The politics of a coup d’etat

Race and geopolitics in the 1966 coup d'etat that overthrew Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana.

Statue of Kwame Nkrumah defaced in the 1966 coup now in the forecourt of the National Museum of Ghana. Paa Kwesi Holdbrook-Smith stands at its base shouting J'Accuse at the statue of Lt. Gen. Kotoka one of the coup leaders. Image credit Jesse Weaver Shipley.

Fifty-three years ago, on February 24th, 1966, President Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader of independent Ghana and champion of pan-African unity, was overthrown in a coup d’etat led by senior Ghanaian military and police officers supported by British and American diplomats and intelligence officers who provided long-term planning, financing, and logistical aid. This anniversary is a chance to reflect on how a new black nation’s sovereignty was racialized and denied in the name of protecting economic investment and geopolitical position.

US ambassador Franklin Williams—one of the first African Americans to be an Ambassador—had only presented his credentials as ambassador on January 17th. The coup in Nigeria happened just two days before that. Before taking up his position, he exchanged private correspondences with friends bragging that he would soon be running the country. Just after the coup, Williams was reportedly seen driving his Cadillac to the Chinese embassy and gloating as the Chinese were forced to evacuate. Williams had worked with Thurgood Marshall in the NAACP. He called Nkrumah a friend; they were both alums of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He replaced William Mahoney who had had ongoing concerns about Nkrumah’s anti-American, leftist leanings. Mahoney and other diplomats and intelligence officers had been supporting and encouraging pro-American military and police officers to remove Nkrumah for years. But Williams’s associations with US intelligence and the coup were a more disturbing brand of betrayal considering Nkrumah’s pan-Africanism and his call for Ghana to be a haven for black artists, thinkers, and leaders. On January 22nd, he accompanied Nkrumah and Edgar Kaiser, President of Kaiser Industries Corporation, as they opened the Volta River Project, the crowning achievement of years of political and financial negotiation between Nkrumah’s government and US state and corporate interests that would provide the young nation electricity and an aluminum industry.

On January 28th an editorial in The Spark, a newspaper founded by Nkrumah, asked why the US would send an “Afro-American” ambassador to Ghana when they did not support racial equality in their own country and would surely not send a black ambassador to a European nation. There was speculation that Nkrumah saw his appointment as a sign of disrespect and felt that the US was sending a black ambassador to do their dirty work. Later, Williams denied having foreknowledge of the coup despite years of correspondence between officials in Washington and the US embassy in Ghana tracking the coup plotters actions. While Williams had praised Nkrumah upon his arrival, in the days following the latter’s removal, the former wrote to political and corporate interests around the world assuring them of Ghana’s stability and pro-American stance. Ambassador Williams vilified his former friend for his cult of personality, instability, and authoritarian leftist views. Propaganda spearheaded by Williams and the US Embassy promoted the false idea that the coup was bloodless and assured outsiders that the jubilations in the streets at Nkrumah’s removal were not staged. His descriptions of Nkrumah’s authoritarianism helped solidify this image in the global popular imagination.

The coup was supported, in the last instance, because Nkrumah was seen as a threat to Western economic interests as they feared he would nationalize resources. The Americans had invested a lot in the Volta Dam and felt that if this project did not succeed, they would lose money and international credibility. They wanted the project completed while minimizing Nkrumah’s power. US foreign affairs officials interpreted Nkrumah’s actions in the context of Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, the subsequent Soviet funding of the Aswan dam and the more recent 1964 Panama Canal crisis that threatened American control of the waterway. Nkrumah’s sponsorship of anti-imperial causes around Africa was understood by Western powers as destabilizing rather than supporting freedom, that purportedly American value. Nkrumah’s role as a key member of the non-Aligned Movement—which aimed to chart a viable third way—could only be seen by binary-thinking Cold War politicians as anti-Western. America’s self-image was fixated on itself as global heroic savior. So, officials were outraged when the Ghanaian press began printing stories critical of American policy in Africa and anti-American rallies were held in Ghana in 1964 and 1965. The final straw was Nkrumah’s publication of Neo-Colonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism which declassified documents show US operatives carefully reviewed as if they were nervous first-year literature grad students. They judged that it revealed Nkrumah’s irredeemable hostility to US interests and penchant for Marxism-Leninism.

The British and Americans did not seem particularly concerned with the issue that preoccupied many Ghanaians namely the Preventive Detention Act (PDA) which gave Nkrumah the power to imprison people suspected of plotting against him without due process. Nkrumah was convinced the CIA was trying to remove him and that they were behind some of the violence and multiple assassination attempts against his life, which he used to justify his implementation of the PDA. US officials categorically denied clandestine CIA involvement when Nkrumah pleaded with them to support African peoples’ sovereignty and self-determination. Issues of rights and freedom seemed to be of little concern to these foreign powers except when they affected public perception or their self-interests.

US foreign policy in Africa was primarily driven by anxiety about the threat of Soviet and Chinese interests; Africans became cyphers, illegible except in how they could help unravel communism. US foreign affairs and intelligence officials discussed using psychological warfare to isolate Nkrumah and turn public support away from him. It is striking that mid-level US and British agents felt they had the moral and political right to assess a Ghanaian regime’s right to exist. US and British agents were monitoring and in constant conversation with and about various coup plotters for several years before the actual overthrow. Indeed, the US and the British were competing with each other to have the upper hand with any potential new regime. The lives and interests of people—particularly black people—in a purportedly sovereign country were insignificant. In the brief conversations US President Johnson had with his advisors on foreign policy in Africa, Ghana almost doesn’t come up, instead Johnson talks about “Africa” writ large and fighting in Congo is discussed in the same breath. Words like “threat” and “instability” pervade conversations. He does not seem to mention the specific names of places or people. Western leaders often left the details to mid-level diplomats and intelligence officers who they trusted to take actions that directly affected the sovereignty of other nations. After years of cynical observation built on racist assumptions of black leadership, it seems US leaders made the decision to support the overthrow of Nkrumah with a few indirect statements; it was not a deliberate and public declaration of hostility but an off-hand gesture made by a President with his advisors given tacit support for actions that shattered the lives of millions. Johnson seemed to believe his advisors that Nkrumah was a threat despite Nkrumah’s bi-weekly meetings with Ambassador Mahoney, his explicit support for foreign investment, his completion of the Volta Dam with American investments ahead of schedule, and nuanced descriptions of African Socialism as something unique from authoritarian models. The US state empowered a few dissident soldiers to overthrow a leader of a sovereign nation struggling to carve a new path out of the rubble of the British Empire, in the midst of a violent ongoing Cold War being fought on other people’s land.

The planning of a coup to overthrow the leader of a new, sovereign nation in the name of protecting a relatively small investment is terrible. But in some measure what is more horrific is the off-handedness with which this violence was perpetrated. This casual disregard for other people, is why we must counter representations that dehumanize black peoples. Popular, historical, and social analytic frameworks are built on and naturalize structures of racial hierarchies in which non-Western lives, black and brown citizens, become commodities, material vessels for enhancing the power and wealth of a few, mostly white global elites. Racial hierarchies are legitimized such that they justify dismissing peoples and their histories rather than seeing them as humans and citizens with strengths, vulnerabilities, hopes and desires.

In the post-independence era, there were numerous coups d’etat around the world from Latin American to Asia to Africa. To investors, political observers, and the popular press, coups have been seen as signs of the instability and internal failures of recently independent post-colonial states. In fact, the roles of Western powers—as well as communist bloc countries—in fostering coups such as the February 24th, 1966 overthrow of Nkrumah show how racialized ideas of sovereignty and political agency destabilize new regimes. Western involvement in coups has not just been in military actions but rather has entailed a whole series of ongoing interventions that destabilize countries. The very language that UK and US foreign affairs, state department, and intelligence officers use for assessing stability and loyalist is profoundly racialized in assuming non-Western peoples as incapable of managing their own affairs. In purportedly keeping track of independent states, Western powers assumed the moral right to surveillance and judgement. This ongoing espionage and diplomatic work were done by mid-level operatives who reported back to higher officials in London and Washington with little knowledge of or interest in Africa or Africans except as strategic pieces in a Cold War. It established secretive conditions that underlay supposedly open diplomatic ones; long-term policies create the conditions of possibility for coups.

Coups are seen as internal struggles, manifestations of a people who desire regime change. But often they are fostered by and legitimized from the outside and, then, attributed to local instability. People think coups are sudden sharp actions, but they are actually built on long term processes of destabilization and the doubts established by the political and economic pressure placed on nations like Ghana that are caught in the desire of Cold War adversaries to control geopolitical orders, financial networks, and natural resources.

Further Reading