Kwame Nkrumah: Pan-Africanist, Socialist and Revolutionary

In celebration of this years 51st African Liberation Day I am re-posting this biography of African revolutionary leader Kwame Nkrumah.

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Kwame Nkrumah

Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, or simply Kwame Nkrumah was born September 21st, 1909. He would become one of the most influential pan-Africanists, socialists and revolutionaries in the world, as well as the first leader of independent Ghana, and before that, its predecessor state, the Gold Coast.

In 1909, Madam Nyaniba gave birth to Francis Nwia Kofi Ngonloma in Nkroful, Gold Coast, a British Colony in the west of Africa. Nkrumah graduated from the Achimota School in Accra in 1930, later studying for the Roman Catholic Seminary and teaching at the Catholic school in Axim. In 1935 he decided to leave Ghana for the United States. In the United States he received his BA from Lincoln University in 1939, where he was also pledged to the Mu Chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity. He continued his academic studies in 1942, receiving his STB (Bachelor of Sacred Theology). He also went on to earn a Master of Science in education from the University of Pennsylvania, also 1942, and a Master of Arts in philosophy the following year. While lecturing in political science at Lincoln he was elected president of the African Students Organization of America and Canada. As an undergraduate at Lincoln he participated in at least one student theater production and published an essay on European government in Africa in the student newspaper,The Lincolnian.

Over the course of his studies in the US, Nkrumah visited and preached in black Presbyterian Churches in Philadelphia and New York City, as well as read books on politics and divinity. It was during this time that he encountered the ideas of of pioneering pan-Africanist and black revolutionary Marcus Garvey. He also had a job tutoring fellow students in philosophy. Also at this time, in 1943, he met the Afro-Trinidadian Marxist and Trotskyist C.L.R. James. He would later describe how it was from James that he learnt how an underground movement worked.

Following his stint in the US he left for London, England, arriving in May 1945. He had intended to study at the London School of Economics, however, after meeting with George Padmore, another influential Afro-Trinidadian Marxist, he decided to help organize the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester. After that he founded the West African National Secretariat to work for the decolonization of Africa. He also became Vice-President of the West African Students’ Union.

He was invited to serve as the General Secretary to the United Gold Coast Convention in fall, 1947 under Joseph B. Danquah. This convention had the intention of exploring paths to independence for the then British Colony of the Gold Coast (now Ghana). Nkrumah accepted the position and left immediately to return to his native home. After a series of brief stops in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Ivory Coast, he arrived in the Gold Coast in December 1947.

In February, 1948 the colonial police fired upon a protest being lead by ex-African servicemen. They were protesting the rapidly rising cost of living. The shooting itself went onto spur a series of riots across the capital of Accra, as well as Kumasi and elsewhere. The British authorities suspected the UGCC to have behind the protests and therefore took action by arresting Nkrumah and the other leading members of the movement. The imperialists soon realised their error, that the UGCC and Nkrumah had not been responsible for the riots, but it was already to late, for after his imprisonment by the colonial government, he emerged as the primary leader of the Ghanaian independence youth movement in 1948.

After his release from imperialist imprisonment, Nkrumah decided to journey around the country of his native country by way of hitch-hiking. In community after community that he visited he would proclaim that the Gold Coast needed self-government. On the basis of his community to community travels he was able to build a large base of support towards the cause of self-determination. Many rushed to his cause, such as the rural cocoa farmers who disagreed with British policy concerning the containment of swollen shoot disease. He also appealed greatly to women to become a part of the political process. This was at a time when women’s suffrage was new to, even to Western ‘Democracy’. His movement also found allies amongst working-class organisations, such as the unions. By 1949 he had coalesced these diverse groups into a new political party: The Convention People’s Party.

The British, who were making moves towards self-government for the Gold Coast, called for the drafting of a New Constitution that would grant local authorities some responsibility for policy decisions. The new constitution, which was drawn up under the influence of the Ghanaian national bourgeoisie, made wage and property requirements were the basis for suffrage. In opposition to this Nkrumah brought together his own “People’s Assembly” composed of representatives of party members, youth organizations, trade unions, farmers, and veterans. In contrast to the new bourgeoisie constitution, their proposals called for universal suffrage without property qualifications, a separate house of chiefs, and self-governing status under the Statute of Westminster. These amendments, known as the Constitutional Proposals of October 1949, were rejected by the colonial administration.

The colonial administration’s rejection of the People’s Assembly’s recommendations led directly to Nkrumah’s call for “Positive Action” in January 1950. His idea of Positive Action included civil disobedience, non-cooperation, boycotts, and strikes. In response the imperialist administration again arrested Nkrumah and many of his supporters in the CPP. Nkrumah was sentenced to three years in prison.

Under the ever increasing weight of both international protests and internal resistance, the British decided to pull out of the Gold Coast. They organized the first general election to be held in Africa under universal franchise; it was held on 5-10 February, 1951. Though in jail, Nkrumah won the election by a landslide, with the CPP taking 34 out of 38 elected seats in the Legislative Assembly.

On 12 February Nkrumah was released from prison, and on the 13th was summoned by the British Governor Charles Arden-Clarke and asked to form a government. On 20 February the new Legislative Assembly met, with Nkrumah as Leader of Government Business and E.C. Quist as President of the Assembly. A year later, on 10 March 1952, the constitution was amended to provide for a Prime Minister, and on 21 March Nkrumah was elected to that post by a secret ballot in the Assembly, 45 to 31, with eight abstentions. On 10 July 1953 he presented his “Motion of Destiny” to the Assembly, which approved it. The motion requested independence within the British Commonwealth “as soon as the necessary constitutional arrangements are made”.

As the leader of Ghana during the transition to independence he was faced with three major challenges: firstly he needed to learn the art of government on the job, secondly he needed to create a unified nation of Ghana from the four territories of the Gold Coast and finally he needed to win his nation’s independence.

On March 6, 1957, at 12 am, Nkrumah declared Ghana to be an independent nation. In celebration and in respect he was given the title of Osagyefo by the people, which translates roughly as “redeemer” or “the victorious one” in the Akan tongue.

On the same date three years later he introduced proposed constitutional changes, primarily that Ghana become a republic. In a truly revolutionary and internationalist move, the new set of proposals also called for the eventual surrender of Ghana’s sovereignty to a federal union of African states. On 19, 23, and 27 April 1960 a presidential election and plebiscite on the constitution were held. The constitution was ratified and Nkrumah elected president. Nkrumah was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize by the Soviet Union and Ghana also became a charter member of the Organization of African Unity in 1963.

While the Gold Coast was already one of the most wealthy and socially advanced territories in Africa, with schools, railways, hospitals, social security and an advanced economy. Under Nkrumah’s leadership, Ghana took steps towards a more socialist state. Nkrumah created a welfare system, started various community programs, and established schools. He ordered the construction of roads and bridges to further commerce and communication. In the interest of the nation’s health, he had tap water systems installed in the villages and ordered the construction of concrete drains for latrines.

In terms of his own personal politics, Nkrumah considered himself to be a non-aligned Marxist. He believed that the malign effects of capitalism and imperialism were going to stay with the newly independent states of Africa for a long time thereafter.

He was clear on distancing his Marxist socialism from the so-called “African socialism” of many of his contemporaries, such as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Ahmed Sékou Touré of Guinea. He argued that socialism was the system that would best accommodate the changes that capitalism had brought, while he still respected African values. His main piece articulating the differences between his Marxist socialism and African Socialism was “African Socialism Revisited”. In it he says:

“We know that the traditional African society was founded on principles of egalitarianism. In its actual workings, however, it had various shortcomings. Its humanist impulse, nevertheless, is something that continues to urge us towards our all-African socialist reconstruction. We postulate each man to be an end in himself, not merely a means; and we accept the necessity of guaranteeing each man equal opportunities for his development. The implications of this for socio-political practice have to be worked out scientifically, and the necessary social and economic policies pursued with resolution. Any meaningful humanism must begin from egalitarianism and must lead to objectively chosen policies for safeguarding and sustaining egalitarianism. Hence, socialism. Hence, also, scientific socialism.”

However, it is probably not for his socialism that he was best known, and best remembered for, but rather for being a pioneering advocate of pan-Africanism. He was inspired deeply by his interactions by his fore fathers in the field, people like Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, George Padmore and C.L.R. James. Nkrumah would himself go onto inspire and encourage Pan-Africanist positions amongst a number of other African independence leaders and activists from the African diaspora, with perhaps Nkrumah’s biggest success in this area coming with his significant influence in the founding of the Organization of African Unity.

Towards this end he created the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party with the goal of creating and managing the political economic conditions necessary to the emergence of an All-African People’s Revolutionary Army. The A-APRA would the Africa-wide struggle against settler colonialism, Zionism, neo-colonialism, imperialism and all other forms of capitalist oppression and exploitation. The A-APRP still exists to this day, based out of Ghana, but with branches in many countries around Africa, the Caribbean, North America and Europe.

In February 1966 while he was away on a state visit to Vietnam, his government was overthrown in a CIA backed military coup. Following this, Nkrumah would never again return to Ghana, but nevertheless he continued to push for his vision of African unity from elsewhere. In particular he spent much of his exile in Conakry, Guinea, where he was the guest of Ahmed Sékou Touré, who made him honorary co-president of Guinea. He spent his time reading, writing, corresponding, gardening, and entertaining guests. Despite his retirement from public office, his fear of western intelligence agencies did not abate.

In August, 1971, with failing health he was medevaced to to Bucharest, Romania. In April, 1972 he passed away from skin cancer at the age of 62. He was buried in Ghana in a tomb (which is still present) at the village of his birth, Nkroful, but his remains were later transferred to a large national memorial tomb and park in Accra.

Today, Nkrumah is still one of the most respected leaders in African history. His legacy lives on today in the continued existence of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, still based out of his home of Ghana, but also in other radical pan-Africanists and socialists such as the African People’s Socialist Party and the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, both of which are based out of the United States.

So on this 51st celebration of African Liberation Day, let us remember not just Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, but all the others who have struggled in Africa for liberation, and also those who have struggled around the world. Rest in Uhuru.

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Posted on May 25, 2009, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Kwame Nkrumah: Pan-Africanist, Socialist and Revolutionary.

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