Ghana was the golden boy and pride of British African colonial rule. Called the Gold Coast at the time it had a wealth of resources the most prominent of which was cocoa.
One of the leading exporters of the product, many farmers became wealthy from trade and became part of an elite in Ghanaian society. There was also an educated elite and the British intended to transfer autonomy slowly.
As the most promising of all her colonies in Africa Ghana was seen as a beacon, and the British were going to use her steady progress toward independence as a blueprint for other African states under their rule. The intelligentsia at the time – lawyers and businessmen were pressing for more political power and by 1947 had formed their own political party, the United Gold Coast Convention. They chose as their slogan, “Self-Government in the shortest possible time” and Dr Joseph Danquah as their leader.
Danquah, admired by the British and seen as the most qualified to head a new government, had also been responsible to coming up with the idea to change the country’s name from its colonial name, the Gold Coast, to Ghana – a West African empire that had flourished during the 14th century.
Seeking to garner popular support for their cause for self-determination Danquah’s party sought to employ a full-time organiser. One Kwame Nkrumah was mentioned as a possible candidate.
The lawyers of the United Gold Coast Convention knew virtually nothing of this student who, at the time, was scrounging as a student in London. He was penniless most of the time, but increasingly got more and more involved in politics with his increasing admiration of left-wing sympathies, and soon abandoned his law studies and took to politicking full time – engaging with leading British communists and often participating in anti-colonial protests.
When the opportunity for a full time job from the United Gold Coast Convention was brought to him he jumped at it, but his left-wing views soon brought on the ire of Danquah and the other members of the party.
Nkrumah then left to start his own party, the Convention People’s Party (CPP) and while the slogan for United may have been “Self-Government in the shortest possible time” Nkrumah’s CPP often cited “Self-Government Now” as a sort of panacea (cure-all) for all colonial troubles in the Gold Coast.
Charismatic and energetic, he led rallies with zeal, set up anti-colonial newspapers, was adept at creating anti-colonial slogans, and soon became the toast of “veranda boys” those homeless who slept on the verandas of the rich and and who nicknamed him “Showboy.”
He also led protests against the British, and was instrumental in leading strikes, and boycotts. Soon all of this anti-colonial propaganda led to violence and the colonial governor Arden-Clarke declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew. Nkrumah was duly arrested and imprisoned with other party members who were found guilty of incitement and sedition. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison. After the trial Danquah wrote: “the wolf [has] been driven away.” Arden-Clarke also wrote at the time in a private family letter: “Sorry I have been so bad about writing but I have been rather preoccupied in dealing with our local Hitler and his putsch.”
In prison, rather fortuitously, Nkrumah learned that he could sit in the upcoming elections – he found a hole in the rules: you could sit for elections if you weren’t serving more than a year in prison. Well, his sentencing may have been for 3 years, but he was found guilty of 3 separate counts each for one year.
Having found this small clause in the rulebook he would stand as a candidate for election. Nkrumah’s participation in the election raised expectations and suddenly enthusiasm for the race spread far and wide. Of 23,122 votes he would win 20,780, and of 38 popularly contested seats, Nkrumah’s CPP won 34, with Dr Danquah’s United Gold Coast Convention only managing 3. Arden-Clarke was thus faced with a dilemma: Nkrumah was as dangerous in prison as outside. Releasing a convicted criminal to take office had no precedence, but not doing so would surely lead to riots and Nkrumah had already promised recriminations if his victory was not recognised, but then releasing him also meant freeing him to pursue his “Self-Government Now” promise to the people.
In the end Arden-Clarke released Nkrumah who made the leap from convict to prime minister in a day. Both men quickly decided to work together. To do otherwise would have put the government in a gridlock. Nkrumah, however, insisted on a faster transition to full independence from British rule. The constitution, which he’d been obliged to accept, had left key parts of power to Arden-Clarke (like the police, judiciary, finance and defence), but Nkrumah had grown impatient with this partial power and moved for fuller controls without delay, declaring, “We prefer self-government with danger to servitude in tranquility.”
Martin Meredith in his A State of Africa claims, that “though the British government had misgivings about the pace of change, the following year it granted the Gold Coast a new constitution providing for full internal self-government under an all-African cabinet.”
The decision by the British government propelled Nkrumah to even greater heights of popularity not only in Africa but also around the other parts of the world still reaching for independence from imperial powers. Nkrumah was seen as the one who had fought off the British and done the near impossible, bringing independence to Africa. This gave him an almost messianic aura around his people who would come to seek his advice for all manner of problems from legitimate political concerns to actual physical ailments.
The whole world seemed happy for Ghana and her new status and sent their representatives to wish the new country and its leader well. Japan sent a delegate, and so did the soviets. The Queen’s aunt represented her majesty’s government, and even Nixon was around for the Americans. Embracing any and all African babies he could find, the story goes that he apprehended a man with a hug and asked, “how does it feel to be free?” to which the man replied, “I wouldn’t know, sir. I’m from Alabama.”
Nkrumah was a very lonely man and chose Christiansborg Castle for his official residence – a strange decision to many who considered the place hunted by old slaves who’d been imprisoned in the old fort before shipping abroad. Nkrumah at one point claims he was woken by a piercing yelp from his Alsatian who stood whining in a corner with its fur on end, and no amount of coaxing would get the dog out. Arden-Clarke had also had his own experiences, saying he’d been awakened one night to a persistent knocking. A search was made around the house for the source but to no avail. Arden-Clarke never slept in the room again.
Nkrumah’s party was now all-powerful at this point, with a majority holding in government, and having vast wealth at its disposal: (Ghana was at this time the world’s leading producer of cocoa and possessed natural resources such as : gold, timber, and bauxite.)
By the 1950’s cocoa boom the country had built up massive foreign reserves, but strife broke out between the cocoa farming elite and Nkrumah’s CPP – the former being accused of corruption, favouritism to farmers who belonged to the party, and stopping subsidies given under the British . Nkrumah angered them further when he froze the price of cocoa for a number of years.
By 1958 with his popularity on the rise and by the power of his ever sure charisma, Nkrumah brought together the best of African opposition: trade unions, political parties and student unions, for a conference, with the aim of co-ordinating “the African non-violent revolution.” Many who attended were later to gain prominence in their respective countries, Kenneth Kaunda from Northern Rhodesia (Zambia); Hastings Banda from Nyasaland (Malawi); Patrice Lumumba from Belgian Congo, and Julius Nyerere from Tanganyika (Tanzania). The Kenyan and conference chairman Tom Mboya noted the belligerent mood of the conference and noted, “The colonial powers should now reverse the Scramble for Africa.” He declared, “your time is past. Africa must be free. Scram from Africa.”
“There is a close connection between socio-political development, the struggle between social classes and the history of ideologies. In general, intellectual movements closely reflect the trends of economic developments. In communal society, where there are virtually no class divisions, man’s productive activities on outlook and culture is less discernible. Account must be taken of the psychology of conflicting classes.” ~ Kwame Nkrumah, Class Struggle in Africa
- The State of Africa, Martin Meredith
- The Story of African Independence – Egypt
- The Story of African Independence – French Maghreb