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What is the real legacy of Kwame Nkrumah?

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A mass movement led by Kwame Nkrumah won Ghana its independence 50 years ago. Ghanaian socialist Gyekye Tanoh looks back at those inspiring struggles – and draws the lessons for today
Issue 2042
Kwame Nkrumah
Kwame Nkrumah

On Tuesday 6 March Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African country to achieve its freedom, commemorated 50 years of independence from Britain. In 1957 Kwame Nkrumah, the man who led the nation’s freedom struggle, declared, “The independence of Ghana is meaningless until it is linked with the total liberation of Africa.”

That night people erupted in jubilant cheering in Accra, Ghana’s capital. This reverberated across Africa and found an echo throughout the black diaspora in the Caribbean, Britain and the US, and among anti-imperialists everywhere.

Today the dominant images of Africa are of starving, fly-blown children, civil wars and desperate migrants who risk abominable official racism in countries like Britain.

It makes it almost impossible to imagine the electrifying energy that spread across Africa following Ghana’s independence. Nkrumah was revered as the movement’s pre-eminent figure.

On independence night, calypso giants Lord Kitchener and Mighty Sparrow joined African artists at the mass celebration.

At the official ball US vice-president Richard Nixon patted a black man on the back and patronisingly inquired how it felt to be free. “I wouldn’t know, I’m from Alabama,” was his indignant response.

Nixon’s respondent was one of the many thousand militants and leaders – including Martin Luther King – who came to Ghana to meet, discuss and celebrate.

Accra became a staging post for anti-colonial struggles. Sekou Toure (who later became the president of Guinea) and Patrice Lumumba (who became president of Congo) sought and gained support there.

When CLR James, the black Marxist, pronounced in 1960, “that today the centre of the world revolution is here in Accra”, it would have seemed to many as a logical and justified fulfilment of the mood on the eve of independence.

Imperial scramble

All this seems surreal now. Half a century later and Africa is ever more the site of new imperial scrambles for its strategic natural wealth – especially its oil. Nkrumah’s aspirations for “the total liberation of Africa” seem further away than they did 50 years ago.

But it is the unfinished challenge of Africa’s liberation that causes his words and actions to resonate among millions in a similar way to the 1950s and 1960s, the high points of the great anti-colonial transformations.

Though Nkrumah died in 1972, he still topped the BBC World Service’s major poll for the “greatest African” conducted at the beginning of the new millennium, beating Nelson Mandela.

Those who look to Nkrumah’s ideas today are opponents of George Bush and Tony Blair’s wars. They are committed anti-capitalists. They are with the global justice movement against the corporate destruction of the world.

That Nkrumah is still remembered as an uncompromising fighter against imperialism explains why he was considered such a dangerous opponent by the British and US governments. From the early to mid 1960s there were frenetic meetings, plans and plots between the two countries to contain and if possible eliminate Nkrumah.

A White House meeting on 12 February 1964 between British prime minister Alec Douglas-Home and US president Lyndon B Johnson to discuss Nkrumah’s removal was typical.

Sir Alec wanted stringent economic sanctions but feared that this would increase Russian influence on Nkrumah. Johnson promised not to take any steps against the Ghanaian government without notifying the British.

Two years after the meeting Nkrumah was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup.

A White House memo commented on Johnson’s pleasure over the Ghana coup, describing it as “another fortuitous windfall. Nkrumah was doing more to undermine our interests than any other black African. [In contrast], the new military regime is almost pathetically pro-Western.”

Lenin of Africa

No one could have dreamt of describing Nkrumah as “pathetic”. As the White House memos show, Nkrumah was viewed as the single most important proponent of anti-imperialism in Africa.

CLR James dubbed him the “Lenin of Africa”, while Amilcar Cabral – probably the most outstanding theoretician of African liberation and a towering anti-colonial leader – called Nkrumah “the strategist of genius in the struggle against classical colonialism”.

Nkrumah’s central project after independence was to build on its momentum to defeat what he called neo-colonialism.

This is the condition where “small non-viable states are incapable of independent development” because their economies are completely controlled by foreign capital, and therefore, their politics directed from outside.

A Pan African “United States of Africa”, Nkrumah argued, would transform African economies. Rapid industrialisation would offer the prospect of truly independent economic development.

Simultaneously it would provide the unified political and military strength to protect this independence.

“African Unity” was both the goal and the vector for mobilising and uniting the mass of ordinary people against imperialism and the narrow interests of African elites, whose very elitism caused them to be “agents of neocolonialism”.

Nkrumah’s politics were rooted in the Pan Africanism that gained strength after the Second World War. The 5th Pan African Congress, held in Manchester in 1945, brought forth a new type of anti-imperialism. “Today there is only one road to effective action – the organisation of the masses,” it asserted.

In 1947 Nkrumah returned to Gold Coast, as Ghana was called until independence, to take up the post of general secretary of the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), the existing nationalist party. The UGCC had only 13 branches and 1,762 members. Nkrumah said he was fearful to “associate myself with a movement backed almost entirely by reactionaries, middle class lawyers and merchants”.

The preferred methods of this elite stratum were lawsuits and petitions to the king and his colonial office in London. They had shaped Gold Coast nationalism, prompting the British governor to describe Ghana as “a model colony”.

But in a matter of months this “model” was to be destroyed forever, catapultng the new general secretary of the organisation of “respectable gentlemen” to the head of a radical mass movement. Its methods were mass agitation, strikes, boycotts and riots.

The newly emerging radical political leadership of the UGCC did not generally lead these actions. The boycott of European businesses in February 1948 was entirely independent, triggered by discontented Second World War veterans. The ensuing riots left scores dead and shook the Gold Coast to its core.

Nkrumah succeeded in mobilising hitherto marginalised workers, farmers, demobilised war veterans, students, small traders, teachers and junior professionals into a decisive anti-imperialist force.

In January 1950, Nkrumah’s new party, the Convention People’s Party (CPP), joined the Trades Union Congress to launch “Positive Action”, the first general strike in Gold Coast’s history.

Positive Action effectively broke the back of the colonial order, launching Nkrumah and his new party into a stunning electoral victory within a year. Nkrumah contested the election from a prison cell and won an incredible 98.6 percent of the vote in central Accra.

It is for this triumph that Nkrumah is regarded as the first man to make Pan Africanism a living political reality. His emphasis on militant popular mobilisation was the decisive element in Nkrumah’s politics and the key to his continuing capacity to inspire.

Yet judged in these terms, Nkrumah’s legacy includes failures that are yet to be decisively overcome by popular movements in Africa. When Nkrumah was overthrown in February 1966, there was no popular mobilisation in his support, and no resistance to the coup.

Even members of the CPP, which in 1951 had a million members, 103 full time organisers and 2,885 local offices, put up little resistance. Nkrumah’s popularity had dwindled.

The political polarisation that he achieved within society during the independence struggle – which broadly reflected class interests and politics – became unnecessary, even dangerous, once independence had been attained.

Now the “national interest” prioritised economic development and a monolithic national unity over social justice.


When the trade unions launched a second general strike in 1961, it was accompanied by repression and 17 trade unionists were jailed for subversion. The TUC became incorporated into the CPP, as did women’s and youth organisations.

In 1964, Ghana was declared a one party state, with Nkrumah effectively becoming president for life.

This was a necessary outcome of the central role of nationalism in Nkrumah’s politics. As the leading black historian Manning Marable points out, Nkrumah’s “ideological perspective, which tended to devalue class divisions in African society, and emphasise the ‘masses’ as a transclass category” is what permitted him to work with the elite leaders.

It also led him to see struggles from below that continued after independence as a manifestation of subversion.

His most popular slogan “seek ye first the political kingdom” was an appeal to the rank and file of the movement. It was a recipe for the separation of politics from economics that continues to constrain movements in Africa.

The slogan typified the trajectory of this deflected permanent revolution in which the middle class leaders rose to power on the back of popular aspirations. Having secured their own position, they sought an entrance into the global economic and political system.

The state became the main vehicle for Pan African unity. But what defence would the masses have against this African state when their interests were in conflict with it?

These questions are critically relevant for politics. This is the formula for the combination of Robert Mugabe’s rhetorical “anti-imperialism”, with murderous repression at home in Zimbabwe.

Any critique of Nkrumah’s political legacy must raise these questions, in the fraternal spirit of CLR James, who warned us “not to remove from our constant study and contemplation the remarkable achievements of Nkrumah’s great years”.

Today in Ghana, Nkrumahists and their allies have been banned from holding a counter-demonstration to the official, revisionist celebrations of independence. The problem is that Nkrumah might have done the same to his opponents.

At January’s World Social Forum in Nairobi, young Kenyan activists talked of the necessity to go beyond Nkrumah and Pan Africanism, and to fight for extreme radical democracy in Africa.

Despite Nkrumah’s contradictions there is one version of his politics of Positive Action that could find some convergence with this view. Socialists should take up the best of Nkrumah’s political heritage – and be fighters for Africa’s “total liberation”.

Crowds welcome Nkrumah as he is released from prison
Crowds welcome Nkrumah as he is released from prison
Women celebrating independence
Women celebrating independence

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