At its independence in 1957 under the leadership of the respected Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana, the first former black African colony to gain its freedom, was the inspiration of the entire continent, holding high the banner of pan-Africanism and leading the anti-colonial struggle.

But since Nkrumah's overthrow in 1966, Ghana has passed through two military and one short-lived civilian governments, suffered chronic economic problems and lost most of its former prestige in black Africa.

Today, Ghana is seeking to restore some of its old reputation as a pacesetter by creating a more authentic African political system capable of reconciling the military with civilian politicians.

Gen. Kutu Acheampong, the country's ruler, has promised to return Ghana to "constitutional rule," if not altogether "civilian rule" by mid-1979.

The distinction between these two terms, a visitor quickly discovers, is extremely important to both the military and its civilian opponents.

The signs around town say "One Nation, One People, One Destiny" and the official thesis these days is the imperative need for a "union government" in which all Ghanians, including the military, will join hands in ushering in a new peaceful era in the nation's often tumultuous politics.

But as Ghana celebrated the sixth anniversary of its current military regime Friday, the forces of union and disunion appeared to be gearing up for a bitter confrontation over a referendum scheduled for March 30 to decide the fate of the country. The issue is whether Ghana will return to old-style civilian-led party politics or take its chance on so-called union government, a new form without parties and in partnership with the military.

As the military was putting on its best performance at a parade in Acera's Independence Square, more than a thousand students were burning an effigy of Gen. Acheampong, ruler of the country and leader of the supreme military council, and fighting with police at the University of Ghana campus at Legon, just out-side the capital.

At the same time, the military's civilian supporters were roaming the capital in bands, intimidating anyone who declared opposition to union government. Some stormed into the city's best hotel, the Continental, and attacked by chance a visiting black Kenyan journalist.

Backed by six armored cars and a battalion of truncheon swinging policemen, the authorities twice invaded the Legon campus on Friday to rescue a colleague being held there and break up the anti-military demonstration.

Scores of male and female students were arrested or hospitalized, many with severe head or body injuries, as the police forced them out of their rooms with tear gas and clubbed others, as well as university workers and lecturers.

Give us arms! We need arms!" shouted some of the students at a party of visiting journalists shortly before the final police assault.

Here is Accra, the student protest was pretty well contained to the LEgon campus. But at Kumasl, 170 miles northwest, the students reportedly blocked the main highway leading into the city, destroyed a van filled with copies of the pro-government Ghanian Times and assaulted car passengers voicing their support for union government.

To all appearances, it was an ominous start to a campaign the military had hoped it could carry out in calm and with both proponents and opponents of union government airing their views without fear of retaliation.

In his parade speech, Acheampong announced that the armed forces and police had been put on alert to deal "swiftly and effectively" with anyone attempting to upset the referendum campaign.

"As we enter this crucial stage of the revolution, our detractors will no doubt seek to redouble their activities with a view to disrupting the machinery set up for a peaceful return to constitutional government," he said.

But neither the army nor the police was doing anything that day to curb their civilian supporters, many of whom appeared to be little more than thugs, as they harassed employees and guests at the Continental Hotel and stopped cars to check on the allegiance of passengers.

With 2 1/2 months to go before the referendum, Ghana's civilian and military elites appear very much divided over the Acheampong proposal for a homespun "no party" political system based on African traditions that he aspires to make a model for the many other African countries plagued by army coups and political instability.

Students and professionals, who came close to toppling Gen. Acheampong's government last summer through a paralyzing strike, are dead set against union government. They believe that "contitutional rule" -- the union government -- is a thin disguise for continued military government and merely a gimmick for legitimizing it.

"Union government denies the Ghanian citizen a choice as to the form of government we will have running the country's affairs," said Bar Association president W. A. N. Adumua-Bossman. "The emphasis on the role of the military will be paramount.

"There are no two ways about it at all. We believe what we have now is a blueprint of what is to come," he said referring to the ruling National Redemption Council, which has 30 military or police officers and eight civilians.

The military seems to be putting together a powerful coalition of big business politicans on the "outs" under two previous civilian governments but even some supporters of the late Nkrumah, and a large majority of the tribal chiefs throughout the country. In addition, it appears so far that the workers, who did not join last summer's strike and whose minimum, wage was recently doubled, support union government.

Gen. Acheampong contended at a press conference last week that union government was the best, and really only, insurance Ghanians could have against more military coups.

"The reason why we proposed this idea of union government is to insure stability and national unity. All those politicans who are advocating against full participation by the military do not know what they are talking about. It is they, the politicans, who contact the soldiers to stage coups," he said.

But he added, "If finally the people decide against union government, we will lift the ban on party politics and let them [the civilian politicians] go and struggle it out . . . I will go to my farm."

Behind this quest for a stable political system is a feeling among Ghana's military leaders that it is high time African countries began seeking alternative forms of government to Western multi-party or Eastern one-party democracies.

"Why cannot we as a nation evolve our own system? Britain has been able to do it, France, the United States, Germany, every country is entitled to evolve her own system. This is all we are saying," he pleaded at his annual press conference last week.

Under the union government plan candidates for the 140-member Parliament would run individually, their campaigns financed by the state rather than parties. The president and vice president would be elected separately for a four-year term. The system seems inspired as much by Western, including American, constitutions as by African traditions.

If the 4.6 million voters approve the referendum, the military government's next step will be to appoint an assembly to draw up a new constitution by March of 1979, with national elections June 15 and the establishment of the union government by July 1, 1979.

Gen. Acheampong has been trying to create the appearance of free debate on his idea. A year ago, he set up a committee to go around the country sounding out the views of ordinary Ghanians. After hearing evidence from 542 witnesses and reading 866 memoranda, it concluded that the majority of Ghanians favored a "national government in a no-party state" with only limited military involvement.

The "official" debate is being continued on radio and television in confrontation between supporters and challengers of the proposal. So far no important opponent of union government has been arrested for speaking his mind.

Nonetheless, the cards seem heavily stacked against those in the opposition. The state-sponsored newspapers, the country's largest, give scant attention to dissenting views, such as the press conference of the 2,000-member Bar Association.

Its call for lifting the ban on political activities and its denunciation of the way the government is conducting the referendum campaign went unmentioned in either the Times or the Daily Graphic.

Practically all the articles appearing in these newspapers as well as the views aired by the state radio and television, apart from the official debate, favor union government and the machinery of state is obviously being used to sell it to the nation.

Last week, for instance, the government published pictures of the "yes" and "no" referendum voting cards. The "yes" cards show two hands grasped in a handshake while the "no" cards show the two hands pulling in opposite directions on a cord of rope in a tug-of-war -- a symbol, apparently, of breaking the nation apart.

Practically all indications point toward an overwhelming vote in favor of union government. But if students and the professional bodies remain in active opposition it remains to be seen whether the "political stability" Gen. Acheampong so anxiously seeks will be achieved.