Ghana Gains Independence from the United Kingdom

The people of Ghana, under the leadership of the Convention People’s Party and Kwame Nkrumah, were the first to achieve political independence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Summary of Event

The Portuguese explorations along the coast of West Africa in the fifteenth century were quickly followed by English, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, and German traders, who named areas of the coast after the products they found there: Grain, Ivory, Slave, and Gold. Trade in gold and ivory was surpassed by the slave trade after 1650, and European competition along the Gold Coast, which had been fierce (forty-one forts were built there), declined considerably, leaving the Dutch, British, and Danes vying for coastal supremacy. Anticolonial movements;Ghana
British Empire;dissolution
[kw]Ghana Gains Independence from the United Kingdom (Mar. 6, 1957)
[kw]Independence from the United Kingdom, Ghana Gains (Mar. 6, 1957)
[kw]United Kingdom, Ghana Gains Independence from the (Mar. 6, 1957)
Anticolonial movements;Ghana
British Empire;dissolution
[g]Africa;Mar. 6, 1957: Ghana Gains Independence from the United Kingdom[05420]
[g]Ghana;Mar. 6, 1957: Ghana Gains Independence from the United Kingdom[05420]
[c]Independence movements;Mar. 6, 1957: Ghana Gains Independence from the United Kingdom[05420]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Mar. 6, 1957: Ghana Gains Independence from the United Kingdom[05420]
[c]Government and politics;Mar. 6, 1957: Ghana Gains Independence from the United Kingdom[05420]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Mar. 6, 1957: Ghana Gains Independence from the United Kingdom[05420]
Nkrumah, Kwame

Trade among African peoples, which had been intense since the fourteenth century, and increased trade between Europeans and Africans affected state formation and development within the boundaries of present-day Ghana. The withdrawal of the Danes and the Dutch in 1850 and 1872, respectively, and the presence of the Council of Merchants helped pave the way for further developments in British colonial rule. Although the head of the Council of Merchants was not a governor-general, and therefore did not officially represent the British government, his activities in the southern part of Ghana went beyond commercial activities and included the exercise of judicial authority and collaboration with burgeoning missionary societies. After his death in 1847, the British government decided to establish direct jurisdiction over the southern part of Ghana and did so through the establishment of a legislative council (with no African representation) and a poll tax, established in 1852.

African resistance to British rule was fierce. After the defeat of the Asante in 1874, the British created the Gold Coast Colony Gold Coast Colony in the area south of Asante. Colonial rule was officially established in Asante itself in 1901. One of the first challenges to British colonialism came from Chief John Aggrey Aggrey, John , the mission-educated king of the Cape Coast, who challenged the legal basis of British rule and portrayed the issue as one of fundamental human rights. He complained of British attempts to impose what amounted to martial law and of British efforts to create disunity among the indigenous peoples.

Other protests, particularly from but not limited to the elite of the colony, were carried out during the late nineteenth century against both taxation and the usurpation of indigenous authority. The most noteworthy protest organization of the nineteenth century was the Aborigines Rights Protection Society Aborigines Rights Protection Society (ARPS), which was formed in 1897 and for thirty-five years agitated for reforms, fought land dispossession by Europeans, and attempted to educate Africans about the actions taken by colonial authorities.

The scramble for Africa that resulted in the drawing of Ghana’s contemporary boundaries began in the 1880’s. The British set out to move beyond the Gold Coast Colony. Between 1890 and 1900, they established juridical and territorial control over modern Ghana through various wars and skirmishes with Africans, the French, and the Germans.

Twentieth century African resistance to British rule took place in three major waves. The ARPS, composed of the largely mission-educated elite of Ghana, agitated for constitutional reform and greater land equity until 1930. Its work was superseded by the pan-Africanist Pan-Africanism[PanAfricanism]
Nationalism;Africa National Congress of British West Africa National Congress of British West Africa , which was active from 1920 to 1930. That group passed resolutions demanding reforms in all areas of colonial life: education, sanitation, representation, medicine, and agriculture. Finally, in the 1930’s, various interest organizations representing a new generation (often called the “young men,” which referred to nonchiefly status rather than age) emerged to challenge both chiefly authority and colonial rule. As many scholars have pointed out, the young men were affected by the spread of and greater access to Western education, their experience in World War I, and the effects of urbanization, which attenuated ties to traditional authorities in the rural areas.

The first organization actually to demand independence rather than reforms within the existing system was the West African Youth League West African Youth League , which was formed in 1934. Although it was disparaged by many chiefs and its leader was deported, its appeal to the young men of Ghana was taken advantage of by the Convention People’s Party in 1949.

World War II ushered in demands for independence all over Asia and Africa. The United Nations Charter, weakened colonial economies, and the extensive modernization and urbanization that accompanied the war combined to produce new organizations and leaders whose demands went beyond reform to independence. The British responded to demands for self-government with the Burns Constitution Burns Constitution
Constitutions;Ghana , which united the Gold Coast Colony and Asante and provided for greater African representation in the legislative council. These and a number of other reforms were viewed as inadequate by Africans, and in 1947 the United Gold Coast Convention United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) was formed to demand more far-reaching reforms.

The leadership opposed chiefly authority but nevertheless was reformist rather than radical, and only reluctantly agreed to make Kwame Nkrumah the secretary of the UGCC. Nkrumah, thirty-nine years old at the time, had been studying in the United States and Great Britain for twelve years and returned to remarkably changed conditions in Ghana. Economic conditions had worsened after the war, and a whole generation of working-class Ghanaians was ready for mobilization into a more militant nationalist organization.

Riots in early 1948 provided the precipitant that led Nkrumah and others to break away from the UGCC to form the Convention People’s Party Convention People’s Party, Ghanaian[Convention Peoples Party, Ghanaian] (CPP), which demanded “Self-Government Now.” When the Coussey Committee Coussey Committee , formed in response to the riots, initially recommended both indirect elections and continued chiefly control over thirty-three of the seventy-five seats in the legislature, Nkrumah ordered massive resistance. The colonial government responded with the imprisonment of Nkrumah and other CPP leaders, which had the unintended effect of increasing the popularity of the CPP. Elections were held in February, 1951, and the CPP won thirty-four of the thirty-eight popularly contested seats, enabling it to form the government until elections were scheduled again in 1954 and 1956.

Between 1951 and 1954, the CPP was able to embark upon significant reforms. Dramatic increases in social spending took place. Nevertheless, opposition to the CPP increased from a number of sources, including the older generation of middle-class professionals, who formed the Ghana Congress Party in 1953; chiefs in the north, who formed the Northern People’s Party in 1954; and the National Liberation Movement, formed by the Asante in late 1954. The CPP campaigned on the pledges of support for the common person and the promise of continued material rewards. The CPP won the 1954 and 1956 elections, and on March 6, 1957, it assumed the mantle of government of the first African country to achieve independence. The new name of the country was taken from the Sudanic trading state that had been powerful in the eleventh century.


Reporting on Ghana’s independence, the magazine Africa wrote that “The event is regarded in many quarters as potentially one of the most significant to take place in Africa in modern times and its impact is already being felt elsewhere in the continent.” As a sovereign state, Ghana immediately acted to hasten the move toward independence for other African states. Nkrumah declared that “the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”

Nkrumah was active in organizing various conferences to promote independence and cooperation among Africans. Numerous conferences were held in Accra, the capital of the new nation, which were attended by nationalist leaders from all over Africa. These conferences helped make nationalism a force to be reckoned with by all colonial powers.

Nkrumah was also active in attempting to convince other leaders of the need for pan-African political and territorial unity. In 1958, Ghana and Guinea formed a political union, and in 1961 Mali joined the association. When Ghanaians approved the Republic Constitution Republic Constitution, Ghanaian (1960) in 1960 (which made Nkrumah president), they also approved the president’s decision to surrender Ghana’s sovereignty if the country ever joined a United States of Africa. Nkrumah was also involved in the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, although he was disappointed that most African leaders resisted complete unity.

Although Nkrumah’s first years in power were marked by significant domestic and foreign policy achievements, his increasingly harsh authoritarian rule and frustration in achieving regional or continental unity brought forth increasingly vocal dissent from many groups and leaders who had opposed him in the preindependence elections. After assassination attempts in 1962 and 1964, Nkrumah attempted to increase security by dismissing several high-ranking police and military officials. With Nkrumah out of the country, the military staged a coup on February 23, 1966. Nkrumah spent the rest of his days in Conakry, Guinea, where he died in 1972. The military initiated a parliamentary government in 1969.

Another military takeover followed, in 1972. A series of military governments ruled Ghana until the mid-1990’s when at last a new Constitution and elections restored democracy, and some of the hope for stability and prosperity that had marked the heady independence years of this resource rich nation. Anticolonial movements;Ghana
British Empire;dissolution

Further Reading

  • Austin, Dennis. Politics in Ghana, 1946-60. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964. A classic and detailed work on the politics of Ghanaian independence. Deftly chronicles the emergence of the nationalist movement, the growth of opposition to the Convention People’s Party, and the first three years of independence. The author was present during much of this period and is able to provide credible firsthand accounts of the nationalist movement.
  • Boahen, Adu. Ghana: Evolution and Change in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. London: Longman, 1975. A good account of the major actors and events in Ghanaian history in the past two centuries. The author is a well-known Ghanaian historian, and this book is a compilation of lectures he prepared for secondary schools and colleges in Ghana. It provides an excellent overview and a good bibliography.
  • Crowder, Michael. West Africa Under Colonial Rule. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1968. A comprehensive account of British, French, and German colonialism in West Africa from 1885 until the end of World War II. The best section of the book is the last, which discusses the emergence of nationalist organizations and the changed social and economic conditions wrought by World War II.
  • Fitch, Bob, and Mary Oppenheimer. Ghana: End of an Illusion. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966. An excellent, short account of the struggle for independence in Ghana and an explanation for the coup in 1966. The authors, writing from a Marxist perspective, contend that Nkrumah was hardly a revolutionary and in fact worked closely with British colonial authorities to ensure continuing neocolonial status for Ghana. Concludes that Nkrumah was easily overthrown because he lacked a firm base of support among the working class and peasantry.
  • Li, Anshan. British Rule and Rural Protest in Southern Ghana. New York: P. Lang, 2002. Part of the Society and Politics in Africa series, this work examines the lives of rural Ghanians during the time of British occupation and rule. Focuses on protests and rebellions.
  • Nkrumah, Kwame. Ghana: The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah. New ed. New York: International, 1971. Probably the best of Nkrumah’s writings, which are fairly numerous. Autobiography provides an account of his early years, the chief thinkers who influenced his own political thought, the importance of pan-Africanism, and the struggle for independence.
  • Osei, Akwasi P. Ghana: Recurrence and Change in a Post-Independence African State. New York: P. Lang, 1999. A political history of Ghana since independence. Recommended for readers interested in studying Ghana’s transformation since becoming the first African country to gain independence.
  • Zolberg, Aristide. Creating Political Order: The Party-States of West Africa. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966. An outstanding work that puts the independence of Ghana in context by comparing it to pre- and postindependence politics of four other West African states. Insightful explanations for the emergence of dominant nationalist parties, the move toward one-party states, the sources of opposition to one-party rule, and Zolberg’s characterization of these states as patrimonial.

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