That fateful day 24th February, 1966

Thu, 25 Feb 2016 Source: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta

By Kwesi Atta Sakyi 24th February, 2016

On February 24th 1966, Ghanaians woke up to the rude shock radio announcement in the early hours of the morning that the government of the President, Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah, had been overthrown, and the myth surrounding him had been broken, that the CPP (the only recognised party) was a proscribed party, and that Parliament had been dissolved, that the Constitution was suspended to be substituted by military decrees, and all Ministers, District Commissioners, CPP party functionaries and apparatchiks were dismissed, and for their own safety, they should report without fail to the nearest police station.

I was 16 years old then and in middle school standard seven. I was the office boy at my school, the Winneba Methodist Boys’ School. Early on that day, I went to school and went into the detached office of the headteacher to attend to my daily chores. I could not hold the news of Nkrumah’s overthrow lightly, for at 16, I was politically conscious but not mature enough, though I understood a lot, and I decided to pray about it. I knelt down in a corner of the office and offered my prayers that the dark clouds which had gathered over Ghana should pass over if it was the will of God. Truth be said, growing up, we had known no other leader but Nkrumah whose name had been sung about and we had read books on him such as Kwame Nkrumah of the New Africa.

Later in the day, many people in Winneba, as in many other places in Ghana, took to the streets to jubilate and hail the gallant soldiers who had done the dirty job of their masters. Many people still were in disbelief and utter consternation as they decided to be cautious with their outward expression of their inner emotions, as many people for and against the regime, were in utter state of shock, defiance, disbelief, nonchalance, and confusion. Some hard-core CPP functionaries disguised themselves as women and fled to neighbouring villages to go and hide or lie low and watch the unfolding events from afar.

Throughout the country, informed sources believe that more than 3000 political prisoners were released, much like the re-enactment of the French Revolution prisoners held in the Bastille by the Ancien Regime and the monarchy headed by Louis XVI and her wife, Marie Antoinette. One of the political prisoners who was released was a prominent lawyer and merchant from my mother’s house, Mr Baiden-Amissah, also popularly known by his native name of Kweku Damboley.

I used to watch the skies a lot from the outside of my house in Winneba. There were no cell phones then, and no TVs or tablets in those days to distract our attention. We used lanterns inside our houses, and our mothers used hurricane lamps outdoors to work on smoking their fish in those mud kilns. Electricity was a luxury in a few elite homes. We found electricity in the streets as street lights, provided for by the town and city councils.

‘Dumsor’ or load-shedding was unknown. All we knew then was that our government, under the great Osagyefo, was a ‘forward ever’ and ‘backward never’ proactive and progressive government of action. There were informants everywhere who would report any fault or any misdeed to the authorities for prompt action. It was believed that those informants included youthful members of the Young Pioneers Movement which was spread all across the country, and located in all the schools in the country.

Even though I admired the Young Pioneers a lot for their colourful uniforms, I never got the chance to wear their uniform and be called ‘Comrade’. They wore some greyish khaki shorts with short sleeved khaki shirts and black boots with white pair of socks, a broad hat like the one worn by the Second World War British soldiers. Their neck scarves bore the green, white, and red colours of the CPP.

Even though corruption was extant, it was low and relative in magnitude. Sometimes, I think that a bit of dictatorship counts very much, depending on the nature of the people, their obedience or their contumacy or obstreperousness, the stage of development in the embryonic stage, among other variables. No great nation became great without some measure of some dictatorial rule by a strong character or champion or tank-commander leader like Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Peter the Great of Russia, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Chairman Mao Tse Dung of China, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Fidel Castro of Cuba, inter alia.

Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Mahathir Muhammed of Singapore and Malaysia respectively were visionary leaders like Nkrumah and they were his contemporaries. No two conditions are the same. While they succeeded in developing their respective countries, Nkrumah failed in some aspects because he was betrayed by his own people who did not understand him at the time.

Nkrumah would not have achieved what he achieved had he been a soft leader. He was compassionate and believed in John Stuart Mills ‘greater good for the greater number possible’, or Baumol’s optimality, and Pareto optimal economic models.

Days before Nkrumah’s overthrow, we noticed some unusual star constellation to the east towards Accra. Those were the days when few people had electricity, so the night skies were brightly-lit with twinkling and sparkling stars.

We began meditating on that strange star configuration, and the elders observed that it was unusual and it could portend something significant to happen. Lo and behold, the 24th February 1966 coup! Maybe the astrologers and astronomers among us would do their calculations backwards to that date and tell us the star constellation which appeared in the east from Winneba at the time. Maybe we could be told the import of that appearance 50 years ago today. Maybe I am superstitious. Of course, most humans are, or else we will not be having many religious faiths.

Nkrumah’s enlightened principles culminated in his centralist cum eleemosynary economic policies of income redistribution via free education, subsidised medical care, and the construction of quality secondary schools in all nooks and crannies of Ghana under the Ghana Education Trust Fund (GET), which was chaired by my paternal uncle, Nana Sir Ayirebi Acquah. Strangely enough, when in 1965 I had passed the Common Entrance Exam with flying colours to enter GSTS in Takoradi, I could not make it because my father had no cocoa farm to qualify me for CMB (Cocoa Marketing Board) scholarship.

Well, I ended up taking the line of least resistance to enter teacher training college. Thanks to Nkrumah’s foresight and excellent liberal education and health policies. We all in Ghana, one way or the other, benefited from Nkrumah’s largesse, yet some of us bury our heads in the sand like ostriches and pretend we do not see anything good Nkrumah did towards our obtaining a generous liberal education.

On 24th February, 1966, some people decked themselves with leaves and painted their bodies with white clay, wore red wrist and head bands and were clad in black mourning clothes, and they improvised placards splashed with the harshest and meanest words ever against Nkrumah. They carried mock coffins and said they were going to bury Nkrumah before his eventual demise. I wonder on hindsight now whether we were digging ourselves then into our current unmitigated morass and imbroglio of our economic gravitas. Many detractors made unsavoury statements, decrying Nkrumah as a dictator, autocrat, among others. People composed profanities and obscenities songs against Nkrumah, some saying that his girlfriend was one Esi Eluah (Eduwah) of Takoradi who allegedly had twisted genitalia.

Cartoonists went to town to shop, showing bizarre cartoons of naked Nkrumah kneeling before the standing mummified body of a behemoth black lady with outstretched arms, legs astride, who was believed to be Kankan Nyame or fetish to whom Nkrumah prayed daily, with seven white handkerchiefs tied at intervals on both outstretched hands. Many illiterate people craned their necks to look at those faked photos doing the rounds. Propaganda at its apogee!

B.A. Bentum, the OATUU (Organisation of African Trades Unions Union) Secretary-General led a posse of workers to burn heaps and heaps of books on Nkrumah and socialist ideology in front of masses of onlookers in Accra. The Ghanaian public was bombarded daily with lots and lots of propaganda on radio, on the misdeeds of the Nkrumah regime. Nothing good in education, health care, infrastructure development, social emancipation, inter alia was attributed to him and his regime. Today, you the reader, from your experience at the time and accounts of his regime, what do you think? Are we back to square one or progressing under the current dispensation?

There were days thereafter we heard rumours upon rumours that Nkrumah was marshalling forces to invade Ghana from Guinea, where he had sought political asylum after the coup. He found himself and his large entourage trapped midway between his final destination, Ho Chin Min City (Hanoi) in North Vietnam, and Accra in Ghana. Nkrumah was so much infatuated with love for Ghana such that he would not have dared do such a demeaning and infra dig act of invasion with foreign troops. He and his large retinue were caught with the sad news of his overthrow in Peking (Beijing), China where Chou en Lai, the then Premier broke the sad news to him. He was caught between the rock and a hard place. Tanzania’s Julius Mwalimu Nyerere, Mali’s Modibo Keita, and Gamel Abdul Nasser of Egypt had all offered him political asylum but he finally decided to go to Sekou Toure’s Conakry in Guinea, West Africa.

One day, soon after his overthrow, some soldiers arrived at the erstwhile Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute (KNII) with some huge bulldozers. They tied iron cords to the head statue of Nkrumah which was mounted at the end of a huge concrete sword measuring about 70 feet high and which was said to have been designed by a famous Bulgarian woman sculptor. The bulldozer pulled hard, and the concrete structure and the statue of Nkrumah’s head came crashing down on the concrete pavement below, scattering in all directions at what is now known as Liberation Square at the North Campus of University of Education, Winneba..

The wanton destruction of the relics of history reminded one of Kweku Ananse story whereby Kweku collected all the wisdom and intelligence of the world and monopolised it. He finally decided to take his hoard in a gourd and go and store it securely on top of the tallest tree. As he ascended the tree, the gourd containing the wisdom of mankind suddenly broke loose and it came crashing down, whereon the wisdom scattered in all directions. Hence, today wisdom or intelligence is not the exclusive preserve of any race or family or tribe or nation. It is normally distributed among all mankind. So is it why the wisdom which scattered in Ghana is making it difficult to be united?

The pillage by the soldiers also reminded one of the sack of the ancient library of Alexandria in Egypt by one Muhammed Ibn Aas in AD 642, or the sack of Rome in 410 AD by the descending hordes of Barbarians led by Alaric the Great. Anecdotal records state that the soldiers, who invaded the sanctuary of Flagstaff House on that fateful coup day of 24th February 1966, helped themselves greedily to gold bars and other state wealth in a looting spree with gleeful abandon.

It was during the time Nkrumah was overthrown that we discovered the Winneba guys who held high positions in the army such as Colonel Yarboi, Lt Colonel Dontoh, formerly of the Recce Squadron based in Ho, and later of the Loyalty Garment Group of Companies. One day, Lt Col Dontoh paid a courtesy call on us at his alma mater, the Winneba Methodist Middle Boys School, which had had illustrious alumni such as General Nunoo Mensah, Dr Alex Quayson Sackey, K.K. Taylor, E.N. Abbam (Quantity Surveyor-General), Dr Don Arthur, among others. He wore his full military uniform with insignia and regalia, and he had come with armoured Saracens or small armoured cars and some huge tanks mounted with some hideous looking big guns.

He called at Robertsville, a prominent elite home in Winneba. Lt Col Dontoh and Dr K. A. Busia were all said to have been mentored by our then Omanhene or paramount chief, Nana Ghartey V, who was a Methodist reverend minister till the time he was enstooled. Many rumours made the rounds that the coup which occurred in the wee hours of that fateful day, had led to massive slaughter of many loyal soldiers and undercover agents in the Presidential Guard at Flagstaff House, the official residence of Nkrumah. Some lucky ones among them disguised themselves and fled the country.

It was time for the opposition members in exile to come home. Prominent among them was Dr Kofi Abrefa Busia, who had been a fugitive at Oxford University in the U.K, and at other points, he had lived in the Netherlands. Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, the erudite and talented organiser, and one time staunch Nkrumah stalwart, and astute and shrewd Finance Minister, also came home under the military junta headed by retired Major General J.A. Ankrah. He had fled into exile in the USA, after having allegedly been accused of having stashed away 10 million pounds.

The coup plotters were led by Lt Colonel Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka, IGP J.W.K. Harley, Police Commissioner A.K. Deku, Lt Col. Ocran, Major Akwasi Amankwa Afrifa, the latter having excelled in his military studies, and having at one time received honours from Nkrumah whilst a secondary school student at Cape Coast. Most of the elite or top brass in the Ghana Armed Forces had had training from Sandhurst in the UK, though Brigadier Kattah was said to have trained as a Ranger in the USA, West Point. In the heat of the coup, Nkrumah despatched his Foreign Minister, Alex Quayson Sackey, to go and represent him at the OAU meeting in Addis Ababa, but lo and behold, Quayson Sackey made a detour and instead landed at the Accra International Airport where there was a heavy military presence awaiting him.

Immediately on his arrival, he was hurriedly bundled and whisked away from the aircraft by gun-toting soldiers and led to a hurriedly convened press conference where he denounced Nkrumah and said that on arriving in London, he had changed his mind to go to Addis Ababa and had instead made a beeline for Accra on account of his wife and children’s welfare in Ghana. That press conference was beamed on black and white TV throughout Ghana. An attempted counter-coup was staged by Lt Arthur, Lt Yeboah, and Lt Poku in April 1967, but it was quelled and it culminated in the untimely death of Lt General E.K. Kotoka, the architect of the February 24th, 1966 coup d’état, which was believed to have been orchestrated by a condominium and syndication of some powerful western powers, namely Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and the USA.

Observers believe that the stupendous economic and developmental achievements chalked by Nkrumah, and the sterling patriotic zeal he exhibited in the cause of Ghana and Africa during his tenure has not been matched by any of our subsequent Ghanaian leaders, past or present. To be hyperbolic, all the educational achievements of subsequent leaders put together cannot match that of Nkrumah, including his Accelerated Educational Plan which was championed by his stalwart, Kojo Botsio, hence Botsio certificate. When we were young, we were told, ‘Nkrumah never dies, and Nkrumah is our messiah’. Perhaps, that is true metaphorically.

Was Nkrumah a victim of the Cold War? 24th February 1966 evokes mixed feelings among Ghanaians. Was it a day of shame, or the day of blame of Nkrumah’s ultra-leftist tendencies? History is the impartial judge of all human actions. May the souls of all departed, opposition and pro-government, rest in eternal peace! We look forward to a united and prosperous Ghana, whether NPP or CPP or NDC. Long live Ghana and the Nation of Ghana.

By Kwesi Atta Sakyi

Columnist: Sakyi, Kwesi Atta