A Bad Omen: Nkrumah vs. Cocoa Farmers, 1954-57

From The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2005), pp. 24-27:

After winning the 1954 election, Nkrumah seemed set to make rapid progress towards independence. But he encountered unexpected resistance centred on his conduct of government. In the final stages of colonial rule, the Gold Coast, once a model colony, was riven by such bitterness, division and violence that it appeared in danger of breaking up.

At the core of the crisis was cocoa money. To protect cocoa farmers from price fluctuations, the colonial authorities had established a Cocoa Marketing Board (CMB) which each year fixed a guaranteed price for farmers and acted as the sole buyer, grader, seller and exporter of cocoa. Once in office, Nkrumah instructed the CMB to keep the price as low as possible, aiming to raise funds for development projects. But the CMB soon became notorious for corruption and mismanagement; it was regularly exploited to distribute credit, contracts, commissions, licences and jobs to CPP [Convention People’s Party] supporters. An official investigation revealed that the CPP used a CMB subsidiary to enrich the party’s coffers, to coerce farmers into joining the party and to control petty commerce.

Soon after the 1954 election, Nkrumah announced that the price paid to farmers would be fixed for a period of four years at a level less than one-third of ruling world prices. This decision provoked a surge of anger across Asante, the central forest region where half of the country’s cocoa crop was grown. Not only farmers but cocoa traders, merchants and businessmen based in the Asante capital, Kumasi, resented the loss of income. A new opposition party, the National Liberation Movement (NLM), sprang up, proclaiming to defend Asante interests and culture against a central government it portrayed as corrupt, dictatorial and bent on undermining the beliefs and customs of the Asante people. With the blessing of the Asante paramount chiefs and backed by fervent support in the Asante heartland, the NLM demanded a federal constitution prior to independence, giving Asante and other areas that wanted it a substantial measure of local autonomy.

Nkrumah saw the issue as a struggle between a modern democratic government and the feudal power of traditional chiefs trying to protect the old order. But he misjudged the extent of popular support for Asante institutions. As the NLM and Nkrumah’s CPP struggled for ascendancy, violent disturbances broke out. A bomb attack was made on Nkrumah’s house in Accra. Alarmed by the disorders, the British government refused to set a date for independence and eventually insisted on resolving the issue by calling another general election. At the polls in July 1956, Nkrumah’s CPP won an outright majority, 72 of 104 seats, though only 57 per cent of the votes cast. While the CPP received 398,000 votes, the opposition tally was 299,000 votes. Satisfied with the result, Britain finally pronounced a date for independence: 6 March 1957….

No other African state was launched with so much promise for the future. Ghana embarked on independence as one of the richest tropical countries in the world, with an efficient civil service, an impartial judiciary and a prosperous middle class. Its parliament was well established, with able politicians in both government and opposition. The prime minister, himself, then only forty-seven years old, was regarded as a leader of outstanding ability, popularly elected, with six years of experience of running a government. The country’s economic prospects were equally propitious. Not only was Ghana the world’s leading producer of cocoa, with huge foreign currency reserves built up during the 1950s cocoa boom, but it possessed gold, timber and bauxite.

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Filed under Britain, democracy, economics, Ghana

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