Tokunbo Ogunbiyi

As a riposte in the aftermath to the coup the NLC government banned Guitar Boy from being played on radio in Ghana. But this was not the only Nigerian connection in the events that shaped the history of the Black Star state.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tokunbo Ogunbiyi


n April 17 1967 a coup attempt by junior officers of the Ghana Armed Forces was in effect unsuccessful; the NLC government was not overthrown but the towering and iconic figure of Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka was killed by the coup makers. In the year that Ghana celebrates its fiftieth anniversary of independence from colonial rule it is important that we do not forget that brief incident, how it was influenced by unlikely events in neighbouring countries and its impact on the chequered history of the Black Star State.


The immediate background to the coup of April 17 1967 could be traced to the coup of February 24 1967 when the 'officers and men of the Ghana Armed Forces overthrew the CPP Government of Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah' and assumed control of the affairs of the Black Star State. Dr Nkrumah the founding President of the Republic of Ghana was on a state visit to China when the coup took place. From exile in Guinea Dr Nkrumah denounced the new National Liberation Council-Government as the 'Notorious Liars Council'. In his book Dark Days in Ghana Dr Nkrumah angrily denounced the new military government led by the erstwhile retired Lieutenant-General Joseph Ankrah. Other significant figures in the NLC government were Akwasi Amankwah Afrifa, a key figure in the February 1966 coup who at the time was a colonel but would later become a brigadier and later still general and Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka.

Born October 26 1926 EK Kotoka joined the Army as a private soldier but by 1952 he was among West Afiicans selected for a course in Eaton Hall, England; and upon commission in 1954 he was seconded to West Germany (as then was) as part of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) After further training in England he went to the Congo and was in 1963 awarded Ghana Service Order for Exceptional Bravery for Distinguished Service in the Congo. In 1965 Kotoka was transferred to Kumasi where he befriended Major Akwasi Amankwa Afrifa, Commander of the First Infantry Brigade.

The two were key figures in Operation Cold Chop as the 24 February 1966 coup was dubbed. It was Kotoka who announced the success of the coup at about 0630 hours on that day. A member of the ruling National Liberation Council he was also General Officer Commanding the Ghana Armed Force. So the counter coup was a strategic blow at the heart of the NLC Government

The counter coup, although unsuccessful, was a close-run thing; the coup makers Lt Sam Arthur and Lt. Moses Yeboah did not achieve their aim of a junior cadres coup that would change the government of Ghana. But in killing the key figure of EK Kotoka they unbalanced and rattled the NLC establishment. The 17 April coup may have started the chain of events that led to the unravelling first of the NLC government and subsequently military rule in Ghana.

Thereafter Ghana International Airport would be renamed in memory of the slain general.

The Nigerian Connection

The coupmakers of April 1967 dubbed their coup Operation Guitar Boy. The Nigerian musician Victor Uwaifo was the artist who recorded the piece of music called Guitar Boy. In an interview the musician explained how a sea goddess, The mammy water gave him the guitar and asked him to make good music. As a riposte in the aftermath to the coup the NLC government banned Guitar Boy from being played on radio in Ghana. But this was not the only Nigerian connection in the events that shaped the history of the Black Star state.

Before the February 24 1966 coup there had been a long period of increasing political tension in Ghana and the CPP government was becoming increasingly repressive especially towards real or imaginary opposition and foes. But it would appear that the Ghanaian military could not quite bring themselves to carry out the coup. Even the overt support of the CIA as attested to by the CIA station chief in Accra could not persuade the officers of the Ghana Armed Forces to move against the CPP government. The US was concerned at Dr Kwame Nkrumah's left leaning government. The US government sought for allies in the west African sub-region to counter Nkrumah's burgeoning 'threat'. At various times the State Department officials would meet with the Nigerian officials and on one occasion the Honourable Aja Wachuku, then Nigeria's Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Relations expressed concern at Nkrumah's leftist leanings. The formation of the Ghana-Guinea-Mali Union at Nkrumah's instigation was countered by the formation of the Monrovia Group with Nigeria and Liberia at its core. Later the Ghana Guinea Mali Union would widen into The Casablanca group in 1961 (Algeria, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Libya, Mali, and Morocco). The Monrovia Group merged with The Brazzaville Group and would comprise Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Cote d'lvoire, Dahomey (Benin), Gabon, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), Madagascar, Mauritania, Niger, the Central African Republic, Senegal and Chad, Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Togo, Tunisia and Congo (Kinshasa).

Initially President Tubman of Liberia had met with Kwame Nkrumah and Ahmed Sekou Toure in 1958 but Liberia was not included in the union of Ghana, Guniea and Mali it was Nigeria's Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe who knew Nkrumah from Lincoln University days in the US and who was on first name terms with William Vacarana Shadrach Tubman of Liberia who persuaded Liberia to join the Monrovia group rather than the Ghana-Guinea-Mali Union. Although by 1960 Zik as he was known was no longer in partisan politics, his party, the NCNC was a coalition partner of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa's NPC. The NPC was not worldly-wise in foreign policy terms and relied on the more internationalised NCNC to direct foreign policy. At any rate the CIA was persuaded of the threat that Nkrumah posed to US buccaneering interests in Africa and decided that after the failure of various attempts to assassinate Nkrumah the next avenue was to remove him in a military coup. But it was the Nigerian coup of January 15 1966 that enabled the CIA to to persuade the Ghanaian military to act five weeks later. Indeed in making the coup announcement, the military spokesman said that 'the myth of invincibility surrounding Kwame Nkrumah has been broken'. This would indicate some surprise on the part of the coupists that they could actually pull it off!

Lt-General Joseph Ankrah was the former Army Commander now retired but was recalled by the coupists to become the military Head of State under the NLC Government. It was doubtful that General Ankrah was part of the coup but he said himself that on the day of the 24 February coup he went to the Police Headquarters after Kotoka had started the operation and gave him the plan to follow. This made the coup to succeed. Ankrah said this to show that he was no bystander who was later invited to head the government. But Ankrah would later resign on April 2, 1969 as Head of State and Chairman of the NLC. He was implicated in an alleged 6,000 bribe collected by him from Arthur Nzeribe, a Nigerian businessman but it would appear that the issues were more complicated than that.

The Impact of the 17 April 1967 Coup

Clearly the divergence of interests in the Council began to show but after the death of Kotoka who was a stabilising fulcrum on the NLC, the differences became a gaping chasm. General Ankrah would later allege that it was Afrifa's over-weaning ambition and desire to be the Head of State that led to tensions within the NLC. Ankrah said that the reason behind Afrifa's attempt to remove him, was due to Dr Kofi Abrefah Busia, later to be Prime Minister, and his clique who were inspiring Afrifa to remove Ankrah so they could take over. Ankrah even suggested that the April 17 1967 coup was somehow linked to Afrifa. This was unlikely. But what is evident is that differences that existed in the NLC became exaggerated to crisis point when the stabilising figure of EK Kotoka was removed by the April 17 coup.

In retrospect the April 17 coup was not successful but it would appear that the NLC won a pyrrhic victory. The destabilising effect of that coup would be felt for years with the NLC metamorphosing to SMC, then SMC II, then IK Acheampong's Unigov, then the bloody days of the AFRC government and the executions of many of the dramatis personae of military rule. All these pointed to the discrediting of military rule. Eventually even the political party of the military head of state, John Jerry Rawlings would be rejected and the election of NPP Government of John Kufuor was perhaps the most eloquent pointer that Ghana has come full circle and resumed the democratic path it had once chosen for itself.

In the final analysis Nkrumah was proved right because in his books Africa Must Unite (1963) and NeoColonialism (1965), he was clear that Ghanaian independence was only meaningful within the context of African unity. After his overthrow many other African leaders were either overthrown or their countries became clients of the metropolitan powers and others too became vassals of the IMF and the World Bank.