What does Ghana have to celebrate in its 59th year of independence?

A sculpture of Ghana’s founding father in the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park in Accra, Ghana. Shutterstock

Ghana has long been a symbol of Africa’s promise. But it has also been a reflection of the pitfalls of the continent’s post-independence era.

The country has a squeaky-clean image outside its borders, with Accra recently making the New York Times’s list of top destinations in the world. But, as the country marks 59 years of independence, some local activists and others hold a different view.

The New York Times’s Lydia Polgreen reported in 2008 that although Ghana is an example since its transition to democracy in 1992,

some people here worry that the country’s image as a bastion of peace and democracy is merely a sign of the low expectations outsiders have for Africa.

There is a perception among many Ghanaians of corruption and growing inequality. Tangible evidence of progress remains elusive for nearly half the population.

There can be little doubt that Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana played an inspirational role in Africa and among pan-Africanists such as WEB Du Bois and Malcolm X when it became the first sub-Saharan colony to gain independence, on March 6 1957.

Ghana inspired way beyond Africa’s borders, especially among pan-Africanists such as Malcolm X. Shutterstock

It is unsettling today to listen to Nkrumah’s speeches of the early 1960s. One is forced to recognise just how much he understood about the complex political terrain at that critical juncture in modern African history, as well as the challenges he faced at home and abroad.

The souring of a dream

Nkrumah’s vision of national liberation was of a united and prosperous Africa. This would present the greatest obstacle to European influence by lessening territorial disputes and ensure individual nations did not become subject to external manipulation.

He took bold action as a statesman, calling on the United Nations to urge all European nations to decolonise Africa by December 31 1962. To break the chains of imperialism, Nkrumah thought that Africa needed unfettered capacity to develop its own strong industrial power. In this way it would avoid falling into the trap of supplying Europe with cheap natural resources. He appealed to leaders of independent African nations not to become pawns in the game of Cold War “diplomacy”.

Unfortunately, Nkrumah’s dream soon soured. Despite his attempts to industrialise and diversify the economy, his government found it difficult to solve the economic, political and social problems that were the legacy of colonial rule. In addition, poorly executed plans to build an industrial economy drained the country’s treasury and hobbled its growth.

In only a few years, his popularity waned due to economic pressures, external interference and his own increasingly corrupt dictatorship. After 1961 there were several assassination attempts on Nkrumah and in 1964 he banned all opposition parties. The economy collapsed after multiparty democracy gave way to single-party rule.

In 1966 Nkrumah’s government was overthrown by a military coup, reportedly carried out with the help of the CIA. When his calls to overthrow this new military regime went unheeded, Nkrumah went into exile in Guinea, where he died a bitter man in 1972.

One of Africa’s greatest novelists, the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, captured the ethos of this disenchantment in his early novels, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) and Fragments (1969). They offer a pessimistic assessment of independence and suggest that national liberation did not deliver meaningful freedom to the majority of Ghanaians.

Mixed impressions of Nkrumah

February 2016, the 50th anniversary of Nkrumah’s overthrow, was dubbed “Marking Ghana’s Day of Shame”, evoking the remorse many Ghanaians feel about Nkrumah’s demise.

There are mixed impressions of Nkrumah as a national figure. They are based largely on ideological differences and regional interests among the educated political and intellectual elite. The anti-Nkrumah group — represented first by the United Gold Coast Convention, then by the United Party — saw Nkrumah’s overthrow as a necessary action in defence of freedom and the rule of law.

For nearly a decade after the United Party assumed power it sought to obliterate memories of Nkrumah. It did so by destroying monuments, burning his books and proscribing any mention of his name. So poisoned was the political climate against him during the Second Republic, which began in 1969, that people could not wear shirts bearing Nkrumah’s name. While this sentiment still exists, many Ghanaians have risen above minority parochial interests.

A shift in public perception began in the 1980s. Nkrumah started to be credited for his visionary leadership. Plans were later made to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth date (September 21 1909). In 1994 he received an official reburial in a purpose-built mausoleum in Accra and his birthday is now incorporated into national rituals of commemoration. It is not uncommon, these days, to hear Ghanaians say that

Nkrumah would be turning and weeping in his grave if he saw us now.

For his supporters, Nkrumah was a visionary whose worst mistake was seeking to drag an unwilling nation to the promised land of economic development and prosperity.

Many remember Nkrumah for his improvement of roads, schools, hospitals, factories and building the Akosombo Dam and the Tema Harbour. Some of the infrastructure he provided still serves many sectors of the country’s economy.

Regrettably though, many of Nkrumah’s long-term goals for development and his vision for a unified and prosperous Africa never came to fruition.

Post-Nkrumah legacy

And yet, in the years since Nkrumah was deposed, Ghana has outperformed other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the United Nations, all the key human development indicators — life expectancy, income and schooling — have improved since 1980. Nevertheless Ghana was ranked only 140 out of 188 countries in the Human Development Report. Inequality is an issue and poverty remains a big challenge.

Inequality and poverty remain serious challenges in modern Ghana. Shutterstock

The terrain has shifted considerably since Nkrumah’s heyday as the prophet of African national liberation. Still, some aspects of his revolutionary vision appear remarkably clairvoyant, starting with the politics of the foreign extraction of Africa’s natural resources and the need for new industries.

This independence anniversary offers an opportunity to reflect on how this controversial past continues to have an effect on the present – and on possibilities for charting a new way forward.

Francis Mbawini Abugbilla, a Master’s student (Francophone Studies) at the University of Arizona, contributed to this article.