Government: Parliamentary Democracy
Official Language: English
Largest Ethnic Group: Akan
Date of Independence: March 6, 1957
Formerly: the Gold Coast, a British colony
The three colors of the flag (red, green, and black) and the black star in the middle are all symbolic of the pan-Africanist movement. This was a key theme in the early history of Ghana’s independence.
Much was expected and hoped for from Ghana at independence but like all new countries during the Cold War, Ghana faced immense challenges. Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, was ousted nine years after independence. For the next 25 years, Ghana was typically governed by military rulers with varying economic impacts. The country returned to democratic rule in 1992 and has built a reputation as a stable, liberal economy.
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Ghana’s independence from Britain in 1957 was widely celebrated in the African diaspora. African-Americans, including Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X, visited Ghana, and many Africans still struggling for their own independence looked on it as a beacon of the future to come.
Within Ghana, people believed they would finally benefit from the wealth generated by the country’s cocoa farming and gold mining industries.
Much was also expected of Kwame Nkrumah, the charismatic first President of Ghana. He was an experienced politician. He had led the Convention People’s Party during the push for independence and served as Prime Minister of the colony from 1954 to 1956 as Britain eased toward independence. He was also an ardent pan-Africanist and helped found the Organization of African Unity.
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Nkrumah’s Single Party State
Initially, Nkrumah rode a wave of support in Ghana and the world. Ghana, however, faced all the daunting challenges of independence that would soon be felt across Africa. Among these issues was its economic dependence on the West.
Nkrumah tried to free Ghana from this dependence by building the Akosambo Dam on the Volta River, but the project put Ghana deeply in debt and created intense opposition. His party worried the project would increase Ghana’s dependence rather than lessen it. The project also forced the relocation of some 80,000 people.
Nkrumah raised taxes, including on cocoa farmers, to help pay for the dam. This exacerbated tensions between him and the influential farmers. Like many new African states, Ghana also suffered from regional factionalism. Nkrumah saw the wealthy farmers, who were regionally concentrated, as a threat to social unity.
In 1964, faced with growing resentment and afraid of internal opposition, Nkrumah pushed a constitutional amendment that made Ghana a one-party state and made himself the life president.
As opposition grew, people also complained that Nkrumah was spending too much time building networks and connections abroad and too little time paying attention to his own people’s needs.
On February 24, 1966, a group of officers led a coup to overthrow Nkrumah while Kwame Nkrumah was in China. He found refuge in Guinea, where fellow pan-Africanist Ahmed Sékou Touré made him honorary co-President.
The military-police National Liberation Council that took over after the coup promised elections. After a constitution was drafted for the Second Republic, elections were held in 1969.
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Second Republic and Acheampong Years
The Progress Party, headed by Kofi Abrefa Busia, won the 1969 elections. Busia became the Prime Minister and a Chief Justice, Edward Akufo-Addo, became the President.
Once again, people were optimistic and believed the new government would handle Ghana’s problems better than Nkrumah. Ghana still had high debts, however, and servicing the interest was crippling the country’s economy. Cocoaprices were also slumping and Ghana’s share of the market had declined.
In an attempt to right the boat, Busia implemented austerity measures and devalued the currency, but these moves were deeply unpopular. On January 13, 1972, Lieutenant Colonel Ignatius Kutu Acheampong successfully overthrew the government.
Acheampong rolled back many of the austerity measures. This benefited many people in the short term, but the economy worsened in the long term. Ghana’s economy had negative growth (meaning the gross domestic product declined) throughout the 1970s, as it had in the late 1960s.
Inflation ran rampant. Between 1976 and 1981, the inflation rate averaged around 50 percent. In 1981, it was 116 percent. For most Ghanaians, the necessities of life were getting harder and harder to obtain, and minor luxuries were out of reach.
Amidst rising discontent, Acheampong and his staff proposed a Union Government, which was to be a government ruled by the military and civilians. The alternative to the Union Government was continued military rule. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that the contentious Union Government proposal passed in a 1978 national referendum.
In the lead up to the Union Government elections, Acheampong was replaced by Lieutenant General F. W. K. Affufo and restrictions on political opposition were lessened.
The Rise of Jerry Rawlings
As the country prepared for elections in 1979, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings and several other junior officers launched a coup. They weren’t successful at first, but another group of officers broke them out of jail. Rawlings made a second, successful coup attempt and overthrew the government.
The reason Rawlings and the other officers gave for taking power just weeks before national elections was that the new Union Government would be no more stable or effective than previous governments. They were not stopping the elections themselves but they did execute several members of the military government, including the former leader General Acheampong, who had already been unseated by Affufo. They also purged the higher ranks of the military.
After the elections, the new president Dr. Hilla Limann forced Rawlings and his co-officers into retirement. When the government was unable to fix the economy and corruption continued, Rawlings launched a second coup. On December 31, 1981, he, several other officers, and some civilians seized power again. Rawlings remained Ghana’s head of state for the next 20 years.
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Jerry Rawling’s Era (1981-2001)
Rawlings and six other men formed a Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC) with Rawlings as the chair. The “revolution” Rawlings led had Socialistleanings, but it was also a populist movement.
The Council set up local Provisional Defense Committees (PDC) throughout the country. These committees were supposed to create democratic processes at the local level. They were tasked with overseeing the work of administrators and ensuring the decentralization of power. In 1984, the PDCs were replaced by Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. When push came to shove, however, Rawlings and the PNDC balked at decentralizing too much power.
Rawlings’ populist touch and charisma won over crowds and he initially enjoyed support. There was opposition from the beginning, however. Just a few months after the PNDC came to power, they executed several members of an alleged plot to overthrow the government. The harsh treatment of dissidents is one of the primary criticisms made of Rawlings, and there was little freedom of the press in Ghana during this time.
As Rawlings moved away from his socialist colleagues, he gained enormous financial support from Western governments for Ghana. This support was also based on Rawlings’ willingness to enact austerity measures, which showed how far the “revolution” had moved from its roots. Eventually, his economic policies brought improvements, and he is credited with having helped save Ghana’s economy from collapse.
In the late 1980s, the PNDC was facing international and internal pressures and began exploring a shift toward democracy. In 1992, a referendum for returning to democracy passed and political parties were permitted again in Ghana.
In late 1992, elections were held. Rawlings ran for the National Democratic Congress party and won the elections. He was thus the first President of Ghana’s Fourth Republic. The opposition boycotted the elections, which undercut the triumph. The 1996 elections that followed were deemed free and fair, and Rawlings won those as well.
The shift to democracy led to further aid from the West, and Ghana’s economic recovery continued to gain steam in the eight years of Rawlings’ presidential rule.
Ghana’s Democracy and Economy Today
In 2000, the true test of Ghana’s fourth republic came. Rawlings was prohibited by term limits from running for President a third time. The opposition party’s candidate John Kufour won the Presidential elections. Kufour had run and lost to Rawlings in 1996, and the orderly transition between parties was an important sign of the political stability of Ghana’s new republic.
Kufour focused much of his presidency on continuing to develop Ghana’s economy and international reputation. He was reelected in 2004. In 2008, John Atta Mills (Rawlings’ former Vice President who had lost to Kufour in the 2000 elections) won the election and became Ghana’s next president. He died in office in 2012 and was temporarily replaced by his Vice President John Dramani Mahama, who won the subsequent elections called for by the constitution.
Amidst the political stability, however, Ghana’s economy has stagnated. In 2007, new oil reserves were discovered. This added to Ghana’s wealth in resources but has not yet brought a boost to Ghana’s economy. The oil discovery has also increased Ghana’s economic vulnerability, and the 2015 crash in oil prices decreased revenue.
Despite Nkrumah’s efforts to secure Ghana’s energy independence through the Akosambo Dam, electricity remains one of Ghana’s hurdles more than 50 years later. Ghana’s economic outlook may be mixed, but analysts remain hopeful, pointing to the stability and strength of Ghana’s democracy and society.
Ghana is a member of ECOWAS, the African Union, the Commonwealth, and the World Trade Organization.
“Ghana.” The World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency.
Berry, La Verle (Editor). “Historical Background.” Ghana: A Country Study, U.S. Library of Congress., 1994, Washington.
“Rawlings: the Legacy.” BBC News, December 1, 2000