Changing the Guard

African Tightrope: My Two Years as Nkrumah's Chief of Staff

by Major-General H.T. Alexander
Praeger, 160 pp., $4.95

Kwame Nkrumah
Kwame Nkrumah; drawing by David Levine

General Alexander, a British officer, became Chief of Staff of the Ghana Armed Forces in 1959, two years after independence. He succeeded another British officer, Victor Paley. Nkrumah sent him to the Congo very early in the post-independence crisis—mid-July 1960, and he carried out several subsequent missions there. He was dismissed by Nkrumah on 22 September, 1961, just after the “first round” in Katanga, to which the instrument of dismissal alludes:

I have also been greatly disturbed by the attitude which the British Government have taken over the question of Katanga in the Congo, and the assistance which the British Government have given to the secessionist elements in Katanga.

Since the other reasons given for the dismissal amount to no more than the general desirability of Africanizing the Army, it seems that the precipitating factor in the General’s dismissal was the British Government’s activity on behalf of Tshombe. The incident is rich in historical irony. The British Government probably did not foresee (and certainly did not desire) that their exertions in favor of Katanga would bring about the dismissal of their General in Ghana. But Nkrumah did not realize that in removing the British General he was removing the only solid barrier between himself and downfall. No British Chief of Staff could have taken part, or even acquiesced in, a coup ousting Kwame Nkrumah: On the contrary he would have had to exercise all his authority to prevent a coup. The Africanized Army suffered from no such inhibitions.

Thus the Tories, in propping up Tshombe, were unconsciously preparing the way—through an immediate consequence they did not intend—for a remoter consequence that would have pleased them, the fall of Nkrumah. The dialectical sequence does not end there, however. It remains to be seen whether the right is any the wiser to be pleased (or the left to be displeased) at the fall of Alexander. Jubilant though they are now, and are likely to be for some time, the neo-colonialists are not necessarily the ultimate gainers by the ending of the rhetorical phase in the history of African independence.

General Alexander, who inspires these reflections, himself foresaw the likelihood of a coup. In his account of his take-over from Victor Paley he has this to say:

In his speech, Victor made the point: “Keep the army out of politics, and politics out of the army.” It was a theme which I held to consistently in my advice to President Nkrumah, but I fear that this advice has now gone by the board and from now on appointments in the armed services may become more and more political. If Nkrumah survives his present crises, I am sure that he will eventually rue the day when he allowed politics to penetrate his armed forces. If, on the other hand, Nkrumah is overthrown, I am sure that Ghana as a whole will also rue…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.