Nkrumahism included socialism as the path to further development and unity with other emerging African nations as the way to achieve power in the international arena. As described in Ghana: Coping with Uncertainty, “Nkrumahism rested on several pillars: an outright attack on underdevelopment, the rapid expansion of state intervention in the economy, industrialization as the key to economic growth, and diversification of foreign contacts.”
Nkrumahism became an instrument in the development of the cult of personality that surrounded Nkrumah. Eventually, it was seen to be an abstract vision rather than a force that could provide the necessary guidelines for dealing with Ghana’s political and economic realities.
In 1961 Nkrumah nationalized Ghana’s cocoa trade, thus beginning the implementation of his socialist policies. A broad class of state corporations was established to further industrialization and economic growth. These state-linked corporations included agricultural units, external trade organizations, distribution networks, and marketing monopolies.
Unfortunately, Ghana’s economic problems began around this time as well. The world cocoa price was falling, and imports and government expenditures increased while proceeds from exports began to decline. A bare bones spending plan or “austerity budget” was introduced. The government borrowed heavily and passed the Compulsory Savings Act, which deducted five percent for savings from workers’ paychecks. When introduced in September of 1961, this deduction led to a general strike on the part of workers.
A combination of socialist policies and various external factors led to a serious decline in Ghana’s economy. According to Ghana: Coping with Uncertainty, “Production in government plants during the 1961-66 period declined, the foreign debt burden grew at an alarming pace, real urban wages were cut by half, sectoral imbalances were magnified, and in the name of socialism, gold mines, plantations, and even Accra’s laundries were nationalized, draining resources and generating no return. Agricultural production stagnated and in some cases dropped.”
Nkrumah implemented an active foreign policy to bring Ghana from the periphery of world affairs to a more important role in the struggle for African liberation and unity. He was instrumental in the creation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), underwriting preliminary conferences on African unity and developing personal ties with other African leaders. He balanced his ties with the West by participating in the Afro-Asian movement and strengthening his relations with the Soviet bloc.
By expanding the range and scope of Ghana’s international ties, Nkrumah hoped to break Ghana’s inherited dependency on external forces. In the early 1960s more than 60 ambassadors were placed in foreign capitals, and a special Bureau of African Affairs was created. Nkrumah’s explicitly global perspective was designed to bring about an improvement in conditions in all of Africa as well as in Ghana.
The workers’ strikes of 1961 were led by the same groups that had helped bring Nkrumah to power. When the government’s efforts to placate the workers were ineffective, the trade unions were joined in their opposition by religious groups that protested the attribution of godlike qualities to Nkrumah. At the same time, policy conflicts intensified within the CPP. In August of 1962 an attempt was made on Nkrumah’s life at Kulungugu in Ghana’s Upper Region. As a result, Nkrumah came to distrust the moderate elements within the CPP and relied more on the party’s radicals, resulting in greater isolation from his supporters.
In the trial following the Kulungugu assassination attempt, the major suspects were found not guilty. Overreacting to the decision, Nkrumah dismissed the nation’s chief justice and rushed a bill through the National Assembly that gave him the power to set aside any judgment in the nation’s courts. Effectively demolishing the country’s independent judiciary, Nkrumah seemed to be embarking on a course leading to dictatorship. His actions alienated many of his supporters, especially the United States and Great Britain.
In January of 1964 a referendum was held to make Ghana a one-party state. It passed, and Ghana legally became a one-party socialist state. However, the vote on the referendum was reportedly rigged, revealing how much power was concentrated in the hands of Nkrumah. Another assassination attempt was made by one of Nkrumah’s own guards. When there was a flurry of military activity around Accra, security concerns escalated. Angry demonstrations against the U.S. embassy followed reports that capitalist forces were trying to overthrow Nkrumah. Four American professors were subsequently dismissed from the University of Ghana at Legon. During this period, Nkrumah was welcoming more Russians to Accra and strengthening his ties to the communist states of Europe’s Eastern bloc while again denouncing the imposition of power on African states by other nations.
During 1964 and 1965 Nkrumah became involved in attempts to end the Vietnam War. He had good relations with the Chinese and Vietnamese leaders as well as with the Western powers. Nkrumah was forced to put his peace plans on hold, however, when rumors of more coup attempts surfaced.
Around the same time, political turmoil was brewing in the self-governing British colony of Southern Rhodesia. A white minority government declared independence in 1965, and over the next few years efforts to control and segregate the country’s African population increased. Ghana supported the OAU during the Rhodesian crisis and broke off diplomatic relations with Great Britain. Nkrumah’s at tempts to mobilize the military to prepare for war with Rhodesia only exacerbated the problems he was having with Ghana’s armed forces.
On February 1, 1966, Nkrumah made his last address to the National Assembly. Preoccupied with a proposed visit to Hanoi, North Vietnam, Nkrumah was by this time isolated from the OAU and virtually at war with his neighbors in West Africa. He left the Accra airport for China on his way to Hanoi on February 21, 1966, and a few days later the Ghanaian army and police staged a coup, thereby seizing power from him. Nkrumah learned of the coup from the Chinese when he arrived in Peking.
Nkrumah accepted an offer of security from Guinean leader Sekou Toure, who made him the joint head of state of Guinea, and Nkrumah carried on the African revolutionary struggle there. He also continued to write during his exile in Guinea and frequently made broadcasts to the people in his homeland of Ghana over the “Voice of Revolution” radio station.
In 1968 Nkrumah set up a publishing company to publish his books. His writings became more revolutionary and extreme. His final philosophy was published in The Class Struggle in Africa in 1970, in which he views the African revolution as part of the world socialist revolutionary process. Later that year Nkrumah became seriously ill. Diagnosed with cancer, he went through a long period of severe suffering before he died on April 27, 1972, in Bucharest.
The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson, 1957.
I Speak of Freedom, Panaf, 1961.
Towards Colonial Freedom, Heinemann, 1962.
Consciencism, Panaf, 1964.
Africa Must Unite, Panaf, 1964.
Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, Panaf, 1965.
Challenge of the Congo, Panaf, 1967.
Axioms, Panaf, 1967.
Voice from Conakry, Panaf, 1967.
Dark Days in Ghana, Panaf, 1968.
The Class Struggle in Africa, Panaf, 1970.
Revolutionary path, International, 1973.
Hadjor, Kofi Buenor, Nkrumah and Ghana: The Dilemma of Post-Colonial Power, Kegan Paul International, 1988.
McKown, Robin, Nkrumah: A Biography, Doubleday, 1973.
Pellow, Deborah, and Naomi Chazan, Ghana: Coping with Uncertainty, Westview, 1986.
Rooney, David, Kwame Nkrumah: The Political Kingdom in the Third World, St. Martin’s, 1988.
Smertin, Yuri, Kwame Nkrumah, International, 1987.
Time, May 8, 1972.
Newsweek, May 8, 1972.
Nation, June 5, 1972.
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Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972) was the first president of Ghana. Though he effected Ghana's independence and for a decade was Africa's foremost spokesman, his vainglory and dictatorial methods brought about his downfall in 1966, with him a discredited and tragic figure in African nationalism.
The career of Kwame Nkrumah must be seen in the context of the Africa of his period, which sought a dynamic leader but lacked the structures that would make possible the common goal of continental unity. Ghana's and Africa's very inadequacies initially made them insensitive to Nkrumah's failings, conspicuous among which was the ever-widening gap between his rhetoric, which called for a socialist revolution, and his practice, which accommodated itself to the worst aspects of tribal and capitalist traditions.
Preparation for Leadership
Kwame Nkrumah, whose original name was Francis Nwia Nkrumah, was born on Sept. 21, 1909, into the tiny Nzima tribe; his origins, although clouded by controversy, were indisputably humble. His early education was in Catholic mission schools and in a government training college. In 1935, after teaching for several years, with the help of friends and the example of Nnamdi Azikiwe (later Nigeria's first president), Nkrumah left for Lincoln University in the United States.
By this time, Nkrumah was already the most radical of the young "Gold Coasters," resenting deeply the exploitative aspects of colonialism. But it was during the years at Lincoln, and the ensuing ones as a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, that he was to give substance to his feelings by studying, as he later wrote, "revolutionaries and their methods" (such as Lenin, Napoleon, Gandhi, Hitler, and, most important, Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican whose followers proclaimed him "provisional president of Africa"). Nkrumah never obtained a thorough grounding in any field and never really demonstrated the intelligence and sensitivity that would have demanded discipline in his thinking. This combination of an inferior schooling and a less than first-rate mind made possible the eclectic and incoherent ideological thought seen in his later writings on "Nkrumaism."
Nkrumah's formal political activity started in America but only began in earnest in London, where he went for further studies in 1945. While in England, he edited a pan-African journal, was vice president of the West African students' union, and helped organize the Fifth Pan-African Conference in Manchester. There, too, George Padmore, the important former-Communist pan-Africanist, became his mentor and was a crucial restraining influence until he died in 1959.
Gold Coast Leader
In 1947 Nkrumah had his chance to return to Africa in a position of leadership. The United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), a conservative nationalist movement, invited him to be general secretary. He arrived on Nov. 14, 1947. With weak British leadership and the postwar recession, the Gold Coast was ripe for more radical leadership, which Nkrumah ably provided. Riots in early 1948 resulted from economic grievances but were blamed on the UGCC leadership. Nkrumah and others, including Joseph B. Danquah, who later died in one of Nkrumah's political jails, were detained side by side.
After their release later that year, the UGCC leadership demoted Nkrumah, who responded by organizing the Committee on Youth Organization, which (composed of his now numerous admirers) provided the nucleus of Nkrumah's personal support. The inevitable rupture between Nkrumah and the UGCC came in June 1949. At an emotion-packed meeting, the Convention People's party (CPP) was born, with Nkrumah its leader.
The 1948 riots speeded the pace of political reform. Yet Nkrumah, always the radical, rejected proposals for a new Gold Coast constitution. He proposed to precipitate a crisis through "positive action": his followers took the cue and agitated for immediate self-government, leading to a state of emergency and Nkrumah's detention once again by the British. But reform ensued, and the first national elections were held in 1951. The CPP triumphed, thanks to brilliant organization and to the symbol of its incarcerated leader; on Feb. 12, 1951, Nkrumah was released from prison and made "leader of government business." A wholly new period began, in which the principle of ultimate independence was no longer in question.
Power was divided between Nkrumah, who was renamed prime minister in 1952, and the governor. This diarchy symbolized Nkrumah's dilemma of the reconciliation of his image as a revolutionary with his close relationship with the imperial authority. Although this gap was papered over with rhetoric, it always existed in some form. A new enemy of Nkrumah's power appeared in 1954-1956 in the form of a conservative, tribally based political movement derived from the UGCC which even tried to delay independence. The need to struggle for the "political kingdom" against domestic forces intensified Nkrumah's desire for revenge and for total power. Marxist ideology became his congenial and increasingly convenient justification.
Search for the Political Kingdom
On March 6, 1957, the Gold Coast became independent as Ghana. Although Nkrumah was the prime minister (the governor-general was British) and had the governmental machinery in his hands, watchful British and domestic eyes cautioned him from attempting, for example, to transform the professional civil service into a personal political tool. But in the next 3 years he did much—he called two pan-African conferences, made state tours throughout Africa and to America and Britain, and accelerated educational and social development—and with all of this his power grew. He used a preventive detention act to detain many members of Parliament and supporters of the opposition, and by 1960 it took considerable courage to oppose him.
Debate in Africa and in the West, particularly Britain, over the colonial independence movement and the ability of Africans to govern themselves frequently became a debate over Nkrumah and his professed democratic goals. In 1960 a plebiscite made Ghana a republic with a new constitution, and an election resembling a plebiscite made Nkrumah its first president.
President of the Republic
With the founding of the republic on July 1, 1960, Nkrumah had achieved the political kingdom from which "all else"—in pan-African, domestic, and international policy—was to follow. Pan-African concerns had been laid aside during the struggle for domestic power. Now having established firm control of the republic, Nkrumah could center his activity on the uniting of the continent. But other states with their own leaders and heroes had now emerged, and they resented the constant advice from Accra; nor were they likely to surrender their newly won sovereignty to a great union.
Precisely as the new states consolidated their own positions, and as union became less and less a practicable proposition, Nkrumah's insistence on, and his absorption in, the "Union Government" cause grew. Nkrumah sincerely resented Africa's weakness and sought to prevent its "Latin-Americanization," but his method, his ambition, and the ill-defined nature of his goals doomed the obsession. "Union Government" became a joke in Africa. Thus Ghana's own diplomatic position eroded until, in 1963, it was even denied a position of eminence in the new Organization of African Unity. Yet in the more radical states, Nkrumah himself remained an honored statesman until 1964, when Julius Nyerere, the prestigious president of Tanzania, publicly denounced him in strident terms. After this, nothing sacred was left either of the cause or of the man.
In domestic affairs, the new constitution had been amended by fiat after the plebiscite so as to bestow dictatorial powers on the "Osagyefo" (redeemer—Nkrumah's self-advocated title). In the ensuing years, the remaining opposition within and without his party were detained, driven to exile, or frightened into silence. A small coterie of expatriate and Ghanaian Marxists pressed him to make Ghana Africa's first Communist state and as quid pro quo honored "Nkrumaism." Assassination attempts in 1962 and 1964 made Nkrumah accelerate his timetable for the building of socialism. The first attempt led to a new intimacy in relations with the Communist world and his own public advocacy of "scientific socialism"; the second led to a plebiscite making Ghana a one-party state.
The caution and inconsistency that had always characterized Nkrumah's statecraft remained. Moderates—and rich businessmen—could successfully cloak their sentiments in flattery. The steadily deteriorating financial situation, combined with the reluctance of Nikita Khrushchev's more cautious successors in the Kremlin to bail Nkrumah out, preserved his ultimate dependence on the West. Instinctively opposed to breaking diplomatic relations with Britain over the Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) question, Nkrumah was forced to do so in order to appear to remain in the vanguard of African radicalism. Actions, not motivations, counted.
Exile and Death
The momentum of Nkrumah's actions, symbolized by the break with Britain, threatened the independence of the army and the police; early on Feb. 24, 1966, three days after Nkrumah had left on a gratuitous peace mission to Vietnam, they toppled the regime, outlawed the party, and announced that "the myth of Kwame Nkrumah is ended forever." The jubilant populace destroyed Nkrumah's statues and renamed the many roads, circles, buildings—even universities—that had borne his name. From a dreary exile in Guinea, Nkrumah ineffectually tried to rally Ghana against the new regime. Though initially proclaimed "copresident of Guinea" on his arrival, a gesture of sentiment, Nkrumah soon found himself watched, isolated, without even his Egyptian wife of 8 years. He died in Conakry, Guinea, on April 27, 1972.
Yet Ghana could no more remove the memory and effects of 15 years of its remarkable first leader than Nkrumah could remove the memories and structures of Ghana's colonial and traditional past. On the negative side were the heavy debts that the country had accrued.
More positively, there were the schools and universities, the Volta Dam, and the aluminum industry which Nkrumah had dreamed of in the 1950s and through persistence had seen through. And, he had given most Ghanaians a sense—and pride — of nationhood in the 1950s and had given people of African blood throughout the world a new pride in their color. Ironically, he had wanted to unite and lead a continent, but he founded a nation; of its small size he was continually embarrassed. Yet it is by his successes and failures as leader of that country that his biographers must ultimately judge him.
Nkrumah's autobiography, Ghana (1957), is probably the most revealing picture of him. His subsequent books became increasingly less important as he relied more and more on others to compose them. His I Speak of Freedom (1961) is largely a compilation of speeches; Africa Must Unite (1963) is a paean to his Ghanaian accomplishments; Consciencism (1964), probably written by two African Marxists and launched with fanfare and rapidly abandoned, attempts to give African nationalism a Marxist ideological context; and Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965) was widely thought to have been unread by its purported author. Nkrumah's subsequent books, published in exile, are essentially the tracts of a bitter man, although Challenge of the Congo (1967) is useful for some important documentary material.
There is no significant intimate study of Nkrumah. A balanced account of his regime, written by T. Peter Omari, a Ghanaian sociologist on the United Nations staff, is Kwame Nkrumah: The Anatomy of an African Dictatorship (1971). A brief study of Nkrumah is in Dankwart A. Rustow, ed., Philosophers and Kings: Studies in Leadership (1970). A slender, important specialized work, written by a European who was chief of the defense staff of the Ghanaian army, reveals much about Nkrumah's ambitions: H. T. Alexander, African Tightrope: My Two Years as Nkrumah's Chief of Staff (1966).
Nkrumah is best studied in the context of the forces of his time. Dennis Austin, Politics in Ghana: 1946-1960 (1964), is the standard work. An essential study is George Padmore, Pan-Africanism or Communism (1956); and David E. Apter, The Gold Coast in Transition (1955; rev. ed. entitled Ghana in Transition, 1963), is excellent for the domestic politics of Ghana and the transfer of institutions to the new nationalism. Nkrumah as pan-Africanist and diplomatist is examined in W. Scott Thompson, Ghana's Foreign Policy, 1957-1966: Diplomacy, Ideology, and the New State (1969).
Assensoh, A. B., Kwame Nkrumah: six years in exile, 1966-1972, Ilfracombe: Stockwell, 1978.
Donkoh, C. E., Nkrumah and Busia of Ghana, S.l.: s.n., 1974 (Accra: New Times Corp..
Kanu, Genoveva., Nkrumah the man: a friend's testimony, Enugu, Anambra State, Nigeria: Delta of Nigeria, 1982.
Meyer, Joe-Fio N., Dr. Nkrumah's last dream: continental government of Africa, Accra: Advance Pub., 1990.
Timothy, Bankole., Kwame Nkrumah, from cradle to grave, Dorchester, Dorset: Gavin Press, 1981. □
"Kwame Nkrumah." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kwame-nkrumah
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Nkrumah, Kwame 1909-1972
It is an unquestionable fact that the political leader with the most profound impact on Africa in the twentieth century was Kwame Nkrumah, the founder and first president of the independent nation of Ghana. He was born on or about September 21, 1909, in Nkroful in the southwest part of the Gold Coast, now Ghana. The force that impelled his behavior and unleashed his energies was the ideology of pan-Africanism, which took root in him through his discipleship of Marcus Garvey (1887–1940) during his student days in the United States from 1935 to 1945. The ideology’s core objective was to break the African universe away from the powerlessness and degradation that had accompanied five centuries of slavery, colonialism, and other forms of domination suffered by Africans universally at the hands of Western capitalistic imperialism. Returning to his native Gold Coast in 1947, Nkrumah soon proved himself, as the African nationalist Amílcar Cabral (1924–1973) observed, “the strategist of genius in the struggle against classical colonialism” (Davidson 1973, p. 13), bringing the British colony to independence in 1957. From then on, he made the liquidation of colonialism in Africa and the unification of the emergent states into a federal union the primary goals of the new Ghanaian state. In this schema, the freeing of Ghana from colonial rule remained always “the servant” of the second goal of Africa’s total liberation and unity. He tirelessly proclaimed this credo: “I will commit all the resources and energies of Ghana towards achieving Africa’s independence and unity” (Legum 1962, p. 44).
With a federal continental government, he proclaimed, Africa would be able to tackle every emergency, every enemy, and every complexity. This is not because Africans are a race of supermen, but because “we have emerged in the age of science and technology in which poverty, ignorance, and disease are no longer the masters, but the retreating foes of mankind. We have emerged in the age of socialized planning, where production and distribution are not governed by chaos, greed and self-interest, but by social needs” (Nkrumah 1973, p. 240). Above all, he continued, Africans had emerged at a time when a continental land mass such as Africa was “necessary to the economic capitalization and profitability of modern productive methods and techniques” (Nkrumah 1973, p. 240).
In a campaign based on, in the words of Colin Legum, a “passionate, informed and urgent advocacy,” (Gardiner 1970, p. 53) Nkrumah assailed the gradualist, incrementalist, economistic, region-bound approach to integration, making it clear that African unity was, in the last analysis, “a political kingdom” that could only be gained by political means—that the social and economic development of Africa would come only within the political kingdom, not the other way around.
Nkrumah’s single-minded challenge and overthrow of imperial power in Ghana (as the Gold Coast was renamed in 1957) greatly stimulated the forces of nationalism across Africa. The West answered back by creating the appearance of political liberation in diverse African places to hide the reality of the maintenance of old colonial relationships. This way, the West continued to rule and control Africa’s economic destiny surreptitiously, using puppet regimes suitably dressed in the counterfeit trappings of sovereignty. Nkrumah characterized this new phenomenon neocolonialism, and he went on to castigate it as the most irresponsible form of imperialism in the sense that, for those who imposed it, it meant “power without responsibility,” whereas for those victimized by it, it meant “exploitation without redress” (Nkrumah 1965, p. xi).
There was no denying the reality of neocolonialism. Certainly, as Rupert Emerson noted, the territories left behind following the deliberate breakup by France of the French West Africa and French Equatorial Africa Federations seemed “hopeless experiments in endowing with life” artificial political entities that had no prospect of economic and political viability and stability (Emerson 1962, p. 286). And yet, Nkrumah was deemed “to have offended against all international proprieties” by making a battle against neocolonialism his “daily preoccupation,” and by writing a book on its dangers (Bing 1968, p. 32) entitled Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965). The British prime minister, Alex Douglas-Hume, called the concept a slander, and the U.S. State Department officially summoned the Ghanaian charge d’affaires in Washington, D.C. to formally protest the publication of the book in the United States. In the end, Nkrumah’s crusade for genuine decolonization and pan-African unification resulted in a foreign-instigated overthrow of his government. In the categorical statement of Jeffrey Sachs, “The CIA had its hand on the violent overthrow of President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana in 1966” (Sachs 2005, p. 190).
Nkrumah linked pan-Africanism (as a movement for one United Africa that could countervail imperialism, and as an ideology of egalitarianism committed to the creation of opportunities for the development and uplift of all African people) with socialism: “At the core of the concept of African unity,” he wrote, “lies socialism and the socialist definition of the new African society. Socialism and African unity are organically complementary” (Nkrumah 1968, p. 28). Because colonial rule precluded the accumulation of capital among the colonial subjects, a postcolonial system based on private enterprise would result in the overwhelming foreign capitalist domination of the national economy. On his postulate that capitalism “is but the gentleman’s method of slavery,” he insisted that pan-Africanism needed to harness the “scientific,” “abiding,” and “universal” principles of socialism to contain it (Nkrumah 1968, p. 29; Nkrumah 1970[b], p. 26). Among these principles are the public ownership of the means of production geared toward “the fulfillment of the people’s needs,” and recognition of the reality of the class struggle.
Nkrumah’s heroic role in the decolonization struggle in Africa, and his enormous importance as the symbol of Ghanaian national unity in an ethnically fragmented land, produced a wave of oftentimes irrational adulation around him, reminiscent of the uncritical hero-worship that Americans once heaped on George Washington as the first president of the incipient American republic. In effect, a personality cult nourished by Nkrumah’s own penchant for flamboyant style sought for him the same kind of legitimacy rooted in history, religion, and ancestral spiritual practices that was afforded his powerful rival, the Asante King. But, when all is said and done, it was Nkrumah’s grand vision of a united African superstate, much like what animates and drives the European Union today, that drew the racist accusation of megalomania from the West, and not anything to do with his supposedly inflated sense of personal grandeur or fondness for adulation.
Following his ouster, Nkrumah took up residence in Conakry, Guinea, at the invitation of President Ahmed Sékou Touré (1922–1984) and spent a good deal of his time reading and writing, polishing his speaking French, and holding heated discussions on salient African issues with visiting companions-in-arms such as Cabral and Kwame Ture (Stokeley Carmichael, 1941–1998). He made several radio broadcasts to Ghana drawing attention to the neocolonial character of the February 1966 military coup, all as part of a spirited effort to rally support for his return to power. Astoundingly, during this hectic period he also managed to publish several significant books, among them Challenge of the Congo (1967), Dark Days in Ghana (1968), Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare (1968), Class Struggle in Africa (1970), and Revolutionary Path (1973), all of which he dedicated, characteristically, to the “African Nation That Must Be.” Nkrumah died on April 27, 1972, in Bucharest, Romania, while receiving treatment for skin cancer.
Even though his dedication to the pan-African vision entailed the sacrifice of some short-term Ghana national interests, it is still the resounding verdict that the most impressive economic, social, and political achievements in Ghana to date took place during his leadership. And although he failed to achieve the goal of African political unification, what gave Nkrumah his lasting importance “is that he failed in trying to reach the right goal, and not, like many of his time and later, in trying to reach the wrong one” (Davidson 1973, p. 207). After all, this is a historical juncture “when policies aimed at … unity can alone solve Africa’s problems, so that all other alternatives can be no more than temporary diversions from the pathway to those aims” (Davidson 1973, p. 37).
Nkrumah, Kwame. 1965. Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism. London: Nelson.
Nkrumah, Kwame. 1967. Challenge of the Congo. New York: International Publishers.
Nkrumah, Kwame. 1968. Dark Days in Ghana. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Nkrumah, Kwame. 1968. Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare. New York: International Publishers.
Nkrumah, Kwame. 1970(a). Class Struggle in Africa. New York: International Publishers.
Nkrumah, Kwame. 1970(b). Consciencism: Philosophy and the Ideology for Decolonization. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Nkrumah, Kwame. 1973. Revolutionary Path. New York: International Publishers.
Bing, Geoffrey. 1968. Reap the Whirlwind: An Account of Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana from 1950 to 1966. London: McGibbon and Kee.
Davidson, Basil. 1973. Black Star: A View of the Life and Times of Kwame Nkrumah. New York: Praeger Publishers.
Emerson, Rupert. 1962. Pan-Africanism. International Organization 16 (Spring): 275–290.
Legum, Colin. 1962. Pan-Africanism: A Short Political Guide. New York: Praeger.
Sachs, Jeffrey D. 2005. The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time. New York: Penguin Press.
Smertin, Yuri. 1987. Kwame Nkrumah. New York: International Publishers.
"Nkrumah, Kwame." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/nkrumah-kwame
"Nkrumah, Kwame." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved December 11, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/nkrumah-kwame
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Kwame Nkrumah (kwä´mā nkrōō´mä), 1909–72, African political leader, prime minister (1957–60) and president (1960–66) of Ghana. The son of a goldsmith, he was educated at mission schools in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and became a teacher. A brilliant student, he studied (1935–45) in the United States and then went to London. While studying law there he held important posts in African nationalist organizations, espousing Pan-Africanism. Returning to the Gold Coast in 1947, he was made general secretary of the United Gold Coast Convention party by its founder, Dr. J. B. Danquah, who was later jailed by Nkrumah. In 1949, Nkrumah formed his own party, the Convention People's party, and led a series of strikes and boycotts for self-government. He was imprisoned (1950) by the British for sedition, but was released in 1951 when his party swept the general election; he became prime minister in 1952. Under his leadership the Gold Coast achieved (1957) independence and, in 1960, became the Republic of Ghana. Probably the leading proponent of pan-Africanism, he effected a loose union with Guinea (1959) and Mali (1960). Following a course of international political neutrality, he secured economic and technical aid from the United States and the Soviet Union. As president, Nkrumah suppressed political opponents, and in 1961, after a series of strikes, made himself supreme commander of the armed forces; he also assumed absolute control of the Convention People's party. Several attempts were made on his life. He increasingly isolated himself from the populace, meanwhile promoting a cult of personality. In 1966, while he was on a trip to Beijing, his government was overthrown. He subsequently took refuge in Guinea.
See his autobiography (1957); biographies by G. Marais (1972), B. Davidson (1974), and D. Kellner (1987).
"Nkrumah, Kwame." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nkrumah-kwame
"Nkrumah, Kwame." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved December 11, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nkrumah-kwame
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"Nkrumah, Kwame." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nkrumah-kwame
"Nkrumah, Kwame." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved December 11, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nkrumah-kwame
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"Nkrumah, Kwame." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nkrumah-kwame
"Nkrumah, Kwame." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved December 11, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nkrumah-kwame
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Kwame Nkrumah, the first head of state of independent Ghana, was born on September 21, 1909, in Nkroful in what was then the Western Province of the Gold Coast, later to become Ghana. He was a Pan-Africanist, a nationalist, and a crusader for decolonization whose political ideologies and cultural canons not only empowered Ghanaians, but also molded the antiracist and anticolonial ideas of other Africans, including those in the diaspora.
Nkrumah was the prime minister of Ghana from 1957 to 1960 and the president from 1960 to 1966. No matter how he is assessed, there can be no doubt that he was a visionary whose ideas and achievements were far ahead of his time. Indeed, so long as there is a history of African nationalism and decolonization to be told, Nkrumah would forever remain the great frontispiece that unfolds that epic.
Nkrumah was self-disciplined and lived an ascetic life. His father was a goldsmith and his mother was a trader. He attended the local Catholic primary school in Half Assini, his father's community, then qualified in 1926 to attend the Prince of Wales College at Achimota, near the colonial capital of Accra. Having being trained as a teacher at Achimota, he taught at a Catholic primary school and later became the headmaster of a school in Axim, near his place of birth. Nkrumah inspired his students by forming literary clubs and academic societies for them.
In 1935 he traveled to the United States to study. He earned a bachelor of science degree from Lincoln University in 1939 and a bachelor of theology from Lincoln Theological Seminary in 1942. In 1945 he obtained master of science degrees in education and philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He also took courses at the University of Pennsylvania toward a doctoral degree in philosophy, but moved to London in 1945 to study law. Overall, Nkrumah was a dedicated intellectual devoted to the cause of African liberation. A voracious reader of socialist and Marxist literature, Nkrumah wrote some fifteen books that diagnosed the African condition with timeless prescriptions.
Nkrumah's sojourn overseas is crucial to understanding his maturation as a Pan-Africanist and a vigorous anticolonialist. While in the United States, he experienced firsthand a systemic racism that shaped his views about white domination. He experienced acute poverty, and did several menial jobs to survive. He also acquired organizational abilities when he joined the African Students Association, which sought to empower black students.
Nkrumah sharpened his oratorical skills by preaching in African-American churches and speaking at gatherings. Involved in the West African National Secretariat in London, he became acquainted with the larger quest among Africans for decolonization. He also joined the socialist and Marxist clubs and attended lectures on political ideologies, especially socialism, at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Nkrumah became involved in the Pan-Africanist movement under the authoritative leadership of W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963). Nkrumah served as a co-secretary of the last major Pan-African meeting, held in Manchester, England, in 1945, and, with the West Indian socialist and anticolonialist George Padmore (1903–1959), Nkrumah drafted the declaration of decolonization that was issued by the conference. He also interacted with future African leaders, including Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda (1898–1997), Kenneth Kaunda (b. 1924), Jomo Kenyatta (1891–1978), Joshua Nkomo (1917–1999), Juluis Nyerere (1922–1999), and countless others. These undertakings and peer associations convinced Nkrumah about the need for African liberation. By 1947 he had helped produce a number of Pan-Africanist publications, including the African Interpreter, New African, and Pan African, using them to agitate for African liberation.
During the post-World War II period, revolutionary nationalism gripped Africans as much as it had shaped the consciousness of peoples under European imperialism. In the Gold Coast, nationalism crystallized into the formation of a political party known as the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), led by Dr. J. B. Danquah (1895–1965). The leadership of the UGCC invited Nkrumah to become the general secretary of the party. As a result, Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast on December 10, 1947, establishing a turning point in African nationalism and liberation. On January 20, 1948, Nkrumah was appointed the general secretary of the UGCC.
In 1948 several ex-servicemen, protesting for end-of-service benefits, were shot and killed, leading to several days of anticolonial protests throughout the Gold Coast. Panic-stricken, the British colonial government passed the Riot Act on March 1, 1948, with Governor Gerald Creasy declaring a state of emergency. Eleven days later, Nkrumah and other leaders of the UGCC were arrested and sent to the faraway Northern Territories, where they were detained until April 12, when Creasy bowed to popular demands and released them.
Within a year, ideological problems arose between Nkrumah and the UGCC. Nkrumah wanted to shift the reformist and elitist bent of the UGCC toward a path of revolutionary politics that would involve and empower the masses to seek the complete overthrow of colonial rule. Nkrumah also wanted immediate self-government, unlike the UGCC, which favored a gradual pace toward independence. Consequently, on June 12, 1949, Nkrumah broke away and formed the Convention People's Party (CPP).
The CPP used a series of strategic nonviolent actions, including strikes, boycotts, and protests, which Nkrumah referred to as "Positive Action." He also established the Evening News, a newspaper that became the voice of the party, enabling the CPP to engage in populist politics. The CPP was a broad-based party: it successfully recruited women, rural dwellers, and the youth, groups that had been marginalized by the elitist posturing of the UGCC. Nkrumah's formation of the Committee of Youth Organization (CYO) on February 26, 1949, energized young people throughout the country who embraced his populist ideas.
Meanwhile, the outcome of the 1948 revolution forced the British government to rethink the political future of the Gold Coast. It appointed A. K. Watson to investigate the revolution and make recommendations. After a thorough investigation, the Watson Commission recommended that a constitution be drafted as a prelude to independence. The drafting of the constitution was chaired by Justice Henley Coussey, a highly respected jurist of the Gold Coast High Court.
On November 7, 1949, the Coussey Committee released its constitutional report. Nkrumah found the committee's work to be woefully inadequate because its prescription for self-government was limited. Disappointed, Nkrumah organized a nation-wide strike, scheduled for January 1, 1950. Fearing the whirlwind of populist action being unleashed by Nkrumah, the colonial government arrested about two hundred CPP and CYO leaders.
Even though Nkrumah was in prison, the CPP won a landslide victory in municipal council elections held in 1950 in the principalities of Accra, Cape Coast, and Kumasi. Consequently, Governor Noble Arden-Clarke freed Nkrumah and others, and Nkrumah became the leader of government business in a government dominated by Africans. Nkrumah became the prime minister in 1952. He led the Gold Coast to independence in 1957, attaining a republican status in 1960.
Apart from his role as the agent of Gold Coast independence, Nkrumah championed the liberation of the continent by organizing a series of Pan-African meetings in Accra. These were attended by future African leaders, including Robert Mugabe (b. 1924) of Zimbabwe. Nkrumah wanted to unify the continent into a sovereign state. But the emergent neocolonialism and exclusivist nationalism of some African leaders derailed his ideal of a united Africa. All the same, he was able to forge organic political unity with Guinea in 1959 and Mali in 1960; he was also instrumental in the formation of the Organization of African Unity in 1963.
Clad in kente cloth and a batakari smock, powerful symbols of Ghanaian culture, Nkrumah's ideas of cultural renaissance incubated the popular ideologies of "African personality," "Black is Beautiful," and "I am Black and Proud"; indeed, he inspired the empowerment and reconscientization of blacks all over the globe. Apart from his autobiography, Nkrumah wrote a number of books that deal with the postcolonial political economy of Ghana and Africa as a whole and offer a cultural prognosis of the African condition in the context of neocolonialism. That Nkrumah's Ghana became a site of political pilgrimage in the 1960s is not in dispute. Overnight, his political magnetism attracted stalwart pilgrims, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X (1925–1965), and Martin Luther King (1929–1968), to Ghana.
Nkrumah is also the "father" of Ghana in the sense that he provided Ghana with infrastructure that no Ghanaian leader has been able to match. Without Nkrumah's foresight, Ghana would be a provincial back-water today. Nkrumah built several industries based on the country's natural resources. To harness the rapid industrialization of a newly independent Ghana, he built the industrial township of Tema and the dam at Akosombo to supply power and water. Numerous roads were constructed to link different parts of the country, and the country's colonial-era railway system was improved to facilitate the transportation of produce, especially cocoa, from the interior to the coastal ports.
Nkrumah also built hundreds of educational institutions, including elementary schools, secondary or high schools, teacher training colleges, technical schools, and research institutes for the sciences and humanities. He established two new universities—the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and the University of Cape Coast—and expanded the University of Ghana. In order to make education universal in Ghana, Nkrumah provided free education for the inhabitants of the Northern Region, an area that had suffered from underdevelopment during the colonial period. Nkrumah also established scholarships for overseas higher education to train personnel to assist in the country's educational endeavors. In addition, adult and civic education were introduced nationwide to complement literacy and the civic duties of the citizenry. Mobile vans fitted with public-address systems also disseminated information on public health, etiquette, and social mores.
Historians disagree on the events that led to Nkrumah's overthrow. Certainly, his political demise was due in part to his authoritarian tendencies, including his declaration of a one-party state and the imprisonment of his political opponents. This tendency is best exemplified by Nkrumah's response to his opponents efforts immediately after independence in 1957 to either kill him or remove him from power. Nkrumah used state instruments to marginalize them, an action that troubled a section of the Ghanaian population. In addition, his internationalization of Pan-Africanism, his outspoken championing of socialism, and his political flirtations with the Soviet Union at the peak of the Cold War helped bring about his political downfall.
On February 24, 1966, a group of elite officers of the Ghanaian armed forces and police—sponsored by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—staged a coup while Nkrumah was in Vietnam attempting to broker peace between warring Vietnamese factions. After the coup, Nkrumah lived in exile in neighboring Guinea, where he spent his time writing about anti-colonialism and neocolonialism. Afflicted with cancer, he sought medical help in Romania, where he died in 1972.
Arhin, Kwame. The Life and Work of Kwame Nkrumah. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1993.
Birmingham, David. Kwame Nkrumah: Father of African Nationalism. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998.
Davidson, Basil. Black star: A view of the Life and Times of Kwame Nkrumah. Boulder: Westview Press, 1989.
Nkrumah, Kwame. Ghana: Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah. London: Panaf, 1973.
Nkrumah, Kwame. Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970.
Rathbone, Richard. Nkrumah and the Chiefs: The Politics of Chieftaincy in Ghana, 1951–60. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2000.
"Nkrumah, Kwame." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nkrumah-kwame-0
"Nkrumah, Kwame." Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450. . Retrieved December 11, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/nkrumah-kwame-0