Ghana Marks 50th Anniversary, and Some Regrets

Motorists pass a monument dedicated to Ghana's independence in the capital of Accra. i i

hide captionMotorists pass a monument dedicated to Ghana's independence in the capital of Accra.

Kambou Sia/AFP/Getty Images
Motorists pass a monument dedicated to Ghana's independence in the capital of Accra.

Motorists pass a monument dedicated to Ghana's independence in the capital of Accra.

Kambou Sia/AFP/Getty Images

Ghana turns 50 today, and it's planning nationwide celebrations that will be attended by dignitaries from around the world. The West African nation was the first sub-Saharan African country to obtain its independence from colonial rule.

Formed from the British colonies of Gold Coast and Togoland, Ghana achieved independence from Britain in 1957.

But there are mixed feelings about Ghana's 50th anniversary — about its origins, its promise, and its current state.

Ghana was considered by many as a beacon and a continental trailblazer, the first along the path to freedom for Africa. British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan described it as the "wind of change" that was followed by many more African countries over the next 20 years.

Ghana's arresting red, gold and green flag — with the black star of freedom emblazoned in the center — is everywhere, adorning street lamp posts, fluttering in people's hands and on their cars, and used as scarves and belts.

But 50 years on, not all Ghanaians feel the golden jubilee is worth celebrating. They say it is time for sober reflection, to take stock of what has and has not been achieved in the five decades since independence.

Ghana, whose creation was greeted with such high hopes around the continent, suffered successive military coups d'etat, political repression and years of economic stagnation.

Ghana was once the world's top exporter of cocoa and a leading producer of gold. But many say the hopes of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first leader and chief architect of independence, have been sorely diminished.

They point to continuing unemployment in this nation of 20 million; its erratic water and electricity service. For some, there's virtually no tap water, and in those families, schoolchildren must wait in long lines at water pumps in the morning before they can attend classes.

There are complaints that the $20 million dollars earmarked for celebrating Ghana's 50th year could have been better spent on poverty relief and expanding utilities.

But it is not only ordinary Ghanaians complaining that there is little to celebrate. Two men have dominated the political limelight in Ghana: Kwame Nkrumah, deposed in a military coup in 1966; and retired Flight Lt. Jerry John Rawlings.

Rawlings first seized power in a 1979 coup before handing back civilian rule — only to stage a second coup in 1981. He remained in power for almost 20 years, first as an unelected military ruler and then, after restoring multiparty democracy, as an elected president in 1992. He won a second election in 1996 against the man who is now president, John Agyekum Kufuor.

Rawlings is credited with liberalizing the economy and enforcing painful World Bank-approved economic reforms and structural adjustment programs.

But Rawlings is boycotting Ghana's anniversary celebrations, which were organized by Kufuor, who became president in 2000.

Rawlings has accused Kufuor's democratically elected government of "pervasive corruption at all levels, missed opportunities for genuine progress, nepotism, tribalism and known cases of political tortures and killings."

Yet Ghana has a worldwide reputation as one of Africa's most stable countries in a volatile West African region. Kufuor has been praised by the United States among others for building on and consolidating democracy and progress.

Present-day Ghana still has a way to go, say many, including the country's most popular comedian and political commentator, Kwaku Sintim Misa. In a "Ghana@50" performance Sunday night, Misa called on all the political leaders to end their petty squabbles, focus on the nation and the people and unite.

Adopting a local dance, which features a few rapid steps forward, then as many steps backward, Misa said Kwame Nkrumah's pan-African vision was to unite the entire continent, not only Ghana. So he appealed to all Ghanaians to stop pulling back, and to move forward, quoting Nkrumah's slogan, "Forward Ever, Backward Never."

Ghana at 50 Reflects on Dream of Nationhood

The founding fathers of independent Ghana. i i

hide captionThe founding fathers of independent Ghana, from left: Komla Gbedemah, Kwame Nkrumah and Kojo Botsio.

Courtesy of the Botsio family
The founding fathers of independent Ghana.

The founding fathers of independent Ghana, from left: Komla Gbedemah, Kwame Nkrumah and Kojo Botsio.

Courtesy of the Botsio family
Ruth Botsio

hide captionRuth Botsio, the wife of one of Ghana's founding fathers, was active in the women's wing of the Convention People's Party. In this portrait, circa 1960, she wears Ghanaian hand-loom woven kente cloth and her trademark "Pompadour" bun hairstyle.

Courtesy of the Botsio family
Kwame Nkrumah and Kojo Botsio i i

hide captionKojo Botsio (left) and fellow founding father Kwame Nkrumah, pictured in the 1960s. Botsio became a trusted minister in Ghana's first post-independence cabinet.

Courtesy of the Botsio family
Kwame Nkrumah and Kojo Botsio

Kojo Botsio (left) and fellow founding father Kwame Nkrumah, pictured in the 1960s. Botsio became a trusted minister in Ghana's first post-independence cabinet.

Courtesy of the Botsio family
Women belonging to Ghana's independence political party i i

hide captionWomen belonging to Ghana's independence political party, the Convention People's Party, seen here in the early 1960s. The women of the CPP played a pivotal role in gaining independence; they traveled the country, spreading a message of "freedom" to rural and urban areas and preparing citizens-to-be for nationhood.

Courtesy of the Botsio family
Women belonging to Ghana's independence political party

Women belonging to Ghana's independence political party, the Convention People's Party, seen here in the early 1960s. The women of the CPP played a pivotal role in gaining independence; they traveled the country, spreading a message of "freedom" to rural and urban areas and preparing citizens-to-be for nationhood.

Courtesy of the Botsio family

When they look at old black-and-white photographs of Ghana's Independence Day, March 6, 1957 — and of the three visionary musketeers who led the country to freedom — many Ghanaians get misty-eyed.

In the images one can see "Osagyefo" (the name means "savior" or "Messiah" in the local Akan language) Kwame Nkrumah, the smallish gentleman with the messianic gaze. He is flanked by his right-hand man, Kojo Botsio — bigger in size and with an even friendlier smile — and his left-hand man, Komla Gbedemah, always elegantly turned out.

The three were inseparable, always plotting and planning the future of their fledgling independent nation, even as they dodged and tried to outwit the British colonial authorities — though they still ended up in detention.

They, and others who demanded freedom for the Gold Coast, were affectionately called the "prison graduates." The term refers to all the time they spent protesting and whiling away months on end inside of His, then Her, Majesty's jails.

Nostalgia is the word that readily comes to mind when Ghanaians look back on those halcyon days as the country fought for liberation. The leaders of the future Ghana were among the pioneers of African independence. They had a continental outlook: how to unite Africa and make it a mighty global force.

The memories come flooding back for those who lived through those tumultuous years. And for Ghanaians who were too young to remember, or were not yet born, it's a time to reflect on the past 50 years. What has their legacy left for Ghana?

The March 6 celebrations are literally that: a celebration of Ghana reaching its gold jubilee and marking the sacrifices made by the fathers of African nationhood.

Judging from the old photos, there were many sober and many merry moments, a feeling of togetherness and of common purpose, a destiny, a vision and a goal.

But the men of the Gold Coast were not the only ones instrumental in gaining independence. The women, too, played a pivotal role.

Nkrumah's party, the CPP (Convention People's Party), had an active women's wing that traveled the country, spreading a message of "freedom" to rural and urban areas and preparing citizens-to-be for independence.

Ruth Botsio, the wife of one of Ghana's founding fathers, Kojo Botsio, remembers being part of the CPP women who supported husbands, brothers, fathers and sons in the struggle. All the while, they were showing off the portrait of their leader, Nkrumah. The image was emblazoned on specially printed cloth fashioned into the traditional "kaba short" — the long, fitted skirt and tailored top that Ghanaian women proudly wore then and still wear today.

Ruth Botsio remembers how she and other women decided they were going to wear local clothes with pride and style. Ghana's brilliantly colored, hand-loom woven kente cloth became a fashion statement. Women and men in toga-style "cloth" stepped out clad in gorgeous kente, outshining even those in formal Western dinner dress. Everyone's eyes were on the "Gold Coasters" wherever they traveled.

Botsio, who popularized her trademark slicked-back hair and attached bun (which came to be known as "Pompadour"), said it was important for her and others to let the colonial British — and everyone else — know that Ghana had its own customs, traditions and heritage.

She remembers the tremendous wellspring of goodwill and purpose as everyone pursued a common agenda: to make the Gold Coast work.

It wasn't all slog. There was also time to party and enjoy. The vintage photos are proof. You only have to look at Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first prime minister and, later, its first president, dancing in step with the wives of his faithful lieutenants — linking arms with Ruth Botsio to his right and Adelaide Gbedemah to his left.

Ruth Botsio danced with Queen Elizabeth's consort, too — Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh — when Ghana became a republic, shortly after independence. Laughing, she recalls how everyone considered the dance quite an honor. Meanwhile, she elegantly took it in stride as the cameras clicked away, immortalizing the moment.

As Ghana prepares to relive those heady days, there will be plenty of dancing to the rhythms of vintage "highlife" — Ghanaian popular music — with favorites such as "Freedom Highlife" and "All for You," written in tribute to the country's nationhood.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is NPR's West Africa correspondent and a native of Ghana. Ruth Botsio is her aunt.

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