In 1945 Kwame Nkrumah was one of only 100 people who gathered at the Pan-African Congress in Manchester to plan the end of empire.
Twelve years later he was the first president of a free Ghana, one of the first African countries to gain independence from the British Empire.
Nkrumah was born in 1909 to a very poor family in the Gold Coast, as British-ruled Ghana was known.
But through a Catholic charity, the young Nkrumah got to go to school and later became a teacher.
He learned about radicals such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who shaped his ideas of socialism and African liberation.
In 1935 Nkrumah arrived to study in the US, where he threw himself into activism and political debates about how to liberate Africa.
He urged for a Pan Africanism against all colonial domination. His thinking was a militant break from the politics that had dominated the opposition in the Gold Coast.
Various privileged groups had petitioned the British administration for more rights.
Indeed, when Nkrumah returned to Ghana in 1947, he was worried to “associate myself with a movement backed almost entirely by reactionaries, middle class lawyers and merchants”.
The situation changed when resistance erupted in 1948. Second World War veterans had triggered a boycott of European businesses, and riots spread across the country.
Nkrumah and his new Convention People’s Party (CPP) mobilised workers, peasants and the poor into a struggle against imperialism.
In January 1950, the CPP and the TUC union federation began what they called “Positive Action”. The general strike broke the back of British colonial rule and inspired millions. On independence night in the capital Accra, Nkrumah declared, “The independence of Ghana is meaningless until it is linked with the total liberation of Africa.”
US Civil Rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, travelled to Ghana to discuss the fight for freedom.
Western politicians, fearful of the implications of a free Africa, also joined the official independence do in Accra.
Racist US vice president and future president Richard Nixon, is said to have gone up to groups of black people. He patronisingly asked, “How does it feel to be free, son?” thinking them Ghanian.
“I wouldn’t know,” one replied, “I’m from Alabama.”
What happened to the hopes of an Africa free of imperialism?
The West ramped up economic pressure to force Nkrumah to abandon progressive policies. And in 1966 Nkrumah was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup. There was little mass opposition. Nkrumah’s politics, which once mobilised the masses, had demobilised the them after independence.
His vision of socialism was one brought from above. Through African unity, he argued, new states could have national development free from imperial domination.
This meant subordinating workers’ demands to a new “national interest” of African development.
In 1961 the TUC organised another general strike. The Nkrumah government repressed the movement, jailing trade unionists for “subversion”.
This proved fatal to blocking imperialist powers from reasserting control.
Despite such limitations, we should learn from Nkrumah’s militancy to fight for “total liberation”—from racism, imperialism and the capitalist system that produces them.