Nkrumah was the leading figure in the nationalist movement in Anglophone Africa, and arguably in the whole of black Africa . He was also the principal leader in the pan-Africanist movement, and the first president of Ghana. Although he was overthrown by a coup in 1966 and died in exile in 1972, his memory is still a powerful influence in many parts of Africa today. Born the son of a goldsmith in Nkroful in southwestern Ghana in 1909, Nkrumah belonged to the Nzima ethnic group. Educated locally, he moved to the USA for higher learning.
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There he received bachelor’s and higher degrees in sociology, theology and education, and was appointed to an academic post at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania. He was also elected president of the African Students Organization of the USA and Canada. During this time he was much influenced by the writings of Karl Marx, Gandhi and particularly Marcus Garvey, who was the major source for his pan-African beliefs. In 1945 he moved to England to study law, although he probably spent more time working for a variety of pan-Africanist organizations and editing the New African Magazine. In 1947 he returned to Ghana to become general secretary of the recently formed United Gold Coast Convention, a post to which he brought remarkable vigor. In 1948 he was arrested along with other UGCC leaders following serious rioting. After their release, major policy splits developed within the UGCC leadership, with Nkrumah favoring a much more radical, activist approach to pressing for the end of colonial rule. In 1949 he broke away to form his own Convention People’s Party (CPP), which rapidly developed into the major nationalist party in Ghana. It formed close links with trade unions and the urban working class . In the 1951 elections the CPP was the majority party, and Nkrumah became leader of government business, and then in 1952 prime minister. Following repeated election victories he retained this position at independence in 1957, and with the creation of the republic in 1960 he became president. After independence there were two distinct aspects to Nkrumah’s politics: the international and the domestics . On the international front he acted to inspire those Africans still under colonial rule. He worked ceaselessly but ultimately unsuccessfully to bring about a political union amongst the newly emerging states of black Africa, spending large amounts of Ghanaian money on this project. The creation of the Organization of African Unity in 1963, which represented a bare minimum of cooperation, was a disappointment for him, but he regarded it as a starting point for a more thoroughgoing union in the future. On the world stage he was the most significant African leader of his generation. In Ghana itself Nkrumah’s period in office was marked by economic incompetence and a frightening build-up of political repression and corruption. As early as 1958 he introduced a preventive detention act which permitted arrest without charge and imprisonment without trial. Many opposition leaders were victims of this act. Later he moved against all potential centers of opposition, including the trade unions, the judiciary, the universities and the traditional leaders. A rigid state censorship was introduced which resulted in the destruction of all parts of the mass media which were not totally supportive of himself. In 1964 all opposition parties were banned, and he proclaimed himself “president for life.” Throughout this period a massive personality cult was erected around Nkrumah as he acquired titles such as “star of Ghana,” “the redeemer” and “initiator of the African personality.” Increasingly surrounded by sycophants, he became cut off from reality as the country plunged into economic crisis. Doubting the loyalty of the army he built up a separate military force, the President’s Own Guard Regiment, answerable only to himself and better equipped and paid than the regular armed forces. In February 1966, when Nkrumah was out of the country, the army staged a coup which met virtually no resistance and was popularly welcomed. He went into exile in Guinea where he was granted the honorary title of co-president by his friend and fellow pan-Africanist Sekou Toure. While in exile he wrote a number of books, but his health began to fail, and in 1972 he died of cancer in a Rumanian hospital. Kwame Nkrumah was inspirational in asserting black African dignity, but for Ghana his period of rule was an unqualified disaster