In 1972, a casket was flown from Bucharest, Romania to Conakry Guinea. Boldly inscribed on the casket were the word; “THE GREATEST AFRICAN” and sleeping peacefully inside the casket was the mortal remains of the man who gave Africa her new face. This is a story of the rise and fall of “the greatest African”
The 14th century AD saw the influx of Europeans into the continent of Africa. Despite the resistance by many Africans, the continent was soon subdued. Many Africans were either killed or captured and sold into slavery. By the 18th century AD, the whole African continent with the exception of Ethiopia was divided and colonized by the various European countries who were at the time world super powers.
On the coast of the gulf of Guinea, in the western part of Africa on the prime meridian right above the “center of the world” a nation was growing. It grew so fast and so strong that it came to play the leading role in the emancipation of the African continent. The Gold Coast as it was referred to by the Europeans is rich in minerals and had many rain-forests. It is around one of these rain-forests in the Western part of the country that the little town of Nkroful is located. On the 21st of September 1909, a boy was born in Nkroful to a Goldsmith father and a peasant mother. Francis Nwia Kofi Nkrumah, the boy who dreamt to change the world lived with his mother and her extended family in the Nzema speaking town of Nkroful as his father worked at Tarkwa-Nsuaem.
Being the only child of his mother, young Nkrumah was sent to the elementary school run by a Catholic mission at Half Assini by her mother and he proved an adept student. In just eight years, Nkrumah had completed the 10 years elementary programme. By 1925 he was a student-teacher in the school and had been baptized into the Catholic faith. While at the school, he was noticed by the Reverend Alec Garden Fraser; principal of the Government Training College (soon to become Achimota School) in the Gold Coast's capital, Accra. Fraser arranged for Nkrumah to train as a teacher at his school. Here, Columbia-educated deputy headmaster Kwegyir Aggrey exposed him to the ideas of Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois. Even though Aggrey, Fraser, and others at Achimota taught that there should be close co-operation between the races in governing the Gold Coast, Nkrumah echoed Garvey and soon came to believe that only when the black race governed itself could there be harmony between the races.
After obtaining his teacher's certificate from the Prince of Wales' College at Achimota in 1930, Nkrumah was given a teaching post at the Roman Catholic primary school in Elmina in 1931 and after a year there, was made headmaster of the school at Axim. In Axim, he started to get involved in politics and founded the Nzima Literary Society. In 1933, he was appointed a teacher at the Catholic seminary at Amissano. Although the life there was strict, he liked it and considered becoming a Jesuit. Nkrumah had heard journalist and future Nigerian president Nnamdi Azikiwe speak while a student at Achimota; the two men met and Azikiwe's influence increased Nkrumah's interest in Black Nationalism. The young teacher decided to further his education. Azikiwe had attended Lincoln University; a historically black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania, west of Philadelphia and he advised Nkrumah to enroll there. Nkrumah who had failed the entrance examination for London University, gained funds for the trip and his education from relatives. He traveled by way of Britain, where he learned, to his outrage, of Italy's invasion of Ethiopia, one of the few independent African nations. He arrived in the United States in October 1935.
For ten years, young Nkrumah remained in America and studied. He had changed his name from Kofi to Kwame and was hence known as Kwame Nkrumah. With the help of a scholarship, Nkrumah completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and sociology in 1939. Lincoln then appointed him an assistant lecturer in philosophy. Nkrumah enrolled at Lincoln's seminary and at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and in 1942, he was initiated into the Mu chapter of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity at Lincoln University. Nkrumah gained a Bachelor of Theology degree from Lincoln in 1942 as the top student in the course. He earned from Penn the following year a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and a Master of Science in education. While at Penn, Nkrumah worked with the linguist William Everett Welmers. Providing the spoken material that formed the basis of the first descriptive grammar of his native Fante dialect of the Akan language.
Nkrumah spent his summers in Harlem where he spent many evening listening and debating with great orators like Arthur Reed and his protege Ira Kemp, he young Carlos Cook, founder of the Garvey oriented African Pioneer Movement and Suji Abdul Hamid, a champion of Harlem labour. This shaped him into a fine activist student, organizing a group of expatriate African students in Pennsylvania and building it into the African Students Association of America and Canada, becoming its president. Some members felt that the group should aspire for each colony to gain independence on its own but Nkrumah urged a Pan-African strategy. Nkrumah played a major role in the Pan-African conference held in New York in 1944 which urged the United States at the end of the Second World War, to help ensure Africa became developed and free. His old teacher Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey had died in 1929 in the US and in 1942 Nkrumah led traditional prayers for Aggrey at the graveside. This led to a break between him and Lincoln though after he rose to prominence in the Gold Coast, he returned in 1951 to accept an honorary degree.
Nkrumah spent his time on political organizing. He and Padmore were among the principal organizers and co-treasurers of the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester (15–19 October 1945). The Congress elaborated a strategy for supplanting colonialism with African socialism. They agreed to pursue a federal United States of Africa with interlocking regional organizations, governing through separate states of limited sovereignty. They planned to pursue a new African culture without tribalism, democratic within a socialist or communist system, synthesizing traditional aspects with modern thinking and for this to be achieved by nonviolent means if possible. Among those who attended the congress was the venerable W. E. B. Dubois along with some who later took leading roles in leading their nations to independence including Hastings Banda of Nyasaland (which became Malawi), Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Obafemi Awolowo of Nigeria. Nkrumah soon became the secretary of the West African National Secretariat (WANS).
The 1946 Gold Coast constitution did not only give Africans a majority on the Legislative Council for the first time, it also prompted the colony's first true political party founded in August 1947; the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC). The UGCC sought self-government as quickly as possible.
It was however not long before Nkrumah’s nationalism abroad caught the attention of African patriots in his native Gold Coast who were actively seeking to break the shackles of colonialism. The leading members of the political party; the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) at a meeting agreed they needed a secretary who can stomach the rather wild ambitions of the party. A suggestion was made by Ako Adjei to extend an invitation to Kwame Nkrumah the young man who was fast becoming the face of African nationalism in the diaspora.
In November 1947, the young boy who dreamt to change the world returned home all grown up. And on 29th December 1947, Nkrumah begun work at the party’s headquarters at Saltpond as the general secretary. Nkrumah did not only help to make the UGCC a colony-wide political party he also stuck the first real match of the African revolution when on 28 February 1948, the British opened fire on ex-servicemen that were organized by Nkrumah to meet the governor. This prompted the 1948 Accra riots which spread throughout the country. In response to the riots, the colonial government arrested six leaders of the UGCC including Kwame Nkrumah. The arrest of these six only made them national heroes and even made Nkrumah the people’s favourite.
After many demonstrations and outspread riots by student groups and other Gold Coast nationals, they were finally released in April 1948.
Nkrumah parted ways with the UGCC not long after their release from prison and started his own political group from the Committee on Youth Organization (CYO); a group he formed as the general secretary of the UGCC. They adopted the motto; “Self-government now” and sought to achieve independence instantly. Nkrumah's appeals for "Free-Dom" appealed to the great numbers of underemployed youths who had come from the farms and villages to the towns. "Old hymn tunes were adapted to new songs of liberation which welcomed traveling orators and especially Nkrumah himself, to mass rallies across the Gold Coast. Nkrumah adopted a new name, “CPP” for his party after they broke away from the UGCC in April 1949.
When a commission of middle-class Africans including all of the Big Six except Nkrumah were selected by the British to draft a new constitution that would give Ghana more self-government, Nkrumah saw even before the commission reported that its recommendations would fall short of full dominion status. Nkrumah demanded a constituent assembly to write a constitution but the governor, Charles Arden-Clarke would not commit to this. Nkrumah called for Positive Action with the unions beginning a general strike on 8 January 1950. The strike quickly led to violence and Nkrumah and other CPP leaders were arrested on 22 January and the Evening News was banned. Nkrumah was sentenced to a total of three years in prison, and he was incarcerated with common criminals in Accra's Fort James.
Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, ran the CPP in his absence; the imprisoned leader was able to influence events through smuggled notes written on toilet paper. The British prepared for an election for the Gold Coast under their new constitution, and Nkrumah insisted that the CPP contest all seats. The situation had become calmer once Nkrumah was arrested, and the CPP and the British worked together to prepare electoral rolls. Nkrumah stood, from prison, for a directly-elected Accra seat. Gbedemah worked to set up a nationwide campaign organization, using vans with loudspeakers to blare the party's message. Nkrumah sent a message from prison to the ordinary Gold Coast citizen during this campaign; “Ask yourself one question, do I want independence in my life or I want to revert to feudalism in imperialism?” the message of freedom was well received and the CPP won the elections by a landslide. Nkrumah won a seat in Accra and was released from prison.
Prior to the CPP taking office, British officials had prepared a ten-year plan for development. With demands for infrastructure improvements coming in from all over the colony, Nkrumah approved it in general but halved the time to five years. The colony was in good financial shape with reserves from years of cocoa profit held in London and Nkrumah was able to spend freely. Modern trunk roads were built along the coast and within the interior. The rail system was modernized and expanded. Modern water and sewer systems were installed in most towns where housing schemes were begun. Construction began on a new harbor at Tema near Accra and the existing port at Takoradi was expanded. An urgent programme to build and expand schools from primary to teacher and trade training was begun. From 1951 to 1956, the number of pupils being educated at the colony's schools rose from 200,000 to 500,000.
Under the leadership of Nkrumah, Ghana became independent on 6 March 1957. As the first of Britain's African colonies to gain majority-rule independence, the celebrations in Accra were the focus of world attention. Over 100 reporters and photographers covered the events. United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent congratulations and his vice president Richard Nixon to represent the U.S. at the events. The Soviet delegation urged Nkrumah to visit Moscow as soon as possible. Ralph Bunche, an African American was there for the United Nations while the Duchess of Kent represented Queen Elizabeth. Offers of assistance poured in from across the world. Even without them, the country seemed prosperous, with cocoa prices high and the potential of new resource development.
As the fifth of March turned to the sixth, Nkrumah stood before tens of thousands of supporters and proclaimed; "Ghana will be free forever." He spoke at the first session of the Ghana Parliament that Independence Day, telling his new country's citizens that "we have a duty to prove to the world that Africans can conduct their own affairs with efficiency and tolerance and through the exercise of democracy. We must set an example to all Africa.”
Nkrumah was hailed as the Osagyefo – which means "redeemer" in the Akan language. This independence ceremony included the Duchess of Kent and Governor General Charles Arden-Clarke. With more than 600 reporters in attendance, Ghanaian independence became one of the most internationally reported news events in modern African history.
Kwame Nkrumah is known for his pan-African ideas and he was instrumental in the creation of the OAU in Addis Ababa in 1963. He also aspired to create a united military force, the African High Command. As president of Ghana, He extended a helping hand to other African countries who remained colonies and was instrumental in the decolonization of the African continent. As he said; “the independence of Ghana shall be meaningless until it is linked with the total liberation of the whole African continent”.
However, as the African proverb goes; “if water stays too long in the mouth, it becomes saliva”. Kwame Nkrumah in his ambition to create a united Africa sought to end political opposition in his own background. He stumped out other political parties from Ghana (Gold Coast) and declared Ghana a one party state. He formed youth groups that served as “government vigilante groups” and reported to him. The most loved African president was fast becoming an authoritarian and a dictator in the eyes of his own people.
In February 1966 while Nkrumah was on a state visit to North Vietnam and China, his government was overthrown in a violent coup d'état led by the national military and police forces with backing from the civil service. The conspirators led by Joseph Arthur Ankrah named themselves the National Liberation Council and ruled as a military government for three years. Nkrumah did not learn of the coup until he arrived in China. After the coup, Nkrumah stayed in Beijing for four days and Premier Zhou Enlai treated him with courtesy. Nkrumah alluded to possible American complicity in the coup in his 1969 memoir Dark Days in Ghana.
Nkrumah never returned to Ghana but he continued to push for his vision of African unity. He lived in exile in Conakry, Guinea as the guest of President Ahmed Sékou Touré who made him honorary co-president of the country. Nkrumah read, wrote, corresponded, gardened, and entertained guests. Despite retirement from public office, he felt that he was still threatened by Western intelligence agencies. When his cook died mysteriously, he feared that someone would poison him and began hoarding food in his room. He suspected that foreign agents were going through his mail and lived in constant fear of abduction and assassination.
In failing health, he flew to Bucharest, Romania for medical treatment in August 1971. He died of prostate cancer in April 1972 at the age of 62 while in Romania.
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