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The darkest human right abuse of the immediate post-independence period was arguably the arbitrary application of the Preventive Detention Act (PDA). It saw many arrests and detentions of Ghanaians some of whom suffered their fates on mere suspicions of plotting to assassinate the President.
It is also an issue which expectedly is subject to varied interpretations. For Kwame Nkrumah’s apologists, it was a necessary path; not so to others in the opposition who thought differently. Be it as it may, many Ghanaians languished in especially the Nsawam Prison, most of them dying under worrying circumstances.
In subsequent editions I would attempt, based on extracts from the treason trials of 1963 and other sources, present important portions of the developments in a form devoid of confusing legalese.
The report from the National Liberation Council (NLC) commissioned, Commission of Enquiry into the treatment of prisoners before the 24th February 1966 coup provide an important insight into this sordid period in our post-independence history which claimed the lives of, among others, the late Dr. JB Danquah, a man described as the doyen of Ghanaian politics and a star political prisoner of Kwame Nkrumah.
A portion of the introduction of the report which I find exciting reads “the publication highlights the case of the detention and death in Nsawam Prison of Dr. J.B. Danquah. It is hoped that, presented in this form, the people of Ghana would have, in this publication, a readable account of this tragic episode which marks one of the darkest periods of the operation of the Preventive Detention Act.”
Dr. J.B. Danquah’s death on 4th February, 1965 aged 69 in the Nsawam Prison, attracted international opprobrium and caused the outside world to study more the political situation in the country. He was arrested and detained on 8th January 1964.
Expectedly, his death received prominence in the local media – he being the most important and popular political prisoner. Ghana had, under Kwame Nkrumah, abundant political prisoners especially in the condemned row; one of them being Obetsebi-Lamptey, the father of the late Jake Otanka Obetsebi-Lamptey.
It made interesting observation the following segment of the extract from the report “it was elicited first of all that Dr. J.B. Danquah, as in the case of Mr. E. Obetsebi-Lamptey and a small group of others of the more prominent detainees, was confined in the Condemned Cells, on the upper landing in this case, together with condemned prisoners.”
The report had it that “he was admitted to Nsawam Prison and lodged in the Condemned Section (Special Block) in cell No. 9 on the upper landing. The cell is approximately 9 feet by 6 feet in area, secured by a solid door with a small open grille in the top half of the door and a barred window high up in the rear wall. The cell contained no bed or other furniture other than a chamber pot.”
One wonders whether Kwame Nkrumah knew the conditions under which his one-time colleague was being held. Was it that the ultimate, death, was what he wanted to visit Dr. J.B. Danquah? If that was the case then every reader is free to make their own judgment.
Even more intriguing was the order said to have been issued to the Prison authorities regarding handling of inmates especially special prisoners.
“For three months after admission Dr. Danquah was not issued with a bed, but first of all with only a blanket to cover the bare concrete floor. Evidence reveals that there was an order that detainees in the Condemned Cells, for a period of several months, were not allowed to stand up in their cells having to lie down or sit on the floor. The purpose of this order appears to have been to prevent each of the detainees knowing who were the others detained. This order appears to have been effective, as the evidence reveals that it was only after many months had passed before some of the detainees discovered who were the others detained. It is felt also that the prison officers must have labored under some fear for all of them to have remained for so long”.
An elaborate plan, the report stated, was put in place to ensure that detainees did not build any friendship with prison officials. Detainees from the same tribe as such officials were not allowed to have any direct contact and this was amply evidenced in the duty roster of warders and others. Tribes of detainees and prison officers were particularly observed so inmates do not have direct contact with persons coming from their ethnic groups.
Dr. J.B. Danquah’s life in the condemned cell was no different from others on death row. It was regimented, the report pointed out and even more rigorous than his colleagues’. His eventual death was unsurprising considering the rather harsh conditions in which he was held coupled with the mental torture he endured. “On the few occasions when he was permitted to use the lavatory at the end of the corridor, he was escorted there and back; he was supervised while he had a bath; he was issued with a toothpaste and toothbrush, supervised while he cleaned his teeth; the paste and brush were then withdrawn; his cell was subjected to frequent rigid searches; during the early part of his period of detention he was given no exercise and, later, apparently only 15 minutes every week, although the records show this was somewhat irregular; during the early part of his detention he was allowed no visitor nor allowed to write letters but later he was permitted a visit from his wife approximately once a month.”
The mental torture to which J.B. Danquah was subjected was beyond description. As a condemned block executions continued as a matter of routine, a practice which, it would appear, was intended to break down the special inmates such as J.B. Danquah and others.
Mr. E.R.T. Madjitey, one-time head of the Police, himself an inmate was captured as wondering when it was going to be his turn. The report also had Tawiah Adamafio former Information and Broadcasting Minister and a close friend of Nkrumah saying in evidence when asked “were any executions carried out when you were in the Condemned Cells?” to which question he answered “Yes, everything going on in that apartment could be heard by every inmate there. We could hear the preachers saying prayers. Holy Communion being served, and prisoners screaming”. “What impression did all that have on you?” to which he said “I kept wondering when it would be my turn.”
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