Kwame Nkrumah: History, Major Facts & 10 Memorable Achievements
Just how instrumental was Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah in the decolonization of Africa? To fully understand the contributions he made to Ghana and the African continent at large, here is a quick look at the life, major facts and 10 most memorable accomplishments of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president.
Quick Facts about Kwame Nkrumah
Date and Place of Birth – September 21, 1909, Nkroful, Ghana (formerly Gold Coast)
Date and Place of Death – April 22, 1972, Bucharest, Romania (then Socialist Republic of Romania)
Cause of death – Prostate cancer
Born – Francis Kwame Ngolomah/Francis Nwia-Kofi
Father – Opanin Kofi Nwiana Ngolomah
Mother – Elizabeth Nyanibah
Spouse – Fathia Rizk
Children – 4 Children – Francis, Gamal, Samia, and Sekou
Education – Achimota College, Lincoln University, University of Pennsylvania, London School of Economics, University College London
Political Party – United Gold Coast Convention (1947 – 1949), Convention People’s Party (1949 – 1966)
Elected offices – President of Ghana (1960 – 1966), Prime Minister (1957 – 1960), Prime Minister of the Gold Coast (1952 – 1957)
Nicknames – Osagyefo (the Redeemer) and Father of Modern Ghana,
Most Famous for – Leading Ghana (former the Gold Coast) to independence in 1957; 1st President of Ghana
Ideology – Marxist-Socialist, Pan-Africanism
Mentor – Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey and W.E.B. Du Bois,
Achievements of Kwame Nkrumah
Prominent student activist in New York City
His 10-year stay in the United States had the most impact on him. It was in the U.S. where Nkrumah noticed how damaging the absence of civil rights for the black race can be for the African.
Places like Harlem in New York City left an indelible mark on Nkrumah. The streets back then were rife with eloquent and passionate speakers and civil rights activists. Majority of those speakers were either friends or disciples of Marcus Garvey.
It did not take too long for Kwame Nkrumah to immerse himself deep into student activism. And although he struggled to eke out a living, Nkrumah actively partook in speeches across the city. He was one of the key members at the Pan-African conference that took place in New York in 1944.
Established the African Students Association of America and Canada
While studying at the University of Pennsylvania, Kwame Nkrumah was inducted into the Mu chapter of Phi Beta Sigma, a Howard University-founded fraternity aimed at serving the community and accentuating the ideals of brotherhood and mentorship.
It was also around this time that Nkrumah established the African Students Association of America and Canada. He encouraged his fellow students to go back to their countries and leave a long-lasting impact in their respective countries. He strongly favored spreading Pan-African teachings, tutoring his colleagues about issues related to African politics and philosophy.
His stay in the U.S. saw him get influenced by the likes of L. R. James, a Trinidadian Marxist, and Raya Dunayevskaya, a Russian Marxist.
Irrespective of all his student activism, his academic records while in the United States were off the charts. For example he graduated top of his course at the University of Pennsylvania in 1942.
Organized the 5th Pan African Congress in Manchester
Along with so many leading Pan-Africanist such as Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya’s first president), Obefemi Awolowo (Western Nigeria premier and leading statesman) and Hastings Banda of Malawi, Nkrumah successfully organized the fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in mid-autumn of 1945.
The participants, that also included American civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, discussed the political state of affairs in Africa. They were all in agreement that something drastic and fast had to be done in order to completely liberate the African continent from European imperial rule. They were also in agreement that the best route for Africa was to remove colonial mentality and replace it with African socialism.
Nkrumah was the biggest advocate for the setting up of a federal type of government for the entire continent, i.e. the Federal United States of Africa. Nkrumah encouraged the participants to do away with tribalism and adopt strong democratic structures that would effectively hold together the various countries in Africa. He envisaged that the system would be underpinned by a complete devotion to communist/socialist economic policies.
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Leading member of the United Gold Coast Convention
After about 15 years abroad, Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast in November 1947. He was enticed back to the country by an offer from the newly founded political party, the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC).
The UGCC was established in 1947 by wealthy merchants and lawyers that came from a somewhat aristocratic background. Owing to their busy schedule, the executive members barely had any time to manage the affairs of the party. Hence, Ebenezer Ako Adjei, a leading member of the party, convinced the other party members to recruit Nkrumah to run the party on their behalf.
Initially, Nkrumah was content with operating within the confines of the UGCC’s moderate and gradualist approach to securing independence for the Gold Coast. However, in less than a year after his appointment, he grew frustrated with the ineffectual nature of affairs of the party.
Nkrumah was also frustrated by the lack of any potent African voice in the political arena to fight for the Ghana’s independence. Parties such as the Gold Coast People’s League and the Gold Coast National Party were anything but effective. They went about their activities purely on tribal basis, thereby hindering their chances of having a united front. Besides, those parties were way out of touch with the ordinary man on the street. Nkrumah worked very hard to change this.
Energized the political landscape of Ghana
Nkrumah sought to change the political status quo of Gold Coast by injecting more enthusiasm and vigor into political activism in the country. Often times, he came into conflict with his employers, the executive members of the UGCC. The apparent disunity and slightly docile approach among UGCC’s executive members resulted in Nkrumah taking many bold decisions. His calls for the establishment of UGCC branches across the country was not received positively by some executive members.
Regardless, Nkrumah worked very hard, forming alliances with local trade unions and workers association. The goal was to use those alliances to bring the country to a standstill. Steadily, Nkrumah’s use of nonviolent protests and labor strikes forced Britain to listen to their request for self-governance. His nonviolent approach was almost similar to the one used by Mahatma Gandhi in India.
In 1948, riots broke out in the nation’s capital Accra. The British colonial government responded to the Accra Riots by imprisoning scores of people, including Nkrumah and five other prominent members of the UGCC. Together, those six men came to be called the “Big Six” – Ebenezer Ako-Adjei, Edward Akuffo-Addo, Joseph Boakye Danquah, Kwame Nkrumah, William Ofori Atta, and Emmanuel Obetsebi-Lamptey.
He established the Convention People’s Party
Due to the energetic nature of the protest and labor strikes organized by Nkrumah, the UGCC became increasingly fed up with Nkrumah’s approach. Additionally, there was a rift between the middle-class leaders of the UGCC and some radical supporters of Nkrumah. Opponents of Nkrumah blamed him for their predicament and incarceration behind bars.
This rift forced Nkrumah to part ways with the UGCC. Buoyed on by the support base he had accumulated, Nkrumah established his own political party, the Convention People’s Party, on June 12, 1949. Unlike the UGCC, which wanted self-government as quickly as possible, the CPP’s slogan was “Self-Governance, Now”.
As a result of Nkrumah’s voracious thirst for independence immediately, the CPP became a highly populist political party. The party did way better in terms of relating with the citizens of Gold Coast. His “positive action” campaign, which mobilized people from all classes towards a common goal, proved highly successful as well.
Under Nkrumah’s leadership and guidance, the youth wing of the CPP became a real force to reckon with in Ghana’s struggle for independence. His captivating speeches were well received by the masses because it related well with the downtrodden. Nkrumah oozed out enthusiasm, passion and focus, set of traits very few African politicians possessed at that point in time.
Won a parliamentary seat while in prison
After the governor-general of Gold Coast Charles Arden-Clarke had excluded Nkrumah and his CPP from a commission that was to draft a new constitution, the CPP stepped up its activities, becoming even more vocal.
Nkrumah launched the Positive Action campaign in protest. Up until then, the country had never witnessed large scale riots and protests of that magnitude. For his involvement, Nkrumah was slapped with a three-year prison sentence.
While in jail, his assistant Komla Agbeli Gbedemah rallied the CPP to a resounding victory in the February 1951 legislative election. Nkrumah himself won a seat in Accra. All in all, his party was able to pull 34 of the 38 available seats in the legislative assembly.
With such unquestionable victory, it was practically impossible to keep Nkrumah behind bars. On February 12, 1951, Nkrumah was released and tasked by Arden-Clarke to form a government. Nkrumah would go on to serve as the leader of government business, his first official position in the country.
First Prime Minister of Ghana
Upon assuming the role of leader of government business, Nkrumah sought to work very closely with Governor-general Alan-Clarke. In 1952, Nkrumah’s position got elevated to Prime Minister after Arden-Clarke decided to leave Nkrumah in charge.
Owing to the sizable reserves that the country had back then, Nkrumah was able to spend on massive economic and social infrastructural projects. The country witnessed immense improvements in virtually every sector. Realizing how vital trade and commerce is, Nkrumah constructed a harbour at Tema. He also issued out directives for the port at Takoradi to be upgraded.
Starting from primary school all the way to secondary school, Nkrumah put up new classroom blocks across the country. This act of his more than tripled the student enrollment from around 150,000 to roughly 550,000.
Secured Independence for Ghana
But for a few opposition voices from the National Liberation Movement (NLM) and some traditional chiefs, Nkrumah’s term as prime minister of Gold Coast (from 1952 to 1957) was a very remarkable one.
Inspired by those stellar feats of accomplishment in office, he continued to push for independence. His call for independence was giving a boost after the landslide victory at the polls in 1956. It was only then that Britain decided to fix a time for Ghana’s independence.
Nkrumah continued to work closely with the British government so as to ensure smooth transition of power from the colonial government to Ghanaians. After a series of discussions in 1956 and early parts of 1957, it was decided that the date for independence would be March 6, 1957. It was agreed with Great Britain that the new nation, Ghana, would have a unitary system of government. Kwame Nkrumah also agreed to keep Ghana in the Commonwealth of Nations with the British monarch as the head of the body.
Ghana’s independence was a huge milestone for the African continent. Kwame Nkrumah had accomplished what no black African (sub-Sahara) country had ever done before – self-governance. Ghana, as in the words of Nkrumah himself, was “setting the example” for other African countries to follow.
For his struggles to gain independence for Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah was revered as Osagyefo. The word is Akan for “redeemer”. At the beginning of his premiership, he had an almost perfect cult-like appeal to all Ghanaians.
Elected First President of Ghana
Although Ghana gained independence in 1957, it practiced a constitutional monarchy whereby Queen Elizabeth II was the head of state. The Queen appointed William Hare (5th Earl of Listowel) as the Governor-General.
Kwame Nkrumah realized that even with constitutional monarchy Ghana was not truly free. He wanted to see the end of every form of British control. So Nkrumah asked the legislative assembly to start working on a new constitution that would make Ghana a republic.
After the ratification of the new constitution in 1960, Nkrumah contested and won another sweeping victory in Ghana’s first ever presidential election. He defeated his nearest rival United Party candidate J.B. Danquah by a very large margin.
Nkrumah therefore became Ghana’s first president. As president, Nkrumah continued to roll out more and more ambitious projects in energy, agriculture, industry, and maritime.
He also worked hard to remove tribalism from Ghana’s political environment. He considered tribalism equally as deadly as poverty, disease and illiteracy. Hence, he committed quite a lot of his time and resources of the country into removing those ills from the society. Sadly, in the process of doing this, he over indulged in legislative acts that silenced local chiefs and critics. This move of his ended up being one of the reasons he was overthrown.
Founding Father of the Organization of African Union
Kwame Nkrumah was a key founding father of the Organization of African Union (OAU), an intergovernmental body whose aim was to promote political and economic integration across the African continent. The official date of OAU’s establishment is May 25, 1963. On that day, 32 African states sent representatives to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to append their signatures for the establishment of the organization.
The generally accepted founding fathers of the OAU are Nkrumah, Haile Selassie (Emperor of Ethiopia) and President of Egypt Gamel Abdel Nasser. Nkrumah invested heavily in the organization in order to promote African unity and identity. His goal was to use the OAU as a platform for eradication of colonialism and white-minority rule in Africa. He also served as the chairperson of the OAU from October 21, 1965 up until the time he was overthrown on February 24, 1966.
Fast forward to July 9, 2002, the OAU was succeeded by a similar African intergovernmental organization, the African Union (AU). This and many more other feats are some of the reasons Kwame Nkrumah was voted Africa’s “Man of the Millennium” by the BBC’s (British Broadcasting Corporation) listeners in Africa.
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Nkrumah’s later years as president and the 1966 Coup d’état that removed him from office
As at 1958, Nkrumah’s regime had already started to show signs of autocratic tendencies. For example, his party passed the Preventive Detention Act in 1958 with the sole purpose of silencing people they considered “dangerous” to the government. The act gave Nkrumah the power to illegally detain people for up to 5 years without any charges or trial.
Furthermore, many opposition newspapers and businesses were shut down. Nkrumah also interfered to a great extent in the activities of the judiciary. By so doing, he alienated large members of the civil service as well.
Similarly, his constitutional amendment, which abolished the regional assemblies, infuriated many chiefs and traditional leaders in the country. Particularly, the Asantehene, the king of the Asante Kingdom, did not take too kindly to the constitutional amendment.
Bent on eliminating every form of opposition in the country, Kwame Nkrumah used his CPP majority in parliament to change the constitution of Ghana. By 1964, he had effectively turned Ghana into a one-party state. In a very dubious polls, which saw him pull about 99.91%, he went ahead to make himself the president for life.
With an ailing economy, which was worsened by drastic decline in the world commodity prices and over-ambitious projects, the citizens that once hailed him as the “redeemer” turned on him.
The situation in Ghana became very worrying. This forced the military and the police to act. In the early hours of February 24, 1966, while Kwame Nkrumah was away on a state trip in North Vietnam, the National Liberation Council (NLC) conducted a coup and overthrew his government.
Nkrumah had received an invitation from president Ho Chi Minh to try and resolve the Vietnam War. He left the administration of Ghana in the hands of a three-man presidential commission.
Reasons why Nkrumah was overthrown
The NLC – which was led by Mr. J.W.K. Harley (then Inspector-General of Police), Col. E.K. Kotoka, and Major A.A. Afrifa – cited widespread corruption, deteriorating economy, and oppression of the freedom and rights of people as the reason why they ended the 9 years of Nkrumah’s CPP government.
Some historians say that last straw that broke the coup plotters’ back, so to speak, was Nkrumah’s policy of forcing the top officers of the security agencies into early retirements. The coup plotters, however, maintained that Nkrumah’s tyrannical rule and corruption were the reasons why they removed him from office.
The fact of the matter is, Nkrumah and his CPP government had completely dominated the political landscape of Ghana. Nkrumah even turned his country into a one-party state. He also made himself president for life. He believed that in order to accomplish those massive goals he had set for Ghana and Africa in general, he had to turn his government into a totalitarian kind, a kind that stifled all manner of opposition and imprisoned dissenters without giving them any kind of trial.
Nkrumah had also grown very aloof from the issues in Ghana; instead he preferred focusing his attention and the meager resources of Ghana on continental issues.
Not only did he allow training camps to be set up in Ghana for freedom fighters across the African continent, he also provided immense financial and political support to any African country that was fighting colonialism. Nkrumah even went against the apartheid government in South Africa, criticizing white minority rule.
Laudable as those efforts sound, Nkrumah somehow had forgotten to attend to the needs of his own people, i.e. Ghanaians. This explains why many people poured into the streets across Ghana following his overthrow. His statue just outside Parliament House was vandalized and then smashed into many pieces, as parliament and his CPP party were dissolved by the coup leaders.
Did the West have anything to do with Nkrumah’s overthrow?
With Ghana’s economic situation deteriorating at alarming rate, all that was left was for a spark to seal Nkrumah’s fate.
The West, especially the United States government, had purposely rejected all Nkrumah’s pleas for financial aid. In other words, Nkrumah increasingly found himself very isolated. To make matters worse, his popularity among his people was dwindling very fast.
The first Black leader of a sub-Saharan African country had for many years criticized intelligence agencies of foreign governments that consistently meddled in the affairs of African countries. He was obviously referring to the U.S. CIA and the Soviet Union’s KGB. Nkrumah described those foreign policies of those government as tantamount to a kind of Neo-colonialism – a system of rule that sees an independent nation’s political and economic landscape directed by a foreign government.
In his 1965 book, Neo-Colonialism: The Last State of Imperialism, Nkrumah expressed his strong stance against all forms of imperialism and colonialism. He called on his fellow African leaders to fight against the “twin monsters” – colonialism and imperialism. Safe to say, the U.S. government, under the leadership of President Lyndon B. Johnson, was not so pleased about Nkrumah’s criticisms of the West.
The U.S. government may have not come out to say it, but we confidently say that the U.S., via the CIA, welcomed the removal of Nkrumah. As a matter of fact, the CIA desk in West Africa were in constant contact with the coup plotters for several months before the coup even happened. The Lyndon B. Johnson administration saw Nkrumah’s efforts – i.e. his socialist orientation and pan-Africanism – across the African continent as huge threat to America’s interest in the region. Decades later, this fact was revealed in a declassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) documents. The Americans believed that Nkrumah was in cohort with the Soviet Union and Communist China. Therefore, American intelligence officers in country secretly tried to influence the heads of the Ghanaian security agencies to topple Nkrumah.
Sensing his end was near, Nkrumah constantly maintained that his CPP government neither looked East nor West. He affirmed his support for having an African continent that was united and free to forge its own path.
Nkrumah’s years in exile and death
After the coup, Nkrumah went into exile in Guinea. He was warmly received by his dear friend and fellow Pan-Africanist, President Ahmed Sékou Touré. Nkrumah was appointed honorary co-president of Guinea. He spent his last few years (about 6 years) in Guinea before dying of prostate cancer on April 22, 1972 in Bucharest, Romania. He was 62.
More Kwame Nkrumah facts
- During his nine-year stay in office, there were about seven assassination attempts on his life.
- In the year that he was overthrown, he had a very emotional meeting with William P. Mahoney, the then-U.S. ambassador to Ghana. Mahoney stated that the Ghanaian leader looked very distraught and shaken over the deteriorating situation in his country.
- Once slandered, Kwame Nkrumah is today considered Ghana’s greatest leader, and by extension he is commonly revered as one of the most influential leaders in African history. His legacy is so huge that many people tend to forget his flaws and failures. After all he was human, and to err is human.
- His fight for complete liberation and self-governance on the continent earned him numerous praises, including being voted Africa’s Man of the Millennium in 2000.
- In his struggle against neo-colonialism and imperialism, Nkrumah worked with many leaders and supporters of the Pan-Africanist movement, including W.E.B. Du Bois of the United States, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, George Padmore of Trinidad, and Nnamdi Azikiwe of Nigeria. His goal was to improve ties between Africans in the diaspora and the continent of Africa.
- Nkrumah drew a lot of inspiration from the teachings of Jamaica-born entrepreneur and civil rights leader Marcus Garvey. He even made the Black Star a national symbol, which is proudly displayed in the center of Ghana’s flag. Ghana’s national football team is also nicknamed the Black Stars. Garvey established a shipping and passenger line called the Black Star Line. He envisioned that the line would help more African American businesses to start trading among each other and with businesses in Africa.
- His overthrow in 1966 dashed all hopes of Africa attaining the political and economic unity that it so dearly desired in the 1950s and 1960s.
- Nkrumah’s birthday – September 21 – is recognized as a national public holiday in Ghana.