Interview with Komla Gbedema
Q: Tell me about being at school with Kwame Nkrumah [the first prime minister of Ghana].
GBEDEMA: Nkrumah and I first met at Prince of Wales College, Ajimota, in January of 1929. At that time the college opened the rest of its departments for admissions for students. I had come from Kikust where I had been the previous four years at Addis Adil College on scholarship to Ajimota. [Nkrumah] was in his third year of a four year teacher training course and we were both placed in aHouse in Ajimota. That is where I first met him.
Q: And then you lost contact for 20 years, but 20 years later you met him again.
GBEDEMA: Well, we didn't lose contact until he left the college at the end of his course in December, 1930. And from then to 1947, I heard nothing more of him.
I, on completion of my course in 1933, went my own way, too. And by 1947, when he returned to the then Gold Coast, I was in business as an engineer's contractor -- sub contractor for sandstone, timber, aggregate, and all their requirements. This was in 1947.
Q: So what brought you together.
GBEDEMA: Well, in 1946 I had become a sub contractor to the West African Union Mission of the Seventh-day Adventists who were opening a West African headquarters in Accra, and they had a plan for building up eight houses almost simultaneously. I was given the contract to supply them with all these things they would need. As missionaries, it was part of their work to try and get converts to the church . I was invited several times to their evening lectures and I soon found myself leading a new group they had built up on the south west of Accra , Coligoru. I was put in charge of that station, so I made a habit of going to Coligoru every Saturday, which is their Sabbath, at 2 o'clock to go and conduct the meetings.
On the Saturday, the 28th [of] February, 1948, I did a similar trip to Accra post office and found a large crowd of people who were cheering ex-servicemen who were marching and cheering around, and I stopped to ask what was happening. This stop made me late to catch my 2 o'clock bus to Colligoru and the next bus took me around past...and up to Colligoru
Now nothing was happening there so I didn't see anything. Two and a half hours later, around 5 o'clock, when I returned from Colligoru, I was surprised to see free looting -- absolutely [un]restrained. Just anybody just went into Kingsway Stores which had been broken into and were taking whatever they could lay their hands on. So I asked what was happening. Somebody asked me in the bus, "Aren't you in Accra." I said, "Yes, but I have just come from Colligoru." Some soldiers were shot at ...[and] they came back rushing into town and breaking all sorts of European stores, taking whatever they could. I heard that quietly and went home and just took one of my lorries [truck] to go around and see if the expatriate missionaries of the Seventh-day Adventists mission were safe in their houses. I saw that they were safe; I went home.
Q: Why had all this looting and rioting broken out?
GBEDEMA: Because as the news went, the ex-servicemen, following up their march from Post Office Square, went as far as Christiansberg Castle Junction but were stopped by a platoon of policemen with a European officer, Charles Imry, in charge. They were stopped and told not to proceed further to the castle. They were bent on going to the castle, a struggle ensued, and Imre was alleged to have shot three men dead. And the ex-servicemen, in dismay and anger, rushed back into town and began to loot, break into stores, especially the stores of the European traders, and taking revenge.
Q: You say alleged to have shot three men. Was there any evidence that he actually had? Was there an enquiry into this?
GBEDEMA: I wasn't there so I couldn't say I saw it, but he was said to have shot three men dead and wounded a few others. In anger, the ex-servicemen fled back into Accra and started looting.
Q: But weren't you involved in the Watson Committee that investigated this incident?
GBEDEMA: [That] was later. I will tell you something else which helped that situation to ensue. A couple of months or so before February, one chief had organized a boycott of West African merchants -- an association of West African merchants stores and goods -- because their prices were so high and they were not taking any recognition of the inability of the people, the ordinary people, to live within what their earnings were, so a boycott campaign was going on and this of course inflamed the situation. So the ground was almost ready for having a revenge on the West African merchants' stores.
Q: So what you are saying is a riot like this was bound to have broken out at some point?
GBEDEMA: Not necessarily of the type which ensued because the campaigners for the boycott were non-violent. They just said, "Don't buy their goods, let them break down. If they won't help us, we too won't buy their goods.... If the ex-servicemen had been allowed to even appoint two or three representatives to go to the Castle quietly and hand over their petition, this may not have happened. But they were stopped dead and when they were told to go back, they didn't move, Imry shot.
Q: Tell me about your involvement in the Watson committee that looked into this incident.
GBEDEMA: Well the events as I have just said of February 28th did shake me because I did notice that by 2.35, when I was driving past Kingsway, nothing was happening. But a couple of weeks or so later the government, the colonial government, had come out with a paper, named "Here is the Truth," that Kingsway had been broken into before 2 o'clock. And I owed a duty to my country to go and give evidence to that statement. I opposed it. I gave evidence before the Watson Commission, on oath that at 2.35, as an adult citizen of this country, was driving past Kingsway and saw everything as quiet as could be. Two hours and a half later, I drove past the same place and things were different. So what the government was saying could not be true.
Q: Why were they trying to say this?
GBEDEMA: Maybe to find a scapegoat for the shooting. If the shooting had not taken place before 2 o'clock and Kingsway had been broken into, then something else would have caused that. But if the looting followed the shooting, then what they were saying could not be true.
Q: Were you angered by what the government was trying to say.
GBEDEMA: I was of course -- that is why I went to give evidence. I was not only angry about it, I was depressed that these foreigners could rule on us in their own land with lies and untruth[s]. And this is why, in fact, I decided to join the political fighting.
Q: So it was quite a turning point for you?
GBEDEMA: It was a turning point, and I haven't altered to today.
Q: So tell me about meeting up with Nkrumah at the Watson Commission.
GBEDEMA: As a matter of fact, after the Watson Commission I had no reason for meeting Nkrumah, but I had given evidence before the Watson Commission, and people knew that here was a young man whose drive and stand for the truth. And young men began to call on me to form a committee of youth organization and they had made Nkrumah their patron. As a result I wanted to meet Nkrumah, but I didn't do that until late in September, 1948. When I wanted to call on him, I didn't know where to find him. He had then started the Evening News -- the Accra Evening News -- and I went to the press to find him from there. I had a chat with him; I recognised him as the same Nkrumah I knew in 1929. Of course, Nkrumah is a common Ghanaian name, and it could have been somebody else all together, but he was the one I knew in 1929, twenty years earlier.
Q: When you met up with him at that point, did you get the feeling that he was really politically motivated?
GBEDEMA: I did, as a matter of fact. I wanted to meet him again, so I asked him, "should I want to see you again, where could I find you?" He said to me, "Here." I said "Here at the press are you staying here?" He said, "Yes. This is where I am sleeping." It was a mat on the floor. I said, "Kwami, is that where you are living? No you can't, you shouldn't. I have got a whole double bed to myself, come and be my guest." And he quickly agreed and he packed his things and came with me to my home.
Q: So that was the beginning of a long partnership.
GBEDEMA: It was.
Q: What was he like Nkrumah, what sort of personality?
GBEDEMA: As an ordinary person, he was very nice,very affable, quite right to the point on everything and so on. As a politician, he had a different hue all together. He never minced his words, he knew what he wanted and went for it. In fact, this is one of the reasons why he eventually broke from the United Gold Coast Convention -- because they had brought him here as their secretary and wanted to keep him in the office. And he knew that as a political body, he had to go around and meet the people, and by doing so much of that, his employers didn't...like it. He became the popular figure of the movement.
Q: Was he a good orator?
GBEDEMA: Yes he was a very good orator -- one who could draw the crowds, especially in his own special way.
Q: What was his own special way?
GBEDEMA: He knew how to get the people to follow him when he was talking. One of the films we have made, somebody said that, in very good words, "He knew how to catch the peoples' minds when he was talking to them."
Q: Now you persuaded him to form a new party.
GBEDEMA: That was not really correct. It was the Committee on Youth Organization and I was the chairman, but the committee decided that if the United Gold Coast Convention would not allow [Nkrumah] to do what he felt was his duty, then we the youth were ready to back him to do his duty to the country. And that eventually ended in his leaving the United Gold Coast convention. Between January and June [of] 1949, we formed the Convention Peoples' Party, which then took on the fight to achieve independence six years later.
Q: Was that a big party at the time? Did it blossom?
GBEDEMA: To be quite correct, it was the only real party in the country. It was the only real political party that knew how to continue the struggle. Twice in the process, for instance in June, soon after the formation of the Convention Peoples Party on the 12th June, 1949, there was an attempt to get Nkrumah out of the way. There was a court case before which he was arraigned for contempt of court, [for] allowing the publication of something in his paper which was before a court.
The people were determined that if Nkrumah went to jail, then it would be all of them who would be in jail. The demonstrations around the court were such that the judge thought better of the situation and instead of sending him to prison, he fined him. I happened to know because less than three months later I was taken to jail myself and the warder [guard] told me, "This is the cell which Nkrumah would have been put in if he had been brought to jail." This is how I confirmed this.
Q: Why did you have to go to prison?
GBEDEMA: Two months [after Nkrumah's trial], something was published in the Evening News which said, in effect, that a man of war had been seen arriving in Ghana waters, (Gold Coast waters), and if the government had wanted it, there could have been a battle, a fight. Anyway, I admit that I was responsible for the paper but [the story] was not written by me. I could have stopped it but I didn't, and so I was arraigned before a court and within half an hour I was sent to jail for printing something likely to cause alarm. That was the charge.
Q: So how long did you spend in prison?
GBEDEMA: I was sentenced to six months hard labour, but ...I got a remission of one quarter of a sentence and therefore spent four and a half months -- from the 17th October, 1949, until 4th March, 1950.
Q: Tell me about becoming a prison graduate and the cap that went with this status.
GBEDEMA: Well I spent my four and a half months quietly. I was there a couple of weeks or so before my time to come out. Prisoners who had been arrested for taking positive action were being brought in, but we were not allowed to meet. I didn't meet any one of them until my time to go out. Among them was Nkrumah, but I didn't know...where to find him, nor did I ask to see him. Anyway, my time came to go out of prison, and on the morning of the 4th March, 1950, the gates opened and I was let out into the streets. My father, who had been told, was present, and a friend of mine, the late Mr. A.Y.K. Gin -- they were there to meet me and took me home. There was nobody else.
In the few nights that followed, I thought several times about the darkness which would fall on people when they came out of prison and [how] nobody was there to meet them. So I decided to change the situation. I decided to make some kind of recognition for prisoners who had been sent in for political activity in the national cause. So I designed a prison cap and had the letters P.G. woven onto it and I made a point of every prisoner who was in jail in the cause would get a reception the morning he was released and he would be crowned with a prison graduate cap, just to cheer them up. And it did indeed cheer us up as it went on -- the struggle in the following year, 1950.
Q: It was worn with pride.
GBEDEMA: With pride. In fact, some people began to be sorry that they did not participate in the positive action so that they could also get a prison graduate cap.
Q: You were present on the last day of Nkrumah's trial, tell me about the mood and his mood .
GBEDEMA: I was released on the 4th March, 1950. On the 7th March, [Nkrumah] was taken to...trial for one of the offenses alleged against him.... On the 9th March, I went and sat right in front of the entry of the court...so I couldn't help seeing him. And he winked at me and I wink at him, and within an hour the trial was over. He was sentenced to one year in jail. When he went downstairs he sent a warder to come and tell me he would like to see me, but the warder said, "If you come down here you are going to prison so you had better go and stand outside and talk to him." And I did.
There was an iron gate between us -- he was in a cell and I was outside. He said, "How are you, how are things." "Fine everything is all right." "How is your wife and how are the children? They are all right?" Then after a while he said, "So what are you going to do?" I didn't know exactly what to say. I said, "Everything is in God's hands." He kept quiet for a moment and then he raised his face and I saw tears streaming down his eyes. I said, "Kwami, if I tell you some things are in God's hands, is that cause for you to cry? Everything is in God's hands, I say." Then he understood my meaning and after a while he said, "O.K. Goodbye. Good luck to you." And he told the warder, "Lets go." So they brought him to go inside -- a big lorry -- even if it is carrying one prisoner, it is all caged in. They brought it; I was standing there and shook hands with him. "Bye bye." That was the last I saw of him on the 9th November until 12th February, 1951, when he had been elected prime minister the leader of the government of the Gold Coast.
Q: But meanwhile, it was a godsend really that you were out of prison because you were able to hold the fort, to carry on for him.
GBEDEMA: Even until this day, I have a very strong belief that it was an act of God because if I had been also present in prison on that positive action day, we would have all been in jail and the story may have been completely different from what it turned out to be. I believed that if the British government -- the colonial government -- had known what they were doing by sending me, on October 17th, 1939, to jail, they wouldn't have done it because at a time when somebody was really needed to take up the fight, I was present. Having been in jail already, we Ghanaians say "A dead goat fears no knife." If you are cut up and dead why do you fear any more? I was there and in time to take on the fight, and it was a fight.
Q: You talk about the struggle and the fight, you use these words quite a lot. Were you very antagonistic towards the colonial government?
GBEDEMA: I knew a few people in the government but it was not personal antagony. They were opposed to us, and our fight was for freedom -- to be away from under their sway. So it was not a personal fight. It was for principle and national cause and it was a fight because there are events which cannot be described less than that -- they are fights.
Q: What happened during the first election campaign?
GBEDEMA: I [will] tell you something of interest during this campaign [for the main election for the new constitution]. On election day, people are not allowed to campaign for parties. You should have completed your campaigning before the election day, and the vote is secret. So we went around with our van saying, "Today is election day, protest, don't forget to go and vote but vote wisely." Now the opposition saw our van doing that and they rushed to the Electoral Commissioner and said, "Sir the CPP are campaigning." He said, "No they are not campaigning for their party. They are campaigning for voters to go and vote and vote wisely. That is their choice. So if you too have vans you can put them on the road." I think that was a good one.
Q: Did people vote wisely.
GBEDEMA: I think they did because they voted for the party that would do things for them: the CPP.
Q: You are biased of course.
GBEDEMA: Yes, of course. I couldn't be otherwise
Q: So there you are, Nkrumah is in prison, and you are very involved with running the campaign for the elections. Tell me about bringing Nkrumah's picture along.
GBEDEMA: Well it took a little while for the spirit to flash around the country, but the election I have just referred to was on the 1st April, 1950. ...June, there was an election to the legislative assembly, the main lawmaking body of the country for Cape Coast. The member for Cape Coast had died and there was a by-election, and the CPP put forward one of the young men. And we won. He was elected the municipal member for Cape Coast of the legislative council and then the thing broke out like wild fire.
I had to organize the party around the country, at the same time as keeping the machinery of the party going. But we did it all. And to help us do it, one of the tools I used was to have a full, life-sized photograph of Nkrumah made into three parts so that it made a decent small parcel. And this I carried around...for the campaign. Nkrumah's body is in jail but his spirit is going on. Now how can we not vote for such a man? We will deliver the goods, that was the main message. And it went around, and before October and November, I had covered a whole country.... We did it in eight months. The country was covered, and we were poised to win the 1951 election.
Q: Did the colonial government meanwhile try and hamper your efforts?
GBEDEMA: No I don't think. They saw the danger coming of those who were called "verandah boys" being ones winning the battle, but it was not of their making. They had given us a constitution, and...those who were the senior personalities in the country elected young men alone to do it.
Q: You gave a victory speech I think on the winning of that election.
GBEDEMA: Yes, that night. I was taken by surprise. The votes were counted, in fact, while the counting was going on in various constituencies: the main Accra seat, the center of the whole thing. I had to be there to be eye witness, so I was around when the votes were being counted and the final score was known. And at the end of it, it was obvious that the CPP had swept the polls. And Reginald Saraway, the then Chief Secretary, just unexpectedly called on me -- "Mr Gbedema you are the winner, you have to make a speech" -- without any warning to me, but I was up to it and I got up and made a speech which went down very well. "At long last the battle is over. Our Convention Peoples Party has won by an overwhelming majority. The people have spoken the language the imperialists understand, the language of the ballot box. From now on we are carrying on another duty -- to prove that we could do it."
It still rings in my ears those noises that [the crowd] made.
Q: It was obviously an emotional moment.
GBEDEMA: It was.
Q: So Nkrumah is still in prison. What happened next?
GBEDEMA: Around 1 o'clock in the morning, after the announcement of the results, a message came to me that the Chief of Police, Collins, would like to talk to me. I was still around the presence of the Town Hall when the message came and I went to see him and he said, "Mr. Gbedema, something very interesting and very serious is brewing. I understand your men are ready to go and break the jail and lead Nkrumah out. Now that would be serious. You should stop it; don't let them do this, otherwise you will spoil everything you have worked for." So he gave me help [by driving me] quickly to the prison and then against the oncoming crowds with lights showing on me with my hands up. "Stop. Stop." They all stopped and I said, "Something you are planning to do should not be done. We have won a victory. Lets enjoy the benefits of it. Don't spoil it. Go home all of you, we will meet tomorrow." And they did.
Now four days later I got a message from the Castle that the Governor would like to see me with some members of my executive so he gave us a time to be there -- I think it was 10 o'clock -- and we went. Sir Adam Clark was expecting us. So he saw us coming, and I was leading, and he said to me, "Are you Gbedema?" "Yes sir." "Let me congratulate you, you have won a nice victory, but I must confess you gave me hell. Anyway congratulations. Now I have called you to tell you that the Government of London, the United Kingdom, has decided that they cannot keep your leader who has won a victory in prison, so at 1 o'clock today they are releasing him."
[Clark continues,] "Now I am giving you advanced notice so that you will organize. There is no disorder in the country -- otherwise you will forfeit the election you have won." And within an hour, our vans were around the town telling everybody of the release, but no violence, no disturbances. We met at the arena from James Fort. That day I handed over back the power that I had won to Nkrumah.
Q: Describe the scene when Nkrumah was released.
GBEDEMA: I must say that apart from my personal feelings of joy, I didn't see much because I was driving him. The car which he drove was my car, and I didn't trust even my driver to drive him. I was driving it so I was acting the part of a chauffeur at that time, but the crowds which we saw afterwards was tremendous. The whole area -- a large area in front of James Fort Prison -- was filled with people within half an hour. And it was a slow march -- orderly, singing and dancing, and shouting -- all the way from James Fort to the West End arena where we used to hold our meetings.
Q: So it was still inspiring the people.
GBEDEMA: It was, it was.
Q: Between the election results and independence, what happened?
GBEDEMA: Well we had campaigned on the platform and soap boxes and we were called all sorts of names. Now I think we had got the responsibility...to rule the country, so it was our duty. In fact, this was very quickly made clear to us that we had to prove that we are not making empty noises but that we knew what we would do. Fortunately, we didn't have a brand new government all together of untried people -- most of the colonial civil servants were still there and they were willing to help us along until we got on our feet. And we did very quickly, to their amazement some of them.
Q: Were they helpful?
GBEDEMA: Those who couldn't stand it left very soon, but those who remained behind were helpful. In fact, they thought they were doing a good job by letting us become a new nation under British colonial tutorship. They did a lot to help us along, but what could have gone wrong would not have been their fault. If we had mismanaged or done foolish things, then we would have been blamed. But we tried within our means and within our capacity to do as much as possible.
Q: Do you think there was a real new change among the British at that time -- that it was time for you to have your own power?
GBEDEMA: One of the motives that we had as a guiding ground for our party was [that] we prefer self-government in danger [rather] than servitude in tranquillity. We had to do things the way we wanted them without showing that we didn't know what we were doing. We had to blend our views with those of the system which existed. By and large, I think we did well enough because in three years we had covered enough ground for the colonial office or the British government to say, "If you give evidence of your ability to manage the economy and control your finances, we will hand over power to you."
Q: Tell me about Independence day.
GBEDEMA: Well that was the culmination of all the...five years of hard fighting without force. Now...in 1956...we won the election. In fact, there was a third election in 1956, when the government said we were losing our majority and therefore after '54, when they challenged us and we had proof we could manage the economy, because in the year[s] 1954 to 56, we had added 80 million pounds sterling to our investment portfolio. We earned 80 million more and kept it in our savings. Now after that they said we had to fight another election. That was nearly where the thing broke down. But in spite of everything, we did and we won that too, so there was no more objection to having our independence.
Now...one of the parties based in Ashanti began to make it difficult. In fact, the Colonial Secretary himself had to come to Accra to see if he could sort things out -- but it didn't work. Anyway, in spite of everything the British Government agreed to name a date for independence -- 6th March, 1957. Now it was a moment culminating in absolute joy for us -- for at least achieving in six years what might have taken us 20 or more. We were happy to be independent.
Now on the night of independence was the sitting of the last parliament of the Colonial era. We met at 10 o'clock in the Parliament House and had some proceedings and so on and were destined to [meet] a little before midnight at the old Polo Ground for the flag lowering and flag raising ceremony. Now we were thinking of walking in the dark from the Parliament House, which was not very far, ...but the outside, with the crowd and what could have happened, deterred us and we went back and went into our cars and were driven to the old polo ground and in the subdued light we mounted a platform and were all ready when the lights all went on at 5 minutes to 12. And the cheering probably is still resounding but we don't hear it. Everybody was happy and that was when that great picture was taken with me standing on the right hand side of Nkrumah and Mr. Botsu on the left and Mr. Hafford...on the other. That was a culmination of our happiness and the height of joy, for we had set our country free in a matter of six years.
Q: Describe the feeling when the Union Jack came down and your own flag went up.
GBEDEMA: One was filled with deep emotion that in six short years we had achieved what had taken 100 years. 1844 -- when the people of the Gold Coast surrendered themselves under the protection of the British flag. The bond of 1844. From that time until 1957 we had achieved independence in six short years. That was an achievement for anybody or any group of people to be proud about and we showed our joy and pride in the celebrations.
Q: Were there fireworks?
GBEDEMA: Plenty of fireworks. In fact, the whole program took five or six days. There was a race meeting, a regatta, [a] march past the flag, and so on. I forget some of those because to me they didn't appear to be important, like the things which concerned me that I have kept recorded in my mind.
Q: It was very symbolic, that flag of yours going up, because you were the first one to get independence.
GBEDEMA: Yes, after the war India got it, but in sub Saharan Africa, we were the first colonial territory to get independence. And it could have gone otherwise but we did our best not to let it go that way.
Q: Do you think you had been inspired by the Indians and what had happened -- the independence that they got?
GBEDEMA: Yes . At some point we were talking of non-violence, but sometimes violence erupts when you least expect it -- some foolish act starts violence. We were lucky there were one or two incidents, for instance, when Yabufo [was killed]. In fact, it turned out there was a private vendetta between those two men. But there was some violence, but it could have been much, much worse. But ours ended comparatively peacefully [and] with joy that we had achieved it in such a short time.
Q: Nkrumah was an inspiration quite clearly to this country, right up to Independence and indeed beyond. Do you think he was an inspiration to other countries in Africa?
GBEDEMA: I think he was very much so, having been the first to come up. Our showing was not bad at all until after 1960. Naturally those who were fighting similar battles in their countries looked to Ghana. I remember times when Dr. Banda, even Mugabe were here most of the time seeking advice and guidance and help. Well, at least we were going along a path which they wanted to follow and we did our best to help them.
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