A Brief History of Ghana

Expectations were high when the country gained independence in 1957

A brief, pictorial history of Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence in 1957. 

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About Ghana

Ghana's Flag: the Pan-Africanist symbols were a key theme of Ghana's history at indepednen
Flag of Ghana. CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Capital: Accra
Government: Parliamentary Democracy
Official Language: English
Largest Ethnic Group: Akan

Date of Independence: March 6,1957
Formerly: the Gold Coast, a British colony

Flag: the three colors (red, green, and black)and the black star in the middle are all symbolic of the pan-Africanist movement, which was a key theme in the early history of Ghana's independence

About Ghana: Information on Travel

Summary of Ghana's history: Much was expected and hoped for from Ghana at independence, but like all new countries during the Cold War, Ghana faced immense challenges. Ghana's first President, Kwame Nkrumah, was ousted nine years after independence, and for the next twenty-five years, Ghana was typically governed by military rulers, with varying economic impacts. The country returned to stable democratic rule in 1992, however, and has built a reputation as a stable, liberal economy.

02
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Independence: Pan-Africanist Optimism

Kwame Nkrumah being carried on men's shoulders at Ghana's Indepdence
Government officials carry Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah on their shoulders after Ghana obtains its independence from Great Britain. Bettman/Getty Images

Ghana’s independence from Britain in 1957 was widely celebrated in the African diaspora. African-Americans, including Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X visited Ghana, and many Africans still struggling for their own independence looked on it as a beacon of the future to come.

Within Ghana, people believed they would finally benefit from the wealth generated by the country's cocoa farming and gold mining industries. 

Much was also expected of Kwame Nkrumah, the charismatic first President of Ghana. He was an experienced politician. He had led the Convention People's Party during the push for independence and served as Prime Minister of the colony from 1954 to 1956, as Britain eased toward independence. He was also an ardent pan-Africanist, and helped found the Organization of African Unity.

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Nkrumah's Single Party State

Protesters for the United Party demand free elections.
17 December 1963: Protesters against the government of Kwame Nkrumah outside the offices of the Ghana High Commission in London. Reg Lancaster/Express/Getty Images

Initially, Nkrumah rode a wave of support in Ghana and the world. Ghana, however, faced all the same, daunting challenges of Independence that would soon be felt across Africa. Among these was its economic dependence on the West.

Nkrumah tried to free Ghana from this dependence by building the Akosambo Dam on the Volta River, but the project put Ghana deeply in debt and created intense opposition. His own party worried the project would increase Ghana's dependence rather than lesson it, and the project also forced the relocation of some 80,000 people.

Additionally, to help pay for the dam, Nkrumah raised taxes, including on cocoa farmers, and this exacerbated tensions between him and the influential farmers.  Like many new African states, Ghana also suffered from regional factionalism, and Nkrumah saw the wealthy farmers, who were regionally concentrated, as a threat to social unity.

In 1964, faced with growing resentment and afraid of internal opposition, Nkrumah pushed a constitutional amendment that made Ghana a one party state, and himself the life president.  

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1966 Coup: Nkrumah Toppled

Toppled statue of Nkrumah during the 1966 coup, one of the defining moments in the history of Ghana
The desolation of lost power, a shattered statue of Kwame Nkrumah, with a forlorn arm pointed skyward in Ghana, 3/2/1966. Express/Archive Photos/Getty Images

As opposition grew, people also complained that Nkrumah was spending too much time building networks and connections abroad and too little time paying attention to his own people's needs. 

​On 24 February 1966, while Kwame Nkrumah was in China, a group of officers led a coup, overthrowing Nkrumah. (He found refuge in Guinea, where fellow pan-Africanist Ahmed Sékou Touré made him honorary co-President). 

The military-police National Liberation Council that took over after the coup promised elections, and after a constitution was drafted for the Second Republic, elections were held in 1969.

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Troubled Economy: the Second Republic and Acheampong Years (1969-1978)

Four delegates standing together. Kufuor and Lothian are smiling; Mensah, the only one in a 3 piece suit, is staring straight into the camera.
Ghana's Debt Conference in London, 7 July 1970. From left to right, John Kufuor, Ghanaian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peter Kerr, Marquess of Lothian, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and chairman of the conference, J. H. Mensah, Ghanaian Minister of Finance and Economic Planning, and James Bottomley, deputy to Lord Lothian. Mike Lawn/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 The Progress Party, headed by Kofi Abrefa Busia, won the 1969 elections. Busia became the Prime Minister, and a Chief Justice, Edward Akufo-Addo became the President. 

Once again people were optimistic and believed the new government would handle Ghana's problems better than Nkrumah's had. Ghana still had high debts, though, and servicing the interest was crippling the country's economy. Cocoa prices were also slumping, and Ghana's share of the market had declined. 

In an attempt to right the boat, Busia implemented austerity measures and devalued the currency, but these moves were deeply unpopular. On 13 January 1972, Lieutenant Colonel Ignatius Kutu Acheampong successfully overthrew the government.

Acheampong rolled back many of the austerity measures, which benefited many people in the short term, but the economy worsened in the long term. Ghana's economy had negative growth, meaning the gross domestic product declined, throughout the 1970s as it had in the late 1960s.

Inflation ran rampant. Between 1976 and 1981, the inflation rate averaged around 50%. In 1981, it was 116%. For most Ghanaian, the basic necessities of life were getting harder and harder to obtain, and minor luxuries were out of reach.

Amidst rising discontent, Acheampong and his staff proposed a Union Government, which was to be a government ruled by the military and civilians. The alternative to the Union Government was continued  military rule. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that the contentious Union Government proposal passed in a 1978 national referendum.

In the lead up to the Union Government elections, Acheampong was replaced by Lieutenant General F. W. K. Affufo and restrictions on political opposition were lessened. 

06
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The Rise of Jerry Rawling

Jerry Rawlings in his flight suit speaking into a microphone with armed soldiers behind him.
Jerry Rawlings Addressing a Crowd, 1981. Bettmann / Getty Images

 As the country prepared for elections in 1979, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings and several other junior officers launched a coup. They weren't successful at first, but another group of officers broke them out of jail. Rawlings made a second, successful coup attempt and overthrew the government.

The reason Rawlings and the other officers gave for taking power just weeks before national elections was that the new Union Government would be no more stable or effective than previous governments.  They were not stopping the elections themselves, but they did execute several members of the military government, including the former leader, General Acheampong, who had already been unseated by Affufo. They also purged the higher ranks of the military. 

After the elections, the new president, Dr. Hilla Limann, forced Rawlings  and his co-officers into retirement, but when the government was unable to fix the economy and corruption continued, Rawlings launched a second coup. On December 31, 1981 he, several other officers, and some civilians seized power again. Rawlings remained Ghana's head of state for the next twenty years. 

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Jerry Rawling's Era (1981-2001)

NDC Billboard for Jerry Rawlings. (A brief history of Ghana)
A billboard with election posters for President Jerry Rawlings of the National Democratic Congress party on a street in Accra, Ghana ahead of the December 1996 Presidential election. Jonathan C. Katzenellenbogen/Getty Images

Rawlings and six other men formed a Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC) with Rawlings as the chair. The "revolution" Rawlings led had Socialist leanings, but it was also a populist movement.

The Council set up local Provisional Defense Committees (PDC) throughout the country. These committees were supposed to create democratic processes at the local level. They were tasked with overseeing the work of administrators and ensuring the decentralization of power. In 1984, the PDCs were replaced by Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. When push came to shove, however, Rawlings and the PNDC balked at decentralizing too much power.

Rawlings' populist touch and charisma won over crowds, and initially he enjoyed support. There was opposition from the beginning, though, and just a few months after the PNDC came to power, they executed several members of an alleged plot to overthrow the government.The harsh treatment of dissidents is one of the primary criticisms made of Rawlings, and there was little freedom of the press in Ghana during this time. 

As Rawlings moved away from his socialist colleagues he gained enormous financial support from Western governments for Ghana. This support was also based on Rawlings' willingness to enact austerity measures, which showed how far the "revolution" had moved from its roots. Eventually, his economic policies brought improvements,  and he is credited with having helped save Ghana's economy from collapse.

In the late 1980s, the PNDC, facing international and internal pressures, began exploring a shift toward democracy. In 1992, a referendum for returning to democracy passed, and political parties were permitted again in Ghana.

In late 1992, elections were held. Rawlings ran for the National Democratic Congress party and won the elections. He was thus the first President of Ghana's Fourth Republic. The opposition had boycotted the elections, though, which undercut the triumph. The 1996 elections that followed, however, were deemed free and fair, and Rawlings won those as well.

The shift to democracy led to further aid from the West and Ghana's economic recovery continued to gain steam in the 8 years of Rawlings' presidential rule.

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Ghana's Democracy and Economy Today

Buildings and Parking lots of PWC and Eni buildings, Brief History of Ghana
PriceWaterhouseCooper and ENI buildings, Accra, Ghana. Self-published work by jbdodane (originally posted to Flickr as 20130914-DSC_2133), CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 In 2000, the true test of Ghana's fourth republic came.  Rawlings was prohibited by term limits from running for President a third time, and it was the opposition party's candidate, John Kufour, who won the Presidential elections. Kufour had run and lost to Rawlings in 1996, and the orderly transition between parties was an important sign of the political stability of Ghana's new republic.

Kufour focused much of his presidency on continuing to develop Ghana's economy and international reputation. He was reelected in 2004. In 2008, John Atta Mills, Rawlings' former Vice-President who had lost to Kufour in the 2000 elections, won the election and became Ghana's next president. He died in office in 2012, and was temporarily replaced by his Vice-President, John Dramani Mahama, who won the subsequent elections called for by the constiution.

Amidst the political stability, however, Ghana's economy has stagnated. In 2007, new oil reserves were discovered, adding to Ghana's wealth in resources, but these have not yet brought a boost to Ghana's economy. The oil discovery has also increased Ghana's economic vulnerability, and the 2015 crash in oil prices decreased revenues.

Despite Nkrumah's efforts to secure Ghana's energy independence through the Akosambo Dam, electricity remains one of Ghana's hurdles more than fifty years later. Ghana's economic outlook may be mixed,but analysts remain hopeful, pointing to the stability and strength of Ghana's democracy and society.  

Ghana is a member of ECOWAS, the African Union, the Commonwealth, and the World Trade Organization.

Sources

CIA, "Ghana," The World Factbook. (Accessed 13 March 2016).

Library of Congress, "Ghana-Historical Background," Country Studies, (Accessed 15 March 2016).

"Rawlings: the Legacy," BBC News, 1 December 2000.