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From hero of independence through prophet of socialism to messiah of the one-party state. The carnage wreaked by the ideology that ascended to power after independence may stand for ever as the harbinger of evil in our present-day politics.

From hero of independence through prophet of socialism to messiah of the one-party state. The carnage wreaked by the ideology that ascended to power after independence may stand for ever as the harbinger of evil in our present-day politics.

Fifty-three years ago, on 24 February 1966, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of this country, was overthrown in Ghana’s first military coup d’état while on his way to Hanoi, Vietnam. Despite pervasive propaganda since then, alleging that the US Central Intelligence Agency inspired and funded the coup, it was a momentous event that brought many ordinary Ghanaians on to the streets to celebrate his fall.

It is not an anniversary that some would want to celebrate.

For Nkrumah’s supporters all over the world, nothing about the 1966 coup is worth commemorating. Everything about it, however, is worth remembering in order to learn important lessons as we struggle to build a multiparty democracy in this country. The carnage wreaked by the ideology that ascended to power after independence in 1957 may stand for ever as the harbinger of all evil in our present-day politics.


Nkrumah’s supporters deny there was any justification for the coup. The coup leaders and their supporters, however, insist the coup was necessary and came at the right time because of the maladministration of the CPP regime, its extravagant use of the country’s funds on prestige projects, the high incidence of bribery, corruption, nepotism and injustice, the suppression and detention of political opponents and the general disregard for the constitution.

The coup-makers’ aim simply was to restore democracy and relaunch the noble ideals of a truly republican country ‒ rule of law, property rights and multiparty democracy ‒ among the people of Ghana.

Well, they never did, fully. Our politicians since Nkrumah have operated with reckless disregard for individual freedom and the limited government that protects and sustain it.

The remnants of his supporters proudly recall the turbulent days of the 1950s when, so the story goes, Nkrumah came to the shores of this country and single-handedly started the historic struggle that rescued the Gold Coast from the colonialists. To them, Nkrumah was a leader par excellence who defeated not only the colonialists but also the “internal feudal forces” that opposed him for what he stood for.

That story is little more than a myth. Yet the myth persists today despite the evidence. It does so because if Nkrumah is assessed against all the regimes since his overthrow, it becomes clear that none of them has succeeded in solving our economic problems.

Nkrumah taught his Young Pioneers to believe he would never die. “Nkrumah never dies,” they learned during consciousness-raising sessions for the young members. His friend Sékou Touré, the then President of Guinea, echoed the message.

Yet how true it has become! Nkrumah taught Ghanaians at least two things. First, he taught us to like democratic socialism. Democratic socialism is about the state having democratic control of every single facet of the individual’s life. He made us believe in the power of government to solve all our problems.

Second, he made us to hate the free market and the power of individuals to solve their own problems, and to hate it with every fibre of our being. Unfortunately, the core of his state-led economic development ‒ with its dependence on foreign aid, higher taxes and state-sponsored socialist welfare ‒ remains a standard that most of our current leaders emulate.

Zero-sum game

Much of the intellectual legacy of Nkrumah is an anti-intellectual legacy. He taught the youth to sneer at the free market, at inconvenient facts or contrary interpretations, and thus to sneer at the intellectual process itself. Sadly, our debate and comments then, and now, reflect the dichotomy of political engagement in this country ‒ a dichotomy that is still ripping our democracy apart. Indeed, most people are losing faith in our democracy, which is crumbling amid increasing polarisation and demonisation of contrary ideas.

A half-century on, our politicians have discovered intrusion and vigilantism and raised the bar. Vigilante groups bestride our political landscape with impunity, beating, maiming and killing friend and foe alike. “Big government” central planning still leaves most citizens in a position of absolute dependency on the state: for an education, a job and a place to live. All opportunities for economic and social advancement, and selected benefits and privileges, are in most cases bestowed on those who are obedient to the state. Our society has become a hierarchical labyrinth of status, position and degrees of power, depending upon the individual’s place within the vast bureaucratic network of government planning.

In 1966, politics in Ghana had become a zero-sum game. High-level corruption was rampant and the whole economy was a shambles. Nkrumah preached equality and tolerance while celebrating hatred of rich men. We now preach intolerance of critics. Nkrumah and his cronies awarded themselves the title of “champions of the poor” while they appropriated their physical properties. Currently, our politicians claim to fight for the masses while they appropriate government funds with impunity. Nkrumah and his Convention People’s Party decried tribalism while supporting partisan hegemony. The politicians of today claim multiparty democracy while supporting partisan discrimination.

Swear to rule

Ghanaians need to learn the reasons why most of our policies fail. Nkrumah taught us wrongly. We are not poor because of the political party ruling. We are poor because we have denied freedom and opportunity to more people to pursue their own happiness. Everything about the CPP and its vision of liberation was a lie; everything the party advocated was cover for those lies. Moreover, everything they pushed for was the antithesis of our traditional way and our liberties.

The story to develop Ghana was a false front for the urge to rule. And “rule”, not govern, was what Nkrumah and his CPP did.

Looking over the political and economic landscape of what Nkrumah’s ideas produced, especially in the past 53 years, one might think that his name and legacy would be held in some contempt, as with so many other dictators elsewhere. But rather, at a time when 20.6 per cent of our people are not expected to survive into their fifties, 40.8 per cent have no access to health care, 31.4 per cent live below the poverty line and 78.4 per cent live on the equivalent of less than $2 per day, we see his ideas enduring, at times assuming the altered form of crony “identity politics”.

Victim mentality

Meanwhile, the acrimony, insults and mutual suspicion among the competing interests which started during the independence struggle continue unabated. Indeed, these strands still compete and interact to define our culture and politics, and for many the main purpose of politics remains to grasp power for personal enrichment.

Now more than ever, the groups are closing ranks in loyalty to their side and anyone who stays in the middle is shunned. Our leaders continue to try to convince us that the villain of the story is each other and the other side’s culture. In this condition, we hide from our true nature.

That is not our story. That is not who we are.

Our ancestors lived independent lives outside the control of their chiefs. Every individual worked for his or her money. They thrived in an environment where consensus-building was the norm. In the past and in the present, calls for total victory ‒ in which one side rules continuously and the other group is irrelevant ‒ damage the expectation of true democracy and continued peaceful exchange of power.

Nkrumah succeeded in imposing his will on this country. So did Jerry John Rawlings and all those who have tried to capture our individual will and push all of us to adopt a siege/victim mentality.

Less contempt

Nkrumah’s latter-day disciples often underestimate the importance of private ownership.

As a nation, we still experience a steady growth of the state in our individual lives. Our leaders continue to weaken mediating institutions, making the state an ever more powerful influence in our private lives. We forget to our detriment how hard it is for a country to develop without the benefits of competition in a free-market economy.

Ironically, critics of Nkrumah’s reign and the socialist tradition are no strangers to calumny and occasional slander; their arguments are met with sneers, rather than critical engagement.

Would J B Danquah and all those who from the beginning vehemently opposed one-man rule and the tyranny of a dictatorial presidency say, “We told you so”? Is declining virtue, the grasp of unbridled power, handouts and economic regulation the cause of Ghana’s declining freedom?

Some of us believe that we have met the enemy, and the enemy is us. In the long run, limited government with freedom works. We need to figure that out.