Ghana without Nkrumah

The Winter Of Discontent

Irving Markovitz
Africa Report, April 1966

Some observers have been surprised by the apparent unanimity of support in Ghana for the little-known army officers who led the coup d'etat against President Kwame Nkrumah on February 24. Their astonishment paralleled the embarrassment of the Chinese chief of protocol who had to seat the deposed leader at a state banquet in Peking even as the Ghanaian Embassy was removing Nkrumah's portrait from a sidewalk display case in the Chinese capital. In Accra itself, members of Nkrumah's personal guard regiment mounted an armed resistance to the takeover, but it was all over in a few hours. The old regime died quickly, and with it the nine-year rule of West Africa's original and seemingly best established nationalist leader. From an overseas viewpoint, it has been hard to reconcile the coup with the fact that a consensus on government and policy had seemed to emerge in Ghana out of the struggle between originally antagonistic interests. Unlike many other African countries, including several that have recently experienced military takeovers, Ghana seemed to have passed successfully through its time of troubles. Some regimes are unstable because important elements are neither represented in them nor decisively suppressed; but in Ghana, in one way or another every major social group had apparently reached an understanding with the regime. Politics was not the monopoly of an elite coalition of middle-class intellectuals and a traditional hierarchy that excluded the peasants, skilled laborers, and businessmen. There was considerable unrest and dissatisfaction, several assassination attempts against Nkrumah, and constant rumors of coups, yet the government had made conciliatory gestures toward its opponents both within and outside its ranks, and showed every sign of having attained a durable balance of interests.

Perhaps the kindest verdict on Nkrumah in the Western press was that he tried too hard and was in too much of a hurry. He was called a "clown" in the London Observer, and "Stalin-like" in the New York Herald Tribune', The New York Times made his 1961 proclamation of compulsory education appear to have been a totalitarian act. Yet, to interpret Nkrumah as a ruthless totalitarian leader -a kind of sub-Saharan Hitler-is to misunderstand both the sources and the loss of his power.
Ghana without Nkrumah

Seeds of Change

Ghana was neither a terrorized nor a poverty-stricken country. In traveling overland to Accra from francophone Africa, for example, two things were striking: the visible wealth of Ghana, and the visible breadth of its distribution. The number of cars, the condition of residential areas, roads, restaurants, shops, markets, office buildings, and department stores-and the widespread use of these facilities by Africans, not just the European commercial and technical elites- produced the image of a far from destitute country. Beneath the surface there were chronic periodic shortages of many imported goods, including basic foodstuffs, and mounting inflation.
Civil liberties were in a chaotic condition marked by the dismissal of judges and the retrial of cases which resulted in verdicts unfavorable to Nkrumah. The abuses of preventive detention and the outlawing of opposition parties were notorious. To assert, however, that the mass of the people lived in terror would be quite wrong. The commonly accepted estimate of the number of Nkrumah's political prisoners is 1,100, and reports of individual beatings by prison guards may well be believed. On the other hand, credible evidence of systematic torture has yet to be produced, and though the old regime sentenced several people to death for participating in one of the assassination plots, no one in Ghana appears to have been executed for a political crime.

In these circumstances, a mass revolt against tyranny or impoverishment was unlikely, and to suggest that the Army intervened only when the government had begun to lose control of the "forces of discontent" explains little. Every African country harbors similar discontents arising from unemployment, low wages, and economic and social disparities. The Army is said to have chafed at Nkrumah's non-military decision to ask the USSR to train and equip one part of its forces, and Britain and the Commonwealth the other part. Another irritant was Nkrumah's proposal to create a "People's Militia" that would be separate from the Army, and hence a potential threat to the Army's authority and its share of the annual budget. Colonel E. K. Kotoka, commander of the second army brigade at Kumasi and leader of the coup, announced on the day of the takeover that the Army was motivated by Ghana's serious economic and political situation. It was unthinkable, he said on Radio Accra, that Ghana's economy had developed in the last three years at a rate of only three percent per annum, given its vast potentialities. He accused Nkrumah of running Ghana as his personal property and bringing the country to the "brink of bankruptcy." He promised a sweeping revision of economic, financial, and political affairs that would include a constitutional referendum on a new system of government based on the separation of powers, and a reversal of Ghana's mounting economic dependence on the Communist world.

The military regime quickly announced that it would redirect trade toward the West, make no new barter agreements, curtail Communist aid, reverse Nkrumah's, long march toward "scientific socialism," outlaw the ruling Convention People's Party (CPP) and all other political activities, and eventually return Ghana to civilian rule. The Soviet, East German, and Chinese technicians were asked to leave. At the Army's request, senior civil servants took charge of all ministries and the provincial administrations, and eight of them issued a statement in support of the new regime.
Ussher Fort yields its politcal prisoners February 24 1966

Taming the Opposition

The Army's seizure of power was the climax of a long sequence of changes in Ghana's society and governmental system. Ghana has undergone a very rapid evolution in which the Convention People's Party, which brought the country to independence in 1957, continued to govern in the post-independence period, while successfully overcoming opposition from distinctly different sources. Before Ghana became self-governing, the issues were the pace of advance to independence, and who would control the government at this critical transition point; deep conflicts arose over the purpose and nature of every significant governmental institution.

As far back as 1954, the particularistic National Liberation Movement in Ashanti and the cocoa growers had found common cause in opposing the growing influence of the "coastal modernizers' The Ashanti-cocoa grower nucleus attracted other interest groups, among them the Togoland Congress and the Northern People's Party. The British-sponsored constitutional instrument drafted just prior to independence in 1957 sought to accommodate these forces in a semi-federal system, but the post-independence government did not wait long to adopt a hard line toward them. It repealed the constitutional provisions that encouraged regionalism, passed legislation against regional and tribal political parties, and compelled the opposition forces to recombine in a national organization which in fact incorporated regionalism under a different name.

After 1957, the only opposition group with a significant mass following was the United Party, a coalition of disparate ethnic and religious interests joined principally by their resistance to the unifying policies of the CPP. This original anti-Nkrumah group was founded with the blessing of the Asantehene, traditional leader of the Ashanti, soon after the passage in 1954 of legislation reducing the government price for cocoa and thus increasing the amount of money available for government development schemes. The names of the five groups that composed the United Party are indicative of the interests involved: the National Liberation Movement (itself a coalition of anti-CPP interests), the Northern People's Party, the Moslem Association Party, the Togoland Congress Party, and the Ga Shifimo Kpee. The old middle-class intellectuals-the doctors and lawyers who had advised the colonial administration and were the first moderate reformers-were also opposed to the CPP's policies of socialization, and still resentful of having been pushed aside by the more vigorous young nationalists. Combined, these forces were a powerful movement for the redress of individual grievances, and the strong traditional loyalties attaching to the Asantehene, plus the organizational and theoretical ability of the intellectuals, enabled the party to attract a mass following.

None of the groups embraced in the United Party thought primarily in terms of national unity or orderly economic development based on a mass mobilization of the people. The cocoa farmers were unwilling to postpone immediate consumption for enforced savings; at most, they held that funds not paid directly to them should be invested in their local area, and not spread thinly over the country to be used to the advantage of "foreigners." Tribal leaders, who at one time were willing to hand over the government to freely elected representatives and admit that they had no place in party politics, were encouraged by their alliance with the cocoa farmers to revive their aspirations to a share of power. The opposition platform advocated a complex system of federation in which regional governments were to assume most of the powers of the central government. Traditional leaders were not only to head each region, but were also to dominate the cabinet and the upper house of a bicameral parliament. Most significantly, these officials would not be elected, but would rule by virtue of their ancient positions; only the lower house was to be chosen by universal suffrage. Revenue for the federal government was to be derived from limited sources, and a broad-based tax prohibited.

Nothing could have been more irritating to the CPP. Federation would strengthen tribalism and virtually stifle economic development, and Nkrumah accordingly considered the United Party's proposals a fundamental challenge to the system of government. Western standards of secular government, he believed, could not accommodate the divisive loyalties commanded by "uneducated and parochial minded" tribal leaders. Loyalty to the Asantehene meant focusing on the past and Ashanti, instead of looking to the future and the nation. Chieftancy might be exalted as a monument to Ghana's proud African heritage, but it could not be allowed to play an active role in contemporary politics.

At stake were opposing philosophies of government. In view of the latter-day cynicism of the Nkrumah regime, it may well be difficult to recall the moral fervor of the time. Followers of the CPP were convinced that they were fighting not for selfish interests, but for the creation of a national society. Because they could not agree on basic ends, the antagonists sought victory through intense conflict rather than compromise; and because the CPP saw the traditional interests (which would grow fat on cocoa surpluses while others went hungry) as a national menace, it believed that harsh repression was morally justified and socially necessary.

Among the first people thrown into jail under the Preventive Detention Law were wealthy Ashanti cocoa farmers, anti-government intellectuals, and tribal leaders who wished to subordinate the disciplines of economic development to the interests of a weak federation based on an indirect electoral system that would favor the traditionalists. This original opposition challenged the authority of the government, and the structure and polity of the state itself.

To cope with an opposition that threatened the unity of the state and widespread public disorder that included assassinations and bombings, the government resorted to a series of repressive measures, deportations, arrests, censorship, and overt intimidation. For the most part, these acts were directed at limited political objectives, and in the circumstances some of the measures were obviously needed. Moreover, for an understanding of the recent coup d'etat, it is important to note that the government's actions were not altogether arbitrary, but were sanctioned by law. Each of the legal measures was approved by a popularly elected parliament and was accepted by the elements in the governing groups, as well as by many of the bureaucrats and technicians. Increasingly, however, the government enacted capricious and arbitrary laws marking a sharp departure from the standards of rationality established by the British Colonial Service, and from the standards of the revolution itself.

At the same time, the government was installing the machinery of coercion. It obtained an increasing number of anti-riot vehicles and other quasi-military hardware, enlarged the police force, established a reserve army, and organized a secret service. Again, given the circumstances, these measures seemed not unreasonable. The net result, however, was the strengthening of an institution - the Army - that proved lethal to the regime that nurtured it. This history differentiates the Army of Ghana from the armed forces of most other African states, and provides the context for the coup d'etat.

As the clash of political objectives drove the CPP to greater militancy against the United Party, the opposition in turn was compelled to reassess and eventually modify its position. It dropped the issue of federation and began for the first time to place a high value on parliamentary institutions within a unified Ghana as a forum for the expression of its demands. Chiefs abandoned their interference in secular life. Economic development was universally accepted as the major objective of all social groups. Where once Nkrumah stood almost alone in arguing that "progress could be measured by the number of children in school, the quality of their education, the availability of water and electricity, and the control of sickness," these goals became the aspiration of the whole society. Long before the end of the regime, large numbers of traditional notables had joined the CPP, taken their seats in many councils, and proved themselves flexible enough lo become influential and persuasive spokesmen. The drawing of new boundaries lo the political arena was perhaps Nkrumah's major accomplishment.
Northern chiefs and their retinue 1954 Ghana

Cracks in the Consensus

In September 1961, hundreds of workers went on strike, and a qualitatively different kind of opposition began to arise in the ranks of organized labor. Originating among the harbor and railway workers in Takoradi, the walkouts spread to the industrial and commercial workers in Sekondi and Kumasi. Municipal transport employees in Accra soon joined the movement, and workers staged brief sympathy strikes throughout western Ghana. The walkouts were essentially a protest against government austerity measures that reduced the average worker's buying power by raising the cost of basic imports dramatically, almost overnight. Clothing and shoes rose by a third, and food prices soared as transportation costs increased. To forestall inflation, the government lightened existing controls on wages, and imposed a compulsory savings scheme by which five percent was deducted from all wages and salaries in excess of £120 a year, and invested in interest-bearing development bonds.

The strikers ignored back-to-work appeals from their union leaders as well as from the government, which came under heavy fire not only from the formal opposition but also from loyal CPP supporters who ordinarily looked to Nkrumah for leadership. The strike thus marked the beginning of a different type of opposition from within the government's own ranks. It touched the heart of its mass support in the coastal cities where the strikers had earlier endorsed the government and its policies by large majorities. This new opposition sought some compromises and modifications of the program for reaching the goals they had already agreed on, though they did not challenge the goals themselves.

When the government imprisoned the leaders of the strike, thus adding a new category of prisoners held under the Preventive Detention laws, the CPP appeared to be on the threshold of a, period of violence and terror in which The government turned against its own| mass base and suppressed The very people who had brought it to power. In an earlier day this possibility would have been academic, for the government did not command sufficient instruments of repression to dismember the old, semi-feudal opposition by force. By 1961 however, the coercive apparatus of the state had increased enormously in strength, and there was a wing within the ruling party that urged its use.
A showdown was avoided as the government retreated from the system of compulsory savings, and a return to normality seemed to follow. Behind the facade, however, the strikers had revealed not only a growing discontent with the government's austerity measures (which had indeed been anticipated), but also the extent lo which the trade union leaders were acting as tools for the CPP and the state.

Meanwhile, the influence of the CPP's militant wing was shown in attempts to intensify the ideological indoctrination of the people and  the key elites. Several new doctrinaire journals were established; the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute was opened at Winneba, and an effort was made lo reorient the university along ideological lines. Soviet, Chinese, arid East German technicians began to arrive in increasing numbers; trade with the Eastern bloc was increased, sometimes under disadvantageous conditions; attacks against United States policies became increasingly vituperative, and the ideological theme shifted from an emphasis of the uniqueness of the African personality to the universal applicability of scientific socialism. Most important of all, economic decisions apparently came to be made primarily on the basis of ideological factors rather than economic Calculations. The expenditure of millions on a convention hall or an Olympic sports center, and the decisions to continue losing money on an airline or unprofitable factories, or in disadvantageous barter deals with the USSR, were justified in terms of a certain political calculus. These apparently self-defeating choices can be viewed as highly rational in the perspective of men who believed strongly in building African unity and scientific socialism in a short time.

Granting that millions were spent on prestige projects, the key question remains unanswered: what percentage of the government's total expenditure did these projects represent? The assertion that Nkrumah brought Ghana to the verge of bankruptcy does not take into sufficient account the catastrophic drop in the price of cocoa on the world market, and ignores long-range, highly productive projects, such as the Volta development scheme, which are coming to fruition years ahead of schedule, but which had until now been a drain on the economy. It turns a blind eye to what Ghana got for its money: an extended life expectancy from fundamental improvements in medical services, nutrition, and hygiene; a huge educational system serving a larger percentage of school age children than in any other Black African country; the creation of thousands of jobs; and an economy at the threshold of self-sustaining development.

Nkrumah and the militants of the CPP would argue that these accomplishments were achieved not despite, but because of, political persuasion and manipulation and an ideology to guide the selection of objectives and strategies. To them, independence from the British, unity within the state, and financing for the Volta project were equally political objects. They believed that without a sound "ideological" and "political" foundation, Ghana could not hope to prosper.

Alienation of Peasants and Bureaucrats

It is well known that the ideological militancy of the regime was accompanied by corruption. The effects of corruption were felt deep in the bush, where the peasantry accepted Nkrumah's overthrow for reasons far removed from the policy questions that seem to have motivated the military. People in the bush know whether a regime is corrupt. The peasant is rightly suspicious, for there is always some doubt as to the social consequences of any innovation. After he has spent six to nine months hoeing, sowing, weeding, and harvesting a crop of maize, cocoa, cotton, or peanuts, what must he feel-a man who has never been lo town -as he holds for the first time a few banknotes in his hand and watches the truck with his stuffed sacks trundle down the road-to where?
Ultimately, corruption in an underdeveloped country operates to milk the peasant. The salaries of functionaries and politicians, who arc the best organized interests in the society, tend to be downwardly inflexible, but peasants, to the extent that they are engaged in a market economy, have a minimum of economic resources and organizational skills, and are highly vulnerable to economic exploitation. Corruption poisons the atmosphere; the government loses authority as enclaves of power are established in urban areas where a small. Westernized elite holds a monopoly of influence. In such a situation, the peasants always oppose the regime - or more precisely, they are increasingly separated from it. To avoid unnecessarily alienating the peasantry is one of the principal reasons that Communist regimes are notorious for their puritanism.

Whether corruption is equivalent to waste depends on the type of social system in which it occurs, for it may serve functionally to keep certain elites and classes satisfied. If assuaging such interests is a necessary consideration, then corruption may be the least painful (because it is the most indirect) method of achieving stability. From the perspective of economic development, however, corruption perpetuates stagnation by cur tailing capital, and robs the government of its political persuasiveness and moral authority. The technical knowledge necessary for the introduction of scientific agriculture is a monopoly of the educated government intelligentsia. To educate the peasant involves convincing the peasant to listen and to do a great many things that seem unnatural and threatening. Leadership of this kind is possible only when there is moral authority, not simply force, and this is true no matter how knowledgeable the technician.

As corruption was alienating the peasants in Ghana, it was also arousing resentment among the civil servants and technicians who worked with the peasants in the back country. Their task of inducing the peasantry to accept modern agricultural techniques became increasingly difficult in proportion to the government's loss of credibility among the rural masses. The alienation of both groups in turn affected what the French call encadrement - that is, the reorganization of the populace into a social structure that makes the resources of the community available for economic development. Encadrement was not only the next logical step following the government's defeat of semi-feudal rural interests; it was also essential if unfulfilled material ambitions - the so-called revolution of rising expectations-were to be satisfied in the country at large.
The unsolved problem of restructuring the rural society was a basic issue underlying Nkrumah's ouster. On the one hand, the government could choose among a variety of ideological solutions ranging through Chinese communalization to Moshavism or laissez-faire capitalism. On the other hand, the problem could be viewed simply as a technical exercise in maximizing output. Militants within the ruling party, the press, radio, youth organizations, and trade unions pressed for an ideological solution. Opposing them were the "technocrats," who included members of the higher civil service.

Two things distinguished the technocrats from the nucleus of civil servants carried over from pre-independence days. First, their large numbers: the government acquired thousands of employees as it Africanized the administrative structure, extended its services from the large cities to millions of people in the bush, and undertook sweeping programs of welfare and economic development, instead of confining itself (as did the colonial administration) to the household tasks of maintaining peace, order, and a system of justice.

A second distinction is their awareness of membership in a technocratic elite. From the apolitical British tradition, in which neutrality is a source of pride and effectiveness is conceived as a concomitant of non-involvement, the newcomers to Ghana's bureaucracy slowly developed an awareness of a collective interest distinct from the interests of the politicians, who, in the British tradition, were entitled to make policy. By their style of dress, patterns of speech, education, training, vocabulary - and by the images in their heads, their attitudes toward economic development, political goals, and methods of governing - the administrative elite can be distinguished from the political elite. They found Nkrumah's personality cult objectionable, and the servile flattery bestowed on him in many quarters demoralizing, because it clashed with the tastes and traditions of the civil servant.

This is not to say that the technocratic elite, a bulwark of the new military government, is democratic. The men most deeply concerned with economic development have a manipulative attitude toward the rural groups with whom they work. They make no hortatory appeals to the crowd-a major distinction between the technocrats and the ousted politicians. Their approach is that of the social worker to his culturally and educationally deprived brethren. They appeal to the villagers' "home-town spirit" and "reason" with them until they accept previously decided projects, then reward the village with a ceremony attended by the local notables and honored by greetings from national officials. In going about their work, the civil servants make little effort to identify with the villagers; rather, they attempt to persuade the villagers that they, as technicians, can be of use by virtue of their unique knowledge and skills. Nor, in Nkrumah's day, did they make an effort to identify themselves to the people as party members. They often cooperated with the party, particularly in local community development projects, and some indeed were card-carrying members of the CPP. But when they joined the party, they did so because membership was useful to their careers, not out of political conviction.

These functionaries are little interested in ideology or indoctrination. They brush aside questions on socialism or the African personality, preferring to discuss their programs in terms of specific goals and rational techniques to meet them. They judge their accomplishments objectively and honestly, and readily admit mistakes. In sum, their efforts are directed toward the creation of a social system based on rational calculations demanding predictability and regularity in the conduct of affairs. By their attitudes, training, and objectives, they consider themselves a class apart from the politicians as well as from the people-a purposeful class that knows how to get a job done, if left alone to do it. Perhaps their biggest complaint was that Nkrumah's government did not always consider their work important enough. Their budget requests were often cut, their resources limited, and their advice rejected; worst of all, the government made decisions on the basis of criteria they could not accept, on the counsel of ideologues they could not tolerate.

The Army Holds the Bag

Ghana's real problem on the eve of the coup was deeper than the threat of bankruptcy, for national productivity was still increasing as the economy began to unlock its potential. A more basic issue was the system of decision-making legitimated by Nkrumah, for which he was held personally responsible by the bureaucratic elites. Nkrumah saw himself in the historically appointed task of "sweeping away the fetters on production", eliminating "feudal elements," and "neocolonialism," so that the "productive forces of society could be liberated." Ironically, the new technicians, though they use a different vocabulary, see themselves as performing the identical tasks, freeing the economy from the waste and inefficiency spawned by wayward ideologists and corrupt politicians. In their eyes, Nkrumah had become the chief fetter on the forces of production.

In many respects, the Army and police are also bureaucracies, their officers sharing many of the attitudes and concerns of the civil service. Unlike politicians, neither the army officers nor the bureaucrats include the art of persuasion in their usual kit of tools. To govern, however, it is not enough to be "modern-minded" and incorruptible. The value of the politician lies in his ability to manipulate opposing factions, and thus mitigate conflict through compromise. In the absence of the politician's special skill, Ghana's military government may turn ineluctably to the use of authoritarian measures, a tendency that would be reinforced by the paternalistic attitudes of the technocrats.

The regime's general prohibition of political activity and membership in the Convention People's Party raises the fundamental issue: how to avoid a gulf between the government and the governed that would compel the regime to use increasing force to remain in power. The CPP was a mass party with tens of thousands of members. For the Army to reform the party is one thing, but to eliminate it altogether is to burn the bridges between the citizens and the state. Moreover, the National Liberation Council is heir to the economic frustrations and unfulfilled popular aspirations of the previous regime. The experiences of military governments in the Sudan, Burma, and several Latin American countries suggest that neither the Army nor the bureaucracy can move far toward fulfilling popular aspirations in Ghana without some form of mass support. Since the regime cannot maintain itself in power indefinitely without a social base, to whom will it turn?

Other recent moves cast additional light on the political complexion of the new regime. Communist aid technicians have been ousted from the country; trade patterns with the East are being revised; the end of "disastrous" scientific socialism has been proclaimed; the regime has jailed several militant intellectuals; the Asantehene and traditional chiefs have declared their allegiance; and the very name of the National Liberation Council recalls the name of a former conservative opposition group, the National Liberation Movement. By themselves these actions are not conclusive evidence of the nature of the regime. One could reasonably assume, for example, that any of these moves could have occurred without demolishing the original framework of government established by Nkrumah and the CPP.

They assume a different aspect when viewed in context of the regime's announcement on February 26 that the new constitution of Ghana is to establish a government based on the separation of powers. The proposal of a system in which "sovereign powers of the state are judiciously shared among . . . the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary" was of course inspired by the constitution of the United States; but Ghana resembles neither the US today nor the 13 original states of 1787. In the revolutionary American colonies, the separation of powers was designed not only to ensure personal freedoms, but also to establish a "negative" government without a social program and endowed only with limited authority. The system was intended to inhibit the formation of a tyrannous majority by deliberately pitting faction against faction; it recognized the existence of antagonistic interests, and institutionalized them in the government itself.

A formal separation of governmental powers in Ghana would not necessarily mean that the government will be unable to assert authority in the hinterland. Nevertheless, to weaken the powers of the central government in a country where the countervailant forces are hostile to the state is to engage in an experiment that could imperil national unity and slow the pace of economic development. A revival or institutionalization of regional, tribal, and class interests would alter the evolution of Ghanaian society, and jeopardize the continued existence of either democracy or stability. If that prospect came to pass, who would then mourn the passing of the "clown"?

See also: The Men in Charge

Africa 1966