Date of birth : 1909-09-21
Date of death : 1972-04-27
Birthplace : Nkroful, Gold Coast
Nationality : Ghanaian
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2011-10-12
Credited as : president of Ghana, Nzima tribe, Ghana’s independence
Early life and education
Kwame Nkrumah was born in about 1909 in Nkroful, Gold Coast (later known as Ghana ) to a poor and illiterate family. Nkroful was a small village in the Nzema area, in the far southwest of the Gold Coast, close to the frontier with the French colony of the Ivory Coast. His father did not live with the family, but worked in Half Assini where he pursued his goldsmith business until his death. Kwame Nkrumah was raised by his mother and his extended family, who lived together in traditional fashion, with more distant relatives often visiting. He lived a carefree childhood, spent in the village, in the bush, and on the nearby sea. By the naming customs of the Akan people, he was given the name Kwame, the name given to males born on a Saturday(depending on the tribe i.e. Ashanti or Fante). During his years as a student in the United States, though, he was known as Francis Nwia Kofi Nkrumah – Kofi is the name given to males born on Friday. He later changed his name to Kwame Nkrumah in 1945 in the UK, preferring the name “Kwame”. According to Ebenezer Obiri Addo in his study of the future president, the name “Nkrumah”, a name traditionally given to a ninth child, indicates that Kwame likely held that place in the house of his father, who had several wives. The name of his father is not known exactly; with most accounts only indicating that he was a goldsmith. But according to a Times newspaper interview, his father was Opanyin Kofi Nwiana Ngolomah, who hailed from Nkroful and belongs to Akan tribe of the Asona clan but stayed at Tarkwa-Nsuaem where he practiced his goldsmith business. Opanyin Ngolomah was respected for his wise counsel by those who sought his advice on traditional issues and domestic affairs; he died in 1927.
Kwame was the only child of his mother.[b]–
Nkrumah’s mother sent him to the elementary school run by a Catholic mission at Half Assini, where he proved an adept student.– A German Roman Catholic priest by the name of George Fischer was said to have profoundly influenced his elementary school education. Although his mother, whose name was Elizabeth Nyanibah (1876/77–1979), later stated his year of birth was 1912, Nkrumah wrote that he was born on 18 September 1909, a Saturday. Nyanibah, who hailed from Nsuaem and belongs to the Agona family, was a fishmonger and petty trader when she married his father. After eight days of his birth, his father named him as Francis Nwia-Kofi after a relative but later his parents named him as Francis Kwame Ngolomah. He progressed through the ten-year elementary programme in eight years. By about 1925 he was a student-teacher in the school, and had been baptised into the Catholic faith. While at the school, he was noticed by the Reverend Alec Garden Fraser, principal of the Government Training College (soon to become Achimota School) in the Gold Coast’s capital, Accra. Fraser arranged for Nkrumah to train as a teacher at his school.– Here, Columbia-educated deputy headmaster Kwegyir Aggrey exposed him to the ideas of Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois. Aggrey, Fraser, and others at Achimota taught that there should be close co-operation between the races in governing the Gold Coast, but Nkrumah, echoing Garvey, soon came to believe that only when the black race governed itself could there be harmony between the races.–
After obtaining his Teacher’s Certificate from the Prince of Wales’ College at Achimota in 1930, Nkrumah was given a teaching post at the Roman Catholic primary school in Elmina in 1931, and after a year there, was made headmaster of the school at Axim. In Axim, he started to get involved in politics and founded the Nzima Literary Society. In 1933, he was appointed a teacher at the Catholic seminary at Amissano. Although the life there was strict, he liked it, and considered becoming a Jesuit. Nkrumah had heard journalist and future Nigerian president Nnamdi Azikiwe speak while a student at Achimota; the two men met and Azikiwe’s influence increased Nkrumah’s interest in black nationalism. The young teacher decided to further his education. Azikiwe had attended Lincoln College, a historically black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania, west of Philadelphia, and he advised Nkrumah to enroll there. Nkrumah, who had failed the entrance examination for London University, gained funds for the trip and his education from relatives. He traveled by way of Britain, where he learned, to his outrage, of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, one of the few independent African nations. He arrived in the United States, in October 1935.–
Nkrumah married Fathia Ritzk, an Egyptian Coptic bank worker and former teacher, on the evening of her arrival in Ghana: New Year’s Eve, 1957–1958. Fathia’s mother refused to bless their marriage, due to reluctance to see another one of her children leave with a foreign husband.
As a married couple, the Nkrumah family had three children: Gamal (born 1959), Samia (born 1960), and Sekou (born 1963). Gamal is a newspaper journalist, while Samia and Sekou are politicians. Nkrumah also has another son, Francis, a paediatrician (born 1962). There appears to be another son, Onsy Anwar Nathan Kwame Nkrumah, born to an Egyptian mother and an additional daughter, Elizabeth. Onsy’s claim to be Nkrumah’s son is disputed by Nkrumah’s other children.
Nkrumah is played by Danny Sapani in the Netflix television series The Crown (season 2, episode 8 “Dear Mrs Kennedy”). The portrayal of the historical significance of the queen’s dance with Nkrumah in the show has been refuted as over exaggerated.
Nkrumah called himself “a scientific socialist and a Marxist” and is considered relatively orthodox in his Marxism–Leninism. He generally took a non-aligned Marxist perspective on economics, and believed capitalism had malignant effects that were going to stay with Africa for a long time. Although he was clear on distancing himself from the African socialism of many of his contemporaries, Nkrumah argued that socialism was the system that would best accommodate the changes that capitalism had brought, while still respecting African values. He specifically addresses these issues and his politics in a 1967 essay entitled “African Socialism Revisited”:
We know that the traditional African society was founded on principles of egalitarianism. In its actual workings, however, it had various shortcomings. Its humanist impulse, nevertheless, is something that continues to urge us towards our all-African socialist reconstruction. We postulate each man to be an end in himself, not merely a means; and we accept the necessity of guaranteeing each man equal opportunities for his development. The implications of this for socio-political practice have to be worked out scientifically, and the necessary social and economic policies pursued with resolution. Any meaningful humanism must begin from egalitarianism and must lead to objectively chosen policies for safeguarding and sustaining egalitarianism. Hence, socialism. Hence, also, scientific socialism.
Nkrumah was also best-known politically for his strong commitment to and promotion of pan-Africanism. He was inspired by the writings of black intellectuals such as Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and George Padmore, and his relationships with them. Much of his understanding and relationship to these men was created during his years in America as a student. Some would argue that his greatest inspiration was Marcus Garvey, although he also had a meaningful relationship with C. L. R. James. Nkrumah looked to these men in order to craft a general solution to the ills of Africa. To follow in these intellectual footsteps Nkrumah had intended to continue his education in London, but found himself involved in direct activism. Then, motivated by advice from Du Bois, Nkrumah decided to focus on creating peace in Africa. He became a passionate advocate of the “African Personality” embodied in the slogan “Africa for the Africans” earlier popularised by Edward Wilmont Blyden and he viewed political independence as a prerequisite for economic independence. Nkrumah’s dedications to pan-Africanism in action attracted these intellectuals to his Ghanaian projects. Many Americans, such as Du Bois and Kwame Ture, moved to Ghana to join him in his efforts. These men are buried there today. His press officer for six years was the Grenadian anticolonialist Sam Morris. Nkrumah’s biggest success in this area was his significant influence in the founding of the Organisation of African Unity.
Nkrumah also became a symbol for black liberation in the United States. When in 1958 the Harlem Lawyers Association had an event in Nkrumah’s honour, diplomat Ralph Bunche told him:
We salute you, Kwame Nkrumah, not only because you are Prime Minister of Ghana, although this is cause enough. We salute you because you are a true and living representation of our hopes and ideals, of the determination we have to be accepted fully as equal beings, of the pride we have held and nurtured in our African origin, of the freedom of which we know we are capable, of the freedom in which we believe, of the dignity imperative to our stature as men.
In 1961 Nkrumah delivered a speech called “I Speak Of Freedom”. During this speech he talked about how “Africa could become one of the greatest forces for good in the world”. He mentions how Africa is a land of “vast riches” with mineral resources from that “range from gold and diamonds to uranium and petroleum”. Nkrumah says that the reason Africa isn’t thriving right now is because the European powers have been taking all the wealth for themselves. If Africa could be independent of European rule then it could truly flourish and contribute positively to the world. In the ending words of this speech Nkrumah calls his people to action by saying “This is our chance. We must act now. Tomorrow may be too late and the opportunity will have passed, and with it the hope of free Africa’s survival”. This rallied the nation in a nationalistic movement
Nkrumah promoted pan-African culture, calling for international libraries and cooperative efforts to study history and culture. He decried the norms of white supremacy and Eurocentrism imposed by British textbooks and cultural institutions. He wore a traditional northern robe, fugu, but donned Kente cloth, from the south, for ceremonies, in order to symbolise his identity as a representative of the whole country. He oversaw the opening of the Ghana Museum on 5 March 1957; the Arts Council of Ghana, a wing of the Ministry of Education and Culture, in 1958; the Research Library on African Affairs in June, 1961; and the Ghana Film Corporation in 1964. In 1962, Nkrumah opened the Institute of African Studies.
A campaign against nudity in the northern part of the country received special attention from Nkrumah, who reportedly deployed Propaganda Secretary Hannah Cudjoe to respond. Cudjoe also formed the Ghana Women’s League, which advanced the Party’s agenda on nutrition, raising children, and wearing clothing. The League also led a demonstration against the detonation of French nuclear weapons in the Sahara. Cudjoe was eventually demoted with the consolidation of national women’s groups, and marginalised within the Party structure.
Laws passed in 1959 and 1960 designated special positions in parliament to be held by women. Some women were promoted to the CPP Central Committee. Women attended more universities, took up more professions including medicine and law, and went on professional trips to Israel, the Soviet Union, and the Eastern Bloc. Women also entered the army and air force. Most women remained in agriculture and trade; some received assistance from the Co-operative Movement.
Nkrumah’s image was widely disseminated, for example, on postage stamps and on money, in the style of monarchs – providing fodder for accusations of a Nkrumahist personality cult.
In 1957, Nkrumah created a well-funded Ghana News Agency to generate domestic news and disseminate it abroad. In ten years time the GNA had 8045 km of domestic telegraph line, and maintained stations in Lagos, Nairobi, London, and New York City.
To the true African journalist, his newspaper is a collective organiser, a collective instrument of mobilisation and a collective educator—a weapon, first and foremost, to overthrow colonialism and imperialism and to assist total African independence and unity.
— Kwame Nkrumah at the Second Conference of African Journalists; Accra, November 11, 1963
Nkrumah consolidated state control over newspapers, establishing the Ghanaian Times in 1958 and then in 1962 obtaining its competitor, the Daily Graphic, from the Mirror Group of London. As he wrote in Africa Must Unite: “It is part of our revolutionary credo that within the competitive system of capitalism, the press cannot function in accordance with a strict regard for the sacredness of facts, and that the press, therefore, should not remain in private hands.” Starting in 1960, he invoked the right of pre-publication censorship of all news.
The Gold Coast Broadcasting Service was established in 1954 and revamped as the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC). Many television broadcasts featured Nkrumah, commenting for example on the problematic “insolence and laziness of boys and girls”. Before celebrations of May Day, 1963, Nkrumah went on television to announce the expansion of Ghana’s Young Pioneers, the introduction of a National Pledge, the beginning of a National Flag salute in schools, and the creation of a National Training program to inculcate virtue and the spirit of service among Ghanaian youth. Quoth Nkrumah (to Parliament, on 15 October 1963), “Ghana’s television will not cater for cheap entertainment or commercialism; its paramount objective will be education in its broadest and purest sense.”
As per the 1965 Instrument of Incorporation of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting had “powers of direction” over the media, and the President had the power “at any time, if he is satisfied that it is in the national interest to do so, take over the control and management of the affairs or any part of the functions of the Corporation,” hiring, firing, reorganising, and making other commands at will.
Radio programs, designed in part to reach non-reading members of the public, were a major focus of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation. In 1961, the GBC formed an external service broadcasting in English, French, Arabic, Swahili, Portuguese, and Hausa. Using four 100-kilowatt transmitters and two 250-kilowatt transmitters, the GBC External Service broadcast 110 hours of Pan-Africanist programming to Africa and Europe each week.
He refused advertising in all media, beginning with the Evening News of 1948.
Exile, death, tributes and legacy
Kwame Nkrumah’s grave inside the Kwame Nkrumah memorial in Accra
Nkrumah never returned to Ghana, but he continued to push for his vision of African unity. He lived in exile in Conakry, Guinea, as the guest of President Ahmed Sékou Touré, who made him honorary co-president of the country. Nkrumah read, wrote, corresponded, gardened, and entertained guests. Despite retirement from public office, he felt that he was still threatened by Western intelligence agencies. When his cook died mysteriously, he feared that someone would poison him, and began hoarding food in his room. He suspected that foreign agents were going through his mail, and lived in constant fear of abduction and assassination. In failing health, he flew to Bucharest, Romania, for medical treatment in August 1971. He died of prostate cancer in April 1972 at the age of 62.
Nkrumah was buried in a tomb in the village of his birth, Nkroful, Ghana. While the tomb remains in Nkroful, his remains were transferred to a large national memorial tomb and park in Accra.
Over his lifetime, Nkrumah was awarded honorary doctorates by many universities including Lincoln University (Pennsylvania), Moscow State University (USSR), Cairo University (Egypt), Jagiellonian University (Poland) and Humboldt University (East Germany).
In 2000, he was voted African Man of the Millennium by listeners to the BBC World Service, being described by the BBC as a “Hero of Independence”, and an “International symbol of freedom as the leader of the first black African country to shake off the chains of colonial rule.”
According to intelligence documents released by the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Historian, “Nkrumah was doing more to undermine [U.S. government] interests than any other black African.”
In September 2009, President John Atta Mills declared 21 September (the 100th anniversary of Kwame Nkrumah’s birth) to be Founder’s Day, a statutory holiday in Ghana to celebrate the legacy of Kwame Nkrumah.