MOST ETHNIC GROUPS constituting the population of Ghana (formerly the British colony of the Gold Coast) had settled in their present locations by the sixteenth century. Prior to British control in the nineteenth century, political developments in the area largely revolved around the formation, expansion, and contraction of a number of states--a situation that often entailed much population movement. Some people, however, lived in so-called segmentary societies and did not form states, particularly in northern Ghana. According to tradition, most present-day Ghanaians are descended not from the area's earliest inhabitants but from various migrant groups, the first of which probably came down the Volta River in the early thirteenth century.
Early states in Ghana made every effort to participate in, or, if possible, to control, trade with Europeans, who first arrived on the coast in the late fifteenth century. These efforts in turn influenced state formation and development. Much more important to the evolution of these states, however, were their responses to pre-European patterns of trade. This was particularly true of commercial relations between the Akan states of southern Ghana and trading centers in the western Sudan. Competition among the traditional societies ultimately facilitated British efforts to gain control of what Europeans called the "Gold Coast." Traditional authorities, who with their elders had hitherto exercised autonomous control over their territories, became agents of the British colonial government under the policy of indirect rule.
As was the case in many sub-Saharan African countries, the rise of a national consciousness in Ghana developed largely in the twentieth century in response to colonial policies. The call to freedom came from a few elites, but it was only after World War II that the concept of independence captured the imagination of large numbers of people and gained popular support. Differences existed between the two leading political parties, however, on such issues as the timetable for independence and the powers to be vested in the modern state.
Ghana's first independent administration was inaugurated on March 6, 1957, with Kwame Nkrumah as prime minister. On July 1, 1960, Ghana was declared a republic with Kwame Nkrumah as its president. Earlier, parliament had passed the Preventive Detention Act of 1958, which granted authority to the head of state to detain without trial those who were considered a threat to the nation. By means of such measures, Nkrumah and his party intimidated leading members of the opposition. Some opponents were co-opted; others were either exiled or jailed. As leader of Ghana at the time of the Cold War, Nkrumah forged alliances that increasingly placed him in the camp of the Eastern Bloc. Western governments understood Nkrumah's agenda to be socialist and worried about his influence on other African leaders. Some observers believed that Nkrumah's obsession with what he called the "total liberation of Africa" compelled him to create an authoritarian political system in Ghana. Critics of the regime accused Nkrumah of introducing patterns of oppression into Ghanaian politics and of tolerating widespread corruption among party leaders. The regime paid too much attention to urban problems at the expense of the more productive rural sector, they felt, and it embraced unrealistic economic and foreign assistance policies that led the nation to accrue huge foreign debts. The Nkrumah administration was overthrown by the military in February 1966. Many analysts maintain that the political instability and economic problems faced by the country since the mid-1960s are by-products of the Nkrumah era.
By 1981 Ghana had undergone seven major changes of government since the fall of Nkrumah. Each change was followed by alienation of the majority of the population and by military intervention, touted to end the rule that was responsible for the country's problems. Each time, the new government, civil or military, failed to stabilize the political and economic conditions of the country.
As its fourth decade of independence began in 1987, Ghana was under the administration of the Provisional National Defence Council, a military government led by Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings that had come to power in December 1981. Like the Nkrumah administration three decades earlier, the Provisional National Defence Council and Rawlings were criticized for their populism and desire for radical change. Despite the difficult early years of the Rawlings regime, Ghana's economy had begun to show signs of recovery by the late-1980s, and preparations were underway to return the country to some form of democratic government.
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