Searching for the Golden Stool

May 9, 2014
Searching for the Golden Stool

Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah, center, waves to a celebrating crowd in Accra on March 6, 1957. © Bettmann/CORBIS

Myth and history are closely intertwined, as both provide significant insight into our beliefs, traditions, and practices. Any form of nation building involves mythmaking in the production of a revitalized past pertinent to the present. In Anthony D. Smith's words, “a popular living past has been, and can be, rediscovered and reinterpreted.”1

On the African continent, Kwame Nkrumah was one of the first to tussle with the colonial legacy in his determination to build a new, liberated Ghana. Navigating among his Western education, African traditions, and Christian religious background, Nkrumah masterfully reconstructed history to grant sufficient authority and legitimacy to his nationalist program. He set out to erase colonial memory and replace it with a drastically different vision of Ghana that was imbued with religious symbols and mythology. Here, I argue that the “civil religion” developed during Nkrumah's regime contests the role of religion in modern nation-states that Ernest Gellner and his contemporaries outlined and represents lucid proof that religious symbolism can easily be combined with modern nationalist discourse.

Kwame Nkrumah's “remembrance” of Ghana's history and traditions needs to be seen within the framework of national consolidation. A certain level of continuity between the past and the present is achieved through the incorporation of traditional national “markers”: “names, symbols, languages, customs, territories and rituals of national identity.”2 More importantly, however, Nkrumah's endeavor is a purposeful crafting of a civil religion for Ghana. If framed in functionalist terms, civil religion can contribute to the elevation of certain symbols to produce collective norms and motivations; it should not, however, be confused with a common understanding of religion. Ernest Gellner's work points to the receding role of institutionalized religion in modern nation-states. Gellner's preferred term is “constitutional religion,” which he bases on the analogy of constitutional monarchy and defines as a condition where “ritual reflects not social reality but social phantasy, but contributes to social stability by not endowing temporary and technical centres of power with any sacred aura, and not imperilling them by linking their legitimacy to doctrines which may be proved false tomorrow.”3

When defined in this way, “constitutional religion” and “civil religion” can be used interchangeably for my purposes here. Both notions refer to the detachment of the traditional conception of divinity from the state and political leaders and the simultaneous elevation of “desacralized” symbols as objects of national worship.4 Gellner's argument borrows heavily from Émile Durkheim's transition from “mechanical” to “organic” solidarity and the subsequent weakening of the role of religion. Gellner subjectively labels Durkheim's “mechanical solidarity” as “low culture,” and the transition is clearly perceived as a desirable progression. Gellner suggests that industrial urban civilization is a “high literate culture” that owes its grandeur to nationalism.5 While low cultures can only be sustained with the help of religion, high cultures require a desacralized state to thrive.6

The Ghanaian case deviates considerably from Gellner's central thesis, where disenchanted nationalism emerges as the primary sentiment generating a sense of belonging and devotion to the commonwealth. Constitutional religion devoid of divinity is alien to Nkrumah's undertaking, which involves a great deal of both mythical imagination and remembrance of “sacred time,” in Eliadean terms. A distinction needs to be made between these two processes: mythical imagination entails the “mythologization” of the present, with or without reference to the past, and does not necessarily have to involve a divine or a sacred element. Nkrumah made frequent use of both these processes to generate greater devotion to his ideology and goals.

“Mythologization” is what, according to Gellner, makes constitutional religion so effective in the modern context; it can, and often should, entail “fantastical” but not divine elements. “Mythical time,” however, as Eliade introduces it, is directly linked with the sacred past and the already existent mythical corpus of a religious tradition. Eliade argues that religious rituals can precipitate the return of the “sacred world” and the recommencement of time.7

Nkrumah's invocation of the past, if understood in ritualistic terms, is also aimed at helping Ghanaians to be reborn and to inhabit the new sacred era. The “primordial myths” of the glorious past play a central role against this backdrop, since they stand for cosmogonic time.8 By demonstrating the value of religious myths in the invocation of sacred time and by contesting Gellner's anachronistic treatment of divinity in the modern context, I argue that religion, divinity, and myth prevail as the building blocks of national identity.

Structurally, I divide my paper into three thematic sections covering Nkrumah's ideology during the period extending roughly from his return to Ghana in 1947 until his exile in 1966. The first part considers the myth of national unity that Nkrumah regularly conjured up during his speeches dedicated to Ghana's independence. Since Nkrumah was one of the major players in the Pan-African movement, the second section looks at the elaboration of the myth of “one Africa.” The final part tackles the image of Nkrumah as deified hero and epic character of African legends.

Remembering and Forgetting: The Myth of Unity and Mental Decolonization

Under colonial rule, Ghana consisted of a multitude of small states, each with a clearly expressed cultural life of its own. Nkrumah's foremost task was to kindle a sense of unity and shared destiny among these disparate communities by reviving a common past in all its idealized, mythologized, and sacred form. In his speeches, Nkrumah frequently called attention to the Empire of Ghana and the Ashanti Empire. These political entities emerged as a symbol of unity, despite the lack of geographic continuity with the former and an overstatement of the sense of harmony in the case of the latter. The absence of a tangible historical progression, as demonstrated in this case, was not particularly problematic if the nation was envisioned as a category that, in Rogers Brubaker's words, is “invoked, institutionalized and more generally used as a 'cognitive frame.' “9

In this constructivist framework, the nation is based on a set of “beliefs, perceptions, understandings, and identifications.”10 In other words, it is enough to generate a belief in unity to produce the feeling of belonging. In Nkrumah's history of West Africa, the Empire of Ghana not only preceded England as a world power, it was also an important trade center and educational hub in the region. Ghanaians did not capitulate docilely under the heels of the conquerors and continued to struggle long after the fall of the kingdom.

According to this narrative, nationalist self-determination played a central role in the establishment of the Ashanti Nation, the Fante Confederation, the National Congress of British West Africa, the United Gold Coast Convention, and finally, the Convention People's Party led by Kwame Nkrumah.11 By coupling the relatively modern history of Ghana with an empire that fell in the eleventh century, Nkrumah created an illusion of progression and continuity that fed into the “myth of splendor.” In bringing back the mythical time, the present was resuscitated and refreshed.

The myth of national unity was not beneficial to the well-established Ashanti chiefs whose power and wealth derived from the traditional power structures.12 The Asantehene, king of Ashanti descending from an old royal line, was at the top of the hierarchy, which he managed to preserve through collaboration with the British. Nkrumah's dilemma lay in having to minimize the significance of the Ashanti kings in his remembrance of a unified Ghana, which he could only do by shifting the emphasis away from the Ashanti Kingdom, as the emblem of unity, to the Empire of Ghana. In his myth of the new Ghana, Nkrumah actively embraced Africa's spiritual elements, and, despite his conflict with the Asantehene, he acknowledged that the Ashanti ruler was not merely a political figure but was also a divinely appointed intermediary between the people and the gods.13

Forgetting, like remembering, was an integral component of Ghanaian nationalism, since the very act of remembering was selective in nature. “The nation, which celebrates its antiquity, forgets its historical recency,”14 notes Michael Billig. Indeed, countries transitioning from one political regime to another are often determined to free themselves from the memories of oppression. If continuity with a distant, “glorious” past had to be refreshed and reestablished, the colonial past had to be left behind to “give Ghanaians the command of their own history and [the opportunity] to reshape their future as they themselves thought . . . [best].”15

First and foremost, the “colonial myth” based on the notion of African primitivism and backwardness needed to be dispelled.16 Supplementing the old assumptions with a simple counter-myth was clearly not sufficient to precipitate major change. A new worldview needed to be created that would carry more than political and social value. Nkrumah put himself in charge of a larger project aimed at the formation of a civil religion that would transcend ethnic and cultural distinctions and that would generate a sense of spiritual unity. This project of mental decolonization hinged on replacing the European colonial ideology with decolonizing myths, symbols, and propaganda.

Of utmost importance was to present Africa as the cradle of civilization, as a land that had thrived culturally, economically, and politically long before the Europeans had acquired their domineering outlook. Nkrumah took great pride in the University of Timbuktu, one of the first universities in the world to be founded on African soil, and which hosted Africans well versed in the sciences.17 He also reinforced Africa's image as the birthplace of scholarship: “long before the foundation of the universities of the European continent, from which the modern civil codes of Europe have been evolved . . . law schools existed on African soil.”18

There is also a certain element of lamentation involved in the process of remembrance: “if the University of Sankore as it was in 1591 had survived the ravages of foreign invasion; then the academic and cultural history of Africa might have been quite different.”19 This idealized, almost utopian version of the past was intended for the formation of “a common sacred framework”20 that would make up the civil religion of Ghana.

Pan-Africanism: "Africa for Africans!"

With the establishment of the Convention People's Party on June 12, 1949, and his election as prime minister on March 22, 1952, Nkrumah became actively invested in the promotion of Pan-Africanism. The triumph of Pan-African ideology required transcending national boundaries and acknowledging a common cultural past.21 Interestingly enough, the Kingdom of Ghana so fervently advocated as the symbol of Ghanaian unity was simultaneously employed as the emblem of Africa's oneness. The phenomenon again points toward the relative nature of the past and to the creativity used in the process of nation building. Nkrumah stressed that the reason for the fall of the mighty kingdom was “the disunity of the African Continent created by serious external influences, internal disharmony and discord” introduced by colonialism.22

It is obvious that, in addition to the existing territorial and political divisions, Africa was in the midst of an ideological rift, which Nkrumah attempted to fix by fostering the myth of unity. This large-scale undertaking called for the active imagining of a common membership not only in a nation, but in a continent. Clearly, a common African identity had to take precedence over cultural, linguistic, historical, and ethnic differences. The colonial past needed to be both forgotten and remembered: it had to be forgotten because of the submissive image of Africa it upheld, and it had to be remembered because it formed a stepping stone toward the process of group “imagination,” a concept Benedict Anderson first outlined in Imagined Communities.23

In addition, Nkrumah mythologized socialism as a movement that resonated with the African spirit. Nkrumah's rejection of a civil religion devoid of a divine element stands out most clearly in his refusal to include atheism in his vision of socialism, in order to stay in tune with the African notion of spirituality.24 ”The traditional face of Africa includes an attitude toward men which can only be described, in its social manifestation, as being socialist,”25 he would write, in the hope of “naturalizing” the movement. The socialist movement in Africa needed to recapture the “spirit” of the past rather than the actual past; the legend itself, not the reality, had to be found inspirational. Eliade suggests that sacred time is made up of ritual time and mythical time, both of which Nkrumah actively invoked in his endeavor.26 Rituals, however, are not merely repetitions of the sacred time; they form a succession in a continuous line between the past and the present.27 By periodic reference to the mythical past, Nkrumah succeeds in producing a sacred time that is pertinent to the present.

Supernatural Nkrumah

Since personality cults were an integral aspect of civil religion in Communist regimes, for the purposes of this paper I interpret the exaltation of Nkrumah's identity as indispensable in eliciting dedication to the state. Nkrumah's image as an African mythical figure was directly responsible for his popularity among his followers. Nkrumah's biographers referred to the Ghanaian mythological corpus to elucidate the parallels, an act which would have been unacceptable in the context of Gellnerian constitutional religion. A distinction needs to be made between traditional African and Western perceptions of myths.

In the Western Christian setting, myths are often perceived as archaic stories from “other” religions that do not carry any actual spiritual value. Stories from the Bible, for instance, are never referred to as myths in order that their credibility not be questioned. African myths in the context here, however, are often seen as the foundational model for all human activities, providing guidelines for the present. The mythical nature of Nkrumah's persona and his ideology was understood as bearing considerable sacred value.

Many secondary sources produced by Nkrumah's contemporaries introduce him as a cultural hero from Ghana's mythical heritage.28 Ahmad A. Rahman's work is dedicated to unveiling the quality of African culturalism in Nkrumah's reign.29 While in his account some aspects of Nkrumah's identity are excessively heroized and overblown, it is particularly helpful for visualizing Nkrumah as the personification of African epic stories and myths, a divine figure, the savior, and the herald of the Pan-African socialist paradise. This sort of portrayal clearly transcends the level of “sacredness” permitted in Gellner's account of constitutional religion. Nkrumah tapped into hidden Africanity and emerged as “the messianic, divinely driven, warrior/trickster.”30 It is because of his trickster nature that Nkrumah was able to “[turn] the past into a tool of his revolution.”31 Through his transmuting powers, he caused history to influence the present and the future.

Nkrumah's life, as his biographers have conceptualized it, is a myth in and of itself. It is in this mythologization of Nkrumah as a cultural hero that Ghanaian religious beliefs and traditions are most prominent. His biographers like to emphasize the bizarre events that marked his birth and life. Bankole Timothy describes his coming into the world as a near miracle: Nkrumah's mother, Nyanibah, had long been considered barren.32 Rahman is particularly vocal about Nkrumah's pre-heroic childhood and suggests that Nkrumah's autobiography portrays him as an extraordinary being with particular divine gifts. Nkrumah himself stresses his stillbirth and subsequent 'coming alive,' when female relatives stuffed a banana into his mouth to induce coughing and to help him start breathing.33 Rahman's interpretation of the incident, and particularly the symbolism behind the banana, is intriguing. He suggests that the banana, the fruit of Ghana's soil, transferred the power of earth to the newborn, thus establishing a mystical connection between the boy and the land.34 Furthermore, Rahman weaves an even deeper meaning into the incident by focusing on two other factors. He brings to the reader's attention the fact that Nkrumah was born during his grandmother's funeral celebration, and that the African musical instruments being played reverberated with the life-giving power of the Akan culture. That the Akans are matrilineal is also, for Rahman, of central importance. The boy's birth in the company only of women, who in the Akan worldview pass their blood on to the child, is likened to the birth of Jesus—Nkrumah never had a father (the uncertainty of his father's identity was widely known), and his mother became the symbolic 'Mother of Ghana.'35 In Eliadean terms, understanding these symbols grants existential meaning to reality, and, in this case, to Nkrumah's leadership. By introducing parallels with Christianity, Rahman is also acknowledging the Christian majority of Ghana and Nkrumah's own religious background.

Nkrumah describes himself as different from other children, preferring to be alone and 'quietly observing the birds and the lesser animals of the forest.'36 Continuing in the heroic tradition, Nkrumah mentions never being afraid of ghost stories and longing for supernatural encounters: 'I remember sitting and wishing that I could die simply because I should then rank among those privileged souls who could pass through walls and closed doors.'37 Rahman correctly points out some similarities with other African epic heroes and their encounters with ghosts or spirits during childhood.38 A Westerner reading Nkrumah's biography might not be attuned to the signs of his spiritual superiority that are obvious to African, and especially Akan, readers. The Western inability to comprehend such signs could explain the failure to acknowledge the divine and mythical elements in African civil religion.

The most intriguing side of Nkrumah that Rahman reveals is his 'witchery,' recorded in his autobiography and observed in his later downfall. Nkrumah tells the story of a small boy who terrified two grown men: 'few would have believed that the boy who kept to himself . . . could, when roused, spit fire like a machine gun and use every limb and fingernail in defending his idea of justice.'39 By referring to himself in the third person, Nkrumah employs a praise-song style traditionally used by West African griots and reinforces the metaphoric value of his narrative. Rahman notes that Nkrumah belonged to the Nzima people of the Akan, who were universally recognized as obayifo (witches).40 George P. Hagan writes that 'the African mystical notions associated with him arose out of the fact that Nkrumah was an Nzema'; however, he adds that the Nzima witches were reputed to be capable of 'good' witchcraft.41 It was the people's belief in Nkrumah's witchery and his subsequent capacity for success, rather than Marxist rhetoric, that convinced common Ghanaians of his competence as a leader.42

In contrast to Gellner's vision of modern nationalism and general belief in a passive role of religion in the construction of modern nation-states, Nkrumah's leadership demonstrates that religious myths and symbols can be successfully employed to generate dedication to a nation-state and its political leaders. It needs to be acknowledged, however, that the image of Nkrumah as an African epic hero was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it helped to generate public trust in and admiration for the leader; on the other hand, it created unrealistic expectations about the present and the future. 'Once man has turned into Messiah, he cannot turn back into man,'43 observes Rahman, referring to the disappointment that followed Nkrumah's election as prime minister. Nkrumah was viewed as a man of spiritual capabilities, an Nzima endowed with mystical gifts, expected to bring wealth and prosperity to his people. Nkrumah's charisma would soon 'suffocate under the weight of material interests,' as Weber predicted in his theories on authority. Ghana was still not ready to leave the neocolonial sphere of influence and, despite his anti-Western outlook, Nkrumah's cabinet was still predominantly pro-Western. Meanwhile, the West portrayed him as the devil, an opportunist who accumulated wealth for himself and crushed anyone who stood in his way. These and other factors were soon to taint his reputation as 'the savior,' ultimately sparking a coup in 1966.

Despite the apparent fiasco of Nkrumah as a politician, he was the central figure in Africa's ideological struggle against colonialism. He was one of the first to endeavor to construct a distinctly African identity. From Nkrumah's speeches, works, and biographies, I have identified three major directions in his ideological career and briefly described their distinctive characteristics. First, Nkrumah was a leader of the Ghanaian nationalist movement who devised a framework to (re)-construct, remember, and (re)-imagine a new national identity imbued with sacred symbolism. Second, he was one of the leading advocates of the Pan-African movement, emphasizing 'unity' and 'liberty' based on the notion of sacred time. Finally, Nkrumah the leader was himself a mythological construct that symbolized the movement. Through his own efforts and the determination of his biographers, he was transformed into an epic African hero, the savior of Ghana and Africa. All three thematic portrayals reveal Nkrumah's reliance on 'mythologization' and remembrance of the 'sacred time.' He masterfully wove African cultural and religious symbolism into his political discourse, and thus clearly demonstrated the indispensable value of religious myths in the process of nation building.

—by Mariam Goshadze

This article appears in the Spring 2014 edition of CSWR Today.


  1. Anthony D. Smith, Myths and Memories of the Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 9.
  2. Ibid., 11.
  3. Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 91.
  4. Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1983), 58.
  5. Ibid., 18.
  6. Ibid., 72–73.
  7. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959), 79.
  8. Ibid., 81.
  9. Graham Day and Andrew Thompson, Theorizing Nationalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 83.
  10. Rogers Brubaker, Ethnicity without Groups (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 64.
  11. D. Zizwe Poe, Kwame Nkrumah's Contribution to Pan-Africanism: An Afrocentric Analysis (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), 76. Bankole Timothy, Kwame Nkrumah: His Rise to Power (London: Allen and Unwin, 1955), 152.
  12. Basil Davidson, Black Star: A View of the Life and Times of Kwame Nkrumah (London: Allen Lane, 1973), 116.
  13. Kwame Nkrumah, Flower of Learning: Some Reflections on African Learning, Ancient and Modern (Accra: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1961), 10.
  14. Michael Billig, 'Banal Nationalism,' in Nations and Nationalism: A Reader, ed. Philip Spencer and Howard Wollman (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 185.
  15. Davidson, Black Star, 153.
  16. C. L. R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (London: Allison and Busby, 1977), 29.
  17. Timothy, Kwame Nkrumah, 138.
  18. Kwame Nkrumah, The Old and the New: Law in Africa; Speech by Osagyefo the President at the Conference on Legal Education at the Ghana Law School (Accra: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1962), 1.
  19. Nkrumah, Flower of Learning, 2.
  20. Steven J. Mock, 'Civil Religion and National Language,' Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 13, no. 1 (April 2013): 109.
  21. Ebenezer Babatope, The Ghana Revolution: From Nkrumah to Jerry Rawlings (Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1982), 2.
  22. Stephen Dzirasa, Political Thought of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah (Accra: Guinea Press, 1962), 20. Kwame Nkrumah, Selected Speeches (Accra: Samuel Obeng, 1961), 132.
  23. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, 1991).
  24. Poe, Kwame Nkrumah's Contribution to Pan- Africanism, 4.
  25. Kwame Nkrumah, Consciencism: Philosophy and Ideology for Decolonization and Development with Particular Reference to the African Revolution (London: Heinemann, 1964), 68. Kwame Nkrumah, Two Myths (London: Panaf Books, 1968), 8.
  26. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 388.
  27. Ibid., 392.
  28. Dzirasa, Political Thought of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, 103.
  29. Ahmad A. Rahman, The Regime Change of Kwame Nkrumah: Epic Heroism in Africa and the Diaspora (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007).
  30. Ibid., 7. Tricksters are special characters in African myths who, according to Benjamin C. Ray, 'affirm the principles of order and harmony against the forces of disorder and disruption.' They are also known for their ability to manipulate human behavior via trickery in order to reveal deeper truths about reality. See Benjamin C. Ray, African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000), 13–17.
  31. Rahman, The Regime Change of Kwame Nkrumah, 11.
  32. Timothy, Kwame Nkrumah, 19.
  33. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana (New York: Nelson, 1957), 6.
  34. Rahman, The Regime Change of Kwame Nkrumah, 20.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Nkrumah, Ghana, 10.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Rahman, The Regime Change of Kwame Nkrumah, 21.
  39. Nkrumah, Ghana, 9
  40. Rahman, The Regime Change of Kwame Nkrumah, 23.
  41. George P. Hagan, 'Nkrumah's Leadership Style: An Assessment from a Cultural Perspective,' in The Life and Work of Kwame Nkrumah: Papers of a Symposium Organized by the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon, ed. Kwame Arhin (Accra: Sedco, 1991).
  42. Rahman, The Regime Change of Kwame Nkrumah, 25.
  43. Ibid., 183.


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