Castles, Gold and Coups — A brief history of Ghana
Much was expected from Ghana when it gained its independence from Britain in 1957, in an event widely celebrated by the African diaspora — with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr visiting the country — in a time where most African nations were locked in battles for their right to self-determination.
Its name originates from the Kingdom of Ghana, which was actually further north than its present-day location and it was named after its ruler. In anticipation of its fall in the 10th century, Ashanti migrants moved south and started several nation-states which evolved into the Empire of Ashanti. This empire was a highly specialised bureaucracy with its capital in what is now Ghana’s second largest city Kumasi and survived until the 19th century when it finally succumbed to British colonial rule, as the Gold Coast.
When the Portuguese built the first European castle in the Gold Coast in 1482, they kicked off centuries of European lust for what this region of Africa had to offer. The British, Danes, Dutch, Prussian and Swedes soon followed. Although it was linked with the slave trade routes, the Gold Coast was predominantly known for its large deposits of gold, and aptly named for them. By the turn of 20th century, all of the Gold Coast was under British rule with Great Britain profiting heavily from the lucrative gold, metal ore, diamond, ivory, pepper, timber and cocoa trades.
When the Ghanaian people obtained their independence from the British Empire the optimism was palpable and found its foundation in the hope for economic prosperity that stemmed from the profitable cocoa farming and the mining of precious metals. After a peaceful democratic process, the charismatic Kwame Nkrumah became the first President of Ghana and tried to release the young African nation from its economic dependence on the Western world with the overly ambitious and much criticised Akosambo Dam, which crippled Ghana’s economy with overwhelming debt, increased taxes and a highly dissatisfied population.
Nkrumah felt threatened by the farming community and fearing social disunity, tried to turn Ghana into a one party state with him at the helm and saw his regime toppled by the military police organisation known as the National Liberation Council. The constitution for the Second Republic was drafted and elections were called.
With a slumped economy highly dependent on the cocoa market and crippling debt, Lieutenant Colonel Ignatius Kutu Acheampong overthrew Ghana’s second elected government in 1972 and rolled back on the austerity measures further worsening the country’s economic progress with inflation running wild — it was 116% in 1981, making basic products virtually unattainable for the average citizen.
After going through yet another military coup, which followed a national referendum, Jerry Rawlings and six other men formed the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC) which governed Ghana with Socialist inclinations until 1992 when democratic elections were once again held. Rawlings’ triumph was undermined by the opposition’s boycott although the regime itself was ultimately legitimised in the 1996 elections, deemed free and just by international institutions, delivering Rawlings with a second term.
In a true sign of political and democratic maturity, the transition was peaceful and orderly after the candidate backed by Rawlings — who couldn’t run for a third term — lost to the main opposition party, led by John Kufour. Kufour served two terms and was followed by John Atta Mills, Rawlings’ former Vice-President. Amidst a stagnant economic development due to the oil crisis, Ghana is now viewed as a reputable and liberal nation enjoying a level of political stability which seemed unlikely only a couple of decades ago.
This article was written as part of an ongoing collaboration with Volunteer Invest, a London-based social enterprise at the forefront of several organisations advancing human rights, child development, child therapy and HIV/AIDS treatment across the world.