Nkrumah, Kwame

I. Introduction

Nkrumah, Kwame (1909-1972), first prime minister (1957-1960) and president (1960-1966) of Ghana and the first black African postcolonial leader. Nkrumah led his country to independence from Britain in 1957 and was a powerful voice for African nationalism, but he was overthrown by a military coup nine years later after his rule grew dictatorial.

II. Early Life and Education

Kwame Nkrumah was born in the town of Nkroful in the southwestern corner of the British colony of the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Nkrumah was an excellent student in local Catholic missionary schools. While still a teenager, he became an untrained elementary school teacher in the nearby town of Half Assini. In 1926 Nkrumah entered Achimota College in Accra, the capital of the Gold Coast. After earning a teacher's certificate from there in 1930, Nkrumah taught at several Catholic elementary schools. In 1935 he sailed to the United States to attend Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He graduated from Lincoln University with B.A. degrees in economics and sociology in 1939, earned a theology degree from the Lincoln Theological Seminary in 1942, and received M.A. degrees in education and philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania in 1942 and 1943.

III. Nationalist Leader

While studying in the United States, Nkrumah was influenced by the socialist writings of German political philosopher Karl Marx, German political economist Friedrich Engels, and Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. Nkrumah formed an African students organization and became a popular speaker, advocating the liberation of Africa from European colonialism. He also promoted Pan-Africanism, a movement for cooperation between all people of African descent and for the political union of an independent Africa. In 1945 he went to London, England, to study economics and law. That year he helped organize the fifth Pan-African Congress, in Manchester, England. This congress brought together black leaders and intellectuals from around the world to declare and coordinate opposition to colonialism in Africa. At the congress, Nkrumah met many important African and African American leaders, including black American sociologist and writer W. E. B. Du Bois, future president of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta, and American actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. In 1946 Nkrumah left his academic studies to become secretary general of the West African National Secretariat, which had been formed at the fifth Pan-African Congress to coordinate efforts to bring about West African independence. That same year, Nkrumah became vice president of the West African Students Union, a pro-independence organization of younger, more politically aggressive African students studying in Britain.

Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast in 1947 when the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), a nationalist party, invited him to serve as its secretary general. In this capacity he gave speeches all over the colony to rally support for the UGCC and for independence. In 1948 a UGCC-organized boycott of foreign products led to riots in Accra, and Nkrumah and several other UGCC leaders were arrested by British colonial authorities and briefly imprisoned. In 1948 Nkrumah split with the UGCC leadership, which he viewed as too conservative in its efforts to win independence, and formed his own political party, the Convention People's Party (CPP). After organizing a series of colony-wide strikes in favor of independence that nearly brought the colony's economy to a standstill, Nkrumah was again imprisoned for subversion in 1950. However, the strikes had convinced the British authorities to establish a more democratic colonial government and move the colony toward independence. In 1951 elections for the colonial legislative council, the CPP won most of the seats and Nkrumah, while still in prison, won the central Accra seat by a landslide. The British governor of the Gold Coast released Nkrumah from prison and appointed him leader of government business. The following year he named Nkrumah prime minister. Reelected in 1954 and 1956, Nkrumah guided the Gold Coast to independence in 1957 under the name Ghana, after an ancient West African empire.

IV. Ruler of Ghana

Nkrumah built a strong central government and attempted to unify the country politically and to muster all its resources for rapid economic development. As a proponent of Pan-Africanism, he sought the liberation of the entire continent from colonial rule, offered generous assistance to other African nationalists, and initially pursued a policy of nonalignment with either the United States or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). When most other African colonies became independent in the early 1960s, Nkrumah urged them to unite with Ghana to form a United States of Africa. His goal was never realized, but his efforts helped bring about the Organization of African Unity, which promotes peace and cooperation between African nations. In 1960 Ghana became a republic and Nkrumah was elected president.

Between 1961 and 1966 Nkrumah spearheaded an ambitious and very expensive hydroelectric project on the Volta River that was highly successful. He was accused of economic mismanagement in the Volta River project and several other expensive developmental schemes over this same period. Nkrumah did not hesitate to use strong-arm methods in implementing his domestic programs. These measures included passing laws allowing the imprisonment of political opponents without charge, and dismissing the nation's supreme court and pronouncing judgments himself. Although he remained popular with the masses, his tactics made enemies among civil servants, judges, intellectuals, and army officers. Nkrumah also fell out of favor with Western powers in the mid-1960s by courting development aid from the USSR and other Communist states. He was accused of fostering a personality cult, as his supporters called him Osagyefo ("the redeemer" or "warrior"), and became increasingly influenced by government ministers and businesspeople who used flattery to obtain favorable decisions from him. Assassination attempts in 1962 and 1964 made him grow more and more paranoid; he had numerous critics of his regime arrested, and in 1964 he declared the CPP the only legal party. While Nkrumah was visiting China in 1966, his government was overthrown in an army coup. Nkrumah lived in exile in Guinea, where Guinean president Sékou Touré appointed him honorary co-president of Guinea. He died in 1972 in Romania while receiving treatment for throat cancer. Nkrumah's remains were returned to Ghana for burial in his home town of Nkroful.

V. Evaluation

Kwame Nkrumah's legacy in African history is an uneasy dichotomy. On the one hand, he was a hero of African nationalism; on the other, he was one of Africa's first postcolonial dictators. Despite the authoritative tone his regime took on, Nkrumah's positive achievements of guiding Ghana to independence and helping other African colonies achieve the same are undeniable. Nkrumah was also a prolific writer; his published books include Autobiography (1957), Towards Colonial Freedom (1962), Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism (1965), and Dark Days in Ghana (1968).

Contributed By:

A. B. Assensoh, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of History, Indiana University. Author of African Political Leadership: Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, and Julius K. Nyerere and other books.

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