Kwame Nkrumah was a Ghanaian nationalist leader who led the Gold Coast’s independence from Britain and presided over its emergence as the new nation of Ghana.
Kwame Nkrumah’s father was a goldsmith and his mother a retail trader. Baptized a Roman Catholic, Nkrumah spent nine years at the Roman Catholic elementary school in nearby Half Assini. After graduation from Achimota College in 1930, he started his career as a teacher at Roman Catholic junior schools in Elmina and Axim and at a seminary.
Increasingly drawn to politics, Nkrumah decided to pursue further studies in the United States. He entered Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1935 and, after graduating in 1939, obtained master’s degrees from Lincoln and from the University of Pennsylvania. He studied the literature of socialism, notably Karl Marx and Vladimir I. Lenin, and of nationalism, especially Marcus Garvey, the black American leader of the 1920s. Eventually, Nkrumah came to describe himself as a “nondenominational Christian and a Marxist socialist.” He also immersed himself in political work, reorganizing and becoming president of the African Students’ Organization of the United States and Canada. He left the United States in May 1945 and went to England, where he organized the 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester.
Meanwhile, in the Gold Coast, J.B. Danquah had formed the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) to work for self-government by constitutional means. Invited to serve as the UGCC’s general secretary, Nkrumah returned home in late 1947. As general secretary, he addressed meetings throughout the Gold Coast and began to create a mass base for the new movement. When extensive riots occurred in February 1948, the British briefly arrested Nkrumah and other leaders of the UGCC.
When a split developed between the middle-class leaders of the UGCC and the more radical supporters of Nkrumah, he formed in June 1949 the new Convention Peoples’ Party (CPP), a mass-based party that was committed to a program of immediate self-government. In January 1950, Nkrumah initiated a campaign of “positive action,” involving nonviolent protests, strikes, and noncooperation with the British colonial authorities.
According to historian John Henrik Clarke in his article on Nkrumah’s American sojourn, “the influence of the ten years that he spent in the United States would have a lingering effect on the rest of his life.” Nkrumah had sought entry to Lincoln some time before he began his studies there; on 1 March 1935, he had sent the school a letter noting that his application had been pending for more than a year. When he arrived in New York in October 1935, he travelled to Pennsylvania, where he enrolled despite lacking the funds for the full semester. However, he soon won a scholarship that provided for his tuition at Lincoln. Nevertheless, he remained short on money through his time in the United States. To make ends meet, he worked in menial jobs, including as a dishwasher. On Sundays, he visited black Presbyterian churches in Philadelphia and in New York.
As a student in the United States, Nkrumah proved successful, gaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and sociology in 1939. Lincoln then appointed him an assistant lecturer in philosophy, and he began to receive invitations to be a guest preacher in Presbyterian churches in both Philadelphia and New York. In 1939, Nkrumah enrolled both at Lincoln’s seminary and at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He gained a Bachelor of Theology degree from Lincoln in 1942, the top student in the course, and earned from Penn the following year both a Master of Arts degree in philosophy and a Master of Science in education. While at Penn, Nkrumah worked with the linguist William Everett Welmers, providing the spoken material that formed the basis of the first descriptive grammar of his native Fante dialect of the Akan language.
Nkrumah spent his summers in Harlem, a center of black life and thought. He found housing and employment in New York City with difficulty and involved himself in the community. He spent many evenings listening to and arguing with street orators, and according to Clarke,
These evenings were a vital part of Kwame Nkrumah’s American education. He was going to a university—the university of the Harlem Streets. This was no ordinary time and these street speakers were no ordinary men …The streets of Harlem were open forums, presided over [by] master speakers like Arthur Reed and his protege Ira Kemp. The young Carlos Cook, founder of the Garvey oriented African Pioneer Movement was on the scene, also bringing a nightly message to his street followers. Occasionally Suji Abdul Hamid, a champion of Harlem labor, held a night rally and demanded more jobs for blacks in their own community … This is part of the drama on the Harlem streets as the student, Kwame Nkrumah walked and watched.
Nkrumah was an activist student, organizing a group of expatriate African students in Pennsylvania and building it into the African Students Association of America and Canada, becoming its president. Some members felt that the group should aspire for each colony to gain independence on its own; Nkrumah urged a Pan-African strategy. Nkrumah played a major role in the Pan-African conference held in New York in 1944, which urged the United States, at the end of the Second World War, to help ensure Africa became developed and free.
His old teacher, Aggrey, had died in 1929 in the United States, and in 1942, Nkrumah led traditional prayers for Aggrey at the gravesite. This led to a break between him and Lincoln, though after he rose to prominence in the Gold Coast, he returned in 1951 to accept an honorary degree. Nevertheless, Nkrumah’s doctoral thesis remained uncompleted. He had adopted the forename Francis while at the Amissa seminary; in 1945 he took the name Kwame Nkrumah.
Nkrumah read books about politics and divinity, and tutored students in philosophy. In 1943 Nkrumah met Trinidadian Marxist C. L. R. James, Russian expatriate Raya Dunayevskaya, and Chinese-American Grace Lee Boggs, all of whom were members of an American-based Trotskyist intellectual cohort. Nkrumah later credited James with teaching him “how an underground movement worked”. Federal Bureau of Investigation files on Nkrumah, kept from January to May 1945, identify him as a possible Communist. Nkrumah was determined to go to London, wanting to continue his education there now that the Second World War had ended. James, in a 1945 letter introducing Nkrumah to Trinidad-born George Padmore in London, wrote: “this young man is coming to you. He is not very bright, but nevertheless do what you can for him because he’s determined to throw Europeans out of Africa.”
Nkrumah returned to London in May 1945 and enrolled at the London School of Economics as a PhD candidate in anthropology. He withdrew after one term and the next year enrolled at University College, with the intent to write a philosophy dissertation on “Knowledge and Logical Positivism”. His supervisor, A. J. Ayer, declined to rate Nkrumah as a “first-class philosopher”, saying, “I liked him and enjoyed talking to him but he did not seem to me to have an analytical mind. He wanted answers too quickly. I think part of the trouble may have been that he wasn’t concentrating very hard on his thesis. It was a way of marking time until the opportunity came for him to return to Ghana.” Finally, Nkrumah enrolled in, but did not complete, a study in law at Gray’s Inn.
Nkrumah spent his time on political organising. He and Padmore were among the principal organizers of the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester. The congress elaborated a strategy for supplanting colonialism with African socialism. They agreed to pursue a federal United States of Africa, with interlocking regional organizations, governing through separate states of limited sovereignty. They planned to pursue a new African culture without tribalism, democratic within a socialist or communist system, synthesizing traditional aspects with modern thinking, and for this to be achieved by nonviolent means if possible. Among those who attended the congress was the venerable W.E.B. Dubois along with some who later took leading roles in leading their nations to independence, including Hastings Banda of Nyasaland (which became Malawi) and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya.
The congress sought to establish ongoing African activism in Britain in conjunction with the West African National Secretariat (WANS) to work towards the decolonization of Africa. Nkrumah became the secretary of WANS. In addition to seeking to organise Africans to gain their nations’ freedom, Nkrumah sought to succor the many West African seamen who had been stranded, destitute, in London at the end of the war, and established a Coloured Workers Association to empower and succor them. Both the U.S. State Department and MI5 watched Nkrumah and the WANS, focusing on their links with Communism. Nkrumah and Padmore established a group called The Circle to lead the way to West African independence and unity; the group aimed to create a Union of African Socialist Republic. A document from The Circle, setting forth that goal, was found on Nkrumah upon his arrest in Accra in 1948, and was used against him by the British authorities.
From prison to prime ministry
In the ensuing crisis, services throughout the country were disrupted, and Nkrumah was again arrested and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. But the Gold Coast’s first general election (Feb. 8, 1951) demonstrated the support the CPP had already won. Elected to Parliament, Nkrumah was released from prison to become leader of government business and, in 1952, prime minister of the Gold Coast.
When the Gold Coast and the British Togoland trust territory became an independent state within the British Commonwealth—as Ghana—in March 1957, Nkrumah became the new nation’s first prime minister. In 1958 Nkrumah’s government legalized the imprisonment without trial of those it regarded as security risks. It soon became apparent that Nkrumah’s style of government was to be authoritarian. Nkrumah’s popularity in the country rose, however, as new roads, schools, and health facilities were built and as the policy of Africanization created better career opportunities for Ghanaians.
By a plebiscite of 1960 Ghana became a republic and Nkrumah became its president, with wide legislative and executive powers under a new constitution. Nkrumah then concentrated his attention on campaigning for the political unity of black Africa, and he began to lose touch with realities in Ghana. His administration became involved in magnificent but often ruinous development projects, so that a once-prosperous country became crippled with foreign debt. His government’s Second Development Plan, announced in 1959, had to be abandoned in 1961 when the deficit in the balance of payments rose to more than $125 million. Contraction of the economy led to widespread labour unrest and to a general strike in September 1961. From that time Nkrumah began to evolve a much more rigorous apparatus of political control and to turn increasingly to the communist countries for support.
President of Ghana and afterward
The attempted assassination of Nkrumah at Kulugungu in August 1962—the first of several—led to his increasing seclusion from public life and to the growth of a personality cult, as well as to a massive buildup of the country’s internal security forces. Early in 1964 Ghana was officially designated a one-party state, with Nkrumah as life president of both nation and party. While the administration of the country passed increasingly into the hands of self-serving and corrupt party officials, Nkrumah busied himself with the ideological education of a new generation of black African political activists. Meanwhile, the economic crisis in Ghana worsened and shortages of foodstuffs and other goods became chronic. On Feb. 24, 1966, while Nkrumah was visiting Beijing, the army and police in Ghana seized power. Returning to West Africa, Nkrumah found asylum in Guinea, where he spent the remainder of his life. He died of cancer in Bucharest in 1972.