Kwame Nkrumah: Harbinger of African Independence

By Beatriz Mate-Kodjo '11

Intoduction to International Politics

This project explored a global actor of interest to the student and that is also significant for contemporary international politics. Drawing initially from the textbook and then expanding, this project involved the collection and analysis of empirical data (historical, political, economic, demographic, or environmental) on the topic in an effort to answer the research question: “Describe and critically analyze the international significance of your actor in the contemporary global order.” I selected this paper because of its extremely high quality writing but also because it creatively and strongly fulfilled the spirit as well as the letter of the assignment. Most students select more routine topics, such as states or wellknown international leaders. Beatriz chose an actor of great interest to her, despite the fact that the research process would be more demanding than easier possibilities.

-Jim Zaffiro


In a world populated by over six billion people, it is only a small minority of people and institutions that determine the fates of the majority. It is this minority of global state actors and their interactions that are studied in international politics to interpret global affairs. The global system can be defined as “the predominant patterns of behaviors and beliefs that prevail internationally to define the major worldwide conditions that heavily influence human and national activities” (Kegley 23). Within this global system, Kwame Nkrumah pioneered African independence as an individual actor during the 20th century. Through his leadership, “Nkrumah shook the very foundations of the imperial system by being the first in the ‘Black World’ to lead his country to overthrow the colonial rule” (Buah 7). The beginning of his political career leading to the independence of Ghana, Africa, substantiates his influence and presence in global international politics. This paper will consider the significance of the late Kwame Nkrumah as a global actor. Nkrumah can be considered the most influential, vanguardist African leader of the 20th century through his contributions to international politics of the Global South.

Arguments exist that Nkrumah was an anti-cultural leader that bypassed Ghanaian cultural traditions to replace them with modernization. Some political writers, like Ali Mazrui claim that Nkrumah saw himself as “the African Lenin” (Mazrui 106) and misused his presidential power. However, the weight of Nkrumah’s leadership in Ghana was a combination of compromise and cultural sacrifice in order to achieve Ghanaian independence and African political clout in global politics.

The Republic of Ghana

Situated at eight degrees north and two degrees west, the sub-Saharan Republic of Ghana is populated by over 24 million people. Demarcation at the hands of outsiders consolidated a variety of ethnic groups with varying traditions, languages, and social histories. First visited by the Portuguese in the 15th century, the Gold Coast trading stations also passed hands from the Dutch, Danish, and finally to the British in the 19th century. Similar to monarchical successions of the European continent, kingdoms of the land comprising today’s Ghana were determined through maternal or paternal lineage. As Europeans discovered vast natural resources and a new market for labor, permanent settlements were made along the coast, representatives of the metropole were installed, middlemen were enlisted, and natives were subjected to the interests of the imperialist powers. In 1909, a Guinea Coast villager was born into the colonial system he would one day overcome to establish himself as a foremost leader of African independence and unity.

Kwame Nkrumah: A Leader is Born Kwame

Nkrumah was afforded opportunities outside the realm of his social status as a humble villager. He won a scholarship to Achimota College, where he studied with the sons of the privileged classes. Unbeknownst to him at the time, it was this privileged group that would compose the political elites of the Gold Coast’s future. Nkrumah “studied and taught a variety of subjects at universities including education, economics, sociology, political science, Marxism, philosophy, and theology” (Buah 153). Following his ten years in the United States, Nkrumah spent two years studying in London. In addition to his studies, Nkrumah became politically active with the West African Student’s Union, and the Pan African movement which discussed anti-imperialism. It was during this time that Nkrumah attended the fifth Pan African Conference in 1945. This conference in Manchester was also attended by future African and Caribbean leaders.

The World Stage is Set

In 1947, the Gold Coast enjoyed a period of stability and relative economic prosperity. This glimpse of prosperity contributed to the increased interest in politics and progressive thinking. The majority of the world’s cocoa was exported from their ports and global market prices were on the rise due to war-time restraints. Politically speaking, “…the colony had reached a level of political sophistication unmatched elsewhere in Africa, and was [becoming] the pioneer of political change” (Rooney 32). This vanguardist description would prove itself characteristic of the colony soon to be under the leadership of Nkrumah. The aftermath of World War II also played a part in preparing the world for Nkrumah’s influence. Britain’s domestic economy and entire infrastructure suffered post-war stresses. The British government was focused on fighting the communist network that began to spread with the commencement of a bi-polar global order. After fighting Germany’s imperialistic expansionism, it became increasingly difficult to justify the refusal of rights to colonial territories overseas. During the Cold War era, colonies looking to govern themselves and banish hegemonic imposition benefited from the preeminence of democracy in the West. The world stage was slowly being set for Ghana’s autonomous debut. Nkrumah’s twelve-year stint abroad ended with a voyage from London to Accra during which he made several stops to spread his ideas. Freetown, Sierra Leone was among the stops of Nkrumah’s ideological diaspora where he re-interacted with Wallace Johnson, a colleague from the Manchester Conference of 1945. Nkrumah continued to build, establish, and maintain rapport with African leaders of the French and British zones. These international relationships explain the dimensions he was able to reach in his fight for African unity and independence.

Emergence of Ghanaian Nationalism Cultural Barriers

The British Empire had established a system of indirect rule in which it cooperated with tribal kings and indigenous political institutions. The British used their influence to introduce tensions among existing ethnic groups and classes. This was a “convenient and prudent [way to] exercise their power through local hierarchies already in place” (Rooney 32), and it appealed to traditionalists alike. While the British took advantage of the system to maintain control of the population, tribal chiefs were allowed to continue exercising their traditional control over their respective nations. In the sense of pre-colonial unity, there was none. In fact, “Ghanaians from various ethnic groups perceived themselves as belonging to a particular ethnic group first and foremost, and then to the nation state of Ghana second” (Tettey 108). This indigenous political history offered a difficult and deeply-rooted obstacle to overcome – or bypass – by the nationalist movement. After centuries, change or progression from this system would seem impossible as “the whole system rested on the notion that only a few privileged men knew how to govern, and had the power to govern, while the…mass must obediently follow. As a means of building an independent nation, it was a system built to guarantee failure” (Davidson 100).


Jordan Overland, “Untitled,” Black
and gray marker, 22” x 30”

Richard Rathbone, a professor of Modern African History, writes in Nkrumah & the Chiefs that Nkrumah’s introduction of nationalization, democracy and eventually modernization was distinct from traditional chieftain politics. His leadership maintained that “the rituals and ideas which maintained their authority, were…the enemies of rapid development…and chieftaincy was seen as a significant aspect of (underdevelopment)” (Rathbone 3). At one point in his campaigning, Nkrumah even insulted the sandals, symbols of their sacred power, of Ghana’s chiefs. Insults aside, it was necessary for Nkrumah to lessen the importance of chiefs and their respective nations in order to amass unity within the Gold Coast colony. Without unity there would be no chance of overpowering the British hegemon and seizing governmental control.

It was Nkrumah’s ability to promote nationalism that led to independence and eventually to the emergence of African political clout in global politics. Nkrumah bypassed tradition and culture in order to spread nationalism. His success is evidenced by the inspired educated youth of Ghana and eventually his influence in Ghanaian political parties. Nkrumah introduced a modern nationalistic culture to achieve unity.

The Educated Youth and Mass

By the early 20th century, more Africans had taken advantage of educational opportunities. Christian missions had introduced more organized systems of education and a small minority had also traveled to Europe to study. Youth groups, or the common masses, began to contest the pre-existing colonial system in spite of its cooperation with tribal kings. They joined the movement towards self-governance and the dissolution of colonialchieftain politics. They wanted a democracy that would create more opportunities for the working class and a government by the people. In addition, when ex-servicemen returned from the War in Europe they were once again relegated to the lower strata of society. Their disillusionment led to disaffection which fueled the fires of political activity. Having expanded their cultural and political visions abroad, they turned to support the educated minority. Together, armed with the guidance and oratorical prowess of Nkrumah, they consolidated their voices and willpower and began to demand more rights from the Colony. Political activity evolved, and eventually the first nationalist party was established by a group of educated, upper-class Africans including Joseph Boakye (J.B.) Danquah. Danquah would one day open the door to Ghana’s political scene for Nkrumah and eventually become his primary opposition. His party was called the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) and their “declared goal was to achieve self-government within the shortest time possible” (Pellow 27).

Nkrumah’s Effect on British-Gold Coast Political Climate 1946-1951

United Gold Coast Convention

As a founder of the United Gold Coast Convention, Danquah was one of the educated elite of the Gold Coast’s population who had received an advanced education in Germany. He shared this privileged upbringing with his party members, however, privilege had its disadvantages. “Although the UGCC viewed itself as the political embodiment of the entire population, its leaders and members were drawn primarily from the select group of wealthy planters, trade rulers, prosperous business people, and professionals who flourished in and around the colonial center” (Pellow 27). The UGCC needed an organizer and someone to broaden their appeal. Nkrumah, known for his political activity in London, was asked to fill the position in 1947. Having spent much of his twelve years abroad educating himself and engaging in political activism, Nkrumah was well equipped to act as Secretary of the UGCC. Based in Saltpond, Nkrumah brought organization, national fervor, and enthusiasm to Gold Coast politics. He traveled to villages and towns, setting up satellite offices of his committee in order to appropriate funds and train activists. Nkrumah increased the realm of influence of the UGCC to rural areas previously ignored by UGCC leaders. Borrowing from Leninist ideas, Nkrumah would “start a campaign of mass political education [so he could] mobilize the common people [including] trade unions co-operative societies, ex-soldiers’ and farmers’ and women’s associations” (Davidson 61). Nkrumah’s increasingly progressive, grassroots efforts were distinct from fellow UGCC members and tension among the leadership began to grow.

In order to expedite political change, Nkrumah continued to adopt more radical methods and recommended boycotts, strikes, and demonstrations derivative of Mahatma Gandhi’s Positive Action. Nkrumah’s “acquaintance with Marxism and his abilities as an orator gained him a following among the young, the disadvantaged, the disillusioned, and the idealistic [furthermore] he was untainted by cooperation with the authorities and his aggressiveness and success alarmed the leadership of the (UGCC) and earned him the enmity of the colonial authorities” (Apter 168). The UGCC leadership became increasingly aware that their Secretary’s leadership was moving in another direction and that he had a large following. To further the divide, a series of outbursts in the form of riots and looting led to the arrests and imprisonments of UCGG leaders by the British. They – and Nkrumah in particular – were victims of communist accusations and charges of dissention. Eventually released from prison, Nkrumah was influenced by the support of the youth organizations to break away from his political platform. He began his own newspaper, the Accra Evening News, to spread nationalistic ideas. The newspaper quickly gained popularity among the youth organizations. After the political outbursts subsided, the British governor looked to re-establish its governing body in the colony. The masses knew they lived in a time of change and opportunity. As previously mentioned, the global stage was ripe with convenient circumstances and hope. A leadership was needed to capitalize on history’s circumstances. “This (leadership) was provided by Kwame Nkrumah, and it is in this vital sense that Nkrumah shaped the course of history” (Davidson 67). Finally decided about his political course, Nkrumah established the Convention People’s Party (CPP) in 1949.

Convention People’s Party

“Self-government now” was the motto adopted by the party in order to differentiate from the UGCC. In light of the disruptive social climate spurred on by Nkrumah’s political activity, the British looked to re-organize the governmental bodies of the Gold Coast colony. They attempted to forcefully quash dissent and arrested Nkrumah. However, their harsh reaction only increased the nationalists’ notoriety and Nkrumah’s fame. The UGCC, who were more permissive to the British, were no longer in favor with the masses. The British government was slowly bending to social pressure, and Nkrumah continued to manage the tense political climate in order to gain ground. During this time, Nkrumah put in order the Ghana People’s Representative Assembly and formalized the people’s demand for “immediate selfgovernment, that is, for full Dominion status within the Commonwealth of Nations” (Davidson 73). Nkrumah continued to promote Positive Action as of utmost importance to his party. After his arrest, Nkrumah directed his political efforts from behind bars. In spite of his jail sentence, Nkrumah was able to put his name on the 1951 general election ballot. Thanks to his political campaigning in heavily populated rural areas, Nkrumah won with a majority of the votes. Davidson quotes a 1950’s article of the newspaper West Africa: “Mr. Nkrumah, whether you agree with him or not, is… the most capable leader of the party, and is the most popular individual in the Gold Coast” (78). Ghanaian nationalism had grown and now was an unprecedented full-fledged force behind Nkrumah. His appeal “was further enhanced by the cult of personality that evolved around him. Osagyefo (the victor) Nkrumah was crowned with titles ranging from ‘show-boy’ to ‘Messiah.’ His movements were followed with a mixture of pride and awe; his words were consumed with a fervor that transformed politics into a new form of religion” (Pellow 31). With his loyal followers behind him, Nkrumah continued to manage the ebb and flow of British indecision that slowly acquiesced to African involvement and control in Gold Coast government. He also held steady the social energy of the proletariat that, at times, built up to the force of water behind a dam. For the next six years, known as the “period of compromise,” Nkrumah’s patience was tested as he slowly twisted the power out of the hands of the British.

The Period of Compromise 1951-1957

By 1951, Nkrumah had managed to infect the masses with nationalism, political awareness, and hope. With the election, Nkrumah and the CPP achieved internal self-rule or “innovation… of a new constitution…and Nkrumah became Leader of Government Business” (Buah 101). This victory resulted from his leadership and interdisciplinary vision. In the six-year wait Nkrumah and the CPP had to express patience in many respects. Although he had successfully bargained for the general election of 1951, he was force to adhere to the slow pace of progression the British were setting.

The years leading up to independence when Nkrumah acquiesced to compromise “were indeed the years when (the Gold Coast) and the CPP became a beacon of hope for embattled nationalists across the continent, looking to Nkrumah and the CPP, as they undoubtedly did, as pioneering heroes who would broaden the breach they had made, and give others the chance of following through it. (Davidson 115)

The period of compromise was necessary to keep the British on a progressive track. Nkrumah’s opposition, composed largely of his spurned UGCC colleagues, would argue publicly that he had compromised too much and was losing his nationalistic fervor. Although compromise would seem to oppose the nationalistic trajectory of “self-government now,” considering the social barriers of his time, Nkrumah was still a forerunner in Global South politics. While navigating the troubled waters towards independence, it was necessary to improvise and know that the ability to give in momentarily to the strength of the British current was needed.

Political obstacles continued to stand in his way including the creation of the Cocoa Marketing Board. The British wanted to “amicably” temper the effects of low world market prices on cocoa farmers who had for the last few years struggled with continuously falling market prices. The Board began to profit once again from its colony’s assets that “became part of Britain’s general banking assets in the world at large. The money was not, of course, stolen; it remained property of the Gold Coast Colony and Protectorate. But the Gold Coast did not use the money” (Davidson 108). Nkrumah was now in an uphill battle against indigenous political institutions, public dissention by UGCC colleagues, and the unwillingness of Britain to retract from its lucrative colony.

Independence Non-Alignment and Pan Africanism

On March 6, 1957, Nkrumah brought selfgovernment to his countrymen in the form of a parliamentary system with himself as Prime Minister. The Duchess of Kent, along with delegations from 56 nations of the Global North and South, was present to help celebrate the occasion. Nkrumah took the opportunity to announce Ghana’s foreign policy. He stated: “Our foreign policy shall be based on three words: dignity, peace and friendship” (Nkrumah 97). Becoming a United Nations member later that year, Nkrumah went on to state that as Prime Minister he would not associate the newly independent country with any political bloc, referring to the Cold War alliances. He pled publically to the United States and Soviet Union to disarm and settle their differences. He asked them to “consider jointly how the vast resources now wasted in the production of atomic and hydrogen weapons of destruction could best be used to remove the poverty and sufferings from the lives of hundreds of millions of people in Africa and Asia” (Nkrumah 118). While his public disapproval of the Cold War didn’t change dynamics in the Global North, it can be said that he was a forerunner in Global South involvement in global politics. In only a matter of years, African colonies had gone from mere cash pots to global players, and Nkrumah was leading the charge.

Ghana as Political Center of Global South

At this point in his political career he also established that “the Government of Ghana will direct its efforts to promote the interest and advancements of all African peoples in their pursuit of freedom and social progress…” It was his hope that Ghana would become the center for the discussion of African problems as a whole, and that, with the cooperation of all other African territories, “(Ghana will) be able to foster a common attitude to local problems and world problems which will ensure that problems peculiar to Africa will receive the attention which they have no had for so long. (My) aim is to work with others to achieve an African personality in international affairs” (Nkrumah 98).

In his attempts to modernize Ghana, Nkrumah undertook a number of ambitious projects. By 1958, the Bank of Ghana, Black Star (shipping) Line, and the Volta River Project were started, and all are still in existence today. Less successful was his introduction of Ghana Airways, the nation’s first national airline. Aside from his contributions to Ghana’s immediate economic and infrastructure developmental projects were his contributions to African ideology. Nkrumah popularized the ideals of Pan Africanism and nonalignment.

In 1958, Nkrumah also managed to utilize his diplomatic savoir faire to host the All-African Peoples’ Conference in Accra. It was the first time representatives of eight different African states met to discuss the needs of African peoples. Topics discussed included non-alignment, African unity, and economic development. It was said that because of this, “Nkrumah was internationally regarded as the voice of the new Africa. Ghana was certainly punching above its weight” (Rathbone 137). In April of 1960, Nkrumah called another conference in Accra to discuss positive action and security in Africa. More specifically, Nkrumah wanted to discuss apartheid in South Africa and the French testing of nuclear weapons in the Sahara. Again ahead of his time, Nkrumah denounced South Africa’s institutionalized racism which lasted until 1990.

The ideals Nkrumah reiterated throughout his political career are still relevant in contemporary politics as evidenced by the African Union today. The African Union still calls for African countries to work together to confront shared social, political, and economic issues. The idea of consolidating the African voice in global politics was very much a keystone of Nkrumah’s leadership.

The Republic of Ghana

In 1960, Ghana became the Republic of Ghana with a republican constitution and a powerful president. Kwame Nkrumah accepted his appointment, by vote, to be Ghana’s first President. Nkrumah recounted the words of Ghana’s last Governor General that “Ghana had given the world an object lesson in race relation(s) [which is] something of inestimable value when one observes the tragic conditions resulting from better conflict in many other parts of the world” (Nkrumah 232). Ghana’s emergence onto the global political scene was juxtaposed with the tensions in the Global North and would run parallel to the present, past, and future condition of all Global South countries.

Ali Mazrui, political writer, details the similarities between Vladimir Lenin and Nkrumah. It is true that Nkrumah borrowed heavily from Lenin’s ideas including the need for unity among the masses. Mazrui points to the Preventative Detention Act of 1958 as blatantly authoritarian. The act allowed Nkrumah to detain political dissenters for up to five years without trial. However, the contributions and achievements of Nkrumah in the time leading up to independence and his own declarations of foreign policy show that he was not interested in maintaining a military state. Nkrumah wanted unity, modernity, and development. It is historically common for newly independent states to fall to the violence that Nkrumah was clearly trying to avoid.

Nkrumah’s End

By attempting to avoid the entanglement of individual interests and corruption in Ghanaian government, Nkrumah would increase his political authority. Ghanaian military and police overthrew Nkrumah’s government to instill a new one, and they suspended the constitution on February 24, 1966. This “caused international stir (and) meant a relief to some foreign nations still maintaining colonies and imperial designs in Africa and the Caribbean” (Buah 194). Nkrumah’s support of the African cause clearly upset the global order. For many years, Ghanaian propaganda aimed at tarnishing the contributions of Nkrumah was common. Finally, the icon of colonial independence died while in exile in Romania in 1972.


Nkrumah’s Significance in Contemporary Global Order

The individual level of analysis is defined by Kegley as “an analytical approach that emphasizes the psychological and perceptual variable motivating people, such as those who make foreign policy decisions on behalf of states and other global actors” (18). Kegley goes on to explain that “no trend or trouble stands alone; all interact simultaneously [and] the future is influenced by many determinants each connected to the rest in a complex web of linkages” (18). Kwame Nkrumah driven by his vision of a united Africa, and his unmatched enthusiasm in the struggle for Ghanaian independence is testament to the idea that one person can make a tremendous impact in the global system.

Nkrumah defied racial and social conventions of his time to challenge the oppressive colonial system. Nkrumah took it upon himself to relegate cultural traditions to minimal importance for the betterment of his countrymen. As the “father of modern Ghana” he had to act against his own culture to bring Africans forward into international affairs. Nkrumah was at the forefront in establishing a new world order in which Global South countries had political clout. He didn’t defeat a country, per se, but he defeated the tangible colonial imposition that had forced itself onto millions of Africans. He introduced to the global system an Africa that was no longer passive and in which Africans were willing to fight for selfdetermination. Furthermore, in the ten years following (Ghanaian independence), “over 30 countries gained their independence [and this] stemmed directly from Ghana’s example and from Nkrumah’s achievement” (Rooney 7). It can be said that in terms of trending African independence, Nkrumah pushed the first domino.

Nkrumah interrupted the turmoil of the Cold War with an unexpected Global South victory, an African victory, a Ghanaian victory. Moreover, attention was turned to the African corner of the Global South an area often disregarded unless the focus is negative (i.e. disease, poverty, starvation). Nkrumah didn’t look to amass world power and alliances but rather chose to declare a peaceful existence with aspirations of economic stability and African unity. Nkrumah was unable to avoid the paranoia of violence common to newly independent countries. His authoritarian style was not used to amass global power; rather, it was used to bring Africa forward. It is clear that Nkrumah paved the way for Africans to self-determination. Moreover, “he had given pride and self-respect, not only to Ghana, but to the whole of Africa and to black people the world over” (Rooney 6). His decision to suppress dissenters may have contributed to the coup of 1966 but also shows the emergence of individual self-interest and corruption in Ghanaian politics that Nkrumah tried to avoid.

Nkrumah’s emergence and eventual defeat all took place under the dominions that systematically oppressed blacks. He worked and fought against stringent odds to accomplish unprecedented political feats in Ghana and subsequently in Africa. Nkrumah bashed his way through a status quo built up brick by brick from the dawn of the imperial and colonial eras and introduced movement of empowered, educated, enlightened African citizens. It was these citizens that, under pressure, exploded with radical freedom of thought, political expression, and selfgovernment now.

Works Cited

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Tettey, Wisdom J., Korbla P. Puplampu and Bruce J. Berman. Critical Perspectives on Politics and Socio-Economic Development in Ghana. Leiden: Brill. 2003.