Kwame Nkrumah today

Yao Graham

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.

Arrival of President Kwama Nkrumah, to the Non-Alignment Movement conference, Belgrade 1961. Image credit the Historical Archives of Belgrade via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed.

Interview by
Anakwa Dwamena

One of the most important dates for the Ghanaian left is February 24, 1966, the day the country’s first president Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown. At this year’s commemoration, the Socialist Movement of Ghana organized an event around the reissuing of a book, The Great Deception. Published by the Socialist Forum of Ghana, it documents the role of the CIA in the overthrow of Ghana’s first president. 

This release is just one in a long line of recent books, articles, and documents that seek to turn our attention to that historic moment of triumph and then tragedy. The euphoria of independence, and the hopes for new beginnings were immediately supplanted by despair after the interests of external powers destabilized the nascent state. Susan Williams’s White Malice, reviewed in these pages, touches on this. So too does a new article from Declassified UK highlighting Britain’s role in Nkrumah’s overthrow. 

But why this moment? And what lessons should we take to make sense of the world we live in today? In an essay he published on the centenary of Nkrumah’s birth, Yao Graham, the coordinator of the pan-African policy and advocacy organization Third World Network Africa, and the chairperson of this year’s Nkrumah commemoration wrote:

One of the key lessons from Ghana’s development experience under Nkrumah is linked directly to his commitment to a pan-African solution to the challenges of under-development. Nkrumah’s works are replete with warnings about the limits of what small, “balkanized” African countries can do on their own. Faced with the absence of a larger political-economic unit he sought to transform the small economy and market of Ghana into an industrialized economy at a fast pace. The post-Cold War global economic framework has made the regional and continental even more key in any serious African project of economic transformation. 

I spoke to Yao Graham to make sense of the fight to use Nkrumah in Ghanaian domestic politics, and better understand how real the New Cold War in Africa is, and how it might impact Africa’s development trajectory. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.



In 2024, what is the utility of commemorating the day of Nkrumah’s overthrow? 



Remembering. Marking the birthday allows you to amplify his contributions. Reflections on the overthrow allows for discussion on the other side of it: his importance to us, in Ghana, in Africa, in the Global South, and why he was seen as a threat by the most powerful people in the West. His overthrow, being basically the abortion of an attempt to take control of Ghana’s fate and charting a course for all ex-colonial people in terms of an autonomous path of development. The historical context is easy to forget when you’re looking at it in 2024. But there was the Cold War that distorted the political space. 

The anti-colonial movement shared a lot with the political forces who created Eastern Europe and the colonial system was a very key pillar of a global system of exploitation. Anti-colonialism was itself an anti-capitalist movement. Not everyone in the Global South wanted to end capital in their countries, but the kind of capitalism that required that their futures, their wealth, be extracted for the benefit of others. There were common ideas of modernization in East and West: industrial progress, and a certain material quality of life. People in the Global South also wanted to go in that direction, but to make their own choices and make their own mistakes. You can see Britain today, what a shabby place it is; a miserable middle power, struggling for relevance. A far cry from the days of their colonial pomp with the resources from all of us. 

At Independence, what did Nkrumah say? Today we want to prove that the black man can manage his own affairs. This idea that you have autonomy, you’re going to have agency outside being a colonized people was a real threat. When Nkrumah decided unilaterally to support Lumumba, the Russians gave him planes to carry Ghanaian troops there. Who does this guy think he is?

When Nkrumah was overthrown, I was in class six [sixth grade], and the propaganda just to show that there was nothing, nothing absolutely worthwhile about what Nkrumah represented was enormous. Every day in the papers you saw headlines like “Communist saboteurs expelled from Ghana.” But those were training camps for people from the liberation movements across the continent. As a young person, you didn’t understand it fully.

It’s important on a day like that, to constantly remind people about the moment and also that imperialism is alive and well, today. The fact that Ghana’s President felt it necessary to go before Blinken and report Burkina Faso, you know, it’s indicative of how some African leaders feel they have to behave to survive.


We have this remodeled Nkrumah Museum which is frankly ideologically and intellectually confused about what it wants to do. Additionally, it has been built by the current government who are descendants of the political tradition that overthrew Nkrumah. This is another wave of people who would have opposed him in his lifetime taking advantage of him and his ideas. Not unlike what we see with Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States. Picking through all the uses and abuses of Nkrumah, what do you think is essential we remember him for in the context of Ghana’s current state of affairs?


Our countries are still locked in essentially the same relationship with the West that we had at Independence. We are still primarily commodity export-dependent economies. The idea of transforming a colonial economy and society fundamentally required a break from primary commodity export dependence and the social relations that it created in the country, as well as the subordinate relationship with the rest of the world. That task remains unfulfilled. 

Secondly, the fragmentation of Africa, along accidental lines determined by colonialism, means that many African countries in terms of optimality for economic development are too small: the markets are too small, and capital accumulation possibilities for them are not possible. Nkrumah’s vision about African Unity and integration to improve our ability to punch our weight in the world is still important. And then, there is the utilization of Africa’s resources for its people so that the development of Africa’s people can be on the same level of quality as other people. It is true that compared to 1957, a lot more people are going to school, we have more doctors, etc. But fundamentally, the structure of the economy, the challenges of development, and the inequalities remain. 


It has been 67 years. After Nkrumah we had Busia’s more conservative politics and economics, the military revolutionaries like Acheampong and Rawlings, we’ve given neoliberal free markets and democracy…


Electoralism. I think it is an important distinction.


Ok. But we are talking about still being trapped in colonial-era economics despite all these experiments. Are we saying that nothing has fundamentally changed?


Ending colonial rule across Africa (except for the SADR) represented an important change, creating new conditions for African agency. What policy vision have these various post-Nkrumah governments offered? What did they implement? In 1966, when Nkrumah was overthrown, two-thirds of Ghana’s export earnings came from cocoa, the rest of it was raw minerals. If you look at the vision that Nkrumah offered, it was really for the structural transformation of our economies. All the things people say now about his efforts at industrialization, etc., they identified the problem correctly. Mistakes may have been made in how they tried to solve them, but the first point is to have a correct identification of the problem you are trying to solve. 

 Post-Nkrumah governments have had a common attitude: to take Ghana’s place in the world as it is and undertake some amelioration rather than really seek a radical kind of transformation. And that radical transformation invariably would involve tensions and conflicts with the ex-colonial powers. Nkrumah is a very contested and controversial figure, you know, in the country’s history. A school kid asked me during a talk on Nkrumah that if Nkrumah was what you say he is, how come he was so controversial? I’d never had to answer a Nkrumah question to a child of that age, but basically, my point was that if you challenge something which is established the backlash is unavoidable. And in Nkrumah’s case, it became important to try to destroy anything positive about his legacy. 

 Speaking of the museum: there is no way any Ghanaian government can avoid the Nkrumah issue. But you can also change the representation: making him a tourist attraction as opposed to a political figure. And one of Nana Akuffo Addo’s most important projects is to reduce Nkrumah’s significance in our history. In terms of trying to insist even that the country’s true Founders Day is 4th August, the day that the UGCC [the political party Nkrumah broke away from to found the CPP party. The current president’s father was a member of the UGCC] was founded. He couldn’t do away with Nkrumah’s birthday as a holiday. But given the relationship between Nana Addo’s political tradition and the people who overthrew Kwame Nkrumah, it’s entirely understandable. If you read the close details of that immediate post- Nkrumah period, what is striking is that the members of key political and economic advisory bodies of the  National Liberation Council constituted a who-is-who of the United Party. 

In 1963 when the Americans were discussing for the umpteenth time what to do with Nkrumah, one of the things they talked about was whether Major General Joseph Ankrah, the deputy chief of defense staff, would make a good head of state. In 1966, Ankrah gets installed as the chair of the NLC. And you could see the kind of hand-in-glove relationship between the big powers who drove the coup and the people who they put in charge. Literally days after the 1966 coup, the demands that the IMF had been making on Ghana, which it had been resisting, were accepted.


You mentioned talking to this young person about Nkrumah. One question we hear people wondering about loudly is why haven’t we had another Nkrumah? What are we doing wrong that is preventing another Nkrumah from arising on the scene? I am personally less interested in a single messiah. I’m more curious what has happened with the people who were Young Pioneers in the Nkrumah era, the people who attended his Ideological Institute in Winneba etc. Where have the ideas and the values that were ascendant in those days gone?


I mean, they might have dissipated, but they haven’t disappeared. When you talk about Nkrumah, you are right, you run the risk of giving the impression this is all about one person. But the importance of Nkrumah was the fact that in the political moment, he was able to lead the building of a mass movement. The movement brought ordinary people onto the stage of history in a way that nobody has done since. 

Before Jerry Rawlings burst onto the political scene, and became, in my view, the second most significant leader in our post-colonial history, nobody knew him. The point is that leaders are made in the context of the needs that emerge in different periods. When we became student activists it was spurred by the mood of that moment. The same with some of us and our involvement with Jerry Rawlings, we supported him because we thought he would lead the country in a certain direction. When it didn’t look like he was going there, we broke with him and got imprisoned. 

If you listen to people and their discussions about their aspirations for themselves and for their society, their criticisms of what is going on, their dissatisfaction with the kind of leadership that they are getting you can distill a certain aspiration, a certain vision of the society in which they want to live. And a certain kind of expectation of leadership and the way they see society being organized. In that sense, the fact that people continue to talk about say, the role of the state in providing a certain quality of education, providing certain quality of social services may not be there as ideology; people may not even be aware of the genealogy of some of the things that they are talking about, but actually, the fact that people talk about their expectations, you have to ask when you go into Ghanaian history, which leader whose vision whose attempts at leadership and transformation reflected most closely some of the things that people talk about, today. 


I’ve been in touch with a former leftist student leader who led protests against Busia. He was telling me that when Nkrumah was overthrown, they didn’t go out on that first day to celebrate because they were worried that it was a false flag to catch opponents. So, there was this element of suppression that even young leftist students were suffering. How do we reconcile Nkrumah’s authoritarianism with all we have discussed so far?


Nkrumah’s government was authoritarian. But the important thing also is to look across Africa. Where was the democratic government on the continent? I’m saying this not to exonerate Nkrumah, but to put him in context. Because his Ghanian critics, particularly the political right, pushed this out. But at that same time next door was Houphouet-Boigny who was running a one-party state in Cote d’Ivoire. They were enjoying the support of the French, who were not allowing Francophone Africa to have political space. And you look around the countries that were celebrated by the West as models; they weren’t celebrated because they were democracies, but because they were in the pocket of the West. The authoritarian regimes that they opposed were the ones they saw as anti-Western. 

The other dimension is that when we talk about authoritarian regimes, it doesn’t tell us anything about development. The other things happening in a country. Mobutu’s authoritarianism collapsed Zaire. Eyadema’s authoritarianism collapsed Togo. Nkrumah’s authoritarianism is recognized as a weakness. But many people see there are many positive things about it. So, authoritarianism was a problem. But it’s also important to contextualize that. 

If you look at the violence that the opposition unleashed in this country, including several attempts to kill him personally, this has tended to happen in so many situations. If you take, say, Angola, Mozambique, and Nicaragua, as three countries seen as having anti-Western regimes, which were plunged into civil war engineered by the US and its allies. By the time the war was over, the society had become dominated by military culture. Regime survival led to the death of civil society in this broad sense; war everywhere leads to this kind of consequence. One of the things the political right in Ghana should take credit for is their contribution to creating the Nkrumah regime and its authoritarian expression because of the climate they fostered with their violence. 

But having said that, Nkrumah had an “I” streak. You read his speeches; he talks about I, I, I. If you don’t have an organizational culture where you encourage debate and also accountability of people in power, regimes very quickly become closed and intolerant. So, there was that side also, of the CPP. Which in a way also has to do with chieftaincy and other hierarchies that have a strong mark on political culture in this country. We’re in a situation where our citizens are culturally supposed to behave like subjects, even though the constitution gives us rights and equality. Most people’s instinct, for example, is to petition the presidents rather than demand he fulfill serious responsibilities. There is also the legacy of an authoritarian colonial state. You inherit a state whose reflexes are authoritarian, and you mix it up with having to respond to violence unleashed by the opposition: it would be shocking if you didn’t have some of the problems we saw with Nkrumah.


How do we then add to all this, the idea of the New Cold War taking place in Africa?


I think Nkrumah’s aphorisms, we are looking neither East nor West, we are looking forward is still applicable in the context of where we are today. China is a rising economic power, offering many possibilities away from a dependence on the West. In the same way that in the Cold War period some African countries looked beyond the West to see what they could get from those sources to advance their own development path. I think we need that. Now, there is a contest for global domination between a fading imperialism, which is the US, and China. The US has still got weapons and everything, but in economic terms and on so many fronts, is losing. This is what happens to empires. It is a kind of cyclical thing. 

The US made this calculation once upon a time: let’s cement the Deng Xiaoping liberalization agenda by allowing China access to Western markets, and by allowing China to join the WTO so that they become part of the global system, which we will dominate. They did that to serve their interests. They started allowing China to buy American Treasury bonds. And China at one point was the biggest creditor to the United States. The West used to take plane loads of businesspeople to go to Beijing to look for business: China wants to build new railways, we will supply it and so on, and big agreements were signed and celebrated back home as achievements. Apple exploited cheap Chinese labor for its manufacturing, and German auto firms’ biggest market was in China. 

If it is good for them, why is it not good for us? We too should ask what is in our interest in relation to China, or anybody else; we cannot become a partisan in a contest for global domination, when we are fighting underdevelopment. So, we make those choices. 

What we should be looking at, though, is to avoid a repetition of China becoming a driver of an intensification of our primary commodity export dependence, which is what has happened in the past 50 years. If you look at the period since 2003, quite a few African countries, which were not mineral exporters, have added minerals to their portfolio or raw materials that they are exporting. If China is going to make a difference and not be like the West, we should be interested in what alternative opportunities they offer in terms of industrialization, value addition, technology transfer, and so on. 

Russia is not a model. There are many lessons to learn from China, about how to transform your country. And the size of China, you see, as a big country with a large population also has lessons for Africa in terms of scale because our population is about the same. There are also lessons to be learned from how they leap-frogged. And although inequality is beginning to grow in China, China offers more lessons in development than the United States for us.


You suggest we can look to China for lessons, especially if the countries on the continent could work together as one big player. But in my admittedly limited understanding, the African Union despite its decades of existence has brought no tangible benefits to any African countries much less the people in them.


It’s a big challenge. Europe after the Second World War found a way to build unity, starting around the coal and steel pact among a few countries–coal and steel is at the heart of industrialization. But at the end of the day elite consensus is important. Not political parties, but the ruling elite. Of course, in China and the Soviet Union, they built it by having a single party in power. Although others have modeled it in different ways: in Singapore, you had the same party in power, in Sweden, the social democrats in power for more than 40 years. But an elite consensus across Western Europe after the Second World War is what built social democracy. Even as regimes went and came, they still had a certain kind of project. 

The thing about the African Union is that you can’t build continental unity by having your continental body financed by the EU, and other foreign powers. You have the individual African countries refusing to make the most minimum contributions to the structure. There is no way around it. When I talk about the elite, it is necessary to move them through pressure from society. Third World Network-Africa is a pan- African organization. Why? Because we focus on the common challenges in the African political economy, and the themes on which we work are areas which are best dealt with, through collaboration. First, we started working on structural adjustment, common issues. We had a pan-African thing about responses to structural adjustment. When we picked up the trade work, it was with the WTO in its early stages, when African countries were trying to forge common positions. At home, you quarrel with the government. But when we went to those international arenas, we would try to support them to forge common positions so that there’s an African voice in the international arena, because for too long other people have planned for this continent. Even though we are independent, you go to this arena and an African delegation is pulled into a corner and disrupts something which is in the collective interest of the continent. In West Africa, the European Union pulled Kufuor’s government and Cote D’Ivoire into a corner and got them to sign an economic partnership agreement with Europe, disrupting the common front that ECOWAS was trying to build. 

We’ve always seen the value of trade unions because they are mass membership. We’ve always supported the self-organization of those who are affected by the mining projects, so they can speak for themselves. And then we work with like-minded groups across the continent on the different issues so that there is a common position that African citizens and organizations can speak about. For example, when the African Union and UNECA started its work on the Africa Mining Vision, we spent quite a bit of our resources to bring trade unions and groups working on extractives to the table, so that citizens’ voices and their experiences could be part of the business of formulating the policies. By the time the Africa mineral governance framework was formulated, there was a substantial presence of citizens’ organizations and trade unions, and small-scale mining associations in the policy discussion. 

Our continental and regional bodies, and even our national governments have very weak mechanisms or even absent mechanisms for systematically involving citizens and their organizations in the policymaking process. This is why I’m talking about the importance of elite consensus. Citizens of course are the key source of the pressure. Like that moment in history, driven by the agency of citizens, that drove a wave for independence so strong that even the most pro-colonial people wanted an accelerated timeline to independence. We need that moment.

Further Reading