The Coup That Disrupted Africa's Forward March
June Milne the former research and editorial assistant to Kwame Nkrumah and later his literary executrix writes on the coup that set Africa back. "It is not difficult to imagine the greatly improved condition of the African people today if Nkrumah had continued in power in Ghana to lead the pan-African movement," she writes.
In the history of most countries, there are decisive dates of events that have far-reaching, momentous effects. One such date in the history of Ghana and Africa is 24 February 1966. On that day, the government of the Convention People's Party (CPP), headed by Kwame Nkrumah, was overthrown in a military coup organised by foreign powers and local collaborators.
It is now 41 years ago. Yet the repercussions are still felt in Ghana, throughout the African continent, and within the global Nkrumaist movement. It is not difficult to imagine the greatly improved condition of the African people today, if Nkrumah had continued in power in Ghana to lead the pan-African movement.
On that day in February 1966, the people of Africa certainly suffered a serious setback. But it was by no means a knockout blow. For during the nine short years between Ghana's independence in 1957 and the overthrow of the CPP government in 1966, foundations were laid which could never be reversed.
In a broadcast made by Nkrumah to the people of Ghana on 6 March 1966, he declared: "They cannot destroy what we have taken years to build. For what we have achieved is built on rock foundations and is indestructible." He was broadcasting on Guinea radio's "Voice of the Revolution". He had gone to Guinea after the coup, on the invitation of President Sekou Toure and the Democratic Party of Guinea (PDG). It was a typical Nkrumah response, defiant and resolute, made at a time when the Western media and the military junta in Ghana were gloating over what they claimed was a great victory.
If they thought that by removing Nkrumah from power in Ghana they would silence him, and at the same time mortally wound the pan-African movement, they were mistaken. Not only did Nkrumah continue the struggle for a united continent of Africa to which he had dedicated his whole life, but so also did Nkrumaists worldwide. In Nkrumah's words: "One step backwards has been taken. We shall take two forward."
When news of the coup reached him, Nkrumah was in Peking (today's Beijing) en route to the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, with plans to end the American war in Vietnam. He was too far away for a quick return to Ghana where he may have been able to end the military action.
Leaders of four African countries sent Nkrumah immediate messages of support and invitations. They were the presidents of Egypt (Gamal Abdel Nasser), Mali (Modibo Keita), Guinea (Sekou Toure), and Tanzania (Julius Nyerere). Nkrumah decided to accept Sekou Toure's invitation. The government of Guinea shared Nkrumah's Pan-African objectives, encompassing the liberation of the African people from all forms of social injustice and economic exploitation.
There existed a strong brotherly bond between Nkrumah and SekouToure. In addition, Guinea was closest to Ghana, where Nkrumah was determined to return to carry on his work.
The role of Sekou Toure at this crucial stage of Africa's history has not, in my view, received the attention it deserves. In a speech of welcome made during a mass rally in the Conakry stadium the day after Nkrumah's arrival on 2 March 1966, Sekou Toure declared his intention to step down as president of Guinea to allow Nkrumah to take his place. I know of no other such extraordinary and historic proposal before or since. Sekou Toure's announcement was greeted with thunderous applause. In the event, Nkrumah accepted only to become co-president.
It was the government of Guinea which made it possible for Nkrumah to continue his work after the 1966 coup. He was able to keep in touch with African and world affairs. Freedom fighters, members of progressive organisations worldwide, and leaders of the Black Power struggle in the USA, discussed their problems with him. He was in daily consultation with Sekou Toure and members of the PDG.
It is also to be remembered that when Nkrumah arrived in Guinea, Sekou Toure declared Nkrumah "a universal man". Then, on Nkrumah's death on 27 April 1972, it was Sekou Toure who ordered the words, "The Greatest African", to be engraved on his coffin. He was, I believe, the first to so name Nkrumah.
Contemplating the years between 1957, Ghana's independence, and 1972 when Nkrumah died, I have been re-reading some of my notebooks written during those years when I was Nkrumah's research and editorial assistant. I wrote daily accounts of our many meetings both before 1966, the year of the coup, and afterwards. The value I attach to the notebooks is because they were written at the time. Not from memory or hindsight.
A notebook entry made during the first week in February 1966 is significant because it was made only three weeks before the coup. It was at a time when Nkrumah was preparing to travel on the peace mission to Hanoi. I was with him in his office in the Osu Castle in Accra. He was checking the page proofs of his book, Challenge of the Congo. Occasionally he asked if I thought he had used the most appropriate word in a particular context. "It is your language, not mine." We were suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Foreign Minister, Quaison Sackey, to report that he had just received an urgent message from the Ghanaian ambassador in Washington. The US president, Lyndon Johnson, wished to assure Nkrumah that America would stop the bombing of Hanoi to allow his aircraft to land safely. He could, therefore, travel to Vietnam with his peace proposals "in perfect safety'.
Why were the Americans so anxious for Nkrumah to leave Ghana - especially when he had suggested peace talks could be held in Accra: For some months, Nkrumah had been working on a peace plan. But a coup to remove him from power was in the final stages of planning. For it to succeed, it was imperative that he was out of the country, and as far away as possible to ensure he would be unable to make a quick return.
In Africa, as elsewhere, military, coups have often been carried out when leaders have been absent. For example, Milton Obote, president of Uganda, was attending a Commonwealth conference in Singapore when his government was overthrown. A military coup occurred in Guinea soon after the death of Sekou Toure.
I am reminded, from one of my notebooks, of what Camara Sana, the Guinean protocol officer attending Nkrumah in his Conakry residence, Villa Syli, once to me: "Sekou Toure will be safe as long as Nkrumah remains in our country." How right he was. For soon after Nkrumah died in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, where he had gone to for medical treatment, the eminent freedom fighter, Amilcar Cabral, also an honoured guest in Guinea, was assassinated in Conakry. His death was the prelude to that of Sekou Toure in highly suspicious circumstances.
It was said that Toure had suffered a heart attack, and on the advice of a doctor had been flown to America for medical treatment. He had died, it was claimed, on the operating table. l remain unconvinced. For no sooner was his funeral in Conakry over than a military coup took place which overthrew the PDG government. It had clearly been planned well in advance. It was known that Sekou Toure seldom traveled abroad. A corpse is as useful as a leader out of the country.
In Guinea, Nkrumah spent much time contemplating the causes - immediate and long term - of the 1966 coup in Ghana. What lessons could be learned in terms of party organisation and the political education of the people?
Soon after he arrived in Guinea, he established a political committee of his Ghanaian entourage to look into these matters. The report was typed, bound and presented to Nkrumah. Members of the committee signed it. There is one missing name, that of Boye Moses, a senior security officer. He had been captured while on a secret mission, and was imprisoned in Accra by the military junta.
The report makes interesting reading. It was among Nkrumah's papers and books which, as his literary executrix, I was able, after much difficulty, to rescue from Villa Syli after both Nkrumah and Sekou Toure were dead. With a military regime in power in Conakry and old contacts lost, it was impossible to obtain the necessary permission and travel documents. I decided to risk going without a visa. On my arrival at the Gbessia Airport in Conakry. I was almost refused entry. I was told to wait at the end of the queue of arriving passengers. Eventually, my passport was taken and I was told it would only be returned when I had been photographed and a visa issued by the local authorities.
When I traveled to Guinea, my purpose had been to list Nkrumah's papers and books, and to see that they were being suitably preserved. It was a shock to discover their condition. Although Camara Sana, on Nkrumah's death, had arranged for this important historical material to be stored and sealed in large wooden boxes, these had been broken into and the contents roughly handled by Guinean soldiers who then occupied the Villa.
Evidently disappointed at finding only papers and books, they had tossed them back into the boxes which they left unclosed. This precious material had been exposed to insects, -cockroaches, and in one box a family of mice. Also to the damaging effects of a humid, tropical climate. Clearly, it was essential I took the material back with me for safe keeping until a suitable repository could be found where it would be in the care of expert archivists. For several anxious days, I was told not to approach the Villa, and to "lie low". Then, with the help of Camara Sana who had been out of work since the fall of the PDG government, I was able at last to obtain the required documents. I was just in time to save Nkrumah's Conakry papers for posterity.
It is the only time I have been thankful for the ignorance of soldiers. The material, though damaged, had not been destroyed. Unlike in 1966 in Accra, when rampaging soldiers senselessly burned the entire contents of Nkrumah's office in Flagstaff House.
I have heard it argued that if anything positive can be said to have resulted from the 1966 coup in Ghana, it is the fact that in Guinea, Nkrumah had more time to write books. For it was during the Conakry period that two of his most important books were written, the Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare and Class Struggle in Africa. Also during that time, Dark Days in Ghana, and a freedom fighter edition of Axioms of Kwame Nkrumah, Voice from Conakry, Challenge of the Congo, and four pamphlets were published. Then posthumously, but compiled in Conakry, Revolutionary Path and Rhodesia File. All the books written by Nkrumah, both before and after the coup, are still in print and available (under the PANAF imprint).
While Nkrumah had more time to write in Guinea, it has to be remembered that before the coup he had been assembling material for a book on Rhodesia and the settler problem in Africa. Work on the Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare was also in an advanced stage of preparation.
Nkrumah gave much thought to the future of both guerrilla forces and professional armies in Africa. When Africa was fully unified under an African government, professional armies would, according to his books, be replaced by people's militias, under African political control. Their only purpose would be to maintain law and order.
In an African continent strong and united, there would be no more internal strife, and African killing African. Nor was there likely to be a foreign threat. The people of Africa could defend themselves in the unlikely event of any outside power either daring or wanting to attack.
Finally, the question of a name for the homeland of all the people of Africa and those of African descent in the diaspora. An entry in my notebook, written while on a visit to Guinea in December 1968, reminds me of what Nkrumah then thought on this matter. After speaking about great countries such as India and China, each comprising many states and peoples with different history, language, culture and religion, he said he thought that a fully unified Africa should be named in a single word: Africa. (c)NewAfrican