“One Step Backward. We Shall Take Two Forward”

On the 50th anniversary of the death of Kwame Nkrumah, we introduce an excerpt from Susan Williams’ book White Malice: The CIA and the Neocolonisation of Africa

Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Ghana, died on 27th April 1972, fifty years ago today. The excerpt below gives an account of Nkrumah’s final years. Toppled from power in 1966 by a CIA-supported coup d’état, the Ghanaian president lived in enforced exile until his death, far from his beloved nation.

In the mid-20th century, Nkrumah was admired globally as the brilliant statesman who led the first Black-majority African country to independence from colonialism in 1957, blazing a trail for the rest of the continent. For Nkrumah, freedom for Ghana from British rule had a significance beyond even the liberation of his nation. “Our independence,” he said firmly during the celebrations of independence, “is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.” The only way forward, he believed, was the ideal of Pan-Africanism and a federation of nations — a United States of Africa.

As Susan Williams narrates in White Malice, Nkrumah developed a close alliance with Patrice Lumumba, who came to power on 30th June 1960 as the first democratically-elected Prime Minister of the Congo, formerly ruled by Belgium. Nkrumah was outraged by the shocking news in February 1961 of Lumumba’s assassination the month before, along with two other leading members of his political party. “The colonialists and imperialists,” said Nkrumah sorrowfully, “have killed them, but what they cannot do, is to kill the ideals which we still preach, and for which they sacrificed their lives.”

Five years after Lumumba’s murder – and less than ten years after Ghana’s independence – Nkrumah’s plans for Ghana and Africa were violently brought to an abrupt halt. In the early morning of 24th February 1966, the Ghanaian president was overthrown in a coup dubbed ‘Operation Cold Chop’ by its instigators. While Nkrumah was in Beijing, on his way to Hanoi with proposals for ending the war in Vietnam, the military and the police toppled Ghana’s civilian government.

John Stockwell, a CIA agent turned whistleblower – following his discovery in 1975 that the CIA had plotted to poison Lumumba – put the Agency firmly at the centre of Nkrumah’s overthrow. In his 1978 memoir, In Search of Enemies, Stockwell noted that the CIA station in Accra “was given a generous budget, and maintained intimate contact with the plotters as a coup was hatched.” Inside CIA headquarters, added Stockwell, “the Accra station was given full, if unofficial credit for the eventual coup, in which eight Soviet advisors were killed. None of this was adequately reflected in the agency’s written records.”

The US State Department desk officer for Ghana observed the response in Washington to the news of the successful coup. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, he later recalled, “broke into an ear-splitting grin. I’ve never seen him look so happy.”

Nkrumah’s reputation was deliberately traduced by the representatives of Western governments, as detailed in White Malice. He was portrayed as paranoid – an opinion that persists. But he would have been a fool not to take every precaution against the manifest threats to his life and the lives of his family.

He was also accused of unrealistic and excessive ambition for Ghana, based, for example, on his plans to rapidly increase educational and health facilities. But the accusers lived in countries that already had these services, which were acutely needed in Ghana following colonial rule. The accusers were content to keep African nations – with the exception of apartheid South Africa – out of the modern world.

The vilification of Nkrumah has contributed powerfully to the distorted and negative views of Africa that prevail today, Susan Williams argues. “In the West,” noted the American philosopher Molefi Kete Asante in 2007, in his History of Africa, “the ignorance of Africa is palpable, like a monster that invades our brains with disbelief, deception, and disinterest, yet is everywhere around us. We are victims of probably the most uninformed educated people in the world on the subject of Africa.”

Extract from the book:

Nkrumah was forced into exile from Ghana as a result of the military coup in February 1966. He was given a home in Conakry by President Sékou Touré of Guinea, who made him honorary copresident. At a mass rally after Nkrumah’s arrival in March, Touré declared, ‘The Ghanaian traitors have been mistaken in thinking that Nkrumah is simply a Ghanaian. . . .He is a universal man’. He then called Nkrumah president of Guinea, to cheering crowds. At the time, Nkrumah’s knowledge of French was almost nonexistent, so he had no idea of the honour that had been accorded him. When it was explained to him afterwards, he was deeply moved, but he declined the role. He agreed, however, to become copresident, as an expression of practical Pan-Africanism.

Nkrumah with Richard Nixon

In Guinea, Nkrumah continued to argue and to campaign tirelessly for African unity. It was ‘one of the most fruitful and happiest periods of my life’, he wrote in Dark Days in Ghana, which was published during his exile in 1968. He was able to do many of the things he had longed to do but for which he had never had time—reading current books on politics, history, literature, science and philosophy, reflecting, learning French, playing chess and tennis and taking long brisk walks.

As always, his days were disciplined and started when most people were still in bed. ‘I am already up and it’s 4.30 am’, he wrote to his friend and researcher June Milne with characteristic enthusiasm in 1967. ‘I love to work in the early hours of the morning’. He reported to her that he was thriving physically: ‘I feel very fit. Health really excellent. I was dancing the Ghanaian high life in my room this morning—all by myself’. He also completed a course of military training. President and Madame Touré were in regular touch with him and on many occasions ate with him.

‘From the seafront villa where I stay’, wrote Nkrumah, ‘I can see the hills of Sierra Leone, and in the other direction, the distant shores of so-called Portuguese Guinea, where a fierce liberation struggle is going on’. Nkrumah frequently received visitors at his villa, including Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, who went to Guinea on a state visit, and Amílcar Cabral, the leader of the freedom struggle against colonial rule in Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea Bissau) and Cabo Verde, who was living in Guinea under the protection of Touré.

Nkrumah’s close friend Genoveva Marais visited him too. The last time she had seen him was the evening before he left for North Vietnam. Immediately following the coup, Marais had been arrested and imprisoned by Ghana’s new rulers, who alleged that Nkrumah had bought for her a Thunderbird convertible—an expensive luxury car—with government funds. America’s Life magazine supported the claim; it published a nasty article about her on 18 March 1966, which described her as ‘Nkrumah’s slender mulatto mistress’ and was illustrated with a photograph of her sitting in the Thunderbird. In fact, Marais had bought the car for herself, with money from her wealthy father in South Africa. Marais was repeatedly raped in prison. After her release, she was forced to leave Ghana.

‘Yes’, she wrote sadly in her 1972 memoir, Kwame Nkrumah as I Knew Him, ‘they eventually deposed him – and that they had to do while he was away on a mission of peace’.

Conscious of the power of his enemies, Nkrumah would not allow his wife Fathia and their children to visit him in Conakry. The family were now living in Egypt: President Nasser had sent an aircraft to transport them to Cairo as soon as he heard news of the coup. Mrs Nkrumah explained in an interview with Accra’s Daily Graphic on 14 July 1972 that her husband had feared they might be hijacked on their way to or from Guinea. For the sake of their children, therefore, the two decided not to see each other – but to wait for his return to Ghana. In the meantime, they wrote to each other and sent photographs.

Nkrumah with John F. Kennedy

As he had done throughout his life, while in exile Nkrumah drew deep pleasure from growing his beloved roses and other flowers, and from animals and all forms of wildlife. On one occasion, two members of his entourage returned from a fishing expedition with a large turtle, which they presented to Nkrumah, assuming it would be made into soup. But he instructed them to place it in a small pool on the veranda, to live there until his hopeful return to Ghana—when the turtle would be returned to the sea.

Nkrumah’s chief occupation was writing. Before the coup, many of his books had been published by Thomas Nelson and Heinemann. But following the coup, his publishers simply dropped him. Nkrumah, who never accepted defeat, worked with June Milne to create Panaf Books to publish his many new books (twelve between 1966 and 1970) and to keep his existing works in print. June Milne was assisted by her husband, Van, who by then had founded the Heinemann African Writers series, publishing major authors such as Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o. June Milne visited Nkrumah in Conakry many times to assist him with his work, bringing him books and his favourite chocolates and biscuits.

Milne’s notebooks record her observations of Nkrumah’s spirit: ‘Quicksilver moods, the shadow boxing, the breaking into a skip along the verandah. Then suddenly a change to a heavy, brooding, thoughtful mood. Then a quick change back again. Very occasionally a sudden outburst of impatience or anger at some inefficiency or incompetence. Quickly passes’.

Invariably, optimism triumphed over disappointment. In one letter to Milne, he noted that the magazine Transition ‘stinks’ (he was not aware that it was sponsored by the CIA): ‘It is pornographic and sadistic. Apart from the stupidities and the infantilism of the articles, just have a look at the pictures. Dirty and foul. I wonder what is becoming of the so-called intellectuals in Africa. . . .No wonder American neo-colonialism is running wild all over the place’. But this bleak assessment was immediately followed by an expression of confidence in the future: ‘One thing I do know. The day of reckoning is in the offing. It won’t be long and rays of the sun shall burst through the clouds of shame over the continent’.

All the time he was in Guinea, said Milne later, his life was in danger despite the strict security measures taken by the Guinean government. ‘The Ghanaian military regimes never ceased to plot against him’, she wrote, ‘doubtless assisted by staffs of Western embassies in Guinea, who were no friends of Nkrumah’.

The presence in Guinea of Amílcar Cabral aggravated the dangers. Cabral was seen as a troublemaker across the Western nations, including the US. After the 1965 riots in the Black neighbourhood of Watts in Los Angeles, Cabral gave a speech in which he emphasised the links between Pan-Africanism and the struggle of African Americans for civil and political rights: ‘We are with the blacks of the United States of America, we are with them in the streets of Los Angeles, and when they are deprived of all possibility of life, we suffer with them’.

*

For Nkrumah, the Congo was always at the centre of Africa’s struggle against neocolonialism. The year after his overthrow, he published Challenge of the Congo with a clear statement in its subtitle: A Case Study of Foreign Pressures in an Independent State. Like all the books he wrote during the Conakry period, it received bad reviews in the Western mainstream press. But Nkrumah believed that ‘the readers are no fools. Otherwise, how can I be “the hero of African nationalists” and at the same time “a tedious bore”?’

In 1969, Nkrumah wrote a preface to a new edition of the book, setting out the journey he had made from his earlier commitment to nonviolence. ‘A point has now been reached’, he wrote, ‘where armed struggle is the only way through which African revolutionaries can achieve their objectives’. Recent events, he continued, ‘have exposed the fallacy of trying to banish imperialism, neo-colonialism and settler regimes from our continent by peaceful means. The aggression of the enemies of the African masses continues, and has become more ruthless and insidious’. He added in sorrow, ‘The evidence is all around us’.

But Nkrumah’s spirit and determination were not broken. ‘We must’, he urged, ‘combine strategy and tactics, and establish political and military machinery for the prosecution of the African revolutionary war. It is only in this way that the aspirations of the African masses can be achieved, and an All-African Union Government be established in a totally free and united Africa’.

‘These dark days will pass’, he believed. ‘Nothing can stop the progress of the African revolutionary struggle. On 24th February 1966 Ghana was forced one step backward. We shall take two forward’. But he was starting to feel unwell. ‘Dearest’, he wrote to his faithful friend June Milne in September 1970, ‘my health is not as it should be since the lumbago attack. . . .I feel I am not my usual self. . . .I will rise above it all; and as the night follows the day, we shall be in Ghana’.

*

Nkrumah died on 27April 1972 in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, where he had gone to seek medical treatment. A specialist doctor had diagnosed his illness as cancer of the spine that had spread from the prostate and into his blood, resulting in leukaemia.

Throughout his illness, he and his associates maintained acute concern about security. In written communications between those caring for him in Bucharest and his friends elsewhere, he was given the pseudonym Diallo. On one of June Milne’s three visits to Bucharest, Nkrumah instructed her firmly to be vigilant and careful, as he could not protect her. Nkrumah’s bodyguard and nephew stayed with him at all times, ‘on constant duty day and night’, sleeping in the same room. Milne realised that they never left Nkrumah’s side once he arrived in Bucharest in August 1971: ‘They dressed all the time in pyjamas, their underclothes underneath, sandals on their feet. On top they wore thin, wool dressing-gowns provided by the hospital’.

Milne was shocked to see how frail and thin her friend was. He ‘passed through hell’ because of the pain he was suffering, he told her, although he was given every possible care by the hospital staff.

His last wish, above all, was to return to Ghana—to be on Ghanaian soil and to see his mother, Nyaniba, by then in her nineties and almost blind. But he died far from home, with a chill wind blowing outside. He was only sixty-two.

The funeral ceremony in Conakry, recorded in newsreel footage, captures the sorrow of Fathia Nkrumah, dressed in black. Sékou Touré was visibly distressed as he delivered an oration, ending with ‘Vive la Révolution!’ He listed the men ‘assassinated’ by the enemies of the African revolution, such as Patrice Lumumba, and included Nkrumah’s name. Amílcar Cabral also gave a speech in which he used the term assassiné to describe Nkrumah’s death.

Too many great men had died prematurely, Milne believed, ‘for there not to be questions raised about the now well-known employment of insidious ways of silencing those who threaten the established order’. The body of Kwame Nkrumah did not receive a postmortem.

Cabral was shot dead in an assassination in Conakry in 1973. Touré died at age sixty-two in 1984 ‘in suspicious circumstances’, according to Milne, on the operating table in Ohio, after an apparent heart attack.

The Cameroonian freedom fighter Ndeh Ntumazah lamented that Nkrumah ‘did not have time to plant the tree of freedom, which would have borne new flowers’. Nkrumah, Nasser and Touré, Ntumazah added, ‘were good men in the world where few had the strength to resist the corroding influence of power, wealth and vanity at the expense of the weak and helpless’.

‘I still recall’, said Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania, in 1997, ‘arguing with Nkrumah in occasional instances, where I told him that his idea of African unity was not going to work because he was doing things for propaganda purposes’. But long after Nkrumah’s overthrow and subsequent death, Nyerere added, ‘it took me ten years of consistent study, to get the full import of what Kwame was talking about. In fact, Kwame Nkrumah is the greatest African ever’.

In July 1972, Nkrumah’s body was flown to Ghana and taken to the village of Nkroful, where it was placed in a tomb on the site of the dwelling where he had been born. Twenty years later, his body was reinterred in a dedicated Memorial Park in the Old Polo Ground in Accra, close to the breaking waves of the Atlantic Ocean—the very place where Nkrumah had hailed the independence of Ghana from British rule on 6 March 1957. On a pedestal stands a statue of Kwame Nkrumah with his right hand outstretched, pointing the way forward.

Excerpted from White Malice: The CIA and the Neocolonisation of Africa by Susan Williams, published by C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd. © Susan Williams, 2021. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Footnotes have been removed to ease reading.

For more information about the author and the book, see the publisher’s site here: https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/white-malice/

Images: Main image: A bronze statue of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah (1909-1972), stands in Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park in downtown Accra. Source: Kwame Nkrumah Statue. Author: David Stanley from Nanaimo, Canada,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Images in text: C/o the author.

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