Thu, 22 Apr 2010 Feature Article

That day when Nkrumah was overthrown

First president of Ghana Kwame NkrumahFirst president of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah

It was a Thursday, a normal school day like any other. We woke up and prepared for school. I cannot remember if we had our Akasanoma radio then or if my parents bought one later. Maybe it was at school that morning that I first heard of it. The teachers had huddled around in groups discussing it. Some of the pupils too were saying something to that effect – that Nkrumah had been overthrown. As little kids not even in our teens, we didn't understand it. They talked about a coup d'état, a word we had never heard before. They said Nkrumah was no longer the president of Ghana. But that was unthinkable. It just couldn't be! There was no place in our childish minds for a Ghana without Nkrumah. And so, when the teachers assured us that it was not true, and that he had only travelled and he would come back and continue as President and things would be as they always were, we believed them.

But things had changed and Ghana would never again be as we had known it. Never! The day at school wore on and it was becoming clearer and clearer that Nkrumah was no longer the president in Ghana. Our childish hearts sunk in confusion. How could a man whom many of us had never seen before but had known so well no longer be what we had always known him to be? For us, Nkrumah was everything. He was in the newspapers every day. His name was mentioned on the news every day.

My own parents were not very political so the reaction at home was muted. My school teacher father, who hated politics like the very plague, never said anything to us kids. We had to struggle ourselves to make sense of things. But out there in town, people started jubilating. It was true that something monumental had happened in our country. The CPP stalwarts, including the DC, had disappeared. They were rounding up people.

As children, we didn't know what this really meant. We didn't have the capacity to consider the implications of the man's policies for us children. It was only several years later, as an adult, that I would look at things differently. Today, I remember when our parents had to buy text books for us. The Ministry of Education gave out a list of books to be bought by parents. You went to the Methodist or E. P. Book Depot or Reliance Bookshop to buy those books. Then they said it was now free education. I will never forget that day in Primary school when the first government issued books arrived. The whole class jumped up, shouted and beat on our desks in sheer ecstasy. We were supplied with fresh textbooks and school materials. The bottles of ink (Lion Ink) were removed straight from their cartons with the sawdust still on them. Every pupil received one each. We still wrote with fountain pens then. Ball point pens were scarce and were, anyway, forbidden because they would spoil our handwriting. We were supplied with pencils, penholders, erasers and even blotting paper. The vehicles went around all villages and towns in Ghana supplying all these materials to all students free. There was also free health care. A new health centre opened in town. You didn't spend a pesewa to have your wound dressed or get some tablets for your malaria. The country could afford all these things. We were then only six million Ghanaians and there was obviously a place for everybody. (I can't imagine we are now 23 million!). Many of the names you heard at the health centre were Togolese or Nigerian names but nobody asked where they came from. Everybody got a treatment.

The headteacher of my Primary School, a CPP functionary and one of the organizers of the local Young Pioneers (YP), was increasingly infusing YP practices into our daily assembly sessions. There were “flag bearers” who stood at attention in front of the school with little Ghanaian flags planted on the ground in front of them. We sang the national anthem – the one that asked us to lift high the flag of Ghana (as kids whose English wasn't very good, we sang something more like: “Liifa de fla or Ghaaana”). Some people said the headteacher was trying to let us recite the YP pledge – the one with the socialism, Nkrumaism and all the other –isms that we didn't understand. With our tiny hands on our young hearts, we would pledge every day to be ready to surrender the sovereignty of Ghana for the total unification of Africa. Never mind the fact that we didn't understand what the word “sovereignty” meant. We mumbled it all the same. Then the school band would strike and we would march in lines to our various classrooms singing “Ghana – Guinea – Mali solidaaarity; And the union made them strong”. Variants of this ritual were enacted at morning assemblies in all schools in Ghana. Oh, we also paid a shilling each for the red YP scarves. The day they arrived, we were very happy. They were manufactured in China.

The YP idea was meant to “…instil into the youth of Ghana a high sense of patriotism, respect and love for Ghana as their fatherland”. But everything was built around the personality of Nkrumah. It was “Nkrumah is our messiah”, “Nkrumah never dies”, Nkrumah this, Nkrumah that, Nkrumah everything. It was very political and many parents, including mine, refused to let their children take part even though the pioneers received everything free.

It was also the time they were changing the text books. It would no longer be the Oxford English Reader, the one with Sam Danso, the lorry driver. There were new readers that were more in tune with the new Ghana. But in Middle School, we still read the Red Book and the Blue Book and, in Form one, an additional one with a green cover with the story of Guy Fawkes. Also in Form One, a supplementary version of the autobiography of The Great Leader was required reading. Even today, I can still recollect some of the stories in the book beautifully illustrated with coloured drawings – his mother carrying him and crossing a stream, Nkrumah teaching as a pupil teacher was so tiny he had to stand on a box to write on the black board, and Nkrumah in Pennsylvania as a poor student who had to collect coal falling off the truck to survive. All these stories made such a mark on our impressionable minds.

The original version of his autobiography was titled “Ghana: The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah”. Even the very title reveals his relationship with the nation. The words of the young Louis XIV could very well have been said by Nkrumah too - L'état? c'est Moi! The state was Nkrumah, and he was the state. His portrait (the one of him in the kente cloth) looked down on you in every government office and in every classroom. His effigy was on all the coins and notes. The one I remember most is the red one-pesewa coin at a time when pesewas were worth something. Daily Graphic cost two pesewas which some Ghanaians still called “tuppence”. The coins had the citation: Civitatis ghanensis conditor: Kwame Nkrumah. You were always reminded that this was the founder of the nation. His picture was on the commonest postage stamps. Many things were named after him. Not in the remotest village in Ghana could you miss this man, who was our president.

Out there in the country, the people would give him numerous high-sounding appellations and sing his praises every day. Kpandu Borborbor (at the time the best borborbor group in the whole world, no two ways about that) would sing: Ayeee, dor mawuwo, ne wodze Kwame yome, dor mawu wo oo – giving a cynical materialist twist to the messiah's admonishment of seeking first the political kingdom, upon which all other things shall then be added. And we all danced to the music. The youth would sing and call on all Pan African socialist students to rise up in staunch party loyalty and by the words of Kwame Nkrumah raise the battle cry and march on to the new Ghana land. And Nkrumah ruled. And he reigned.

And now they are telling us that this man is no longer President of the republic that he founded. How?

Then the NLC propaganda machine set to work with exquisite efficacy. At its height, it was vicious. It was aided in no small measure by the release of the pent up feelings of the againstfuo who had been seething with anger (and envy?) all these years. Now, they had a field day. Some of them had just been released from the prisons.

In the provincial town where I grew up, the grown-ups made a coffin for the man and carried it in a rowdy procession from one end of the town to the other. We the children also followed them, singing the anti-Nkrumah songs that were now in vogue. We called him names – something we dared not do before. Then the procession came back to the Post Office square where a huge bonfire was burning. They threw the coffin into it amidst wild jubilation. They fed the fires with his books, pictures, CPP paraphernalia and everything that had to do with him. This macabre ceremony was performed all over the country. A man, who was not yet dead, was cremated several times by his own countrymen who were determined to obliterate his memory.

But the man lived on in Conakry where he was broadcasting to Ghanaians urging them to rise up against their new oppressors. I never heard any of those broadcasts. I don't think many Ghanaians heard them but I would later read about them in his book “Dark Days in Ghana”. Then they told us that he was raising an army to invade Ghana but we never saw any army. They made up stories about him. They said he was pining away in Conakry crying for his lost Ghana: Oh my Akosombo, oh my motorway, oh my Tema Harbour, oh my Job 600. And we children believed that too.

The cartoonists also set to work giving us vivid depictions of the horrors of the man's regime. They drew him as a vampire bat feeding on the blood of Ghanaians. There was Nkrumah kneeling at the shrine of Kankan Nyame. A very popular one was that in which he asked us to tighten our belts from 1957 to 1966 and ghanaman had done that until he became emaciated. These drawings were made into black and white photos and sold all over the country. Grown-up people bought these photos and were looking at them and feeling satisfied. They showed them to us children too and we also looked at them. And everybody was laughing at Kwame Nkrumah.

Little children that we were, we followed wherever the wind was blowing. Now they told us that the once glorified leader was actually a villain. We believed that too. So when one year later Kotoka was killed, some of us children nearly wept. How could they do that to the hero who liberated us from the clutches of an evil man?

It must be admitted that it was not difficult to find bad things to say about Nkrumah's regime but in our enthusiasm to paint him black, we may have overdone it at the same time as we completely forgot all his achievements. This realization would dawn on us only much later when the euphoria created by his overthrow would die down.

Meanwhile, in Nigeria, the war clouds were gathering. The history books tell us Gen. Ankrah was taking an avuncular interest in the affairs of our big neighbours and invited the would-be combatants to talk peace at Nkrumah's Peduase Lodge. How Nkrumah would have loved to have been the one in that mediatory role! He loved such things. Wasn't he the great world statesman? Was he not on his way to talk peace in Hanoi when he was overthrown? Perhaps if he had stayed at home, he would have kept his job and our country's history would have been very different. The Nigerian coup happened on 15th January. They said Nkrumah had then said something against coups but added that if it became absolutely necessary for the army to take over, it should quickly hand over to civilians. Barely a month later he, too, was overthrown.

By the time of the handover to a civilian regime, Ghanaians had almost forgotten him. He was no longer an issue and a Busia government wasn't going to do anything to keep him on our minds. Then in April 1972, we heard that he had died in Romania. The man died far away without ever seeing his “beloved country” again. Busia had already been overthrown and would also spend the rest of his life in a second exile.

They said Acheampong was playing politics by bringing his body back to placate Ghanaians after overthrowing Busia. Acheampong had said something in his coup day speech about the army under the Busia regime losing “even the few amenities” it had enjoyed in the Nkrumah regime. But it was said that Nkrumah had always expressed the desire to be buried in his beloved Ghana and the decision to bring him back was a tremendous hit with Ghanaians.

And they came in their numbers to see him. I, too, now a brash teenager, was there in the queue. The lines were miles long but people waited patiently. All day long Ghanaians kept coming. There were buses from distant corners of the country. Some shed tears. Many came out of curiosity. But they all came to catch a glimpse of the mortal remains of this great son of the land they had loved so much and also despised so vehemently. But this time, out in the yard, there were no Young Pioneers marching smartly by or performing calisthenics. There were no members of the Workers Brigade in their khaki uniforms. There were no CPP stalwarts singing the party's battle song: “There is victory for us”, and there were no market women shaking their big bottoms as they danced to the Nkrumah songs (Obeye amame oo obeye amame, 'sagyefo bebaa…). It was a more solemn occasion. The coffin and the panoply were decked in the national colours. Ceremonially attired policemen stood in solemn attention around the stand. You went by and saw him only for a few seconds. It didn't look at all like him but even in death, this man's stranglehold on Ghanaians was strong.

This write-up is not meant to be an appraisal of Nkrumah. That has been done by better minds than mine and the debate over his ambivalent legacy may, perhaps, never end. Nkrumah was overthrown 44 years ago. He died 38 years ago. Many living Ghanaians were not born when he ruled. Today, it is clear that the good that he did was not interred with his bones and many (especially the young) idolize him. Even if some will continue reminding us of his dictatorial proclivities, it has remained true, after all, that NKRUMAH NEVER DIES!

Credit: Kofi Amenyo
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