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(Soundbite of song, "Freedom Highlife")

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

"Freedom Highlife" is the vintage hit song the people of Ghana were dancing to back in 1957. That's when their West African nation, then called Gold Coast, became the first south of the Sahara to trade European colonial rule for independence.

(Soundbite of song, "Freedom Highlife")

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) Ghana, we now have freedom.

Unidentified People (Singers): (Singing) Freedom.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Ghana, land of freedom.

Unidentified People: (Singing) Hallelujah...

ELLIOTT: Ghana's independence from Britain was celebrated all over the continent and viewed with a spirit of pan-Africanism and unity. From the capital, Accra, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton explores the legacy and memories of that freedom.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Ghana was in the vanguard of the burgeoning continental struggle for independence from Africa's European masters. The struggle's dynamic and charismatic leader, Kwame Nkrumah, was trained at Lincoln University in the United States. There he was fired up with pan-Africanist zeal and a passion for politics, following in the footsteps of black American notables like W.E.B. DuBois.

Heading back home determined to take on the British, Nkrumah is credited with being the right player at the right moment.

Mr. ALI MAZRUI (African Historian): We were, of course, also mesmerized by Ghana's founding father.

QUIST-ARCTON: African historian Ali Mazrui.

Mr. MAZRUI: The independence of Ghana created new expectations. Most of the circumstances, which favored Nkrumah's high visibility, have receded into history because at that time for a while, it was just Ghana on its own. Much of Africa was still under colonial rule, and so when he built his visibility, he was a star actor in a continent still under subjugation.

QUIST-ARCTON: Just shy of her 80th birthday, Ruth Botsio, whose late husband was one of Ghana's independence leaders and a lieutenant of Kwame Nkrumah, remembered the coming of liberation as a heady and exciting time.

Ms. RUTH BOTSIO: We were all dying for the independence. They wanted the freedom. I wanted freedom, and then independence day, it was like - I don't know. The whole of Ghana were in Accra, and the crowds - so crowded, and then the people were so excited, some of them were shouting. Victory, shouting, singing, (singing in foreign language). And then later on, the government handover. Independence day.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. KWAME NKRUMAH: At long last, the battle has ended. Ghana, your beloved country, is free forever.

(Soundbite of applause)

QUIST-ARCTON: The moment on 6 March in 1957 when Kwame Nkrumah declared Ghana's independence.

Mr. NKRUMAH: We know we are going to have to difficult beginnings, but again, we can prove to the world that when the African is given a chance, he can show the world that he's somebody.

(Soundbite of applause)

QUIST-ARCTON: Sitting in her living room in Accra, enveloped in a haze of nostalgia, Ruth Botsio sorted through piles of vintage black-and-white photographs. With a chuckle now and then at the memories, she shared more of Ghana's history, good and bad. She was joined by one of her grandchildren.

Mr. KWAME NKRUMAH BOTSIO: My name is Kwame Nkrumah Botsio. I'm a law student, and Mr. Kojo Botsio, my grandfather, he was one of Kwame Nkrumah's right-hand men, part of the group who fought for Ghana's independence. It seems they were all determined, come what may, to gain independence and were prepared to die, if you look at some of the things that they went through.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ruth Botsio remembered how her late husband and his friend, Kwame Nkrumah, spent many long months as political prisoners. She and others spent many long hours visiting them in colonial jails.

Ms. BOTSIO: Those people who followed Nkrumah, when Nkrumah was inside the prison, they were also sleeping outside and singing - (sings) "Kwame Nkrumah's body is behind these prison bars." They sung all night. They want self-government now.

(Soundbite of song, "Freedom Highlife")

QUIST-ARCTON: But Kwame Nkrumah's star waned. Nine years after independence, in the first of successive military coups in Ghana, he was deposed, for a number of reasons, argues Ali Mazrui, the African historian.

Mr. MAZRUI: I regarded him as a great African, but not a great Ghanaian. He did things to Ghanaian people, which were not justifiable just because he was a pan-Africanist.

QUIST-ARCTON: And there's more.

Mr. MAZRUI: By reducing the liberties of Ghanaians, by creating one-party state, by locking up opponents, detention without trial, many of the precedents which were followed by dictators elsewhere in African afterwards received their legitimatization because Nkrumah had done them first.

QUIST-ARCTON: By the time Kwame Nkrumah was driven out of office in the mid-'60s, much of the rest of Africa had won its independence or was poised to do so in the coming decade. That's with the notable exception of apartheid South Africa. But Ghana itself lived through turbulent years, trading short-lived democratic governments with repressive military regimes until a return to multi-party elections in 1992.

The ballot of 2000 heralded the first peaceful handover of power in Ghana from one elected administration to another. Now, says Ghanaian political scientist Emanuel Djimabwidi(ph), Ghana has changed.

Mr. EMANUEL DJIMABWIDI (Political Scientist): The taste for coups is simply not there. It's not strong enough to encourage even the most hardened coup-maker to want to stage a coup or hope to succeed. So I think structurally and culturally, we have moved Ghana to a point where I cannot imagine that a coup can occur or would occur and succeed or would occur, succeed and be able to get a following.

QUIST-ARCTON: So at 27, how does Kwame Nkrumah Botsio assess the legacy of independence for young Ghanaians like himself?

Mr. BOTSIO: I believe it is not merely Ghana at 50 or the baby called Ghana has come of age, but we are also celebrating unity at 50, because if it wasn't for these circumstances, I'm sure we'd be still fighting turf wars, tribal wars, there'll be ethnic conflict.

QUIST-ARCTON: You sound like a politician.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOTSIO: Maybe I got this from Grandpa Kojo Botsio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

QUIST-ARCTON: On the eve of her 80th birthday and her country's 50th, Ruth Botsio said her main regret was the military coups that interrupted Ghana's new-born experiment with independence. But she was full of enthusiasm about her country's future.

Ms. BOTSIO: Forwards ever, backwards never. Forwards ever, backwards never, as Kwame Nkrumah said. And it has come to pass. I'm still alive to see the 50th anniversary.

(Soundbite of song, "Freedom Highlife")

QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Accra.

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