How often does the hero in the story of one of Africa‘s most celebrated sons become the villain in the story of another? Joseph Arthur Ankrah is in a league of his own, and it is all strange that some consider him an ideological classmate of the two men.
Ankrah was Ghana‘s first military leader post-independence. But he held other firsts too, including becoming the first African camp commandant at the Army Headquarters, the first African officer of the Gold Coast Army (Ghana Army) as well as the first African soldier to command an all-African company in a former British colony.
He was born in Accra in 1915 to what could be described as a respectable middle-class family. His father, Samuel Paul Ankrah, was a Christian Missionary Society overseer. His mother Beatrice was a successful trader.
Ankrah would later join the colonial civil service having attained the Senior Cambridge School Certificate, a pre-collegiate qualification in the British education system, in the late 1930s. In 1939, he enrolled in the Gold Coast Regiment of the British Army.
Like many Africans across the colonized continent, Ankrah’s commitment to the army was in service of the colonizer. He would be inducted into the Royal West African Frontier Force in the early 1940s, trained in the UK after World War II and commissioned a lieutenant in 1947. By the time Ghana became a republic in 1960, Ankrah had become a colonel.
For the infant nation, Ankrah was one of the most accomplished people in leadership, possessing an impeccable understanding of politics and carrying the reputation of a principled man. Ghana, an early supporter of the United Nations, pushed its best soldier forward to the global peace body which had moved to calm the tensions in another new country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1961.
It was in DR Congo that the paths of Ankrah and independence leader Patrice Lumumba would cross. Ankrah was the Brigadier Commander of the UN operations in Kananga, formerly Luluaboug, in central Congo. Congo’s warfare had been prompted by the lack of clarity on what happens the day after the revolution.
Independence had been secured but teething problems, including the shadowy fomentations of former colonizer Belgium, reigned. Lumumba recognized the need to win the trust of factions and it was in line with this ambition that his life came under threat in Kananga. Many sources have not been preserved on this matter better than the citation handed out to Ankrah after his service in DR Congo.
The citation said:
“With great common sense, maturity and tact, this officer (Ankrah) handled a delicate situation which otherwise would have created grave consequences in Leopoldville and many parts of the Congo. Colonel Ankrah, with complete disregard for his own life, disarmed an Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC) soldier who, with a loaded sten machine carbine, attempted to shoot Mr. Lumumba. He carried the Prime Minister to safety in a vehicle which was fired on by ANC ambushers. Had it not been for the quick and bold action of Colonel Ankrah at the risk of his life, Mr. Lumumba’s life would have been taken with untold consequences at that time.”
Ankrah’s bravery was well-received in Ghana. When he returned to the country, he was promoted the the rank of Major General and promoted to the deputy Chief of Defense Staff by Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah. But this amity with Nkrumah would not last long as in 1965, Ankrah was dismissed from the Ghana Army on suspicion that he planned to overthrow the president.
Nkrumah became an authoritarian autocrat, in truth. The reasons believed to have caused his descent from democratic heights continue to be debated both in Ghana and abroad. But in 1966, his enemies within the army seized on the opportunity of his absence and staged the first-ever coup in Ghana.
The National Liberation Council (NLC), as the military government called itself, installed Ankrah as its chairman. Ankrah himself had not been part of the group that seized power but there is very little reason to reject any suggestion that he was aware of the president’s coming fate.
His installation as chairman can also be interpreted that the security personnel, police and soldiers, who had overthrown the government found in Ankrah, the most politically astute soldier in the country. Well-spoken and having well-educated opinions and mannerisms came in handy for the son of a lay preacher.
There is another theory that gives credence to the suspicions Nkrumah had in 1965 about Ankrah’s coup ambitions. This theory holds that Ankrah was rewarded with the chairmanship of the NLC simply because he was regarded as the tragic visionary in the pursuit of Nkrumah’s fall.
Between 1966 and 1969, Ankrah was Ghana’s head of state. In 1967, he served as the chairperson of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now the African Union (AU). His views on Pan-Africanism surprisingly did not depart from that of the two more illustrious men in whose stories he was involved.
He was forced to resign in 1969 over accusations of corruption and bribery.