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

By Joe Tache
Apr 17, 2024

Photo: Kwame Nkrumah meets with President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Credit: Wikipedia

One day after his inauguration, Bassirou Diomaye Faye — Senegal’s new self-proclaimed “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.

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: An architect of Pan-Africanism

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.

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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:

  1. To promote the unity and solidarity of the African States;
  2. To coordinate and intensify their cooperation and efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa;
  3. To defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity and Independence;
  4. To eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa; and
  5. 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.” In 1965 his book, “Neo-Colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism,” Nkrumah writes:

Once a territory has become nominally independent it is no longer possible, as it was in the last century, to reverse the process. Existing colonies may linger on, but no new colonies will be created. In place of colonialism as the main instrument of imperialism we have today neo-colonialism.

The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from the outside.

Nkrumah identified that as the era of formal colonialism was coming to an end, the imperialists were using financial domination as a means to retain political control over much of the Global South. This later came to fruition in Nkrumah’s own country.

Because of his commitment to socialism and Pan-Africanism, openness to collaboration with the Soviet Union and China, and contributions to anti-imperialist consciousness throughout Africa and the world, Nkrumah was increasingly viewed as a threat by the U.S. government, who set into motion a plan to remove him from office.

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. The conclusion of the report set a general framework that informed U.S. policy towards Nkrumah and Ghana:

Attitudes and policies toward the U.S. will probably be shaped largely by economic interests. A growing number of Ghanaians have visited the US, where they have been particularly impressed by technical achievements, but repelled by the racial discrimination which they encountered. Both on the latter count and because of the extremes in which anticolonialism is expressed, Ghana does not find moderate U.S. policies very appealing. Ghana nevertheless is favorably disposed toward the US.. at present, especially since it is regarded as the logical source of the foreign capital and technical assistance essential for the Volta Project, and Ghana is likely to make large requests for aid in the near future…

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We believe that Ghana’s desire to avoid close alignment with any great power and to act independently in African affairs will limit both Soviet and Western influence in at least the short run. However, the practice of the [socialist] Block taking positions on ‘colonial’ and racial matters similar to those of the former colonies will often result in Ghana’s lining up with the Bloc on certain issues before the UN. These relationships are likely to develop regardless of any countering Western actions.

The Volta Project was the cornerstone of Nkrumah’s vision to modernize Ghana’s economy. It was a hydroelectric dam that would generate enough electricity to scale up industrial production in Ghana, particularly of aluminum which is an abundant natural  resource in Ghana. As alluded to in the CIA’s report, the U.S. government decided to fund the Volta Project in an attempt to prevent Ghana from fully aligning with the socialist camp, and to provide imperialism with some leverage over the country.

However, 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.”

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“The plotters are keeping us briefed, and State thinks we’re more on the inside than the British,” the memo continued. “While we’re not directly involved (I’m told), we and other Western countries (including France) have been helping to set up the situation by ignoring Nkrumah’s pleas for economic aid.”

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.

The struggle against neo-colonialism continues

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. Those of us in the United States must study the history of U.S. intervention in Ghana — and all of Africa — so that we can better oppose the attacks that are likely to come in the future.

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.

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