When Kwame Nkrumah brought Ghana to independence in 1957 as the first black African nation to break the colonial bonds, he and his country represented to the entire continent the euphoric promise of prosperity that freedom could bring.

Today, Ghana's economy is in chaos, and the memory of the unfulfilled promise leaves bitter bile in the mouths of many of the country's 12 million citizens as they struggle dispiritedly for daily survival. Many dream nostalgically of the return to the heady days of Nkrumah -- the "redeemer" they had at one time rejected.

Saddled with a nine-month-old weak civilian government after years of military rule, Ghana's deepening difficulties follow a dreary pattern of many African nations' political and economic fortunes over the past 20 years. Military coups and shortsighted economic planning have left a large number on weak footing.

Hilla Limann, Ghana's newest civilian president, rode into office last year on a wave of Nkrumah nostalgia in the midst of a feverish, nationwide "housecleaning" "by the have-nots against the haves." But the exuberance of that period, initiated by a coup by junior officers that overthrew and executed the reportedly "corrupt" top officers of the previous military government, has been replaced by despondency as Ghana's economy continues to spiral downward and inflation erodes the average Ghanaian's dietary level.

The retired leader of last year's coup, Flight Lt. Jerry J. Rawlings, has now been added to the Nkrumah shadow that overhangs the Limann government.

"There was a brief period [last year], after Rawlings took over, when things looked like they were going to get better," said Emmanuel Kwaku, "but things are just getting worse. It is harder and harder to survive."

"This man Limann is not dynamic. It is our own fault because we chose him. We miss Nkrumah," continued Kwaku, who said he quit his 18-year job with the government-owned Daily Graphic printing company because he found he could earn more money hiring out his car.

There is irony in the nostalgia for Nkrumah. Ghana's deepening poverty began under his now fondly remembered rule and was exacerbated by pervasive corruption.

Immediately after independence, Nkrumah shifted the country's then abundant resources to establishing an industrial base and virtually ignored Ghana's fertile potential for the development of agriculture.

As the expensive industrialization plans began to fail and the production of Ghana's major revenue earner, cocoa, began to decline, the Army stepped in. Nkrumah's ouster was greeted by widespread rejoicing. There followed a short-lived civilian government and three additional military coups.

The most recent one, June 4, 1979, was led by disgruntled junior officers who said they had grown tired of seeing politicians, bureaucrats and high ranking officers enrich themselves while the average Ghanaian went to bed at night hungry.

Led by Rawlings, the officers ruled through the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council. The coup makers allowed previously scheduled elections to take place two weeks after they assumed power.

The Revolutionary Council also ordered the executions of eight officers and officials, three of them former military heads of states, on charges of pilfering the nation's coffers. They dubbed their rebellion "the June 4 Revolution" and ordered black market operators hoarding scarce goods to sell their wares at government-controlled prices.

Hoaders were punished by public caning, and their houses were blown up. Scores of Army officers and businessmen were jailed on charges of "Kalabule," the Ghanaian term for all forms of profiteering.

Prices soon dropped. In a country where the average government employe earns $10 a day, the price of eggs plummeted overnight from 30 cents to 5 cents each.

Rawlings handed over power in September to Limann, who won the elections.

But he warned that the armed forces would not tolerate the pervasive corruption that had marked Ghana's former military and civilian Governments.

Limann, 46, a politically unknown career diplomat before the elections, began his rule with the clumsy retirement of Rawlings, who reportedly heard his retirement announcement on his car radio.

Since Limann's government has been in power, food prices have shot back up to higher levels than before Rawlings' revolution. The black market rate for Ghana's legally inconvertable currency, the cedi, jumped from 15 to 20 to the dollar.

Kenkey, the corn meal staple, is difficult to find in Accra and eggs are smuggled into neighboring Togo in exchange for hard currency.

Rawlings, who remains extremely popular in Ghana, has grown increasingly critical of Limann's performance and charged that he has been the target of official harassment. Three weeks ago on the anniversary of the June 4 coup, Rawlings held a symposium on the gains of the Revolutionary Council. At the meeting in downtown Accra's community center, several thousand Ghanaians from all walks of life stood outside the packed center and loudly cheered whenever they heard Rawlings' voice from inside.

"This is a very fragile, frightened government that is always looking over its shoulder at Rawlings," said a Western observer. "They wish he'd just go away," said another source. "He's a catalyst for all the misery here."

In March, the government arrested 13 junior officers and one civilian on charges of plotting a coup. Since then Accra has been rife with rumors of other arrests of coup plotters.

"There are still enlisted men who wish to conduct another coup," said a reliable source. "The political situation would be a lot better if Limann was seen as a strong president, but his government is very shaky."

Growing numbers of university professors, professionals and Ghanaians with marketable skills are leaving the country as soon as they can buy a passport on the black market.

"What is all this talk about brain drain and coup plots?" asked Deputy Minister of Information James Ampah-Kwofie.

Ghana has a democratically elected government and will not tolerate another military government, he said. "Civilian groups have vowed to fight against any new military government, and there is now an ongoing probe of the Army. It is unfair to say this government is not doing anything."

Ampah-Kwofie reviewed with a reporter a spate of what he called negative stories about Ghana by American reporters. "We need understanding, not this," he said. "The West should be encouraged to invest in Ghana.

"We know the economy is bad," he said. "My wife goes to queue up for food from three to six in the morning. But it was in a shambles before we came into office and that was the military's doing."

One economist said that Ghana's main hope lies in the government rebuilding the agricultural base and revitalizing cocoa production. Cocoa exports have dropped from a high of 500,000 tons annually in the 1950s to 265,000 tons last year. This year's crop is expected to rise to 300,000 tons but much of the benefit of that increase will be eaten up by steadily dropping world market prices for cocoa.

Ghana lacks the foreign exchange to import insecticides, fertilizers, farm tools and machinery. Domestic food production has declined. Even gold production, Ghana's second largest revenue earner after cocoa, is low because of deteriorating machinery that cannot be replaced.

Ghana's Central Bank has been severely restricting luxury imports to build up a reserve of foreign cash. At one point last year, foreign exchange reserves amounted to only $67 million, enough for one month's imports. The usual minimum margin is three month's reserves.

The International Monetary Fund wants Limann's government to substantially devalue the cedi before it grants major economic assistance to Ghana. The last two Ghanaian governments that devalued the cedi were overthrown.

Information official Ampah-Kwofie expressed amazement at the IMF demand. "Do they realize the repercussions here in Ghana if we go through with this?" he asked.