Out of Jail in Ghana

A photograph of a released political prisoner prompts Roger Hudson to survey Ghana’s postcolonial history. 

Friends and relations of a political prisoner just released from jail in Ghana greet him joyfully, February 1966. Harry Dempster/Express/Getty Images

The British colony of the Gold Coast became Ghana in 1957, the first sub-Saharan African nation to achieve independence from its European master, several years before Harold Macmillan made the ‘Winds of Change’ speech that signalled the wholesale end of Empire. That it was a trailblazer was due to its valuable cocoa export crop and, much more, to its charismatic leader, with his great organising ability. After time at university in the US and at the London School of Economics, Nkrumah returned in 1947 and campaigned for the ending of British rule. In 1950 he was imprisoned as leader of a wave of civil disobedience but the following year he was released to become the Gold Coast’s first prime minister after his party’s election victory. 

The orthodoxy among development economists of the time was that only the state, not markets, could bring economic transformation and Nkrumah thought so, too: ‘Capitalism is too complicated a system for a newly independent nation. Hence the need for a socialistic society.’ After independence, marketing boards for cocoa, timber and diamonds were set up as well as many other state bodies. This put a huge measure of control in Nkrumah’s hands, with all the jobs, contracts and licences that could be handed out to cement political support. Cocoa farmers could sell only to the Marketing Board, which kept the price low because its revenues were desperately needed to cover losses elsewhere and to service foreign loans. Predictably, the quantity smuggled out shot up. 

Unrest began in 1960 and, after bombs went off in Accra, there were concerns in the House of Commons about the Queen’s projected visit. Macmillan was desperate not to cancel it for fear of driving Nkrumah into Soviet arms and the Queen took the same view, so it went ahead in 1961, though at the state banquet there were empty places meant for political opponents who had been jailed as a precaution. As political arrests became a regular feature, all the British officers helping train the army were told to leave. By 1964 Ghana was a one-party state and corruption was out of control, as was Nkrumah’s personality cult. His crowning folly was a palace with 60 luxury suites and a banqueting hall for 2,000 built in 1965.

For most of the ten years following the coup Ghana was run by generals, more corrupt even than their predecessors, the civilian ‘big men’. Then in 1975 junior officers led by half-Scottish Flight-Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings took control, executing eight senior officers, including three former heads of state, in public and flogging profiteers. From the lowest of bases things gradually got better. Rawlings remained Ghana’s most powerful man until 2000, when his anointed successor lost the election. From then up to 2014 annual GDP growth averaged 7.4 per cent, regular presidential elections have continued, while in 2007 there was a major offshore oil and gas discovery.