In early March, thousands of Ghanaians hit the streets of their West African nation to celebrate a truly momentous event - the 50th anniversary of its independence from Britain.
On March 6, 1957, Africa's Gold Coast became Ghana, the continent's first Black state to break the shackles of colonial rule, a bloodless handover of power that set off a wave of independence worldwide.
By 1960, 17 more colonies gained independence, and Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah emerged as one of the most influential Pan-Africanists of the 20th Century. The independence campaign coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement among African-Americans trying to break free of oppression in the South. Both movements fed off the success of the other.
"For years and years, Africa has been the foot stool of colonialism and imperialism, exploitation and degradation. From the north to the south, from the east to the west, her sons languished in chains of slavery and humiliation, and Africa's exploiters and self-appointed controllers of her destiny strode across the land with incredible inhumanity without mercy, without shame and without honor.
But these days are gone and gone forever. And now, I, an African, stand before this august assembly of the United Nations and speak with the voice of peace and freedom, proclaiming to the world the dawn of a new era," Nkrumah told the United Nations General Assembly in 1960, according to a transcript of the radio show 'Democracy Now'!
Born near the Ivory Coast border, Nkrumah was educated in Ghana and left the country for college in the United States, where he met Marcus Garvey and W.E. B. DuBois, who he conferred citizenship upon as president. He became prominent in the Pan-African movement in the United States and Britain, which influenced his vision and helped frame his movement when he returned home in 1947.
Educated elites had formed a political party they wanted Nkrumah to lead, but they were more interested in keeping what little power they had than gaining independence. He then launched his own party - the Convention People's Party, and with the rallying cry, "Independence now!", unified a nation. That brought him prison time, but it was too late for the colonial government to stifle the independence cry: It held elections, in which Nkrumah won by a landslide. In 1952, he was appointed prime minister, and, by 1957 Ghana came out from under the British Crown. But Nkrumah realized that Ghana's independence would have little meaning if the rest of Africa didn't follow suit.
"He was convinced that the only way forward for Africa is African continental unity … It also means that the African diaspora would have the right to return and to have African citizenship, if they so wish," observed son Gamal Nkrumah on Democracy Now!
Nkrumah also had a "meeting of minds" with Malcolm X in which both were convinced the "only way" forward was for Africans and displaced Africans to band together. "It is this vision of the two men, that the most important thing is the networking of oppressed people, and the unity is paramount to the success of the struggle," the younger Nkrumah noted.
Nkrumah also started industrialization in Ghana, which he believed vital to breaking the nation's economic dependence on the West, by building the costly Akosombo Dam and Tema Harbour - at the expense of the nation's cash crop -- cocoa. At the time, Ghana was hardly a Shangri La for individual freedoms: Nkrumah declared himself president for life and imposed laws allowing imprisonment of citizens for up to five years without trial and making strikes illegal.
Seemingly authoritarian actions brought international sanctions that, coupled with a collapsing world cocoa market, undermined the country's economy, paving the way for a CIA-backed coup in 1966.
Since then Ghana underwent successive military coups until 1981 when Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings led, suspending the constitution and banning political parties. In 1992, it veered back to a democracy: Rawlings was freely elected that year and in 1996 succeeded by John Kufuor, now in his second term.
Despite some detours, Ghanaian democracy has stood the test of half a century. It's an achievement that we should all celebrate.
Much like the civil rights movement here, it is far from perfect but on the road to the realization of high hopes Nkrumah had for it.
Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.
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