Kwame Nkrumah: Non-Violence of Mahatma Gandhi in Ghana
- Ram Ponnu
At first I could not understand how Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence could possibly effective. It seemed to be utterly feeble and without hope of success. The solution to the colonial problem, as I saw it at that time lay in armed rebellion... After months of studying Gandhi’s policy, and watching the effect it had, I began to see that, when backed by a strong political organisation it could be the solution to the colonial problem.
- Kwame Nkrumah
Ghana, situated on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea was the first black African country south of the Sahara to achieve independence on 6 March 1957 from colonial rule. The colony’s drive for independence was led by nationalist Kwame Nkrumah, who was a Ghanaian politician, an influential advocate of Pan-Africanism, a founding member of the Organization of African Unity, winner of the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962, the first Prime Minister and President of Ghana. He viewed Ghana’s sovereignty as being important not only for the Ghanaian people but for all of Africa, saying “Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.” Indeed, more than 30 other African countries, spurred by Ghana’s example, followed suit and declared their own independence within the next decade. Like Gandhi, he was outraged by the indignities and acts of discrimination perpetrated against his compatriots on racial grounds, and began to formulate plans for the overthrow of colonial rule in Africa as a means of restoring human dignity, freedom and self-respect to the black man. To this end, he devoted much energy and time to the study of revolutionaries and their methods; and among those who fascinated was Mahatma Gandhi.1
Kwame Nkrumah was born on 18th September 1909, at Nkroful, a small village in what was then the British-ruled Gold Coast of West Africa as the son of Nyanibah. The name of his father is not known; most accounts say he was a goldsmith and Kwame Nkrumah’s mother a retail trader. By the naming customs of the Akan people, he was given the name Kwame, the name given to males born on a Saturday.2 Baptized a Roman Catholic, Nkrumah spent nine years at the Roman Catholic elementary school in nearby Half Assini. He was trained as a teacher and worked in a school from 1930-1935. He went to the United States in 1935 for higher studies and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and Sociology from Lincoln University in 1939, an STB (Bachelor of Sacred Theology) in 1942, a Master of Science in Education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1942, and a Master of Arts in Philosophy in 1943. In the US, he was an activist student, organizing a group of expatriate African students in Pennsylvania and building it into the African Students Association of America and Canada, becoming its president. The period of ten years that he spent in the United States would have a lingering effect on the rest of his life. He played a major role in the Pan-African conference held in New York in 1944, which urged the United States, at the end of the Second World War, to help ensure Africa became developed and free3.
Fifth Pan-Africanist Congress
In 1945 Nkrumah played a central role in organizing the Fifth Pan-Africanist Congress in Manchester from 15–19 October 1945 under inspiration from Du Bois who was also present. Padmore, the Trinidad-born activist, and Nkrumah were the leading organisers. At the conference, Gandhi’s satyagraha methods were discussed and “endorsed as the only effective means of making alien rulers respect the wishes of an unarmed subject people”.4 Jomo Kenyatta, a Kenyan anti-colonial activist and politician who governed Kenya as its Prime Minister from 1963 to 1964 was present at this meeting as chairman of the Credentials Committee. Chief Soyemi Coker of Nigeria also pleaded for the adoption of the non-violent methods that had been adopted in India. Nigeria’s Nnamdi Azikiwe, an admirer of Gandhi, was one of the biggest supporters of the conference. Another Nigerian admirer of Gandhi, Obafemi Awolowo, was a delegate. Among the women who were present was Marcus Garvey’s first spouse, Amy Ashwood Garvey. From South Africa, the ANC named Marko Hlubi to the Pan-African Congress. Kwame Nkrumah advocated his idea of "United States of Africa" In the conference5.
United Gold Coast Convention
The United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) was the first mass political party formed in the Gold Coast to spearhead agitations for independence. The UGCC which initially started as a social group of mostly the merchants and educated elite was formed at Saltpond in August 1947. Its slogan was “Self-Government within the shortest possible time”. The chairman of the party was George Grant, better known as Paa Grant, a wealthy businessman who was also the financier of the party. The UGCC quickly attracted a large following, particularly among the elites, chiefs and farmers; but the speed with which the party attracted members created administrative difficulties for the leaders who were mostly professionals and, therefore, only part-time politicians.6 With time, a member of the UGCC Executive, Ako Adjei, proposed the employment of an energetic young man he had met in England, Kwame Nkrumah, as General Secretary of the party, whose return to the Gold Coast costing ₤100 was paid for by Paa Grant. As a full time worker, Kwame Nkrumah was able to devote his full attention to mobilising support across the country. The young Nkrumah arrived at the end of 1947 and soon got down to work. He established the party units in towns and cities to ensure that the party could function effectively. In February 1948, barely two months after he took office, Kwame Nkrumah and five leaders of the UGCC – Edward Akufo-Addo, Emmanuel Obetsebi Lamptey, William Ofori-Atta, Ernest Ako Adjei and Dr. Joseph Boakye Danquah were arrested for the rioting and looting that occurred as a result of the killing of some ex-servicemen who were on a protest march. The ex-servicemen, Sergeant Adjetey, Corporal Attipoe and Private Odartey Lamptey, were fired at and killed and many others injured when they ignored an order to halt at the Osu-Castle crossroads. The incident sparked off further riots and looting of the business establishments of the Europeans and the Syrians as well as the Lebanese in many of the towns in the Gold Coast. By the end of the day, the death toll had reached 29 with 237 injured and property damaged to the tune of ₤2 million. Although it was not the UGCC that had organized the march, political responsibility for what had happened was laid at the doorstep of the Party. The six leaders who have been nicknamed the “Big Six” in the nation’s political history were arrested and sent to prisons across the country.7 After their release, Nkrumah linked up with political youth groups and formed the Committee on Youth Organization (CYO) and established a Newspaper called The Evening News which he used to great advantage to canvass more support for the UGCC. Conflict over strategy, however, soon developed between Kwame Nkrumah and other leaders of the UGCC who felt Nkrumah was pursuing a personal agenda rather than that of the party that employed him.8
Convention People's Party
Nkrumah broke away from the UGCC and formed the Convention People’s Party (CPP) on 12th June 1949 carrying with him most of the young people he had so successfully mobilised. The break-away party of Nkrumah sought to rival the UGCC on many fronts. To that end the CPP was also formed at Saltpond and had as its slogan “Self-Government Now”, more or less an abridged form of the UGCC’s slogan. That naturally, resulted in serious rivalry between the leadership of the two parties. The bad blood between the leaders of the two parties manifested in The Evening News attacks on the leaders of the UGCC, especially Dr Danquah, in the form of allegations of bribe-taking and other dubious practices against the leadership of the UGCC, worsening, thereby, the relationship between the two parties.9
Beginning in April 1949, there was considerable pressure on Nkrumah from his supporters to leave the UGCC and form his own party. On 12 June 1949, he announced the formation of the Convention People's Party (CPP), with the word "convention" chosen, according to Nkrumah, "to carry the masses with us". He indicated that he would be prepared if need be to resort a non-violent Positive Action campaign-his version of satyagraha-‘in an effort to coerce the British government into granting a greater measure of self-government’.10 In a pamphlet entitled What I mean by Positive action read at the West End Arena on 23 October 1949 he described Positive Action as “the adoption of all legitimate and constitutional means by which we could attack the forces of imperialism in the country. The weapons were legitimate political agitation, newspaper and educational campaigns and as a last resort, the constitutional application of strikes, boycotts and non-co-operation based on the principle of absolute non-violence as used by Mahatma Gandhi in India”.11
If Nkrumah was successful, he owed part of his formation, directly or indirectly to Mahatma Gandhi. Nkrumah became a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent strategy of Satyagraha, which he coined as “Positive Action.” “Positive action has already achieved remarkable success in the liberation struggle of our continent and I feel sure that it can further save us from the perils of this atomic arrogance. If the direct action that was carried out by the international protest team were to be repeated on a mass scale, or simultaneously from various parts of Africa, the result could be as powerful and as successful as Gandhi’s historic Salt March. We salute Mahatma Gandhi and we remember, in tribute to him that it was in South Africa that his method of non-violence and non-cooperation was first practiced in the struggle against the vicious race discrimination that still plagues that unhappy country. But now positive action with nonviolence, as advocated by us, has found expression in South Africa in the defiance of the oppressive pass laws. This defiance continues in spite of the murder of unarmed men, women, and children by the South African Government. We are sure that the will of the majority will ultimately prevail, for no government can continue to impose its rule in face of the conscious defiance of the overwhelming masses of its people. There is no force, however impregnable, that a united and determined people cannot overcome”.12
In a statement issued in Accra to mark the 56th anniversary of Positive Action declared by the foremost exponent of African unity and the champion of Ghana’s independence struggle, Kwame Nkrumah, the vibrant Leftist group said “Positive Action goes to prove that non-violent means of struggle against an oppressor class is possible and can also be victorious.”13
Positive Action Day
On 8th January, 1950 Kwame Nkrumah declared Positive Action day, a milestone in the freedom struggle against British Imperialism and the colonial rule. This red letter day signalled the continuation of the struggle and its entry into a decisive stage when the use of non-violent struggle like strikes, boycotts, peaceful demonstrations, non-cooperation were employed by the workers and people of the then Gold Coast led by their vanguard party to fight and eventually expel the foreign colonialists. “Nkrumah’s declaration of Positive Action on January 8, 1950 was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent revolution in India. It constituted the first major political action in the history of the country. It was to bring to an end British colonial rule not only in Ghana, but also in the rest of Africa...The non-compromising non-violent Positive Action was also the second confrontation of this kind that the British government had to face after that of Gandhi in India years earlier.”14 Within a year and a half, the CPP and the people won a great majority at the polls and their leader incarcerated by the British was released to head an African Cabinet in the first internal home rule in Black Africa. Positive Action brought certain awareness to the ordinary person and made it possible for them to take their destiny into their hands and acquire the confidence to stand up for their rights. Positive Action demonstrates that the oppressed masses of Ghana can mobilize themselves to defeat neo-colonial capitalist state and to build a new society based on the principles of social justice and democracy.
J.B. Danquah15 and Nkrumah acknowledged inspiration from Gandhi though they differed in their interpretations. There was even a small sartorial symbolism that underlined a symbiotic connection: “CPP members out of prison sported P.G. (Prison Graduate) caps, which were the Gandhi caps of the Indian struggle with the letters P. G. added”. Nkrumah himself took to wearing the cap. The “caps of the Indian struggle” had themselves originated in the prison dress to which Gandhi and his companions had been familiarised in South Africa.15
Much like Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent strategies, positive action employed the tactics of protest and strike against colonial administration. In 1951 Nkrumah and the CPP received a decisive majority of votes in Ghana’s first general elections, and on 22 March 1952, Nkrumah became the first prime minister of the Gold Coast. It would be five more years before full independence was realized, and the Gold Coast became the self-governed nation of Ghana.
Martin Luther King and his wife Coretta King attended Ghana’s independence ceremony on 6 March 1957, at the invitation of Nkrumah. King was impressed by Nkrumah’s leadership and keenly aware of the parallels between Ghanaian independence and the American civil rights movement. While in Ghana, the Kings shared a private meal with Nkrumah, discussing nonviolence and Nkrumah’s impressions of the United States.16 After returning to the United States, King explained the lessons of Nkrumah and the Ghanaian struggle in a series of speeches and sermons.
King lauded Nkrumah’s leadership through nonviolent positive action. Both men were inspired by the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. In a sermon entitled, ‘‘The Birth of a New Nation,’’ King said of Ghana’s new found independence, ‘‘It reminds us of the fact that a nation or a people can break a loose from oppression without violence’’.17
Mahatma Gandhi was repeatedly stressing the interconnection between Indian and African freedom. As the New Year unfolded, Gandhi, in a discussion with political workers in Bengal, told them: “If India won its freedom through truth and non-violence she would not only point the way to all the exploited Asiatic nations, she would become a torch-bearer for the Negro races that inhabit the vast continent of Africa, and even to Europe”.18
As colonial repression mounted in some parts of Africa, independence dawned in others. The first conference of independent African states was organised in Accra in April 1958. This was followed by the All African Peoples’ Conference, also in Accra, in December 1958. A Nkrumah’s posthumously published work reproduces the provisional agenda prepared for the conference: “The main purpose of the All-African Peoples’ Conference to be held in Accra, Ghana, in December 1958, will be to formulate concrete plans and work out the Gandhian tactics and strategy of the African Non-violent Revolution…”19
Violence was always lurking around the corner. In a pamphlet first written and circulated in the forties, Nkrumah, mentioning the Jallianwala Bagh massacre by British-led troops in Amritsar in 1919, had referred to colonial policy in Africa which “in 1929 mowed down by machine gun fire poor defenceless Nigerian women for peacefully and harmlessly protesting against excessive taxation, the counterpart of India’s Amritsar.”20
On April 7, 1960, in the shadow of the Sharpeville incident in South Africa, Nkrumah addressed the Positive Action Conference for Peace and Security in Africa. “The beginning of the year 1960,” he said, “has seen the climax of ruthless and concerted outrages on the peace-loving people of our continent. The explosion of an atomic device in the Sahara by the French Government and the wanton massacre in the Union of South Africa of our brothers and sisters who were engaged in peaceful demonstrations against humiliating and repulsive laws of the South African Government are two eloquent events in this climax, a climax which is a sign post to the beginning of the end of foreign supremacy and domination in Africa.”21
“Positive action achieved remarkable success in the liberation struggle of African continent and I feel sure that it can further save us from the perils of this atomic arrogance. If the direct action that was carried out by the international protest team were to be repeated on a mass scale, or simultaneously from various parts of Africa, the result could be as powerful and as successful as Gandhi’s historic Salt March. We salute Mahatma Gandhi and we remember, in tribute to him, that it was in South Africa that his method of non-violence and non-cooperation was first practiced in the struggle against the vicious race discrimination that still plagues that unhappy country.22
Later positive action with non-violence has found expression in South Africa in the defiance of the oppressive pass laws. This defiance continues in spite of the murder of unarmed men, women, and children by the South African Government. We are sure that the will of the majority will ultimately prevail, for no government can continue to impose its rule in face of the conscious defiance of the overwhelming masses of its people. There is no force, however impregnable, that a united and determined people cannot overcome.”23
To conclude Nkrumah was totally committed to the liberation of Africa from his student days to his death. The ideals of freedom, equality, independence, and social justice inspired him o lead the struggle for freedom. He envisioned all social groups in African society had a role to play in mobilizing for political independence via a campaign of “Positive Action.” He adopted the Gandhian strategy of boycotts, strikes, leafleting, and educational campaigns included women, youth groups, farmers associations and trade unions. African unity was the only solution by which Africans could regain their respect, dignity and equality in the world. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent campaign of civil disobedience to achieve political ends, he led present-day Ghana to independence in 1957.
Ram Ponnu, Principal (Retd.), Kamarajar Govts. Arts College, Surandai, Tirunelveli Dist., Tamil Nadu. Email: email@example.com