The Political History of Ghana

By: Anthony Sedzro


Unlike other African countries which had to wage wars to attain independence, Ghana’s is a case of an educated class using the pen and mass mobilisation to overcome colonial shackles and the might of the British Empire.

Lying on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, the Gold Coast, which was what the country was called before independence, was a trading post dealing in gold and other items from the south to the Sahara in the north.  Ancient Ghana was also the focus for the export trade in Saharan copper and salt, according to “GHANA – a brief guide” a publication of the Ghana Information Services Department, 1994.

The arrival of European settlers in the 13th century changed the dynamics of the region. The Portuguese were the first to arrive, finding gold they built the first fort called “El Mina’ (translated as ‘the mines’), modern-day Elmina in the Western Region. Other European settlers also built castles and forts along the coast line to protect themselves from attacks of fellow Europeans and the powerful Asante Kingdom. The Asante, who lived in the middle belt also wanted control of trading routes to the coast. With time, the trade in gold was replaced by trade in slaves, who were shipped to work in plantations in America and for manual labour in Europe.

After many wars, the British became the dominant colonialist in the Gold Coast. To consolidate their power, the British signed a pact with Fante states along the coast on 6th March 1844 (the Bond of 1844), effectively handing over their sovereignty to British control. However the British could not expand the control beyond the coast mainly due to the effective organisation and military might of the Asante Empire. This led to series of wars over a 50 year period between the two with the Asante winning most of them.

In 1901-1902, the British, with a large army, invaded Kumasi and finally managed to defeat the Asante army, and captured the Asante King (Asantehene), Nana Agyemang Prempeh 1. Prempeh was exiled to Sierra Leone and later to the Seychelles Islands. The British later extended their control to the Northern territories as their protectorate and the territory of Togoland (which was given to the British after World War 1) as a crown colony.

 Struggle for independence

However, from the 1920s onwards, there began an agitation for independence from colonial rule, especially by educated Gold Coasters who had studied, lived in Britain and returned. Some established local newspapers, freely expressing their unhappiness with colonial rule. A few political parties were formed for this cause. The most potent of them, however, was the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), formed with financial backing from wealthy Takoradi merchant, Paa Grant, on August 4, 1947. Paa Grant, a timber merchant, was unhappy that timber license concessions had been offered by the colonial administrators to foreign and British firms instead of to locals like himself. The motto of UGCC was “Self-government within the shortest possible time”.

The UGCC was led by Dr. Joseph Boakye Danquah, a prominent lawyer and nationalist. One of its leaders, Ebenezer Ako Adjei told the leaders that he knew of a Gold Coast Native-Kwame Nkrumah-who was an effective organiser. Nkrumah was invited to become the first General-Secretary of UGCC and together, with the previous leaders, they became known as the ‘Big Six’.

big six Ghana
The Big Six (Left to Right): Kwame Nkrumah, Obetsebi Lamptey, Ebenezer Ako Adjei, William Ofori-Atta, Dr J. B. Danquah and Edward Akuffo-Addo

In January 1948, Nii Kwabena Bonne II, a Ga chief, had organised a boycott of all European shops in response to escalating high prices of their goods. Then, on February 28, 1948, a group of former soldiers who fought alongside the British army in the Second World War were marching to present a petition to the colonial Governor, Sir Gerald Creasy. They were intercepted and shot at leading to the death of three of them, sparking riots across the city with the looting of foreign-owned businesses.

The aftermath of the riots was the arrest of the Big Six. The leaders of UGCC blamed Kwame Nkrumah for being responsible for the riots and their arrest. Nkrumah got suspended from his position by the UGCC leaders. After his suspension, Nkrumah and Ako Adjei left the UGCC to form their own party, the Convention People’s Party (CPP).

With the CPP, Nkrumah swept to power in the 1951 Legislative elections and was asked to form a government. Ghana officially got independence from Britain on 6th March 1957. The choice of the 6th March date for independence was instructive; as the Bond of 1844 which handed over Gold Coast sovereignty to the British was signed on 6th March 1844, Nkrumah chose the same date for Ghana’s independence to signify the return of her sovereignty and national pride. He also changed the country’s name from “Gold Coast” to Ghana, the medieval West African empire that existed before the arrival of the colonialists.


After independence, Prime Minister Nkrumah embarked on an industrialisation policy that saw many factories, roads, schools and others being built. He also built the Akosombo Dam, meant to serve as the energy backbone to his many ideas. Externally, he pursued a pan-African agenda, financially supporting other African countries with their own independence.

Domestically, his main opposition came from the UGCC, his former party. Nkrumah was accused by his opponents of growing increasingly autocratic. Facing domestic opposition and unsuccessful attempts on his life, National Assembly enacted the Preventive Detention Act (PDA) which gave the Prime Minister the power to detain without trial, citizens who were suspected to be threats to national security. This saw the imprisonment of his former comrade Dr J.B. Danquah at the Nsawam Prison.

In 1964, the 1960 Republican Constitution was amended to make Ghana a one-party state. Nkrumah was overthrown by the military and police on 24th February, 1966 while on a state visit to Hanoi, Vietnam.

 Military years

The military government put in place the National Liberation Council (NLC) to administer the affairs of the country and it was led by General Joseph Arthur Ankrah. The NLC banned the CPP and had its ministers and officers arrested. General Ankrah was removed from office in April 1969 and replaced by General Akwasi Amankwa Afrifa.Afrifa returned the country to civilian rule with the organisation of a general election in 1969.  With Nkrumah’s CPP banned, the elections were won by the Progress Party government, with Dr Kofi Abrefa Busia as Prime Minister and Edward Akufo-Addo (whose son is interestingly the current president of Ghana) as president and ushering in Ghana’s second civilian republic.

The Ghana Armed Forces, an ever-present feature in Ghana’s politics, staged another military coup deposing Dr Busia from power on 13th January 1972 with Colonel (later General) Ignatius Kutu Acheampong becoming the Head of State and Chairman of the National Redemption Council (NRC). General Acheampong later changed the name of the military regime from NRC to Supreme Military Council (SMC). Acheampong was later replaced in a bloodless palace coup by General F.W.K. Akuffo in July 1978.

The SMC was overthrown in a mass revolt by junior officers of the Ghana army on 4th June 1979 led by Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings. Rawlings formed the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and sought to carry out a house-cleaning exercise in the armed forces and restore accountability in public life, according to the Information Services Department records.

Before the AFRC staged the coup d’état, there was a timetable in place to hold elections and return the country to civilian rule. On 24th September 1979, the AFRC handed over power to the civilian administration of Dr Hilla Limann, leader of the People’s National Party (PNP) which had won the elections. The PNP lasted for a little over two years and it was overthrown in another coup led by Jerry Rawlings again on 31st December 1981. Rawlings formed the Provisional National Defence Ruling Council (PNDC) which administered the country.

In the late 80s to the early 90s, there were agitations for the country to return to civilian rule. A Committee of Experts was established to draw up a new constitution that was unanimously approved by the people in a referendum on 28th April, 1992. The Constitution called for a return to multi-party democracy in Ghana.

Return to democracy in the 4th  Republic

Ghana returned to multi-party democracy with elections on 3rd November 1992, won by Jerry John Rawlings who now stood on the ticket of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) as a civilian. His main challenger, Professor Albert Adu-Boahen of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) came second. Rawlings was re-elected in 1996. In 2000, after serving his mandatory two terms, his vice Professor John Evans Atta-Mills was the flag bearer of the NDC. History was made when John Agyekum Kuffour of the opposition NPP won the presidency from the ruling NDC.

Further testifying to the consolidation of Ghana’s democracy, Atta-Mills of the NDC won back power in peaceful elections in 2008, at the third attempt. He died suddenly in office and was succeeded by his Vice John Mahama who went on to win another term in 2012.

In 2016, the NDC again lost power to the opposition NPP, this time led by human rights lawyer Nana Akufo-Addo, also at his third time of asking. This was the third time that a party in opposition captured power from an incumbent government, cementing Ghana as a beacon of stability in a troubled West African sub-region.

President Nana Akufo-Addo inauguration
President Nana Akufo-Addo at his inauguration on January 7, 2017

Ambassador Johnnie Carson of the National Democratic Institute, an observer for the 2016 elections said: “Ghana has distinguished itself in the last two-and-a-half decades with integrity and transparency. It is a gold standard for democracy in Africa.”

GB&F Magazine

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