An Inspiration for Independence

Ghanaians celebrate 50 years of independence in the capital, Accra. Ghana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to break from colonial control.
Ghanaians celebrate 50 years of independence in the capital, Accra. Ghana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to break from colonial control. (By Olivier Asselin -- Associated Press)
By Tiffany Harness
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

On a warm, dry evening 50 years ago, thousands of people packed the old polo ground in Accra, capital of the soon-to-be-independent country of Ghana. Ernest Tetteh was in his final year of high school and recalled that the atmosphere turned electric as midnight neared.

"People were very expectant," he recalled, noting the long struggle for independence during British rule in the West African colony. "People from the hinterlands, everybody came to Accra to join in the celebration."

Tetteh stood with his family and classmates waiting for the arrival of Kwame Nkrumah, independence leader and champion of African unity. Tetteh remembered how Nkrumah energized Ghanaians with a slogan of "self-government now" and an appeal "that anybody who does not have a job, anybody who sleeps on somebody else's patio, should come follow him."

Finally, Nkrumah swept through the crowd and climbed a wooden dais. One of several other leaders with him shouted "Attention! Attention!" Tetteh recalled, "and that is when Nkrumah declared that at long last, Ghana, your beloved country, is free forever."

On March 6, 1957, Ghana became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to break from colonial control, inspiring independence movements across the continent. Ghanaians marked the anniversary yesterday with celebrations in the country of about 22 million and in several U.S. cities, including Washington. Events continue this week and through the year under the theme of "championing African excellence."

The festivities have also brought on solemn discussions about Ghana's difficult journey since 1957 and Nkrumah's unfulfilled dreams.

Tetteh, now 69 and a Silver Spring resident, remembered that during the colonial era, "the strings of the administration were totally in the hands of the British government. They controlled finances, social welfare, defenses -- every aspect of government." The system left Ghanaians with "no pride whatsoever," said Tetteh, who served as counselor of information at the Ghanaian Embassy here in the 1970s before retiring and settling in the United States.

Many people thought life would instantly become easier after the British left, he said. "But a lot of people expected that it was going to be really hard work. There was expectation that we needed to harness every energy to build the country."

Ghanaians, especially older people, consider March 6, 1957, the beginning of an era of "euphoric hope," said Kwame Karikari, 60, who heads a nonprofit media foundation for West Africa. He was interviewed by telephone from Accra.

"I was going to school in my village. I remember clearly the cooking, the new clothes, the marches" that were part of that first celebration, Karikari said. "I also remember a number of tense political atmospheres. . . . These were exciting moments."

Karikari said Ghana's successes in recent years include political stability and greater protection of individual rights. But poverty remains "serious, widespread, deep and frightening," he said, and young Ghanaians are streaming out of the country in search of jobs.

Ghana's ambassador, Kwame Bawuah-Edusei, said Ghanaian immigrants are commemorating the anniversary with a focus on "economic emancipation" and programs to encourage development through investment. By official count, about 12,000 people who were born in Ghana live in the Washington metropolitan area, though Bawuah-Edusei said the actual number is several times higher.

"We had a big euphoria 50 years ago with political independence," he said. "But that has really dissipated because we've come to realize that political independence that is not complemented by economic empowerment doesn't really trickle down into your pockets and your lifestyle."

Ghana's economic slide began during the Nkrumah years, as he tried to eliminate the last vestiges of colonial rule with ultimately disastrous economic policies, Tetteh said. At the same time, his dedication to African unity and support of independence movements led him to some questionable decisions on domestic matters.

"We were stretching our hands everywhere, trying to train freedom fighters from other African countries, trying to go into an atomic energy project and other things," Tetteh said. As if to prove that Ghana was truly independent, he said, Nkrumah took several hasty steps, including issuing a new currency bearing his likeness.

Nkrumah was overthrown in 1966 by his military. Coups, repression and deepening poverty followed. Nkrumah died in exile in 1972.

Kevin Gaines, director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said some Ghanaians might say Nkrumah was "a bit of a grandiose dreamer, that his larger vision for African continental unity was sort of a quixotic thing. But that is and remains the source of his popularity throughout the black world."

"Africa needed and needs bold leadership," said Gaines, who is to speak today at Howard University about that era. "Nkrumah and his advisers realized early on that small African countries would continue to struggle if there weren't some kind of economic and political cooperation and unity."

"Nkrumah had his own faults," said Tetteh. "But there has not been another leader like Nkrumah. This I can assure you."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company