Since Dr. Kwame Nkrumah's official election as the greatest African of all
time, and even more so this year because of the globally reported Golden
Anniversary celebrations, many Ghanaians, whenever they encounter other
Africans on the continent or in the Diaspora, feel increasingly under
pressure to admit to guilt over the overthrow of Nkrumah, better known as
The impression has been created that Kwame Nkrumah's travails reflects the
biblical saying: ''a prophet has no honour in his own country''. We
Ghanaians, according to this view, rejected Nkrumah's ministry while the
rest of Africa, and eventually the world, recognised his genius and hailed
him as a visionary and seer. The recent outpouring of affection,
admittedly posthumous but touching all the same, has been interpreted as a
deliberate or subconscious attempt to atone for our sins and make amends,
even though the general consensus is that we still have a long way to go.
Honouring the great amongst our ancestors should not require lengthy
justifications; the accusation usually is that we don't do it often
enough. But it goes without saying that adulation that comes from guilt is
different from one that comes from true admiration. The former sometimes
borders on superstition; the latter allows for critical, thoughtful,
tribute which is often a foundation for learning from role models.
So we want to examine, albeit briefly, the historical record for clues as
to who betrayed Osagyefo, and having done so to try and determine what
important insights we can draw to aid all of us as we seek to transform
the legacy of Nkrumah, and indeed of all the great and good of Ghana's
past whose influence went beyond these shores, into a blueprint for
plotting Ghana's position in Africa and maybe even the world.
Let us begin with one of the episodes most often cited by those who hold
that Africa embraced Osagyefo to the shame of us unfaithful Ghanaians.
When Nkrumah's government was overthrown in his absence he found himself
stranded in Beijing, virtually homeless. What is worse, the Chinese had
cancelled the rest of his peace-building mission, and were keeping him
strictly quarantined from all the other guests, for to their oriental
sensitivity he had become an embarrassment. His ideological comrade Sekou
Toure of Guinea promptly extended a warm invitation to Osagyefo and upon
the latter's arrival in Conakry even made him co-President for a brief
time. Sekou Toure was of course, together with Modibo Keita and Nkrumah, a
member of the ideological triumvirate that through such programs as the
Ghana-Guinea-Mali union strove to forcefully promote a federalist plan for
Sekou Toure's action appears as an indictment on Ghana's national
conscience when viewed broadly. But as the memoirs of those closest to
Nkrumah, such as June Milne and Erica Fowell, have revealed, it is not as
rosy as all that. For Sekou Toure was a slightly paranoid sort of person.
Yes he did shelter Osagyefo in a villa, Syli house, but he forbade casual
contact between his guest and his country folk with the sad result that
the villa literally went to pieces around the great deposed president. The
water soon stopped flowing, but plumbers weren't allowed in, and then the
lights went out too. The furniture was in tatters and the paintwork simply
putrid by the time Nkrumah's gilded captivity ended.
Despite Nkrumah's failing health, Toure wouldn't consent to his being
flown out of the country. He insisted that Guinean doctors could do the
job even though it was painfully obvious that the only job they were doing
was shooting their patient full of ineffective medication. There is even
evidence to suggest that the treatment was actually worsening his health.
His family was not allowed to visit, and since he wasn't permitted to
leave the country either one can only imagine the psychological torment
the man must have undergone.
When finally Toure gave his consent and relaxed the surveillance he had
encased around his friend so Osagyefo could travel, it was to Socialist
Romania that he was sent. But even there Toure ensured that he had only
the barest minimum of material support. No wonder he never recovered from
whatever ailed him.
Every indication is that the Guinean strongman did not trust his Ghanaian
comrade. Both were intellectual colossuses of the African socialism
tradition and were certainly brothers-in-arms as far as ideology went, but
trust seemed somewhat beyond the relationship.
The trust and suspicion issue is interesting as they seem to have
underlain the reception of Nkrumah and his Pan-Africanist ideology across
the African continent. The louder he was hailed the deeper mistrust and
suspicion of him grew. Of all the African revolutionaries who learnt at
his feet or by his side only Mugabe and Uganda's Obote seemed to have been
Alhaji Sir Taffawa Balewa, Nigeria's post-independence leader described
Nkrumah's conduct of foreign relations from Accra as ''the madness in
Ghana''. He was merely echoing the disaffection the Nigerian political
elite felt about the state of affairs in Ghana dating back to Nnamdi
Azikiwe's famous bust-up with Nkrumah over the federalist/confederalist
argument when both men were pan-African student activists in London in the
late 40s. Azikiwe was a confederalist, which these days will probably make
him a ''regionalist''. He wanted Africa to unite step by step through
intermediate blocs. So he proposed a union of English-speaking countries
in West Africa after independence. Nkrumah of course will have none of
this. We all know the speech: ''Ethiopia will stretch forth its
hand…Africa Must Unite!''. He wanted a federal project or nothing: common
unity for all Africa's peoples regardless of colonial-imposed differences
This stance coupled with his emphasis on political unity instead of
economic cooperation generated much suspicion of Osagyefo's motives across
When the Congolese crisis flared up in the sixties, the opportunity
appeared for criticism of the Osagyefo doctrine to mount. Nkrumah,
alongside his Afro-Arab allies in the Casablanca grouping, backed the
pro-Lumumba rebels under Gizenga against Moise Tshombe the de facto ruler
of Congo. 13 former French colonies promptly banded together in Nouakchott
to undermine the Ghanaian position. They accused Nkrumah of sponsoring
terrorism and even of harboring expansionary ambitions. Togo's Olympio,
foaming at the mouth, condemned Nkrumah's alleged annexation plan for his
country and was joined in the chorus of denunciation by both Benin and the
Ivory Coast, with the latter exhibiting a band of guerrillas allegedly
trained in one of Nkrumah's jungle warfare schools.
Latter political historians have tended to dismiss this acrimony as simply
part of the neocolonial resistance in the face of African Socialism's
march, and as such nothing to do with the particular merits of Nkrumah's
doctrine of African unity. The facts however are that even ideological
comrades such as Nyerere viewed Nkrumah's dogmatic approach very
Nyerere's counter-reaction to Nkrumah's earnest disapproval of the
former's confederalist plan for East Africa bordered on contempt. He
heaped scorn on Nkrumah's popularly acclaimed title of ''Osagyefo''. He
described Nkrumah publicly as motivated solely by base motives of personal
grandeur, and expressed an uncharitable opinion of Nkrumah's doctrine as
one designed for the acclaim of some ''stupid historians in the future''.
To rub it in, he called Osagyefo petty and mischievous.
Osagyefo's soul mates abroad – the militant Trotskyites in Europe for
instance- seemed to have shared parts of this perception. Peter Sedgwick
the Communist commentator called Nkrumah's African Socialism an ''empty
gesture'' and denounced what he described as Nkrumah's suppression of the
student movement, something that in his view threatened the plural
character of the budding socialism in Ghana and thus was likely to pave
the way for it to become an elite tool of social control rather than a
movement for the emancipation of the masses.
Everywhere he turned Osagyefo appeared to be under pressure. Barring his
tactical genius it is impossible to see how he could have achieved any of
his foreign policy objectives. He effectively had to blackmail the British
Prime Minister by threatening to cancel a visit by the Queen to get the
former to persuade the USA to fund the Akosombo dam. Torn between Soviet
and Western interests, as a consequence of his Non-Aligned doctrine, which
effectively meant that the West considered him a dangerous communist while
the USSR and China could never fully trust him, he was reduced to shuttle
diplomacy. Russia was assisting him expand his presidential guard with a
view to creating a third counterweight to the national Army and Police
Service, but was at the same time at odds with him over Zimbabwe and
various aspects of the Congo question.
America was bankrolling his dam and at the same time bristling at his
antics in southern Africa. It is not surprising that the negotiations of
the Akosombo hydroelectric project's financing agreement were described by
Yergin and Stanislav as the most complex legal chessgame in history, at
least since Queen Marie's sale of Romanian bonds. In fact that complexity
has only recently been resolved with the closing down of Valco.
Just as it was foreign campaigns, surrounded in equal measure by glory and
opprobrium, that made Nkrumah ''Osagyefo'', it was what in the end undid
In the commentary about the causes of Kwame Nkrumah's overthrow, much has
been said about the CIA's complicity, but remarkably little attention has
been paid to what the insurrectionists themselves said. According to
(then) Major General Ankrah, the last straw that broke the Ghanaian
Command's back was Nkrumah's decision to send Ghanaian forces to face off
Ian Smith's scouts and commandoes in Rhodesia (which later became
Zimbabwe). This added to considerable concern about the conditions under
which Ghanaian service personnel were fighting in the Congo ostensibly to
safeguard a fellow African nation from neocolonial exploitation. The
problem of course was that the Congolese didn't seem to appreciate this.
Mobutu clearly viewed the Ghanaian contingent with exceptional unease. The
man may have been an ardent Africanist – probably the only African leader
to have tried to expunge every detail of colonial heritage from his
country – but Osagyefo's pan-Africanism seemed to him a bit too much to
swallow. Nkrumah's diplomats appeared blind to this reality, and so kept
pushing the military contingent into compromising situations, leading to
Similarly, to quell a growing plot to ensure the failure of OAU events
hosted in Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah poured over 4 million pounds – several
times the equivalent of the 10 million pounds recently spent on the Golden
Anniversary celebrations – into job 600 in a bid to demonstrate Ghana's
eligibility for such high profile events and as part of an effort to
showcase Africa's growing technical and material achievements.
Unfortunately, many economists, even those who today passionately endorse
Nkrumah's overall economic strategy, accept that this and similar patterns
of spendingccontributed to a growing national insolvency.
The history of Osagyefo Kwame Kofi Nkrumah's experiences in Africa, and
elsewhere, is altogether one of unrequited love. Sometimes, his political
brilliance and tactical genius notwithstanding, Nkrumah was idealistic to
the point of self-harm. Ghanaians certainly dealt him a raw deal when we
sent him to exile and set about methodically unraveling his legacy, but we
were singing as part of a continental chorus whose theme was the suicidal
implications of towing Nkrumah's doctrinal line.
Liberia's W.V. Tubman summed up the overwhelming consensus in this cynical
statement after Nkrumah's overthrow: "Nkrumah, Modibo Keita and others
forgot that their citizens could not eat their many Young Pioneer slogans
when hungry and wallowing in abject poverty." Sometimes, idealism however
earnest can only go so far.
Ghanaians kept faith with Nkrumah for close to 15 years. And contrary to
what many have claimed, his overthrow did reflect a modicum of national
sentiment. The assertions of tribal undercurrents are unsupported by the
facts. A simple roll-call of the chief plotters debunks that notion. Ocran
and Ankrah were Gas, Afrifa was an Ashanti, Harley, Deku and Kotoka were
Ewes, and Yakubu was from the North. And while it is true that the
aftermath of the coup cannot be said to have showcased Ghana at its best,
it was far less brutal than has often been said. The first family was
allowed to leave Ghana unharmed. Two Cabinet Ministers lost their lives,
but given the uproar it could have been more. 25 members of the
Government's protective detail were killed, but once again this must be
set against the background of a fully blown insurrection. Nearly all of
Osagyefo's staff was spared execution.
As Tubman's statement above shows the coup was hardly greeted with
denunciation on the continent. It is a myth that Africa embraced Nkrumah
after he had been betrayed by Ghana. In the end it was Osagyefo who
The principal lesson to draw from the Osagyefo's story therefore is not
the appropriateness of guilt or remorse; it is paradoxically an empowering
rather than depressing insight. Nkrumah's overall vision of a united
Africa was a glorious one but his doctrines about how to get there stood
in needless resistance to the consensus. Time has proved that his formula
is unworkable. Regionalisation and economic cooperation have won against
federalism and political union.
But it has been a pyrrhic victory. Remnants of the past tension still
undermine progress. They should not. The great man accurately foresaw that
African states are too small and too weak to be able to stand alone, it
was his suggested cure to this diseased condition that proved too bitter
to swallow. The diagnosis however still stands.
We must today work towards breaking the barriers of trade that straddle
the continent. We must throw out the corrupt customs and immigration
officers away from the border posts. It is a disgrace that there are no
direct air links between Ghana and many other West African states and
consequently that business people who do want to fly from one country to
the other sometimes have to transit through France! It is a blot on
Nkrumah's legacy that some telecommunication links between African
countries are still routed through Europe. Why is there no pan-African
intellectual property or patent regime? Why must African inventors patent
their ideas in Europe? Why are there so few pan-African health, safety and
sanitary frameworks so that our so called technocrats must continually
import en masse European models even when they do not have the remotest
link to our own circumstances?
To most of these questions, the answer can be found in the continued
suspicion about the market and the refusal to acknowledge its unmatched
ability to link individuals across frontiers. Sekou Toure famously
declared that capitalism is "an over-sophisticated pastime which we in
Africa cannot afford to indulge in". The truth is that centralist planning
is even more complex and unbearably difficult to administer. African
unionization has failed because for so long it was a centralist project
run by elites. Individuals had few incentives to get involved. To many on
the continent talk of continental unity is an elite hobby driven by
bloated gas from too much meat eating.
The greatest generator of incentives for individual effort and
participation that history has even known is the Free Market. We must seek
the economic kingdom of individual liberty before we embark on a search
for the political kingdom of common unity.
Therefore, while we accept Osagyefo's exhortation: ''Africa Must Unite''!
We must humbly also add: ''But First, Africans Must Unite''!
Bright B. Simons, is an Imani Non-resident Scholar with additional
responsibility for its external communications and development. Imani is a
think-tank based in Accra dedicated to researching economic trends to
glean practical public-policy insights for the benefit of government,
business and civil society in Ghana. Send him an email at