The Enduring Legacy of Kwame Nkrumah

Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah sought to build an Africa free from capitalism and imperialism. Although defeated, his legacy remains a source of inspiration for a new generation of leftists.

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On 6 March 1957, Kwame Nkrumah took to the stage in Accra to announce the independence of the Gold Coast, renamed Ghana in homage to the ancient West African empire. Nkrumah declared that 1957 marked the birth of a new Africa, ready to fight its own battles and show that black people were capable of managing their own affairs. ‘Our independence is meaningless,’ Nkrumah famously maintained, ‘unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.’

Ghana was the first African country south of the Sahara to win independence, and three years later Nkrumah promoted himself to president of Ghana, a post he held until 1966. A Pan-African socialist, he sought to unite and quickly industrialise the country, putting it on a path that could resist the twin threats of capitalism and imperialism. When his efforts attracted internal dissent, however, he cracked down. Ghana became a one-party state, led by the Convention People’s Party (CPP), with strong repression of opposition.

In 1966, Nkrumah’s enemies in the army overthrew him, as Western powers — as they usually do — looked the other way. His ideas — partly formed in the United States, where he spent a decade in the 1930s and ’40s — were largely marginalised in the 1970s as the successive government made a rightward turn. He died in Romania in 1972, following his exile in Sékou Touré’s Guinea.

But Nkrumah is making something of a comeback. With both major parties, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP), pushing different variants of neoliberalism, young people in organisations like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are returning to Nkrumah to think about the role of the state, development, and about Ghana’s—and indeed, Africa’s — place in the world.

Africa Is a Country’s William Shoki spoke with historian Benjamin Talton and Anakwa Dwamena, a native of Ghana who serves as books editor at Africa Is a Country and a member of the New Yorker’s editorial staff. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.


WS

The mid-twentieth century was a period of massive transformation, and Kwame Nkrumah burst onto the scene to become a great Pan-African leader. How do we place him in this historical context? Who is he, and how does he come onto the scene?

BT

We could even debate that framing you gave. It’s the Kwame Nkrumah I had when I first went to Ghana in 1999, this champion of independence that bursts onto the scene, this visionary Pan-Africanist, who then had this tragic demise. But when I arrived, I encountered all of these debates and arguments about Nkrumah’s legacy, and I’m like, ‘Wow, people just don’t love Kwame Nkrumah.’ I’m hanging out with people whose families were destroyed by Kwame Nkrumah, who really despise the man.

It blew me away, coming from the diaspora, coming from the United States, where he was celebrated, particularly by people of my generation’s parents, who were naming their kids Kwame. So, that framing is the popular framing, but then the meat on the bones is quite different.

The vision that Nkrumah and the CPP had in the second half of the 1950s was, we’re building a model postcolonial state: truly self-determined, truly independent, fighting against neo-imperialism, fighting against capitalism. Self-determination for the individual and for the state. But then suddenly we get into 1961, ’62, ’63, and they’re battling forces from without and from within, and Ghana becomes this police state. I think you see Nkrumah not really trusting his own people, and that’s the Nkrumah that we have to grapple with — where he saw himself as the only one who could accomplish that vision.

Now, I’m sympathetic, because imperialism and capitalism are real enemies of the people. But the police state is really when things get problematic, and the Preventive Detention Act, where anyone who criticises the state, who they think will be against the state or be against the regime (and Nkrumah is the state), can be arrested.

AD

Being born and raised in Ghana, Nkrumah existed as this national figure, but someone that I didn’t necessarily get much concrete information on. I moved to America, and it’s here that I found this great interest in Pan-Africanism: people got excited to hear that I’m from Ghana; someone I ran into on the street who was an alum of Lincoln University [Nkrumah’s alma mater] gave me a hug. And so I start to look into Nkrumah and, like you said, ‘There is this wonderful guy. There is this guy who’s done all these great things.’ For me, one of the saddest things was reading Dark Days in Ghana and his letters from Conakry, where you see that he has this idea that he is the only one who can make any change. It seems a betrayal of the Nkrumah who was an organiser back in Harlem and in Philly, and the person who broke away from the UGCC (United Gold Coast Convention) with this radical project.

I was recently reading this book by Grace Lee Boggs, the famous organiser affiliated with the Trinidadian Marxist C. L. R. James, and she mentions that when she and her husband (James Boggs) visited Nkrumah, he said that he wished they had gotten married, because with her ruling the East, being Chinese, and him ruling Africa (as a black American), they could have some sort of monarchical state or control of the world. And so you get the sense that Nkrumah had kind of lost it toward the end.

WS

The postcolonial period coincided with the Cold War, which was a time, globally, of mass suspicion and paranoia. And so these new postcolonial leaders trying to usher their countries into a new world are, to paraphrase Marx, doing it in circumstances not of their own choosing. What was Nkrumah trying to accomplish when Ghana became independent in 1957, and what challenges did he face?

BT

I think it’s important to put him in that context, because there are these broader forces at play. I see Nkrumah as very clear-eyed about the challenges that Ghana was facing—relying, basically, on cocoa and a little gold, with Europeans very much interested in postcolonial exploitation—so he understood their economic and political weaknesses.

This effort to diversify the economy as rapidly as possible, to achieve this socialist state, a self-determined and independent state — this was visionary, and it was brave. And he accomplished a great deal in a short period of time. You think about creating Akosombo Dam, which was supposed to make Ghana independent in terms of electricity, and use that electricity to turn bauxite into aluminum, for export. But then you run into challenges of finance. You don’t have the capital to do that. So, you reach out to the Soviets, and ultimately you reach out to the Americans and the British.

As he struggled to create this economically independent state, the irony is that he was having to rely on capital from the outside. So, there’s this catch-22, and we see this in other states. Most postcolonial African countries face the same challenge of, ‘How do we develop rapidly without capital?’ You can’t do it.

One of the downsides of rapid development — and I don’t want to act like I’m just criticising him on all fronts — is that there is this neglect of the rural areas when you focus on industrial development. It’s a people-centred economy that’s not really centred on the people as they are.

So, there are these upsides and downsides to the way that he approached it. But I think this broader, global, Cold War postcolonial context is very, very important. He didn’t exist in a vacuum.

AD

When he hits the scene, there is the UGCC, which he has broken away from, but there are also people who are coming from the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society — people that have a vested interest in a connection to the European colonial state.

Nkrumah arrives on the scene, and they think, ‘Wait a minute. We do want some sort of independence, but not with this radical guy who has come up with this new economic system. We actually like the way certain things are run.’ Nkrumah didn’t indulge the chiefs too much, and that was an issue for some people as well.

And so, he was caught between these two [domestic and international opponents] and was compelled to somehow make a new society that appeals to or can work with people with different interests, who are colliding on him in that one moment.

BT

What I think is amazing is he succeeded in creating an integrated state. Ghanaians on the ground identify themselves in a particular way. It’s not unique on the continent, but it certainly stands out. If you’re in the north, if you’re in the south, in the east, you go there and there’s this sense of pride in being Ghanaian. There’s this idea that there is such a thing as being Ghanaian.

It’s not to say that every election has gone off swimmingly, without ethnic strife or conflict, but the relative success of Ghana’s democracy since the Fourth Republic was established in 1992. A lot of that has to do with what Nkrumah and the CPP built in the fifties and early sixties. It’s a different constitution, but this integrated state of Ghana, this idea of being Ghanaian, that’s a strong part of Nkrumah’s legacy.

What Nkrumah was very jealously protecting the state against was the influence of capitalists, mainly the United States, and the former imperialists, Britain, having control of them economically. Today, we see these military agreements being made between the United States and Ghana — I think Nkrumah would be shocked. And he would be very shocked at the neoliberal turn, because both the NDC and the NPP are neoliberal political parties. There is nothing socialist about them.

WS

How do we rearticulate Nkrumah’s vision, which went beyond this commercial brand of Pan-Africanism, about selling Africa as a product, and was really about restructuring the global order as a whole, not just for Africans, but for the entire globe — about saying that capitalism doesn’t work for anyone?

BT

I hate to end on a pessimistic note, but I think we have a set of leaders who are not only more concerned with their own sovereignty and integrity, but their own positions of power.

So, I think we need a new type of Pan-Africanism. We have to envision these relationships anew. If we get away from this commodification and commercialism, perhaps we can get back to the politics of it.

Nkrumah was a socialist. How alive is socialism in Africa today? I would say, ‘Not very’. But I think we need to envision a new Pan-Africanism, and for that, I’m optimistic.

About the Author

William Shoki is a staff writer at Africa is a Country.

Benjamin Talton is associate professor of History at Temple University, executive board member of ASWAD and an editor of the African Studies Review.

Anakwa Dwamena is books editor of Africa is a Country and editorial staff member at the New Yorker.