Sunday, October 5, 2008



Published on 05/10/2008
Sunday Standard

By Rashid Suleiman

The behaviour must have been quite comical. An exiled former powerful president and hero of the African anti-colonial struggle cowering in his bedroom in fear, though nobody was really after him.

Unbeknown to many, this was the other side of life Ghana’s founding father, Kwame Nkrumah, led in exile in Guinea-Conakry. This was despite holding the title of co-president bestowed upon him by his host, Ahmed Sekou Toure. In his home away from home, he spent most of his time hallucinating about his abduction and assassination by Western intelligence agents.

When his cook died in Conakry, he hoarded food in his bedroom fearing he would be poisoned. One of his waking nightmares was that someone was going through his mail.

While paranoia was the middle name of most African dictators of the one-party era, Nkrumah gave new meaning to the word. He saw plots against him everywhere even after he was overthrown.

At one time when he was in power and his country’s problems were mounting, he went underground because he feared assassination. His fears and insecurities led him to make the outlandish suggestion that Africa should form a standing army to repulse attacks by foreign troops. Other African leaders rightly saw it as a ploy by a paranoid man struggling to deal with his insecurities.

Though Nkrumah is hailed in many quarters as a genuine African hero because of his rabid anti-imperialist stand and overzealous pursuit of Pan-African ideals, a look at his record reveals he was one of the worst dictators in the continent. Even his supposedly hallowed reputation as a Pan-Africanist par excellence is marred by his thinly veiled ambition to dominate the continent and his deliberate de-stabilisation of French-speaking Africa.

At one time, he threatened to organise a coup to remove Togo’s respected first President Sylvanus Olympio because of his pro-French leanings. When Olympio was overthrown and killed in black Africa’s first military takeover in 1963, even one of Nkrumah’s few friends, Sekou Toure, had had enough. The Guinean leader was fiercely anti-French, but he wasted no time in publicly criticising Nkrumah over the Togo coup and accused him of involvement.

Overzealous pursuits

In 1963, Nkrumah’s suggestion to form a union government of Africa was rejected after he was accused of harbouring ambitions to rule the entire continent. Many fellow African heads of state were always wary of him because his overzealous pursuit of Pan-African unity betrayed a grand plan to dominate the continent.

On the domestic front, a liberal mixture of extreme paranoia, a verbose sense of grandeur, a misguided notion of messianic calling and know-it-all attitude turned Nkrumah into the worst dictator Ghana has ever seen.

Because he guided Ghana to become the first black African country to gain independence in 1957, it may be safe to say that later dictators in the continent learnt from his book of political tyranny. He set the stage and record for one-party dictatorship, personality cult, ruthless suppression of political opponents, detention without trial, paranoia, grandiose projects, economic mismanagement and election rigging.

Africa has produced many crazy dictators but none of them ever dreamt of turning into a one-man electoral commission like Nkrumah. In a yet to be broken record in the continent, the late Ghanaian leader ‘elected’ an entire parliament of 198 MPs single-handedly within minutes.

The moment of history was June 1965, when a Nkrumah-weary Ghana was poised for elections. On the morning of polling day, the Osagyefo (‘Redeemer’) as Nkrumah was fondly known, entered the national radio station to announce there would be no election. He proceeded to read the names of those he had selected to become MPs and the areas they represented.

It was a fait accompli — the actions of a man who loved and worked to obtain absolute power. The move was inspired by Nkrumah’s deep fear that his enemies would win the elections, though Ghana was a one-party state under his beck and call.

Ironically, Nkrumah performed the civilian coup despite the fact that he was in firm control and could easily decide who goes to Parliament from behind the scenes. He did not need to be this crude and rash.

Right from Ghana’s independence on March 5, 1957, Nkrumah made it clear he wanted to be an unchallenged dictator. He wasted no time in introducing measures meant to concentrate absolute power in his hands.

Detention without trial

In the year of independence, he masterminded the enactment of the Deportation Act, which empowered him to kick-out anybody whose presence in Ghana he considered detrimental. A year later, the Preventive Detention Act followed to check the growing strength of the opposition alliance. The Act allowed Nkrumah to detain without trial anybody suspected of engaging in ‘anti-state activities’ for five years or longer.

By the time he was kicked out of power in 1966, it is estimated that at least 1,000 Ghanaians had been detained under the Act. The detainees included one of Nkrumah’s most prominent opponents, Joseph Danquah. The lawyer politician who came second to Nkrumah in Ghana’s presidential election in 1960 died in detention in 1965.

When Ghana became a republic in 1960, the hitherto Prime Minister Nkrumah became President with unbridled power. He made sure the constitution gave him the mandate to rule by decree. He formed an intricate network of spies to keep tabs on his real or imagined enemies.

In January 1964, Nkrumah contrived a special plebiscite to consign his opponents to the political wilderness. The referendum was to decide two major issues. The first was whether the country should become a one-party state under Nkrumah’s ruling Convention Peoples Party. The second was to grant or deny Nkrumah powers to sack judges. After massive rigging and manipulation, the ‘Yes’ vote narrowly carried the day.

Tottering economy

Fresh from the stolen victory, Nkrumah flexed his muscles by sacking Chief Justice, Sir Arku Korsah, who had acquitted his opponents in a treason trial. He then made himself life President though he was by then presiding over a tottering economy and a country where human rights abuses were rife.

After entrenching himself in power in the 1960s, Nkrumah seemed to have lost touch with the realities in Ghana. He preferred to pursue grand Pan-African schemes and paid little attention to the deep discontent in Ghana. Some of his close advisers even said he did not care about Ghanaians’ suffering.

By this time, he had cemented his position and felt safe in power. To guard against a coup, Nkrumah opened a branch of the ruling CPP in the military academy. Next was the appointment of political officers in the army but this did not come to pass because he was overthrown.

To prepare for the total emasculation of the military, he retired two senior infantry officers, Maj-Gen John Ankrah and Maj-Gen SJA Otu in 1965. He sacked many senior army and police officers and replaced them with his loyalists. It was virtually impossible to remove Nkrumah from power by any means, as he had blocked all avenues.

However, he opened a weak chink in his armour when he ordered the military to undertake regular exercises in preparation for a war against the then white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

It is reported that Police Commissioner JW Harlley came up with the idea of a coup against Nkrumah, though the CIA has also been implicated in the plot. The main men who masterminded Nkrumah’s downfall were Col Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka, commanding officer, Second Infantry Brigade at Kumasi; Col Albert Kwesi Ocran, commanding officer, Accra Garrison; and Maj Akwasi Afrifa, commanding officer, Tamale Garrison. The chief planner of the putsch was Afrifa.

The conspirators planned to make their move when Nkrumah was out of the country and such an opportunity presented itself on February 23 when the Osagyefo left for the Far East.

Under cover of mandatory mobilisation exercises to fight the Rhodesians, Afrifa and Kotoka moved their forces South to join Ocran’s troops in Accra on the night of February 23. On the morning of February 24, the soldiers seized Accra and prepared themselves to fight a civil war if Nkrumah loyalists in the military resisted the coup. The resistance never came as jubilant Ghanaians celebrated the fall of a ruthless dictator who had traumatised them for nine years. The military officers who kicked out Nkrumah were not prepared to lead Ghana and hence they invited the retired Ankrah to be President.

Court poets and sycophants

Despite his high intellect, Nkrumah’s major weaknesses were paranoia and his love for flattery and quislings. This made it easy for him to be misled by court poets, sycophants, wheeler-dealers and influence peddlers. That is why he hand-picked socialist acolytes to top positions in the private and public sector. The appointees, most of them with shady backgrounds viewed their positions as a licence to loot and proceeded accordingly. Some of his loyalists used the detention law to arrest innocent people so they could inherit their business, wealth or positions.

Though Nkrumah had organised strikes to fight the British colonialists, he was a chief nemesis of workers when he took power. He passed the Trade Union Act in 1958 to deal with striking workers, many of who were arrested and detained with opposition leaders. He reasoned that strikes hindered rapid industrialisation of Ghana. He declared the fight for better wages must give way to patriotic duty because the needs of the nation superseded the good of individual workers. His ambition was to make Ghana an industrialised, unitary socialist state fast and a model African nation.

He embarked on lavish spending on parlous and grandiose ventures that bankrupted Ghana, one of the richest African countries at independence. He nationalised most commercial, agricultural, mining and industrial activities in Ghana.

At independence, Ghana was one of the wealthiest and economically advanced colonies in Africa. But Nkrumah’s penchant for grandiose projects, corruption, mismanagement and desire for rapid industrialisation brought economic ruin to the country.

When the price of cocoa rose sharply, Nkrumah went on a spending spree instead of saving and spending wisely. After wasting the windfall, he irked the people by increasing taxes on cocoa farmers to fund his lavish projects. He sought to industrialise Ghana at all costs and ended up with many projects, which became white elephants.

To date, Nkrumah’s most ambitious venture is the Volta River Project, which gave birth to the Akosombo Dam and the world’s biggest man made lake. The dam was financed by Britain, the US and the World Bank. Nkrumah performed the ritual of pressing the button that released power from the dam into the national grid in his last moment of glory on January 22, 1966 amid a blaze of world publicity.

Two days later, he was overthrown while on a peace mission to Vietnam in a grand tour that was supposed to take him to Soviet Union and the Far East. He was on a stopover in Burma, en-route to China, when he became an ex-president. He did not hear about the coup until he arrived in China where he caused protocol problems.

Bizarre state banquet

Unsure of what to do because Nkrumah was effectively yesterday’s man, then Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai, decided to go-ahead with the planned state banquet in honour of Nkrumah. It was one of the most bizarre state banquets as it honoured a non-entity who everybody knew was out of power.

After he recovered from the shock of the coup, he went to exile in Guinea-Conakry where he initially made radio broadcasts to Ghana urging the people to overthrow the military regime. He plotted a grand return to power but died of cancer in Bucharest, Romania, in 1972 before he could realise his ambitions.


Anonymous said...
October 6, 2008 at 11:21 PM  

Documents Expose U.S. Role in Nkrumah Overthrow

By Paul Lee
Special to

Talk about Black Politics! Click here.

Declassified National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency documents provide compelling, new evidence of United States government involvement in the 1966 overthrow of Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah.

The coup d'etat, organized by dissident army officers, toppled the Nkrumah government on Feb. 24, 1966 and was promptly hailed by Western governments, including the U.S.

The documents appear in a collection of diplomatic and intelligence memos, telegrams, and reports on Africa in Foreign Relations of the United States, the government's ongoing official history of American foreign policy.

Prepared by the State Department's Office of the Historian, the latest volumes reflect the overt diplomacy and covert actions of President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration from 1964-68. Though published in November 1999, what they reveal about U.S. complicity in the Ghana coup was only recently noted.

Allegations of American involvement in the putsche arose almost immediately because of the well-known hostility of the U.S. to Nkrumah's socialist orientation and pan-African activism.

Nkrumah, himself, implicated the U.S. in his overthrow, and warned other African nations about what he saw as an emerging pattern.

"An all-out offensive is being waged against the progressive, independent states," he wrote in Dark Days in Ghana, his 1969 account of the Ghana coup. "All that has been needed was a small force of disciplined men to seize the key points of the capital city and to arrest the existing political leadership."

"It has been one of the tasks of the C.I.A. and other similar organisations," he noted, "to discover these potential quislings and traitors in our midst, and to encourage them, by bribery and the promise of political power, to destroy the constitutional government of their countries."

A Spook's Story

While charges of U.S. involvement are not new, support for them was lacking until 1978, when anecdotal evidence was provided from an unlikely source—a former CIA case officer, John Stockwell, who reported first-hand testimony in his memoir, In Search of Enemies: A CIA Story.

"The inside story came to me," Stockwell wrote, "from an egotistical friend, who had been chief of the [CIA] station in Accra [Ghana] at the time." (Stockwell was stationed one country away in the Ivory Coast.)

Subsequent investigations by The New York Times and Covert Action Information Bulletin identified the station chief as Howard T. Banes, who operated undercover as a political officer in the U.S. Embassy.

This is how the ouster of Nkrumah was handled as Stockwell related. The Accra station was encouraged by headquarters to maintain contact with dissidents of the Ghanaian army for the purpose of gathering intelligence on their activities. It was given a generous budget, and maintained intimate contact with the plotters as a coup was hatched. So close was the station's involvement that it was able to coordinate the recovery of some classified Soviet military equipment by the United States as the coup took place.

According to Stockwell, Banes' sense of initiative knew no bounds. The station even proposed to headquarters through back channels that a squad be on hand at the moment of the coup to storm the [Communist] Chinese embassy, kill everyone inside, steal their secret records, and blow up the building to cover the facts.

Though the proposal was quashed, inside the CIA headquarters the Accra station was given full, if unofficial credit for the eventual coup, in which eight Soviet advisors were killed. None of this was adequately reflected in the agency's records, Stockwell wrote.

Confirmation and Revelation

While the newly-released documents, written by a National Security Council staffer and unnamed CIA officers, confirm the essential outlines set forth by Nkrumah and Stockwell, they also provide additional, and chilling, details about what the U.S. government knew about the plot, when, and what it was prepared to do and did do to assist it.

On March 11, 1965, almost a year before the coup, William P. Mahoney, the U.S. ambassador to Ghana, participated in a candid discussion in Washington, D.C., with CIA Director John A. McCone and the deputy chief of the CIA's Africa division, whose name has been withheld.

Significantly, the Africa division was part of the CIA's directorate of plans, or dirty tricks component, through which the government pursued its covert policies.

According to the record of their meeting (Document 251), topic one was the "Coup d'etat Plot, Ghana." While Mahoney was satisfied that popular opinion was running strongly against Nkrumah and the economy of the country was in a precarious state, he was not convinced that the coup d'etat, now being planned by Acting Police Commissioner Harlley and Generals Otu and Ankrah, would necessarily take place.

Nevertheless, he confidently—and accurately, as it turned out—predicted that one way or another Nkrumah would be out within a year. Revealing the depth of embassy knowledge of the plot, Mahoney referred to a recent report which mentioned that the top coup conspirators were scheduled to meet on 10 March at which time they would determine the timing of the coup.

However, he warned, because of a tendency to procrastinate, any specific date they set should be accepted with reservations. In a reversal of what some would assume were the traditional roles of an ambassador and the CIA director, McCone asked Mahoney who would most likely succeed Nkrumah in the event of a coup.

Mahoney again correctly forecast the future: Ambassador Mahoney stated that initially, at least, a military junta would take over.

Making it Happen

But Mahoney was not a prophet. Rather, he represented the commitment of the U.S. government, in coordination with other Western governments, to bring about Nkrumah's downfall.

Firstly, Mahoney recommended denying Ghana's forthcoming aid request in the interests of further weakening Nkrumah. He felt that there was little chance that either the Chinese Communists or the Soviets would in adequate measure come to Nkrumah's financial rescue and the British would continue to adopt a hard nose attitude toward providing further assistance to Ghana.

At the same time, it appears that Mahoney encouraged Nkrumah in the mistaken belief that both the U.S. and the U.K. would come to his financial rescue and proposed maintaining current U.S. aid levels and programs because they will endure and be remembered long after Nkrumah goes.

Secondly, Mahoney seems to have assumed the responsibility of increasing the pressure on Nkrumah and exploiting the probable results. This can be seen in his 50-minute meeting with Nkrumah three weeks later.

According to Mahoney's account of their April 2 discussion (Document 252), "at one point Nkrumah, who had been holding face in hands, looked up and I saw he was crying. With difficulty he said I could not understand the ordeal he had been through during last month. Recalling that there had been seven attempts on his life."

Mahoney did not attempt to discourage Nkrumah's fears, nor did he characterize them as unfounded in his report to his superiors.

"While Nkrumah apparently continues to have personal affection for me," he noted, "he seems as convinced as ever that the US is out to get him. From what he said about assassination attempts in March, it appears he still suspects US involvement."

Of course, the U.S. was out to get him. Moreover, Nkrumah was keenly aware of a recent African precedent that made the notion of a U.S.-organized or sanctioned assassination plot plausible—namely, the fate of the Congo and its first prime minister, his friend Patrice Lumumba.

Nkrumah believed that the destabilization of the Congolese government in 1960 and Lumumba's assassination in 1961 were the work of the "Invisible Government of the U.S.," as he wrote in Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, later in 1965.

When Lumumba's murder was announced, Nkrumah told students at the inauguration of an ideological institute that bore his name that this brutal murder should teach them the diabolical depths of degradation to which these twin-monsters of imperialism and colonialism can descend.

In his conclusion, Mahoney observed: "Nkrumah gave me the impression of being a badly frightened man. His emotional resources seem be running out. As pressures increase, we may expect more hysterical outbursts, many directed against US."

It was not necessary to add that he was helping to apply the pressure, nor that any hysterical outbursts by Nkrumah played into the West's projection of him as an unstable dictator, thus justifying his removal.

Smoking Gun

On May 27, 1965, Robert W. Komer, a National Security Council staffer, briefed his boss, McGeorge Bundy, President Johnson's special assistant for national security affairs, on the anti-Nkrumah campaign (Document 253).

Komer, who first joined the White House as a member of President Kennedy's NSC staff, had worked as a CIA analyst for 15 years. In 1967, Johnson tapped him to head his hearts-and-minds pacification program in Vietnam.

Komer's report establishes that the effort was not only interagency, sanctioned by the White House and supervised by the State Department and CIA, but also intergovernmental, being supported by America's Western allies.

"FYI," he advised, "we may have a pro-Western coup in Ghana soon. Certain key military and police figures have been planning one for some time, and Ghana's deteriorating economic condition may provide the spark."

"The plotters are keeping us briefed," he noted, "and the State Department thinks we're more on the inside than the British. While we're not directly involved (I'm told), we and other Western countries (including France) have been helping to set up the situation by ignoring Nkrumah's pleas for economic aid. All in all, it looks good."

Komer's reference to not being told if the U.S. was directly involved in the coup plot is revealing and quite likely a wry nod to his CIA past.

Among the most deeply ingrained aspects of intelligence tradecraft and culture is plausible deniability, the habit of mind and practice designed to insulate the U.S., and particularly the president, from responsibility for particularly sensitive covert operations.

Komer would have known that orders such as the overthrow of Nkrumah would have been communicated in a deliberately vague, opaque, allusive, and indirect fashion, as Thomas Powers noted in The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA.

It would be unreasonable to argue that the U.S. was not directly involved when it created or exacerbated the conditions that favored a coup, and did so for the express purpose of bringing one about.

Truth and Consequences

As it turned out, the coup did not occur for another nine months. After it did, Komer, now acting special assistant for national security affairs, wrote a congratulatory assessment to the President on March 12, 1966 (Document 260). His assessment of Nkrumah and his successors was telling.

"The coup in Ghana," he crowed, "is another example of a fortuitous windfall. Nkrumah was doing more to undermine our interests than any other black African. In reaction to his strongly pro-Communist leanings, the new military regime is almost pathetically pro-Western."

In this, Komer and Nkrumah were in agreement. "Where the more subtle methods of economic pressure and political subversion have failed to achieve the desired result," Nkrumah wrote from exile in Guinea three years later, "there has been resort to violence in order to promote a change of regime and prepare the way for the establishment of a puppet government."

Copyright ©2001, Paul Lee.

Paul Lee is a historian, filmmaker, and freelance writer. He is Director of Best Efforts, Inc. (BEI), a professional research and consulting service that specializes in the recovery, preservation, and dissemination of global black history and culture. BEI offers "OurStory," a black history lecture series. You can reach him at

Related sites:

* State Department Documents, part 1

State Department Documents, part 2