Kwame Nkrumah and the Quest for Independence

Kwame Nkrumah and the Quest for Independence

Rather than taming the sovereign state through regional economic linkages, Nkrumah’s pan-African federation sought to realize the nation-state’s promise of independence.

Kwame Nkrumah in London in 1965 (Photo by Roger Jackson/ Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Depending on whether you looked from the North Atlantic or the Black Atlantic, the year 1957 appeared to signal two different political futures. On March 6, Ghana finally secured its independence from Great Britain after a decade-long nationalist struggle. At the independence celebrations, Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of the Convention People’s Party and the new prime minister, declared that Ghanaian independence marked the birth of a new African “ready to fight his own battles and show that after all, the black man is capable of managing his own affairs.” Less than three weeks later, on March 25, Belgium, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands signed the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community (EEC). For West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the treaty was one more step in “the great work of fostering durable international reconciliation and a community of nations for the good of Europe.” While Ghanaian independence marked the emergence of a world of nation-states from the ashes of European imperialism, the birth of the EEC in empire’s metropoles looked forward to the transcendence of the nation-state itself.

Over half a century later, we continue to operate within the terms of this opposition. As new nationalist movements, this time in the North Atlantic, have repudiated internationalist institutions like the European Union, their critics reject calls for independence and autonomy as fantastical and dangerous. Such a view assumes that nationalism and internationalism are incompatible. Yet if we return to Ghana in 1957 and trace Nkrumah’s vision of decolonization, we find a view of national independence that could only be realized through internationalism. In the early days of independence, Nkrumah insisted that African states had to unite in a regional federation to overcome economic dependence and international hierarchy. Emerging concurrently with the EU, this account of regionalism was distinctively postcolonial. Rather than taming the sovereign state through regional economic linkages, Nkrumah’s pan-African federation sought to realize the nation-state’s promise of independence.

Born in 1909 as a subject of the British Empire in the Gold Coast colony, Nkrumah had circled the Atlantic world as a student, worker, intellectual, and political organizer before he returned to lead the nationalist movement in 1947. When Ghanaian independence was finally achieved, Nkrumah warned that the fight was just beginning. Ghanaian independence, he insisted, “is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.” In seeking this liberation, Nkrumah urged fellow African nationalists to follow the Ghanaian example and “seek ye first the political kingdom” and secure “complete independence and sovereignty.”

Then and now, this nationalist aspiration for complete independen...


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