As Ghana celebrates the 65th anniversary of its independence from Britain, it is worth revisiting the landmark speech Kwame Nkrumah delivered at midnight to mark the event of Ghana’s birth. Nkrumah had led a mass movement demanding self-government in the anticolonial struggle and was, with independence, poised to become the first Prime Minister of independent Ghana.
Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to gain its independence from colonial rule. Accordingly, Nkrumah’s speech at the moment of liberation set a tone of pride in Ghana’s accomplishment along with hope for freedom struggles still in progress across decolonising Africa and its diaspora.
Today, Nkrumah’s midnight speech stands as a model of African political leadership that avoids the mimicry of Western models.
Addressing a large and excited crowd, Nkrumah’s first words at midnight were:
At long last the battle has ended! And thus Ghana, your beloved country, is free for ever.
At the climax of the speech, Nkrumah acknowledged the larger stakes of the moment, declaring:
Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with total liberation of the African continent.
My recent analysis of Nkrumah’s midnight speech reflects on how he used his performance at the moment of Ghana’s independence to outline his vision of colonial freedom. Nkrumah’s revolutionary rhetoric refused the narrow grounds on which Britain was offering Ghana independence. Instead, he sought to generate new forms of belonging outside the conditions that were the remnants of colonialism.
Nkrumah embraced various populations in the colony who had been devalued by the colonial administration and ignored by African leaders who were his rivals. His rhetoric worked alongside political rallies to organise a mass base that was a means of distinction for his party, the Convention People’s Party.
In addition, he advocated for pan-African union so that Ghana and other emergent African countries wouldn’t perpetuate the legacies of colonial rule. At the time, Nkrumah worried that the piecemeal liberation of colonised territories would limit the transformative potential of independence. Instead, he promoted African union as a way to establish new shared identities and a self-determined presence in international affairs.
Today, Nkrumah’s vision of a united Africa stands as a testament to the common humanity of Africans. Nkrumah’s embrace of the mass base and pan-African discourses mattered because it injected populist energies into Gold Coast politics and demonstrated a way for Africans to pursue sovereignty within conditions of their own making.
Nkrumah’s vision of freedom
Trinidadian journalist George Padmore, one of Nkrumah’s closest advisors, singled out how Nkrumah and the Convention People’s Party offered a new form of political leadership that was centred on
the plebeian masses, the urban workers, artisans, petty traders, market women and fishermen, the clerks, the junior teachers, and the vast farming communities of the rural areas.
It is fitting, then, that, in the speech, Nkrumah named the people on equal terms with the chiefs when he recognised those who would “reshape the destiny of this country”. Rather than taking his cues from traditional rulers, Nkrumah used this mass base to ensure that the possibilities of postcolonial society would not be limited by precolonial traditions.
He also promoted the masses as representatives of the “new African” who is
ready to fight his own battle and show that after all the black man is capable of managing his own affairs.
This proud and defiant vision of African political achievement was in stark contrast to racist and imperial ways of knowing that degraded and doubted African and black potential.
A second major theme of Nkrumah’s midnight speech was his view of the role of pan-Africanism in relationship to national consolidation. He said that Ghana’s independence was
meaningless unless it is linked up with total liberation of the African continent.
Although this became one of the most famous statements of the speech, its novel sentiment should not be overlooked. It marked Nkrumah’s widening of freedom to include pan-African dimensions. In subsequent years, Nkrumah would coordinate efforts across the continent, including the 1963 ratification of the Organisation of African Unity.
Today, one of the enduring tributes to his work encouraging political and economic cooperation among African nations is the statue of Nkrumah on the grounds of the African Union building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which depicts him as he was dressed during the midnight speech.
One of the curious aspects of Nkrumah’s midnight speech is the fact that he asked the band to play the Ghana National Anthem twice. The first time, it was played after a moment of silence and Nkrumah’s declaration: “Ghana is free forever!”
Later, Nkrumah called for the anthem to be played again, saying:
this time … it is going to be played in honour of the foreign states who are here with us today.“
This second anthem, however, has been written out of most of the widespread records of the speech (including the version that Nkrumah included in his 1961 book, I Speak of Freedom).
My archival work in both Ghana and the US has recovered a complete version of the speech that includes the second anthem and other omitted passages.
In my view, these dual anthems mark both the national and international audiences that Nkrumah was addressing.
For Nkrumah, achieving genuine freedom was not as simple as merely renaming the Gold Coast “Ghana” and replacing the colonial administers in Accra’s Christiansborg Castle with African agents. The “hard work” that Nkrumah focused on that night included a social and ideological reorganisation to match the political changes underway within independence. In this view, the pursuit of pan-African union was central to the transfiguration of the political kingdom.
Nkrumah’s midnight speech is everywhere in Ghana today. It circulates on radio and in social media posts. Key quotations from it are emblazoned on t-shirts, posters, magazine covers, billboards, and beyond. As Nkrumah has ascended to founding father status within Ghana’s current Fourth Republic, contemporary politicians from all sides of the political spectrum invoke it. This is true even when advocating for policies that are in direct tension with those of Nkrumahism.
What is less well known, however, is that, in part because of Nkrumah’s influence and the catalytic role of Ghana’s freedom, the midnight independence speech has become a transnational tradition tied to moments of postcolonial foundation across the globe.
The midnight staging of Nkrumah’s speech was, in fact, an allusion to the midnight speech that Jawaharlal Nehru delivered for India’s independence ten years earlier. In addition, the convention of a midnight independence ceremony became a recurring practice for other countries emerging from colonial rule. Midnight independence ceremonies in subsequent years included Nigeria (1960), Sierra Leone (1961), Tanzania (1961), Botswana (1966), Angola (1975), and Zimbabwe (1980).
Across the Black Atlantic, Guyana marked independence with a midnight celebration (1966) and even the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China was celebrated with a midnight countdown.