Fifty years ago tomorrow, something remarkable happened: the Gold Coast, a colonial posession of Great Britain, became the independent soverign nation of Ghana under the leadership of Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah. Ghana’s path towards independence became an inspiration for other nations seeking to escape colonial rule, throughout the continent and around the world. Nkrumah wasn’t as successful at governing as he was in the liberation struggle, but his thinking and writing about Pan Africanism had a profound effect on the continent and was the impetus behind the formation of the Organization of African Unity.
The video above showcases some of the most notable moments of Ghana’s path towards independence and Nkrumah’s first steps in governing an independent nation. The soundtrack is “The Birth of Ghana” by Trinidadian musician Lord Kitchener. Kitchener recorded the track in London several months before the formal handover of power – that the song was recorded in London by a Trinidadian musician helps point to the global attention paid to Ghanaian independence and the inspiration the rest of the world took from Ghana’s path to freedom. While British colonial rule had started to crumble with Canada and India’s independence in 1947, Ghana’s succesful struggle for independence started a chain of events that led to the independence of most African colonies of the UK within a decade.
The last fifty years haven’t all been easy ones for Ghana. Nkrumah’s leadership became increasingly dictatorial as he confronted the economic challenges of industrializing Ghana. When his government fell in 1966, it started an ugly sequence of military governments, featuring four coup d’état and some truly atrocious governance. When Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings took power for the second time in 1981, it was hard to believe that the situation was going to get much better.
Slowly but surely it has. In the early 1980s, Ghana experienced inflation of roughly 100% a year while simultaneously being buffeted by shocks in commodity prices (Ghana’s economy relies heavily on gold and cocoa, so tends to experience rough sailing when those prices fall in global markets.) My friends who lived through those years in Ghana talk about shops that were literally empty, and the need to travel by bus to bordering nations to buy basic goods – my friend Fortune speaks half a dozen languages as a legacy of learning how to bargain in markets from Sierra Leone to Nigeria. Rawlings never managed to sound like a economic liberal, but he followed a great deal of the IMF’s advice while simultaneously courting Qaddafi and other post-colonial leaders.
When Rawlings stepped down and John Kufuor was elected in 2000, the economic situation looked promising – now it looks downright exciting. Rawlings oversaw two decades of modest (4%) growth, and Kufour has presided over stronger growth, including 6.2% growth in 2006. As a result, Ghana’s one of the few nations on track to reach its Millenium Development Goals. 51.7% of Ghanaians lived on less than a dollar a day in 1990 – that number is now down to 33.4%, and it’s realistic to believe that it will be less than 26% (the target) in 2015 – Ghana has already reached its target for halving the percentage of people who suffer from hunger. The overall picture is that of a nation that will reach middle-income status in the next decade.
Anyone who’s studied development economics is painfully aware that South Korea also achieved independence in 1957, had fewer natural resources than Ghana and has achieved a much higher level of economic development. Depending on your school of economic thought, you can blame the disparity on Ghana’s embrace of socialism, cultural differences between the nations, the tragic political and economic circumstances of Ghana’s neighbors, US military presence in Korea, or about a dozen other possible explanations. Whatever you do, don’t expect Ghanaians to be enthusiastic about having this particular conversation with you – as E.K. Bensah points out in his pre-independence day roundup of the Ghanaian blogosphere, “Ghanaians are bound to groan collectively upon hearing such arguments that, sadly, might continue in any analysis of the country by non-Africans!”
Ghana’s got a lot to be proud of as it celebrates 50 years of independence: Kofi Annan’s leadership of the UN, Ghana’s pivotal role in regional and international peacekeeping efforts, hosting of the 2008 Africa’s Cup and success in World Cup football, one of the world’s best performing stock exchanges, and critically, the lack of religious and ethnic tension in a region fraught with civil conflict. And it’s got a lot of challenges going forward – with 40% of the population under the age of 15, it’s worth asking whether Ghana can survive without industrializing rapidly or without ensuring that young Ghanaians can participate in the information economy. And former President Rawlings is very publicly not participating in independence ceremonies, with complaints about poor governance and oblique references to his first coup: “…the spontaneous uprising in June 4, 1979, which attempted to wrestle freedom and justice this time from Black Neo-colonial rule.” (That said, the main opposition party is participating, which I take as a very encouraging sign.)
Despite this disagreement – or perhaps because it’s so easy to disagree in Ghana these days – Ghana remains a country that’s easy to fall in love with. I came to Accra in 1993 knowing nothing about Ghana, Africa, economics, or really anything other than a couple of drumming patterns. My fascination with the country and the friendships I formed fourteen years ago have basically shaped my professional career, a fact for which I’m perpetually grateful. And I’m deeply sorry not to be in Accra for tomorrow’s celebration, but I’m planning on flying from Albany to San Jose (for the TED conference) wearing my Black Stars jersey with pride. God bless Ghana and congratulations on 50 years of independence.