A lesson of History: The CIA overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah and the struggle against neo-colonialism in West Africa today

12:06 28.05.2024 •

One day after his inauguration, Bassirou Diomaye Faye (photo) — Senegal’s new left Pan-Africanist president — announced that the new government will conduct an audit of the country’s oil, gas and mining sectors. Faye said, “The exploitation of our natural resources, which according to the constitution belong to the people, will receive particular attention from my government,” and stated that Senegal’s existing contracts with energy corporations like BP will be renegotiated if needed, writes The Defend Democracy Press.

Faye’s campaign victory is another contribution to a recent trend in West Africa, in which several new governments have formed on the basis of political and economic sovereignty, rejecting the neo-colonial domination that has reigned on the continent since the mid-20th century. One of these countries, Niger, recently ordered all U.S. troops to leave its territory.

These developments have caused much consternation for U.S. imperialism. U.S. government and military officials have openly discussed the strategic importance of Africa to the United States, and they are debating how to retain maximum control over the continent. We can look to the case of Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president and prime minister, to understand some of the ways U.S. imperialism may potentially respond to the current developments in West Africa — and how those of us in the United States can better equip ourselves to challenge it.

Kwame Nkrumah

Ghana was colonized by Britain in 1874 and was called the “Gold Coast Colony” during this period. Its national liberation movement picked up steam in the late 1940s, and Kwame Nkrumah rose as a leader in two of the colony’s most significant political parties: first the United Gold Coast Convention and later the Convention People’s Party. Recognizing that independence was inevitable, Britain attempted to tightly control the process of independence. The colonial governor organized elections after imprisoning the most militant leaders of the national liberation movement, Nkrumah and many other CPP cadres, in 1950.

Despite these obstacles, the CPP dominated the elections and landed a decisive blow against British colonialism. In 1957, Ghana became one of the first countries in Africa to win its independence, and Nkrumah was elected first as prime minister, then later as president.

Nkrumah was a Pan-Africanist and a socialist who initiated projects to advance the political and economic independence of Africa at a time when most of the continent was still colonized. In 1958, Nkrumah convened a meeting between leaders of the eight independent African states at the time. That meeting was soon followed by the first All-African Peoples’ Conference held in Accra, Ghana that same year. The main goal of the conference was to build unity among the 300 delegates about the path forward for the struggle against colonialism and imperialism on the continent.

Five years later in 1963, Nkrumah played a central role in establishing the Organization of African Unity. The OAU initially consisted of 32 countries and had five stated purposes:

  • To promote the unity and solidarity of the African States;
  • To coordinate and intensify their cooperation and efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa;
  • To defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity and Independence;
  • To eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa; and
  • To promote international cooperation, having due regard to the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Nkrumah also made immense contributions to the struggle against imperialism by identifying and defining “neo-colonialism.”

CIA-backed coup ends socialist experiment in Ghana. In December 1957, just nine months after Nkrumah was elected to lead an independent Ghana, the CIA distributed a now declassified report titled “The Outlook for Ghana” to the White House, National Security Council, and several other federal agencies. The report identified that Nkrumah’s priorities of rapidly modernizing Ghana’s economy and advancing Pan-Africanism on the continent would be hampered by a lack of financial resources in the newly independent country.

As the CIA predicted, even U.S. support for the Volta Project could not prevent the relationship with Ghana from fraying due to Nkrumah’s fundamental opposition to colonialism and imperialism. As the relationship deteriorated, the U.S. government began taking steps to have Nkrumah overthrown. In 1964, the U.S. State Department’s Director of the Office of West African Affairs, Mahoney Trimble, proposed an “action program” for U.S. policy in Ghana. In it, he openly stated, “U.S. pressure, if appropriately applied, could induce a chain reaction eventually leading to Nkrumah’s downfall.” Key components of the action program were a slow-down or withdrawal of payments for the Volta Project, “psychological warfare” to diminish support for Nkrumah within Ghana, and turning leaders of other African countries against Nkrumah.

The United States also began building ties with the forces within Ghana who eventually successfully led a coup against Nkrumah in February 1966. In a 1965 internal memorandum, Robert Komer of the National Security Council wrote, “FYI, we may have a pro-Western coup in Ghana soon. Certain key military and police figures have been planning one for some time, and Ghana’s deteriorating economic condition may provide the spark.”

There is also compelling evidence that the CIA was directly involved in the coup. In 1978, “first-hand intelligence sources” told the New York Times that the CIA advised and supported the coup plotters. The New York Times article also acknowledges that this claim is supported by “In Search of Enemies,” a book written by John Stockwell, who worked for the CIA for 12 years.

After the coup, the U.S. government rushed to provide financial and diplomatic support for the coup government to ensure that Nkrumah and the CPP could not regain power. This included the delivery of 500 tons of milk to alleviate the hardships that the U.S. had been helping foment only months before.

It is not difficult to see some parallels between Nkrumah’s vision for Africa and those expressed by today’s new crop of African leaders who reject neo-colonialism.

This history illustrates that U.S. imperialism will use a hybrid strategy of economic, information, political, and — if needed — military warfare to prevent the rise of sovereign African countries.

However, as the position of U.S. imperialism slips in the world, anti-imperialist consciousness continues to develop within the United States, and more countries join the ranks of those who refuse to submit to colonial domination any longer, these tried and true tactics of neo-colonialism are set to face their toughest tests yet, The Defend Democracy Press concludes.


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