Why you should care
Because sometimes you have to throw off the man who helped you throw off your chains.
As World War II drew to a close in 1945, the great European colonial powers, though shaken by war with Germany, kept a firm grip over their African colonies. Few could have imagined that in 20 years’ time, the vast majority of former colonies would earn their independence — but one man was certain of it: 35-year-old Kwame Nkrumah.
An immigrant from Great Britain’s Gold Coast colony (now Ghana) in West Africa, the brainy Nkrumah had spent 10 years in the U.S., earning degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and lecturing in politics. He could have stayed and enjoyed a rather comfortable life as part of the emerging Black bourgeoisie, but Nkrumah, a devout Marxist with dreams of becoming the “African Lenin,” was dead set on ejecting the European capitalists from his homeland.
As Nkrumah sailed from America in 1945, he started to envision something even greater: a unified, independent Africa. If the former colonies of North America could cast off their shackles and develop into a superpower, then why couldn’t a united Africa also “become one of the greatest forces for good in the world”? Nkrumah had a bold vision for Africa, one that would lead Ghana to a dream come true — right before he turned it into a nightmare.
Ripples of excitement shot throughout Africa, electrifying self-rule movements across the continent.
Once Nkrumah, the son of a goldsmith from a tiny village in West Ghana, returned to his homeland, he wasted little time turning his grand ideas into action, organizing mass protests and boycotts, and founding the Convention People’s Party (CPP). Charged with rioting and looting, Nkrumah and other party leaders ended up in jail. But by 1951, faced with the growing resistance and international pressure, Britain agreed to grant the Gold Coast self-governance, and Nkrumah became the first prime minister after the CPP won a landslide election victory.
Ripples of excitement shot throughout Africa, electrifying self-rule movements across the continent. As the historian Basil Davidson chronicles in Black Star, the government desks formerly occupied by British civil servants in the Gold Coast were vacated, the old civil servants now advisers to the new African officials. “The lords of yesterday were the servants of today,” says Davidson, “and yet the British were still in control of the country.”
For the next five years, Nkrumah kept pushing for greater independence, something the British would yield only in drips and drabs. Until finally, as the clock struck midnight on March 5, 1957, Nkrumah led his fellow citizens in welcoming the independent nation called Ghana, the first Black African nation to shake off the yoke of colonial rule. The band played the new national anthem, and fireworks and dancing filled the night. The beloved Nkrumah, with his infectious smile, became an international symbol of freedom, and used his independence speech to proclaim his vision for Africa, arguing, “Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”
In Ghana, Nkrumah introduced fee-free education, while factories and major infrastructure projects seemed to spring up overnight and a flourishing working class emerged for the first time. Away from home, the popular leader served as sort of a political consultant and venture capitalist for other African nations as they pursued the path to independence. But it would not be long, as Davidson puts it, before “the same critics who praised him for giving black people everywhere a new pride in themselves” would be denouncing his regime as “monstrous, tyrannical and oppressive.”
As leader, Nkrumah did not take kindly to the sort of political resistance and industrial strikes he had once organized. Declaring himself president for life, Nkrumah instituted a one-party state in Ghana, in which he had control over the news media and the power to detain anyone — without trial — whom he perceived as a threat. “Even a system based on a democratic constitution,” he claimed, “may need backing up in the period following independence by emergency measures of a totalitarian kind.”
By the mid-1960s, Ghana, after a dip in the price of its cash cocoa crop, was struggling, unemployment was rising and residents started to turn against their authoritarian leader, who became the target of five failed assassination attempts.
The same Ghanaians who had celebrated alongside Nkrumah in 1957 exploded with joy when their former hero was deposed by a coup while he was visiting China in 1966. The disgraced leader never returned to Ghana, dying in exile in Romania in 1972, and his vision for a united Africa withered as other newly independent nations struggled to flower under postcolonial autocrats like himself.
Nkrumah had empowered Ghanaians to hold their heads up high, to think big and to fight for every inch of their freedom, and they were not about to let go of that dream — even for him.