The mixed legacy of Kwame Nkrumah

Kwame Nkrumah, author and revolutionary, led Ghana to independence from Britain in 1957 and served as its first prime minister.
Kwame Nkrumah, author and revolutionary, led Ghana to independence from Britain in 1957 and served as its first prime minister.
Image: Universal History Archive/ UIG via Getty Images

Kwame Nkrumah led Ghana to independence in 1957 - the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve this. He's remembered for his unrepentant anticolonial stance and Pan-Africanism, and is regarded as one of Africa's ablest statesmen of the 20th century.

Nkrumah has been ranked among leaders such as Vladimir Lenin, Mahatma Gandhi and Mao Tse-Tsung.

Nkrumah's rise in the anticolonial movement in Ghana, then called the Gold Coast, began in the late 1940s. Before then he had spent almost 15 years in the US and the UK studying.

By the mid-1940s, political activism in the Gold Coast was taking a radical turn. Political agitation had compelled the colonial administration to introduce constitutional reforms that gave Africans a majority of seats on the colonial legislative council.

By 1947, there were only two political organisations: the Gold Coast People's League and the Gold Coast National Party. Both were ineffectual, weighed down by ethnocentric divisions between the Akan and the Ga, and dominated by lawyers and merchants.

In August 1947, the two parties agreed to form one organisation, the United Gold Coast Convention, in the hope that they would lead the struggle for independence by providing a united front that appealed to all Ghanaians.

But the leaders of the new party, all successful professionals and business people, had little time to run the party.

So nobody objected when it was suggested that Nkrumah, who was living in London at the time, be invited to become the party's full-time secretary.

This invitation, according to one commentator, "proved a tragic error". Nkrumah would become their most dreaded rival and ideological opponent.

He was an avowed Marxist-socialist. He was exposed to several intellectual influences that shaped his political ideas. During his stay in the US, he immersed himself in the political theories of Karl Marx, Lenin and Marcus Garvey. These theories profoundly affected his ideology.

Like many great men, Nkrumah's legacy is not uncontested. His detractors accuse him of running down Ghana's economic gains at independence, gagging the press, curtailing the freedom of speech and being authoritarian. But if there are any merits in these criticisms, we should agree with Dr Peter Omari, a former executive director of the African Centre for Applied Research and Training in Social Development, that Ghanaians should take some of the blame for allowing one man so much scope they could virtually be enslaved through fear and cowardice.

Nkrumah arrived in the Gold Coast in November 1947 and immediately drew up a radical plan which he presented to the leadership of the United Gold Coast Convention. He suggested that the party set up branches throughout the country and embark on demonstrations, strikes and boycotts to press for independence.

Despite the apprehension of some of the leaders, Nkrumah set his plan in motion. He paid particular attention to young people who were disappointed with the status quo.

But before the close of 1948, cracks had developed in the relationship between Nkrumah and the party leadership. The difference in aim, philosophy and political strategy eventually compelled Nkrumah to break ranks and form the Convention People's Party in 1949. Because of his affability, oratory skills and his identification with the struggles of ordinary people, he endeared himself to the youth who became his main supporters.

He also inflamed the people with demands for self-government now.

The formation of the Convention People's Party leapfrogged Nkrumah into the leadership of the independence struggle. The party injected a sense of urgency into the fight for independence.

Nkrumah pulled the political rug from under the feet of the leadership of the United Gold Coast Convention and fired up the passion and enthusiasm of the country's young people in the fight for independence.

From then on he was viewed as the father of the independence movement, and the father of modern Ghana.

- Amoako-Gyampah is a lecturer of history at University of Education

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