Kwame Nkrumah and African Unity

Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972)

by Gyekye Tanoh

On May 25, it will be 53 years that the African Union was formed, as the Organisation of Africa Unity. As xenophobic attacks present an ugly phenomenon of poor Africans killing and maiming other poor Africans, Gyekye Tanoh of the International Socialist Organisation (Ghana), a sister member of SWL, proffers perspectives on one of the founders of the OAU with a radical view of African unity

Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972)
Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972)

A mass movement led by Kwame Nkrumah won Ghana its independence in 1957. That year Nkrumah also declared, “The independence of Ghana is meaningless until it is linked with the total liberation of Africa.”  These days it is almost impossible to imagine the electrifying energy that spread across Africa following Ghana’s independence. Nkrumah was revered as the movement’s pre-eminent figure.

Today Africa is ever more the site of new imperial scrambles for its strategic natural wealth – especially its oil. Nkrumah’s aspirations for “total liberation” seem further away than they did then. But it is the unfinished challenge of Africa’s liberation that causes his words and actions to resonate among millions in a similar way to the 1950s and 1960s, the high points of the great anti-colonial transformations.

Those who look to Nkrumah’s ideas today are opponents of the incessant wars on terror. They are committed anti-capitalists. They are with the global justice movement against the corporate destruction of the world. However, they do not necessarily recognize the key role of the organised working class in achieving socialism.  Liberation will only come if we can work together.



That Nkrumah is still remembered as an uncompromising fighter against imperialism explains why he was considered such a dangerous opponent by the British and US governments. From the early to mid 1960s there were frenetic meetings, plans and plots between the two countries to contain and if possible eliminate Nkrumah.

A White House meeting on 12 February 1964 between British prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home and US president, Lyndon B Johnson, to discuss Nkrumah’s removal was typical. Two years after the meeting Nkrumah was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup. A White House memo commented on Johnson’s pleasure over the Ghana coup, describing it as “another fortuitous windfall. Nkrumah was doing more to undermine our interests than any other black African. [In contrast], the new military regime is almost pathetically pro-Western.”

Nkrumah’s politics were rooted in the Pan Africanism that gained strength after the Second World War. Nkrumah succeeded in mobilising hitherto marginalised workers, farmers, demobilised war veterans, students, small traders, teachers and junior professionals into a decisive anti-imperialist force.

In January 1950, Nkrumah’s new party, the Convention People’s Party (CPP), joined the Trades Union Congress to launch “Positive Action”, the first general strike in Gold Coast’s history. Positive Action effectively broke the back of the colonial order, launching Nkrumah and his new party into a stunning electoral victory within a year. Nkrumah contested the election from a prison cell and won an incredible 98.6 percent of the vote in central Accra.

Yet Nkrumah’s legacy includes failures that are yet to be decisively overcome by popular movements in Africa. When Nkrumah was overthrown in February 1966, there was no popular mobilisation in his support, and no resistance to the coup.

The political polarisation that he achieved during the independence struggle – which broadly reflected class interests and politics – was seen to be unnecessary, even dangerous, once independence had been attained. Now the “national interest” prioritises economic development and monolithic national unity over social justice.


When the Ghanaian trade unions launched a second general strike in 1961, it was accompanied by repression and 17 trade unionists were jailed for subversion. The TUC became incorporated into the ruling party, as did women’s and youth organisations.

This was a necessary outcome of the central role of nationalism in Nkrumah’s politics. As the leading black historian Manning Marable points out, Nkrumah’s “ideological perspective, which tended to devalue class divisions in African society, and emphasise the ‘masses’ as a transclass category” is what permitted him to work with the elite leaders. It also led him to see struggles from below that continued after independence as a manifestation of subversion.

This is the same formula that, for example, Robert Mugabe uses with rhetorical “anti-imperialism” and murderous repression at home in Zimbabwe. It is the formula all governments use with appeals for us all to work together in the ‘national interest’. But this only supports the rich elite and their friends against the interests of the working class and wider poor of society, and could also lead to xenophobic tendencies as we have seen recently in South Africa.  We as poor working people need to fight against these local elite as the best way of fighting back against their rich allies in Europe and North America, and not against poor “foreign” workers.

Despite Nkrumah’s contradictions there is one version of his politics of Positive Action that we can agree with. Socialists should take up the best of Nkrumah’s political heritage, where possible work with Pan Africanists – and be the most consistent fighters for Africa’s “total liberation”.



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