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.
Further Reading on Kwame Nkrumah
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).
Additional Biography Sources
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.
Rooney, David., Kwame Nkrumah: the political kingdom in the Third World, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989, 1988.
Timothy, Bankole., Kwame Nkrumah, from cradle to grave, Dorchester, Dorset: Gavin Press, 1981.