Overthrow of Nkrumah in Ghana Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah marked a turning point in Ghana’s history as well as the history of Africa as a region. The event betrayed the fragility of the African state and the tendency for the military to seize power at the slightest opportunity. The event also revealed the overwhelming ability of the Western powers to subvert antagonistic rulers in the region.

Summary of Event

The overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, in a coup d’état in February, 1966, remains a controversial subject over which most scholars, pundits, politicians, and others cannot easily agree. From the account of the military leaders who overthrew President Nkrumah, it is clear that they were motivated by what they considered the Nkrumah administration’s political corruption. Leaders of the coup—including army officers Colonel Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka, Major Akwasi Afrifa, Lieutenant General (retired) Jospeh Arthur Ankrah, and Police Inspector General John Willie Kofi Harlley—asserted during various news broadcasts that the takeover was precipitated by the corruption and abuse of office by Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party Convention People’s Party, Ghanaian[Convention Peoples Party, Ghanaian] (CPP) administration. They also stated that they were displeased by Nkrumah’s extensive involvement in African politics, including his promise to commit Ghanaian troops to liberation struggles elsewhere in Africa. The coup plotters noted what they considered to be the absence of proper democratic practices by Nkrumah. They claimed that Nkrumah’s policies had lowered the morale of the armed forces and had generated widespread public disaffection. In the words of General Kotoka, the military coup of 1966 was a nationalist one because “it liberated the nation from Nkrumah’s dictatorship.” Revolutions and coups;Ghana Ghana [kw]Overthrow of Nkrumah in Ghana (Feb. 24, 1966) [kw]Nkrumah in Ghana, Overthrow of (Feb. 24, 1966) [kw]Ghana, Overthrow of Nkrumah in (Feb. 24, 1966) Revolutions and coups;Ghana Ghana [g]Africa;Feb. 24, 1966: Overthrow of Nkrumah in Ghana[08830] [g]Ghana;Feb. 24, 1966: Overthrow of Nkrumah in Ghana[08830] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 24, 1966: Overthrow of Nkrumah in Ghana[08830] [c]Cold War;Feb. 24, 1966: Overthrow of Nkrumah in Ghana[08830] Nkrumah, Kwame Afrifa, Akwasi Kotoka, Emmanuel Kwasi Ankrah, Joseph Arthur Harlley, John Willie Kofi

Another school of thought contends that the United States and other Western powers actively colluded with the disgruntled military rulers to ensure the overthrow of the Nkrumah regime. For example, the historian, filmmaker, and freelance writer Paul Lee—director of Best Efforts, Inc., a “professional research and consulting service that specializes in the recovery, preservation, and dissemination of global black history and culture”—asserts that declassified documents of the U.S. National Security Council and Central Intelligence Agency Central Intelligence Agency;Ghana (CIA) now provide compelling evidence of U.S. government involvement in the 1966 overthrow of Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah. According to Lee, the documents appeared in a collection of diplomatic and intelligence memos, telegrams, and reports on Africa in Foreign Relations of the United States (an ongoing multivolume series of U.S. government publications that presents the official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity) and reflect the overt diplomacy and covert actions of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration from 1964 to 1968. Though published in November of 1999, what they reveal about U.S. complicity in the coup was noted only some years later. In addition, almost immediately after the coup, commentators conjectured about U.S. involvement in the putsch, given the United States’ well-known hostility toward Nkrumah’s socialist orientation and pan-African activism.

Nkrumah, for his part, also implicated the United States in his overthrow and advised other African leaders against being caught in what he considered an emerging pattern of unfettered Western interference in African politics. Writing in Dark Days in Ghana Dark Days in Ghana (Nkrumah) (1968), his account of the coup, Nkrumah stated:

An all-out offensive is being waged against the progressive, independent states [of Africa]. . . . It has been one of the tasks of the C.I.A. and other similar organisations 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.

Kwame Nkrumah.

(Library of Congress)

Despite these divergent and persuasive viewpoints, it was clear by the time of the coup that the Nkrumah administration had become captive to a number of challenges, many of them internal, for which there were no easy solutions. Furthermore, the highly publicized ideological views of Nkrumah on the raging conflicts between the East and West during the Cold War Cold War;Africa did not make matters easier for a nation that had recently gained its independence from Great Britain, one of the leading powers of the West. Invariably, Nkrumah’s charisma and abilities to persuade, which had earned him high public acclaim in the earlier years, waned as some of the administration’s economic and political policies fell short of the people’s expectations. Ironically, the same forces that had catapulted Nkrumah to lofty heights in public opinion soon turned against him as he battled tougher opposition to his policies by taking draconian measures that, in turn, irritated the public and swelled the ranks of his detractors.

On coming into office, Nkrumah said that his government—in the first black African nation to win independence—had an important role to play in the struggle against capitalist interests on the continent: “[T]he independence of Ghana would be meaningless unless it was tied to the total liberation of Africa.” He then urged Ghanaians to “seek first the political kingdom”; the economic benefits associated with independence were to be enjoyed later. In many of his highly publicized writings, Nkrumah said his objective was to implement rapid modernization of industries and communications, which he saw as the necessary foundation for the country’s development. This objective, he also noted, could be achieved only with a workforce that was completely Africanized and educated.

In efforts to dislodge his opponents, Nkrumah and his supporters put in place a series of laws to consolidate their position in government. Accordingly, Ghana’s parliament passed the Deportation Act of 1957 and the Detention Acts of 1958 and 1959, and in 1962 the CPP-dominated parliament installed Nkrumah as president for life and established the CPP as the sole political organization of the state. Other measures—which included the creation of the Young Pioneer Movement, for the ideological education of the nation’s youth, and the party’s control of the civil service—soon followed.

The government embarked on a massive road-building project and pursued ambitious general education and health programs for adults and children. In pursuit of its objectives for modernization and self-sufficiency in hydroelectric power and agriculture, the Nkrumah administration embarked on perhaps the most expensive project of all: the construction of Akosombo Dam. Akosombo Dam On the African front, Nkrumah presented a pan-Africanist platform urging all African leaders to unite to forge a collective defense against international economic interests and the political pressures from both East and West at the height of the Cold War.

It is often argued that the lofty objectives of the Nkrumah administration resulted in very serious financial burdens, untold economic hardship, and a growing, virulent, and aggressive opposition to his development policies and the pan-African experiment. As a countermeasure against an economic slump, the Nkrumah administration in July, 1961, formed the country’s first austerity budget. The government’s demand for increased taxes and a forced savings program drew a large number of protesters to the streets of Accra, the nation’s capital.

Nkrumah’s campaign to end corruption in the government and the dominant CPP backfired and gave more ammunition to those who had earlier accused the government of abuse of power and political corruption. The lines of protesters grew. To make matters worse, a drop in the price of cocoa in the international market forced the government to lower the price of cocoa paid to the individual farmers—which further inflamed the already poor relations between the pubic and the Nkrumah regime.


The overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah was significant in African politics because it marked a critical period in the continental experience in testing the limits, strengths, and weaknesses of newly independent nations of Africa. Nkrumah, through his boldness and sheer courage, was able to test the limits of the powers against Western opposition, much to the amazement and confusion of Western powers.

Beyond trying to provide an authentic African-centered strategy to address African issues, the Nkrumah administration proved the enormity in the challenge of modernity and industrialization in Africa. Furthermore, the weakness of African states and their susceptibility to military coups d’etat could not have been more clearly exemplified than in the overthrow of the Nkrumah administration. As Nkrumah predicted, the coup heralded a new era in Africa politics that witnessed the military overthrow of many other civilian regimes throughout the continent.

As many scholars have observed, African nation-states have tended to develop autocratic rules which are driven by a tendency toward a lone political party dominating the public arena. Invariably, this concentration of power—either in an individual or in a small group—tends to negate popular consent and popular acceptance. In due course, popular rejection of such dominant political regimes had led to their demise. Nkrumah’s overthrow was a lightning rod that in many ways both illustrated and elucidated this pattern. Revolutions and coups;Ghana Ghana

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Birmingham, David. Kwame Nkrumah: The Father of African Nationalism. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998. A concise biography from youth through retirement, with a chronology, a map of Ghana, notes, a bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boateng, Charles Adom. The Political Legacy of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. African Studies 66. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2003. A careful study of the nexus between Nkrumah’s personality, his Marxian intellectual heritage, theories of colonialism, the national development of Ghana, pan-Africanism, and the global geopolitical context. Notes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hadjor, Kofi Buenor. Nkrumah and Ghana: The Dilemma of Post-colonial Power. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2003. Journalist Hadjor, a press aide to Nkrumah who later taught at several universities in both North America and Africa, asserts that although Nkrumah’s experiment failed as a result of mistakes unavoidable during his time, he was ahead of his time; his legacy continues to have an impact on African politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nkrumah, Kwame. Africa Must Unite. New York: Praeger, 1963. In his own words Kwame Nkrumah outlines his dream of a united Africa as a panacea for modernization, political, economic, and development problems in the continent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Axioms of Kwame Nkrumah. London: Nelson, 1967. Contains short extracts from the writings and speeches of the foremost exponent of African liberation, unity, and socialism. A must read for every African freedom fighter, and essential reading for all interested in the principles underlying the African revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Challenge of the Congo. New York: International, 1967. Presents a case study of foreign pressures in an independent state. The account chronicles a crucial period in the history of the Republic of Congo and sheds new light on the struggles in Katanga’s bid for secession and the failure of the U.N. effort to arrest the situation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Class Struggle in Africa. New York: International, 1970. Reveals the nature and extent of the class struggle in Africa, and sets it in the broad context of the African revolution and the world socialist revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonisation. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970. Nkrumah expresses his philosophical beliefs and relates them to the special problems of Africa, stating his case for scientific socialism as the essential and logical development from Africa’s sociopolitical heritage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Dark Days in Ghana. New York: International, 1968. An analysis of the military police dictatorship which was established in Ghana after the overthrow on February 24, 1966, of Kwame Nkrumah’s constitutional government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Poe, Daryl Zizwe. Kwame Nkrumah’s Contribution to Pan-Africanism: An Afrocentric Analysis. New York: Routledge, 2003. A detailed survey and analysis of pan-Africanism in the light of Nkrumah’s thought. Includes definitions of key terms and concepts, a review of source literature (including primary sources by Nkrumah), a survey of African and Ghanaian history, an “Afrocentric summary of Nkrumah’s major contributions,” notes, works cited, and index.

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