Ghana: fifty years of independence

Godwin Nnanna
6 March 2007

In the history of people and nations there are decisive dates that have far-reaching, momentous effects. For the west African country of Ghana that date is 6 March 1957. It was the day that the country pioneered a revolution in Africa by becoming the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain political independence.

Today, Ghana celebrates that historic feat of fifty years ago when, to the sound of church bells across the capital, the union flag in parliament square was lowered and the colours of a new nation - gold, red, and green - proudly hoisted.

Ghana is the site of a major rendezvous, and the party time might not be over too soon. The president, John Kufuor who in late 2006 got parliament to approve the sum of $20 million for the celebrations, has said that it would be a year-long event. The jubilee was kick-started in January when Kofi Annan, the immediate past secretary-general of the United Nations, returned to the country after a decade of what many of his compatriots see as years of meritorious service.

The celebration is at its climax this week. All over the streets of Accra one word rings every bell - independence. It is a word that still triggers tremendous excitement in most Ghanaians at this time. It represents a historic change that many in Africa earnestly desired but which never came until Ghana took the lead.

Godwin Nnanna is a journalist in the Ghana bureau of Business Day in Accra.

Hope, and after

After the second world war people in Africa wanted change. Only Egypt, Liberia and Ethiopia were independent at that time. Everywhere the mood was hopeful as people were inspired by the vision of a new country free of European control. Though the hunger for freedom in the continent was strong, not many of the educated elites then present were willing to make the sacrifice needed to birth it until the likes of Kwame Nkrumah (1909-72) came on board.

It is practically impossible to talk about the history of modern Africa without mentioning the pioneering role of Ghana and its first president, Kwame Nkrumah. Many Africans still remember with vivid memories that glorious midnight that the fire of freedom was kindled in Accra in what was then known as the Gold Coast.

The birth of a new nation that night reshaped the map, and even the destiny, of Africa. The phrase "wind of change" may only have been used three years later, and by the then British prime minister Harold Macmillan, but the phenomenon itself was the product of Africans' own pioneering efforts to wrest themselves free of colonial mastery. All this was evoked by Nkrumah's historic speech from the rostrum of a colonial-era polo ground in Accra, where he declared: "Ghana's independence is meaningless unless it is linked with the total liberation of Africa".

Ghana's independence acted as an inspiration to what would become a continent-wide process of change: it was a dramatic signal to the colonial powers that their time of direct control over the lives and resources of Africans was coming to an end.

As a country Ghana has been through a lot these fifty years. The country enjoyed tremendous wealth in its first few years as an independent nation. Its rich cocoa and gold provided the new government under the leadership of Nkrumah the needed cash and he set out to industrialise the nation as a guide to the continent. However, despite his big dreams for the country and Africa, Nkrumah was kicked out of power in a mutiny in 1966 that left the newly independent country looking for a new way ahead. From then, the story of Ghana became that of conflict, dictatorship and economic hardship.


Also on the politics and governance of modern Africa in openDemocracy:

Richard Dowden, "In search of Ugandan democracy"
(6 December 2005)

Achille Mbembe, "South Africa’s second coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome"
(15 June 2006)

Edward Denison, "Eritrea: a cheap holiday in other people’s misery"
(20 December 2006)

Wilf Mbanga, "Happy Birthday, Robert Mugabe"
(21 February 2007)

Gilles Yabi, "Guinea: a state of suspension"
(28 February 2007)

Lara Pawson, "Angola: the politics of exhaustion"
(2 March 2007)

Thus, while the decolonisation of Ghana appears to mark the closing chapter of one form of European imperial domination and its associated ills (territorial occupation, exploitation, and injustice), it also presaged the emergence of a new form of colonialism, in which new elites and institutions came to hold a power that they were reluctant to relinquish - a condition that still confronts many African countries today.

The next fifty years

As Ghana celebrates independence this month, it is confronted with another Herculean struggle - that of attaining economic independence. The country has made remarkable progress in the last few years. The economy is gradually picking up and foreign investment is trickling in. With steady economic growth, a stable, democratic government and broad support from development partners, this country of 22 million people is interestingly becoming a home for many from other parts of the continent who come to seek greener pastures.

Unlike most of its neighbours, power supply is relatively stable in Ghana. The crime rate is low and the people are naturally very hospitable to visitors. Every year Ghana plays host to a large number of African diaspora who visit the many slave forts in the country to have a feel of their history and ancestry. The country is working hard to diversify its economy by promoting tourism.

Elmina town, home of the slave castle named "door of no return" is today an amazing tourist centre. For centuries, Africans walked through this infamous portal at the Cape Coast castle directly into slave ships. Today, the portal of this massive fort - so central to one of history's greatest crimes - has a new name, hung on a sign leading back in from the roaring Atlantic Ocean: "The door of return".

Ghana, through whose ports millions of Africans passed on their way to plantations in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, wants its descendants to come back.

Taking Israel as its model, Ghana hopes to persuade African diasporas to think of Africa as their homeland - to visit, invest, send their children to be educated and even retire here.

However, the fight is far from over. A third of Ghana's citizens still live in poverty (albeit the figure is declining). Attaining economic independence is proving harder than the fight for political independence. Attempts to create a strong manufacturing base have not been particularly successful. The manufacturing sector has been made almost non-existent by the influx of cheap products from China and India. Ghanaians will enjoy their proud day of celebration, but the challenges to come will test them as much as those in the last fifty years.

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