Who was Kwame Nkrumah, leader of the first independent African country

African organizations preserve the memory of one of the most remarkable revolutionaries in the continent

Accra, Ghana |
Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra, capital of Ghana
Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra, capital of Ghana - Nina Fideles

“We have awakened. We will not sleep anymore. Today, from now on, there is a new African in the world! Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa.”

With those words, African political leader Kwame Nkrumah ended an independence speech in Ghana on March 6th, 1957. It was the first country in the African continent to break free from British rule, influencing the independence process in the entire region.

To this day, Nkrumah’s words and contributions are an inspiration to the more than 400 delegates from 50 countries who took part in the 3rd Pan Africanism Today Conference last week in Winneba, Ghana.

A demonstration to celebrate Nkrumah was held at the University of Education on Friday, as Sep. 21 marks the birthday of Ghana’s independence leader and is a national holiday in the country, known as Founder’s Day. His son, 90-year-old professor Francis Nkrumah, attended the ceremony along with African political leaders.

Fred M’membe, general secretary of the Socialist Party of Zambia, pointed out how important the quest for unity in Africa is.

“Those who thought we were totally defeated and that was the end of Nkrumah’s ideas were mistaken. The revolutionary process started by Nkrumah six decades ago is being resurrected today, right here in Ghana. Capitalism has no answer to the problems facing humanity today,” he said.

The founder

A Pan-Africanist and socialist, Kwame Nkrumah was born in Nkroful, a village in southern Ghana. He graduated in the 1950s from the University of Pennsylvania, in the United States, where he would later become a lecturer.

Back then, Pan-Africanism was emerging as a sociocultural movement, as names such as Jamaican Marcus Garvey and US-born W.E.B. Du Bois were establishing the theoretical framework for the movement.

After living in the United States, Nkrumah moved to London, England, where he started to fight for unity in the African continent.

His experience and the contact with Pan-Africanist thinkers inflienced him to establish the Convention People's Party (CPP) in 1949, the party that spearheaded the liberation process in the then-called Gold Cost.

When Ghana became independent, in 1957, Nkrumah was hailed as the “Osagyefo,” a title meaning a leader who has been victorious. He took over as president three years later, in 1960.

For his foreign affairs policy, Nkrumah supported subsequent independence processes across the continent, and endorsed direct relations with revolutionary leaders such as Patrice Lumumba, in Congo, and also in Latin America, for example, with Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

Muryatan Barbosa, a Brazilian professor and postdoctoral scholar in History of Africa, told Brasil de Fato that Nkrumah advocated for a decolonization that could lead to a unified Africa, beyond national issues.
“This gave new meaning to the Pan-Africanist struggle,” the professor said. “Nkrumah said it should happen fast, while others argued it should be a gradual process.”

After assuming office, Nkrumah attempted to industrialize the economy to reduce Ghana’s dependence on foreign capital. He believed that was the only way the country could break off from new forms of colonialism. However, with numerous constructions projects in progress and a fragile economy, the country was quickly driven into debt.

That was the reason given for his ousting by a military coup in 1966. He went into exile in Conakry, Guinea, where he helped the country in its own independence process. Later, he was named honorary co-president by Guinean president Ahmed Sékou Touré.

Memory and coup

After the coup in Ghana, the military authorities ordered the destruction of all statues in Nkrumah’s honor, tearing down heads and arms. Some of these damaged figures are still found in the capital of the country, Accra. This was a way the country found to perpetuate the memory from the brutal times of the coup.

It was also in the post-coup era that Nkrumah started to identify as a Marxist Socialist, according to Muryatan Barbosa. “From that point on, until his death in 1972, he advocated for this idea of a class-based Pan-Africanism, strictly speaking. That echoed in the diaspora, the Black Panthers. Of course, there were ideas forming before that, and by the end of the 1960s-70s, that brought Pan-Africanism and Marxism closer together, as conversations about class developed,” he said.

The attempt to erase history also reached the realm of ideology. Fred M’membe says they tried to water down Nkrumah’s radical image.

“They started to create a new Nkrumah for us, a Nkrumah who was not a socialist, a Nkrumah who was not a communist, a Nkrumah who they called a Pan-Africanist; meaning something else. [But] we are here to reclaim, to redefine and to chart a new path for the Nkrumah we know,” he said. “We’re not here to reform capitalism. We’re here to build a socialist future for our continent and the whole world.”


While Nkrumah spent his life pursuing a utopian practice, he was also a Pan-Africanist theorist. In exile, he wrote dozens of books, including Neo-Colonialism: the Last Stage of Imperialism, Dark Days in Ghana, and Class Struggle in Africa, the only one of his books ever published in Brazil.

To promote the legacy of one of the most prominent post-war (after 1945) Pan-Africanist leaders, the Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and the Socialist Party of Zambia founded the Nkrumah School. The school welcomes people from all over the continent and offers academic and political education. The school, NUMSA’s Carl Cloete says, was born out of the understanding that there is a revolutionary duty to educate activists like president Nkrumah.

After a life-time pursuing a Utopian socialist practice and unified Africa, Nkrumah died in Bucharest, Romania, in April 1972.

Edited by: Nina Fideles | Translated by Aline Scátola