Kwame Nkrumah and the Quest for Independence

Kwame Nkrumah and the Quest for Independence

If the nation-state had failed to overcome the problem of colonial dependence, then the postcolonial political kingdom had to be reimagined. Nkrumah’s vision of pan-African federation was an effort to do just that.

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 independence inspires skepticism, suspicion, even disdain. Writing in 1960, Elie Kedourie, the British historian of the Middle East, voiced his fear that this nationalist demand would only produce postcolonial domination. He and other observers of decolonization worried that colonial elites had grafted the nation-state onto African and Asian societies without the necessary sociological prerequisites: literacy, a middle class, and strong political institutions. Nationalism was, in Kedourie’s account, an alien, European ideology that elites mobilized to “sway and dominate” the unready masses. The result in postcolonial societies would be new forms of Oriental despotism. “Nationalism and liberalism far from being twins are really antagonistic principles,” he wrote. Kedourie’s early critique of anticolonial nationalism lives on today in the preoccupation with the insularity, parochialism, and anti-cosmopolitanism of nationalist projects. At best, national independence is a naïve aspiration in the context of globalization. At worst, nationalism is a violent force that undermines transnational solidarities and institutions.

For Nkrumah, nothing could have been further from the truth. When he argued that Ghana’s independence must be linked to the fate of colonized Africa, he did not just mean that the rest of the continent had to emerge from alien rule by replicating the nation-state form. Instead, he imagined new political and economic links that would create a United States of Africa. The 1960 republican constitution of Ghana looked forward to this achievement. At Nkrumah’s insistence, it included a clause that conferred on the parliament “the power to provide for the surrender of the whole or any part of the sovereignty of Ghana” once a Union of African States was formed. Guinea and Mali followed Ghana’s lead and adopted similar clauses in their constitutions. The three states formed the Ghana-Guinea-Mali Union, which was to serve as the nucleus for a future continent-wide union. The postcolonial political kingdom was not the nation-state but pan-African federation.

Decolonization, Nkrumah argued, had become a word “much and unctuously used . . . to describe the transfer of political control from colonialist to African sovereignty.” Focusing on this transfer assumed that the primary injustice of imperialism was the denial of sovereignty to colonized peoples. For Nkrumah, however, alien rule was only one component of a larger experience of colonial dependence, and dependence was first and foremost an economic relation. “Imperialism knows no law beyond its own interests,” Nkrumah wrote in 1947. And this interest was to transform the colonial sphere into an appendage of the metropolitan economy—a site for the production of raw materials, the exploitation of nonwhite workers, and the sale of European goods to a captive market. The forced integration of the colony into global circuits of trade, production, and consumption generated a distorted colonial economy directed by foreign interests. Even after independence, he acknowledged that “practically all our natural resources, not to mention trade, shipping, banking, building . . . have remained in the hands of foreigners seeking to enrich alien investors, and to hold back local economic initiative.”

Economic dependence structured the social and political conditions of the colony. A people “long subjected to foreign domination,” Nkrumah observed, becomes habituated to dependence. Echoing Frantz Fanon’s better-known theories of colonial domination, Nkrumah highlighted the psychic dimensions of colonialism. “Under arbitrary rule, people are apt to become lethargic; their senses are dulled. Fear becomes the dominant force in their lives; fear of breaking the law, fear of the punitive measures which might result from an unsuccessful attempt to break loose from their shackles.” From the international economy to the everyday experiences of the colonial subject, colonial rule operated around interlocked structures of domination.

As such, the demand for “Independence means much more than merely being free to fly our own flag and to play our own national anthem,” Nkrumah argued. Independence required a “revolutionary framework,” enacted both nationally and internationally. Domestically, he emphasized the need to institutionalize postcolonial citizenship and democratic self-government. Starting with nonviolent mass movements for independence—what Nkrumah called “positive action”—colonial subjects were to overcome the psychic and social forms of dependence through political practice. While he insisted that the postcolonial state would be a parliamentary democracy, postcolonial citizenship went beyond elections and representation. As Jeffrey Ahlman’s recent book Living with Nkrumahism illustrates, Ghanaian citizenship was a pedagogic practice that instilled the habits of independence through involvement in institutions like the Builder’s Brigade, Young Pioneers, and trade unions. Youth and workers were enrolled ideologically in the project of nation-building in these organizations. Citizens would learn, practice, and perform “civic duty and responsibility” as well as “patriotism and loyalty for the country.” Nationalism, on this view, was not a backward looking project that relied on preexisting ties of language or kinship. Instead, Nkrumah acknowledged the arbitrariness of colonial boundaries and saw Ghanaian national identity as an inventive project, still in the process of collective construction.


Central to the nationalist project of postcolonial citizenship was a developmental and welfarist state that would restructure the national economy to ensure equality. “The major advantage which our independence has bestowed upon us is the liberty to arrange our national life according to the interests of our people, and along with it, the freedom, in conjunction with other countries, to interfere with the play of [market] forces,” argued Nkrumah. An interventionist state, as Nkrumah quoted Gunnar Myrdal, could “alter considerably the direction of the market processes” that had produced dependence. As with developmental states around the world in this period, Nkrumah’s economic policy centered on modernizing agriculture, investing in industrialization, and providing key social services including universal education and healthcare.

But the postcolonial state was still trapped between de jure political independence and de facto economic dependence. For Ghana, reliance on the export of a single cash crop, cocoa, to finance development projects exemplified this entrapment. International prices for products like cocoa fluctuated wildly, leaving the Ghanaian state vulnerable to global markets and unable to fund its national economic program. International financing and aid, which also supported development projects, only exacerbated the externally oriented character of the postcolonial state.

Nkrumah’s famous neologism—neocolonialism—diagnosed this persistence of economic dependence. Imperialism, he argued, had reinvented itself, adjusting to the “loss of direct political control” by “retain[ing] and extend[ing] its economic grip.” From former imperial powers to international financial institutions, external actors played a dominant role in securing the postcolonial state’s budgets, shoring up its financial systems, and providing the markets for its primary goods. These actors could use their outsized economic power to shape domestic policy. In his 1965 Neo-Colonialism, Nkrumah detailed the concessions and privileges former colonial powers demanded as part of the transfer of sovereignty: “setting up military bases or stationing troops in former colonies and the supplying of ‘advisers’ of one sort of another,” demanding “land concessions, prospecting rights for minerals and/or oil; the ‘right’ to collect customs, to carry out administration, to issue paper money; to be exempt from customs duties and/or taxes for expatriate enterprises; and, above all, the ‘right’ to provide ‘aid.’” The result was a distorted form of postcolonial sovereignty where the elected representatives of the postcolonial state “derive their authority to govern, not from the will of the people, but from the support which they obtain from their neocolonial masters.”

If the nation-state had failed to overcome the problem of colonial dependence, if sovereignty could not shield new states from external compulsion, then the postcolonial political kingdom had to be reimagined. Nkrumah’s vision of pan-African federation was an effort to do just that. A federation of African States would overcome colonial dependence by constituting a larger regional market and enhancing the capacity for regional development. Through economic integration, African states would create “an African common market of three hundred million producers and consumers.” Organized on the continental scale, African states could forego their dependence on international markets and reorient their economic relationships toward other African states. Having broken their “artificial boundaries,” African states could collectively achieve “a purchasing and bargaining power equal to any of those trading and currency blocs which now rule the commerce of the world.”

Pan-African federation was not simply a free-trade area or a customs union. Instead, the linkages between new African states would need to be invented. As Nkrumah often noted, given the character of colonial dependence, African states were more connected to international markets than to each other. Railways led from the resource-rich interiors to the ports in order to facilitate extraction. Telephone lines and postal services were routed through Europe. Nkrumah argued that a federal state organized at the continental level with equal representation for all member states could gradually transform these conditions. A political federation with powers to levy taxes, raise loans, and engage in economic planning could establish infrastructural connections and diversify the regional economy. A strong federal center would also ensure that the economic integration was egalitarian. In the absence of federal redistributive mechanisms, Nkrumah’s government concluded, “There is a real danger of existing urban and proto-industrial sectors capturing all the gains,” recreating dependent relations among the union’s members.

Nkrumah led the fight for this model of pan-African federation until he was deposed from office in a 1966 coup. By 1963, however, the debate had shifted decisively against his project. A majority of states backed a weaker model of integration—the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The failure of Nkrumah’s program might be taken to confirm that projects of nationalism and internationalism are ultimately incompatible. Yet the debates leading up to the formation of the OAU also began from the view that under existing economic dependence “the emergence from colonialism is but illusory.” Unity, they argued, “is the accepted goal,” but they offered competing conceptions of the precise combination of integration and independence. Today the dream of pan-Africanism persists under the auspices of the African Union, which has begun the process of constituting a continental free- trade agreement as part of Agenda 2063. Before signing that agreement on behalf of the continent’s second-largest economy, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa echoed Nkrumah, noting that “by trading among ourselves, we are able to retain more resources in the continent.”


Nkrumah’s commitment to developmentalism and economic planning are tied to his mid-twentieth-century context, but recovering the internationalism of anticolonial nationalism can help us navigate the impasses of our contemporary moment.

In his vision of decolonization, national independence had to be secured against a backdrop of imperial entanglements that generated hierarchy and dependence. To imagine you could entirely escape those entanglements was, Nkrumah argued, a kind of “blind nationalism.” The contemporary crisis of neoliberal globalization has birthed its own versions of blind nationalism. On the left, German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck and others defend a model of the democratic nation-state against the EU. On the right too, the fantasy of a national sovereignty unmoored from international law and institutions persists in the authoritarian populism sweeping across the Global North.

Against this effort to cordon off the nation, Nkrumah insisted that international cooperation and regional federation were mechanisms for securing national independence. At the same time, he refused to reject national solidarity—the basis of “political unity.” It helped to give form to the collective “self” in self-determination. And it could do so without appealing to a distant past, but rather through the shared work of overcoming colonial domination and founding the postcolonial state. The problem was not the aspiration for national independence as such but that the institutional form of nation-state appeared ill-suited to secure that aim.

Those committed today to internationalism tend to see nationalist claims as insular, exclusionary, and frequently violent. But the age of decolonization reminds us that nationalism was also a vehicle for demanding democracy and international equality. Anticolonial nationalisms were not elite ideologies, as Elie Kedourie concluded, but mass movements that sought to overcome the layered structures of colonial domination.

These insights about the imbrication of the domestic and international as well as the necessary relationship between national independence and internationalism emerged from the global circuits anticolonial nationalists inhabited. Nkrumah’s formative years were spent in the United States and the United Kingdom. In these metropoles of imperial power, Nkrumah, like many other nationalists, cultivated subaltern internationalist networks. He studied at the historically black Lincoln University, following a path that Nigerian nationalist Nnamdi Azikiwe had already traveled. During his student days, he joined black internationalist organizations like Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Tracing the long history of black seamen, he worked on a shipping line between the United States and Mexico. When he traveled to London, he helped to organize the Fifth Pan-African Congress with the Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore.

Nkrumah’s nationalism emerged from these global and subaltern networks. These same networks also shaped the administration and political program of the nascent postcolonial state. When Nkrumah became prime minister, Padmore served as his adviser of African affairs, while another West Indian, the St. Lucian economist W. Arthur Lewis, took the post of economic adviser. W. E. B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois arrived shortly after independence as guests of Nkrumah. Accra became a black cosmopolis, hosting nationalists and freedom fighters from across the continent. Ghanaian nationalism, born out of black internationalism, became home to that internationalist project. Ghanaian policy also borrowed and adapted from global repertoires of nation-building. Programs like the Young Pioneers and Builder’s Brigade were not home-grown and particularistic projects, but drawn from models used in places ranging from Israel to the Communist bloc.

These global circuits that help constitute nationalist projects are not distinctive to anticolonial nationalism. Contemporary right-wing nationalisms deploy and inhabit their own transnational circuits—from the deadly vigilante violence in Charleston and Christchurch, to the lobbying efforts of white South African farmers.

The point then is not to recover a “good” nationalism that is sufficiently or appropriately internationalist and cosmopolitan. Neither left nor right has a monopoly on internationalism. Moreover, Nkrumah’s project, like anticolonial nationalism more broadly, was riven by its own contradictions. The conception of citizenship as ongoing political practice tied Ghanaians to the state and the Convention People’s Party, closing space for individual freedoms and reproducing the alienation it was meant to overcome. Moreover, Nkrumah’s internationalist vision vacillated between a defense of national sovereignty in the United Nations and the delegation of sovereignty to a regional federation. Whether and how these positions might be reconciled was never addressed. As a result, the failure of the pan-African federation culminated in the entrenchment of state sovereignty within the OAU.

Rather than search for a good nationalism, we need to pose the question of the value of the nation in historical context. The answers depend in part on the international background against which the national drama plays out. Even the most autarkic nationalists have to consider the external conditions required to make their project possible. There are no true hermit kingdoms, and there is no meaningful choice to make between nationalism or internationalism as such. The question is how those interested in human emancipation may work within the nation-state to undo the global hierarchy of nation-states—to achieve an internationalist solidarity from the specific ground upon which we stand, and to oppose the reactionary internationalism that our antagonists embody. Nkrumah saw the world in the questions Ghana faced; we must do no less.

Adom Getachew is Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and author of Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton University Press).