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17.01.2003 Feature Article

The February 24, 1966 mindset

The February 24, 1966 mindset
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The chairman of NPP is entitled to his private views about the February 24, 1966 coup. However, to defend publicly the merits of that coup, as he was reported to have done at the party's recent congress, is a show of poor judgement. Coups are ugly in every sense of the word. February 24, 1966 was one coup that became the model for many successful or attempted coups that followed. It was the grandfather of embarrassing public spectacles and public executions that characterised the politics of Ghana in the late 70s and 80s. So enough, Ghana deserves more circumspection about coups now. Esseku's statement shows a partisan relish, but lacks a particular understanding as to why his party is in power today. What cannot be denied is that the NPP party came to power through the goodwill of many, including victims of the 1966 coup. The election of the NPP to power, after decades of violence, was a repudiation of military rule for the majority in Ghana, and that sentiment alone should have been enough to mop up all romantic notions about coups, past, present or future, in the society. For once, Ghanaians have earned the right for peaceful democratic existence. Unfortunately, a party leader who is enamoured of the 1966 coup now threatens this prospect. The romantic notion that February 24, 1966 was indeed the "glorious revolution," must be buried. Nothing good came out of it. February 24, 1966 wasn't about change. Like the tornado that promised rain but left wreckage in its wake, it transformed Ghanaian institutions the worse.
February 24 was beneficial in a narrow partisan sense. It was the event that gave the UP, the parent party of the NPP, the chance to power in 1970. However, it must be remembered how quickly General Acheampong, overthrew Dr. Abrefa Busia's regime in 1972 with another coup. For almost 20 years after, army officers ruled Ghana.
The irony, therefore, is not hard to miss. The NPP (UP), one time victim of a coup, has her chairman glorifying a coup instead of wondering: "What if a similar coup overthrew the NPP government today, should I consent or appeal to the public for support against it?" I suppose his rallying cry against that coup would then be based on the rationale that "some coups are justifiable and others are not!" How he would explain the difference is beyond the imagination of this writer now.
But what a precarious time it is to choose to glorify a coup! Recently, the coup in Cote d'Ivoire, a border country with Ghana, exposed for one more time the delicate hold democracy has on the political process in Africa.
Regardless of the grievances of the coup makers Cote d'Ivoire, they are brutally tearing that country apart. February 24, 1966 did not protect Ghana's interest either, because the key coup makers, Afrifa and Kotoka, never understood what was at stake. With the help of hindsight and the present tussle between the NPP government and Valco over electricity prices, some Ghanaians may understand the simple reason that led to Nkrumah's overthrow.
Chairman Esseku should try to connect the dots between Valco's influence and Nkrumah's ouster; it will help him to understand how fraudulent the reasons given for the 1966 coup were.
First, to answer questions about what went wrong in Ghana prior to 1966. Thirty-five years have gone by and Ghanaians have not reversed what they thought went wrong, but have, indeed, destroyed many of the things that went right! Perhaps, a bit of political courage and a peaceful process could have accomplished more than the upheaval and violence that February 24, 1966 unleashed.
Second, was Nkrumah a dictator? Not according to the preceding political climate of the time. His powers were not even close to that of the colonial governor before him, but you would never know this from the coup apologists. Read the 1954 constitution of the Gold Coast, and you would notice that the powers of the governor were exactly what Nkrumah's were not. The governor had the last word in any constitutional matter. He could introduce any bill or motion to the Gold Coast Assembly and it had the same effect even if "the Assembly failed to pass such a bill or motion," should he so choose.
While Nkrumah needed a majority in Parliament to rule, the governor had no use or regard for the Gold Coast Assembly, except as rubber-stamp. However, there was not a single military coup or attempt against the governor's life by the Gold Coast security forces. He was marvellously protected by the fact that he was (obroni) different. Obviously Nkrumah was one of us, a crab in a basket of many.
That Nkrumah's period was highly experimental was not enough to spare him from the harshest of attacks, including assassination attempts on his life. It is, however, necessary to state that in spite of the many assassination attempts, no one faced a firing squad during this period.
Third, Nkrumah was accused of abuses of power, including those of patronage, and cronyism. Well, governments that followed since were not free of these evils either, except Nkrumah's period was remarkably free of tribalism.
Fourth, repression of political opponents: The Nsawam prison was still in demand into the 90s because those who marched in to correct the system in 1966 found it useful to continue the tradition. More political prisoners were detained in Nsawam after 1966 than before.
Fifth, the charge of communism as used against Nkrumah by the West, and which the 1966 coup makers echoed, was only just that. Essentially, Nkrumah was an active pan-Africanist. Communism was applied to him only because he attacked aspects of capitalism that benefited the European economy in his attempt to unite Africa to fight against exploitation.
In spite of Nkrumah's efforts, Africa could not protect the Congo from the Belgians. Ghanaian soldiers went to the Congo to help and came back disgruntled.
Today, Ghanaian soldiers are ready to go to Cote d'Ivoire on a mission similar to that performed by our soldiers in the Congo. Would these soldiers come back bristling for a coup because President Kufuor sent them to a foreign country?
President Kufuor's recent peace effort on behalf of Cote d'Ivoire is commendable. It recalled similar efforts of Nkrumah's policy for Africa, which the 1966 coup undermined. The naïve soldiers did not understand why unity among African states was necessary. But the West, to its credit, understood.
To paraphrase the words of Geoffrey Bing, Attorney General under Nkrumah and a former Labour MP of United Kingdom, whatever Nkrumah did, "ineffectual or confused," he nonetheless represented a challenge for the West. For it was this challenge that caused the West "to mount such a powerful and sustained counter-offensive" against him.
Sixth, the charge of corruption: That is definitely a joke in the light of what has happened since. I refer any doubter to matters facing the Ghanaian courts today. The NPP is going after former officials from the NDC party with mega-charges of corruption.
Seventh, the charge of mismanagement of the treasury. A primary justification for 1966 was that in 1957, at the time of independence, the British government bequeathed Ghana a treasury of 180 million pound sterling, kept in Britain, and that this had been squandered by the time of the 1966 coup.
That the British accounted only for paltry 180 million pound sterling after some 60 years of absolute rule should have been the biggest scandal. That the soldiers did not confront Britain after the coup for the loss of some 60 million of this amount, through bad investment practices, should make the courage and patriotism of these men suspect. However, that this amount was in British coffers while needed projects in Ghana went unfunded before independence should have sparked several rebellions.
Instead, Ghana's reserve in Britain became useful as a trap for Nkrumah; a set-up engineered to trigger discontent in simple minds and the excuse for a coup. Withdrawals to finance projects became a march towards insolvency as cost accountants of the coup deliberately failed to factor in long term benefits from massive projects like the Akosombo Dam, Tema Harbour, and township, and others the reserve funded through Nkrumah's development plans. Consequently, all the major projects under Nkrumah were confined to the category of "white elephants" for posterity.
Today the abuses in government, real or imagined, are still present. It is time to pause to ask what the February 24, 1966 coup corrected before a malcontent soldier finds Esseku's defence a cue for another coup.
No person in Ghana can honestly accuse Nkrumah of insincerity in his effort to invest in the future of Ghana and Africa. He made mistakes, as you would expect of a pioneer. However, the gains that were made under him could have helped Ghana, but they were truncated by the February 24, 1966 coup. That coup went on to change the fabric of Ghanaian society and to damage the discipline of her soldiers. Our best hope today should be that the peaceful transition the NPP inherited sticks, so that Esseku can insist that his party gave the democratic process in Ghana stability under his stewardship.