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Kwame Nkrumah's contribution to the decolonization process in Africa

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by Leslie
September 16, 2004

Kwame Nkrumah
Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972)
Africa came under the direct jurisdiction of Europe after the initial carving out of the continent referred to as the 'Scramble for Africa'. This partition was fulfilled at the Conference of Berlin 1884-85 resulting in the political mapping of Africa. Thus, Africa facilitated the extension of the European hegemonic powers overseas. This colonization rendered the African continent the play-toy of wealthy European imperialists who raked the profits from the resource-rich territories.

The Collier's Dictionary defines a colony as any territory that is economically, culturally and politically subordinate to another. Thus, during the period of European imperialism, Africa's social, economic and political administration was controlled largely by these foreigners. The effect of such actions was the absolute destruction of Africa's traditional institutions, the massive re-organization of its pre-colonial society, and the virtual rape of the continent.

However, by the mid-20th century it was no longer politically correct to persist with colonialism. One by one, European powers began to pull out of Africa. This does not mean to say that they left Africa to its own devices. Rather, they now assumed a 'behind the scenes' role on the continent by allowing the Africans to govern while they, the Europeans, dominated Africa's economic enterprises and resources.

Thus, the so-called decolonization process was realized only when the European economic interests had a firm standing on the continent. Despite Europe's true intentions, African visionaries thought that decolonization would be to Africa's advantage and that the people could re-establish themselves in positions of power and authority and attempt to preserve whatever remnants of their culture that had remained. African intellectuals were not naive about the European problem, but thought that they could eliminate European influence from Africa. Many of these visionaries were influenced by Pan-Africanism, which rose from the African Diaspora. Pan-Africanism was a philosophy that promoted African awareness and pushed for the betterment of all Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora. Kwame Nkrumah was influenced by the West Indian born black nationalist, Marcus Garvey, and decided to embark on a programme to systematically rid Africa of colonialism and neo-colonialism. We shall examine subsequently his contribution to the decolonialization process in Africa and its result.

Nkrumah's ultimate way to the presidency of Ghana was paved by his political activism in the United States and the U.K. He returned to the Gold Coast, as it was then called, on the 10th of December 1947, after a 12 year absence. Ghana at the time was still under British imperial control and the pot was now brewing for political sovereignty, a demand that was influenced by the leftist, Wallace Johnson. The colonial government deported Johnson in 1938 and suppressed other anti-colonial and anti-tax movements. Kwame Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast as tensions were escalating rapidly. He engaged in a series of discussions with the leadership (headed by Dr. Joseph Danquah) of the United Gold Coast Convention, (UGCC), to clamour for constitutional reform. The stage had been set for political autonomy from Great Britain.

Nkrumah went on to establish the Committee on Youth Organization, which further popularized the Pan-African activist. Many objected to the CYO because of its affiliation with the grassroots elements in the society. In his words, "They opposed [the CYO] because it was composed of the less privileged, or radical section of the people and voiced the economic, social and political aspirations of the rank and file. It went completely against their more conservative outlook." Nevertheless, Nkrumah managed to gain overwhelming support throughout the country, went on to rally for self-rule, and encouraged the boycott of European goods. The Ghanaian population expressed their support by engaging in labour strikes and work slow-downs. The CYO, renamed the Convention People's Party, decided to split with the UGCC and created a new manifesto, which declared its determination to attain self-government, to remove all forms of oppression, to maintain unity among the different ethnic groups in Ghana, and to encourage and support trade unionism.

The Coussey Committee Report was published in November 1949. It recommended the inclusion of Africans in government, but to Nkrumah's disappointment, it failed to demand self-governance. In response, Nkrumah formed the Ghana Representative Council (GRC), which was specifically formed for the purpose of initiating an appeal against the report. He vigorously promoted the idea of internal self-rule and further announced his nationwide Positive Action strike, which began on New Years Day in 1950.

After being arrested for 'civil disturbances', Nkrumah and the CPP still remained a political party and managed to successfully capture thirty-four out of thirty-eight seats in the first general election in 1951. The Bill of Release was signed on 19 February by the new Governor, Sir Noble Arden-Clarke, freeing Nkrumah and others from prison after 13 months of detention. His release marked a momentous occasion in the history of Gold Coast. He was asked to form a government. He went on to become the Leader of Government Business in the first African-dominated government and by extension, the National Assembly. Nkrumah took it upon himself to request independence for the Gold Coast.

Nkrumah immediately began to make visible changes within the Cabinet, acting in accordance with his promise that he would not rest "until full self-government within the Commonwealth was achieved". Thus, he soon announced his first cabinet of seven Africans and four Europeans.

Nkrumah increased his pressure for full Independence and in 1956, the Secretary of State for the Colonies announced that 6 March 1957 would mark the Independence of the Gold Coast. The independent nation-state of Ghana was born, named after the prosperous ancient traditional Ghana Empire of West Africa. The British government was extremely reluctant to lose Ghana, which was one of her most valued territories. Nkrumah's success was praised throughout the continent as it was yet another 'piece of the pie' that was now in native African hands.

Nkrumah remained committed to the liberation of Africa from imperialist control accompanying his success in Ghana. An example of this commitment was Nkrumah's financial aid of 10 million pounds to Guinea after her break with France in September 1958. Additionally, he agreed to grant Mali a long-term loan after its split with Senegal. Ghana established a political association with the two countries in the hope of creating the United States of Africa. Nkrumah also stood behind Patrice Lumumba during the Congo crisis of 1960-61 and approached nine other African states to create a joint High Command to provide assistance to any other state that was found in a similar position to the one that the Congo faced. He explained that, "until the independent States of Africa are united in a single nation, the exploitation of Africa by Europe will never end. If Africa's sixty States are united politically, they will find a way to their own economic emancipation and to an African economic plan for the whole continent."

Nkrumah began to associate with Communist leaders at a time when communism was attacked and despised by the West. Nkrumah stated categorically that, "In Ghana, we have embarked on the socialist path to progress. We want to see full employment, good housing and equal opportunity for education and cultural advancement for all the people up to the highest level possible." He was prepared to make enemies in the West. His fearless and uncompromising stance brought new recognition to Africa as well as deep-seated contempt for the rising nation.

Kwame Nkrumah ascended to the Prime Ministership of Ghana during a period of economic prosperity and continued to further Ghana's development. Nkrumah, influenced by the Pan-Africanist ideology of self-improvement, undertook development projects such as road building, the improvement of medical services, and the implementation of the Volta River hydro-electric dam at Akosombo, which all proved to be costly infrastructural development schemes. Nkrumah endorsed and supported self-help schemes such as the building of schools, roads, clinics, village and town centers, drains and irrigation systems. In addition, Nkrumah allotted much of the government's fiscal resources to improve Ghana's export agricultural base. His government established the Agricultural Development Board to regulate marketing and trading transactions, and to curb the dependency on cocoa by introducing other cash crops on the export market.

This strategy displayed the brilliance of Nkrumah, who acted with haste to correct the injustices of the monopoly-based capitalist system. He observed that the failure of the main export product would translate into the failure of the economy as a whole. Thus, crop diversification was rigorously implemented. He also initiated The Industrial Development Corporation, The Management Development and Productivity Institute and The Ghanaian Business Bureau, to facilitate the growth and prosperity of small and medium-sized African businesses. Nkrumah also aspired to reduce Ghana's reliance on foreign manufacturers to bring more balance to the import- export trade. He encouraged the development of industries to abolish the nations' position as a supplier of raw materials. Ghana thus set an amazing precedent on the African continent. Government undertook all measures possible to avoid the monopoly of capital by private and/or external business interests.

Nkrumah proposed in his Five Year Development Plan his intentions of constructing 9 Teacher Training Colleges, 18 Secondary Schools and 31 Primary and Middle schools which were in fact built, in addition to 10 new hospitals in the Northern territories. Roads connecting major cities were constructed.

Nkrumah's success began to wane by the mid-1960's when he assumed the role of the presidency. This was so because the population now felt the full brunt of material hardships and was tired of waiting for improvements. Between 1960 and 1965, world cocoa prices plummeted, and the Ghanaian economy could no longer sustain the huge spending on development projects. Foreign exchange earnings dramatically fell and government financial reserves were depleted. The unemployment that he had worked so hard to eradicate rose dramatically. "Food prices skyrocketed up over 250% from 1957 levels and up a phenomenal 66% in 1965." Ghana now suffered from food and essentials shortages that affected the already devastated population. "Economic growth, which had ranged from 9% to 12% per annum until 1960, dropped to 2% to 3%, insufficient to sustain a population expanding at almost 3% per year." Nkrumah was no longer able to maintain the economic progress of the country.

Nkrumah, responding to the downswing of the economy, adopted a strict form of socialism to reconstruct the national economy. He imposed his quasi- Marxist theories on his government in order to save the population from the endemic poverty that they were about to face. Despite Nkrumah's genuine attempt to resuscitate Ghana's economy, he made unrealistic demands such as overwhelming taxation. Despite the fact that the government did better financially, these harsh measures led to Nkrumah's decreasing popularity.

Nkrumah began to lose support within his own government, despite his attempts to maintain unity. The CPP itself was a coalition of different groups that often came into conflict with each other. Soon, the political in-fighting could no longer be contained and became public knowledge. The project of forming coalitions with conflicting groups was an ambitious one but was extremely unrealistic. According to a 13 July edition of The Times, "The president's most urgent task is to reconcile all factions, even those that he no longer trusts. Unfortunately, and dangerously, those whom he does not trust, he rejects. The possibility of revolution lies among the rejected, whoever they turn out to be."

Nkrumah, to avoid corruption and the misappropriation of the public purse, proclaimed that there would be no businessmen in parliament. Thus, the government was soon purged of business elements, and those that remained abdicated investments that exceeded the accepted amount for a government official. He also made it abundantly clear that he was against any form of "military trade unionism," which signaled his growing authoritarianism and his almost complete turn in policy. Nkrumah was a supporter of trade unionism before he attained power. Nkrumah lost more support because of harsh measures that he put in place to develop the country. His objective was to attain a balance of 128 million pounds by the end of the fiscal year(1960). He introduced a scheme which required salary and wage earners to save five per cent of their monthly wages on incomes over 10 pounds a month. Professional workers had twice as much to contribute for Nkrumah's fiscal vision to be realized. This measure led to a series of protests from port and railway employees at Takoradi.

Nkrumah also arrested any opposition to his authority, including members of his own party, who were reputedly conspiring with members of the opposition United Party to overthrow the government. Kwame Nkrumah, like Latin American dictators during this epoch, decided to govern Ghana with an iron fist to ensure that his rule was perpetual and unchallenged. Nkrumah declared himself President for Life in 1964 and in effect, banned all opposition political parties. He held many political prisoners. His leadership became even more domineering after two assassination attempts. He became obsessed with his personal safety and thus established the Secret Security Service and the Presidential Guard under his direct control. The army and police officers soon grew weary of him. Much of his initial focus was now directed to the preservation of his life rather than of his country.

On 21 February 1966, President Kwame Nkrumah visited the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam to hold diplomatic talks with the President Ho Chi Minh. During his absence, a coup d'etat erupted in Ghana. The armed rebels, in cahoots with the National Police, took control of the government. The coup was led by Colonel Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka, who was regarded a national hero for his participation in the Ghana's United Nations Congo contingent in 1960-61. Subsequently, the National Liberation Council was created to run the affairs of state after the dissolution of Parliament. The Convention People's Party (C.P.P.) was henceforth banned and Nkrumah dethroned.

Nkrumah played a crucial role in the decolonization process in Africa. He is remembered for his uncompromising stance against the injustices meted out by colonial and neo-colonial powers, and his brilliant economic policies that benefited Ghana tremendously. Indeed, it was a difficult process to develop a country that had been run by foreign powers for so long. It would take time and effort to improve the shortcomings of the previous system and even more time for the population to reap the benefits of the newly instituted programmes.

Everyone grew tired of waiting. His socialist stance did not play well with the West, who equated it with fascism or the "master race ideology." Nevertheless, Nkrumah managed to gain widespread support for 'cleansing' Ghana of whites from positions of control and authority. He proved that with careful planning and perseverance, the whole of Africa could be purged of European influence and attain true liberation and independence. Although we witnessed the mounting failures of his regime, we must understand that all developing societies have experienced some level of difficulty while trying to achieve development against nearly impossible odds. Nkrumah, like other socialists, fought to gain the respect of the world by showcasing his political strengths. This resulted in extreme policies to maintain the existing system as well as his own power. Eventually, Ghana felt the blow from his mistakes and suffered greatly because of them. Authoritarianism was the only way that he saw to maintain Ghana's success.

Kwame Nkrumah, despite his many errors, will always be venerated for his contribution to the decolonization process in Africa.