Nationalism and decolonization in the Gold Coast

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Abstract / Description of output

Gold Coast nationalism cannot be approached solely through the prism of decolonization. Debates about what constituted the building blocks of the nation go back to the start of the 20th century, drawing on renditions dating back a further half-century. A fundamental contention was that the coastal populations had entered the Gold Coast Colony through active consent, and that the sovereignty that had been conceded to the British was limited. And it was asserted that while Asante had been conquered, and the Northern Territories had been added through treaty, southern populations had been partners in the process. A second contention was that the Gold Coast nation was constituted by the sum of its traditional parts, which were necessarily of unequal size and complexion. Although the British acted on the basis of a different reading, this version enjoyed hegemonic status. It was repeated by the chiefs themselves but was most clearly articulated by the coastal intelligentsia.

In the 1920s, the formation of the National Congress of British West Africa (NCBWA) signaled a shift in which the educated elite across British West Africa combined to demand greater political rights and sought to pursue economic liberation in association with the black population of the Americas. In the 1930s, in the wake of the Great Depression, cocoa farmers were pitted against the European buying firms, and there was a proliferation of youth associations that took up causes such as the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Meanwhile, the injection of ideas derived from international socialism added a more radical inflection to Pan-Africanism. However, this momentum was halted by the outbreak of the war. As the Gold Coast Youth Conference (GCYC) looked to the future in the early 1940s, it abandoned Pan-Africanism and socialism. It continued to emphasize economic freedom but paid more attention to gaining political concessions. After 1947, the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) sought to pursue this agenda in alliance with the chiefs.

The notion that Kwame Nkrumah, who led the breakaway of the Convention People’s Party (CPP) in 1949, effected a radical rupture—even a revolution—is no longer tenable. Like his opponents, Nkrumah placed politics first and merely wanted self-government to come more quickly. After the 1951 election, the CPP governed in close alliance with the British. While it won the elections of 1954 and 1956, it singularly failed to attract mass support at the polls. Finally, while Nkrumah revisited older ideas derived from international socialism and Pan-Africanism, his real focus was on consolidating his grip on power in the Gold Coast—to the exclusion of addressing the concerns of border populations. After 1954, the CPP faced a coalition of parties that advocated a federal solution to the national question. Nkrumah, supported by Governor Arden-Clarke, insisted on a unitary state and toyed with drastically curtailing the powers of the chiefs. In the end the first was achieved, but Nkrumah backed away from a more radical overhaul. The conception of the Ghanaian nation as the sum of its traditional parts, and the assumption that the reach of the state is limited, was therefore further entrenched and remains fundamental to the social contract to this day.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Research Encyclopedia of African History
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Electronic)9780190277734
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2021

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Gold Coast
  • nationalism
  • decolonization
  • ethnicity
  • borders
  • Gold Coast Colony
  • Ashanti
  • Northern Territories
  • Togoland
  • traditional authority
  • youth associations
  • Pan-Africanism
  • international socialism
  • social contract


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