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First Ghanaian Army Commander and First Military Head of State Lieutenant-General Joseph Arthur Ankrah will be remembered firstly as the first military Head of State of Ghana and secondly, as the country’s first Army Commander. His other achievement was his distinguished role in the Congo, something which earned him the very rare, distinguished Military Cross award.
Lt.-Gen. Ankrah (born on August 18, 1915) came from a scion of brave ancestors. His paternal great-grandfather was Nii Ayi Korkor Sekye Ankrah, a great warrior, and his maternal ancestor was Nii Oto Brafo 1, the first native Field Marshall invested with a sword of command by three European powers, the Danes of Osu, the Dutch of Kinka (Accra Central) and the English of James Town (Bristish Accra) to lead them into war in February 1784 against certain local enemies. His father was, Samuel Paul Cofie Ankrah, an overseer for Christian Missionary Society(CMS) and his mother, Beatrice Abanshie Quaynor, a trader.
Ankrah began his schooling in 1921 at the Wesleyan School, Accra, where he earned the name Ankrah Patapaa for his forcefulness in arguments and always playing leadership role among his mates. In 1932, he entered Accra Academy where he established himself as a footballer of terrific strength. On earning his Senior Cambridge School Certificate in 1937, he joined the then fashionable career for young educated boys- the Civil Service. In the Civil Service, he found himself drafted to the Army. Then followed frantic family manoeuvres to obtain his transfer, as a military career was then considered as an admittance of inferiority. But Ankrah who had come to relish the military routine and physical training opted to stay on. The declaration of World War II saw him among those mobilised into the Royal West African Frontier Force. In 1940, when his Brigade went to East Africa, he was transferred to Accra to the Record Office on the rank of Warrant Officer Class II and made second-in-command.
After four years at the office which he found most unexciting, he applied for officer training. This was a fight. For then the very idea of an African rising from the ranks to be an officer was almost unthinkable. Ghanaian officers today owe much to pioneers like Ankrah for the relentless fight they put up.
In October 1946, after courses at Tamale, Kumasi, and Teshie in Accra, interspersed with frustrations and trying episodes, he arrived at the Marshfield Officer Cadets Training Unit (OCTU) in Britain and passed out in February 1947 as first African officer in the Gold Coast Army. (Major Seth K. Anthony had been commissioned in April 1942 but he was in the Volunteer Force and his was an emergency commission).
Back home as a Lieutenant, he became the first African camp commandant at the Army Headquarters (then known as District Headquarters-Gold Coast). He was appointed temporary chief instructor of the Education Unit. He went for the full course at Beaconsfield and became Chief Instructor (the first Ghanaian) – but remained still a Lieutenant. In 1956, as an experiment, he was promoted a Major and became the first African to command an All-African Company. – The Charlie Company of the first Battalion at Tamale. This was a great success and so in 1960, he took over the Battalion as Lieutenant- Colonel.
Ankrah’s period as a Colonel is distinguished by the Congo Crisis which was a key period in his life. The complex Congo situation and the grand interference of Ghana put the country’s military officers to a real test. Ankrah goes down in history as the only Ghanaian to win the Military Cross in Leopoldville. The citation states:
With great common sense, maturity and tact, this officer 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 Armee Nationale Congolese (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.
There were also events in the Congo when Ankrah succeeded in keeping the peace between the Congolese National Army and Gizengist troops, an achievement which Major-General Alexander praises highly in his book African Tightrope.
In 1961 when President Nkrumah dismissed Major-General Alexander, Ghanaian officers had to take over. Ankrah was promoted to command the Ghana Army. Later he was made deputy to Major-General S.J.A. Otu, the Chief of Defence Staff.
As a result of leakage of information on their involvement in a coup plot, Ankrah and Otu were dismissed from the Army in 1965. Ankrah was made the Director of the National Investment Bank. It was while there that he was invited by Kotoka and Afrifa to become the Chairman of the National liberation Council (NLC) and Head of State. Books by Colonel A.A. Afrifa, The Ghana Coup and Major General A.K. Ocran, A Myth is Broken give the impression that Ankrah was just invited to head the NLC without any involvement in the coup whatsoever. This view Ankrah rejected:
I was the first to have made plans to over throw Nkrumah. It was as a result of the careless handling of the plans by J.W.K. Harlley who I recruited, because of the vital role of the Police, that I was dismissed by the President. I also briefed Kotoka. But Kotoka was then a General Staff Officer Two and he could not do anything. Fortunately, thought I was on retirement, Nkrumah asked me to draw up an Order of Battle for him. I took advantage of the opportunity and posted Kotoka to command a brigade and he became the second brigade commander, a place which offered him the chance to move troops on Flagstaff House.
According to Ankrah, on the day of the coup d’tat 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.
As Chairman of the NLC, Ankrah took responsibility for foreign affairs and the numerous commissions/committees of enquiry set up by the Council to investigate affairs of the deposed president and his government. He paid official visits to all the neighbouring countries in a move to restore relations that had become strained under the Nkrumah regime because of allegations of Nkrumah’s support for terrorist groups against them in Ghana. The NLC under Ankrah also played a key role in trying to bring together the estranged leaders in the conflict between Eastern Nigeria (Biafra) and the rest of the Nigerian Federation. The Conference of warring factions held in Aburi was chaired by Ankrah.
As the days of the NLC rule progressed, obvious divergence of interests in the Council began to show. The issue of the sale of state enterprises, the scope of freedom of the citizen and the handing-over timetable were three issues on which members had different opinions. Ankrah it was said, was against the freedom enjoyed by the press. He did reveal his position when he lambasted editors of the national newspapers at a conference ending his address with the often quoted phrase ”e who pays the piper calls the tune.” Ankrah it was also said was against early return to civilian rule and actively worked to forestall plans of the Council in that direction. The rumour peddlers revealed that Ankrah in a desire to continue to be Head of State was also secretly financing a political party which he wanted to be strong before plans for return to civilian rule would be announced. This particular rumour was linked with a purported public opinion pool commissioned by one Arthur Nseribe, which indicated that the majority of Ghanaians would like to see Ankrah as the first civilian president of the Second Republic. At the height of these rumours the NLC passed the Rumours Decree 1966, NLCD 92, imposing heavy penalities on rumour peddlers. At a press conference in August 1968 Ankrah denied rumours of his encouraging the formation of political parties as ”icked and malicious fabrication,” adding ”soldiers do not have the temperament for political acrobatics.”
In spite of Ankrah’s denial, rumours of impropriety against NLC members persisted. In a dramatic turn of event on April 2, 1969 it was announced by the NLC that Ankrah had resigned as Head of State and Chairman of the NLC. He left the Osu Castle amidst boos and catcalls of the workers.
A terse statement issued by the NLC implicated him in an alleged ¢6,000 bribe collected by him from Arthur Nzeribe, a Nigerian businessman on behalf of four politicians: M.K. Apaloo, Peter Ala Adjetey, Alex Hutton-Mills and Attoh Quarshie. J.E.O. Nunoo, a colleague of Ankrah on the NLC, resigned in protest against the distortion of facts in the statement. Ankrah himself, however, remained quiet and never said anything thereafter about his resignation.
In an exclusive interview with the author a few weeks before his death, he made the starling claim that:
I resigned because Afrifa had persisted in his plans to kill me. He planned the first abortive coup of April 17, 1967 against me, but unfortunately it was Kotoka that was killed. After that abortive coup, other attempts were made to kill me. I once caught Harlley and him in Harlley’s room at about 11:00p.m. without lights plotting. With these things, I said to myself: I am a soldier and I know how easy it is to kill a Head of State. You put a guard to watch the area and he would take all the magazine and put in just one. When you are going he shoots, when you fall dead there would be lots of enquiry, but the guard would say he took everything out and was trying to clean the rifle he did not know there was ammunition in it. Nobody can do anything to him.
To what he thought was the reason behind Afrifa’s attempt to remove him, Ankrah said,”he wanted to kill me because Busia and his clique were inspiring him to do that so they can take over. ”For further evidence of Afrifa’s involvement in the abortive attempt of April 17, 1967 Ankrah said:
The boys – Arthur and Yeboah- while in prison pleaded that they should be allowed to come to see me and that they had moved because Afrifa assured them of protection. I refused to grant them audience and sent the messengers back to tell them they had all the opportunity to say everything at the court-martial but they did not; is it now that they are to be shot they are sending prison guards to say that they have something to tell me?
On the events of that April 2, 1969, when he resigned, the General said:
Before the meeting of the Council started. I announced ”General Ankrah has something to tell you.” Everybody sat up, I told them ”The General had decided to resign with effect from now. ”When they asked what they should tell the public, I told them they can tell the people anything but not that I had been sacked or resigned on the grounds of ill-health because if they did say it was on grounds of ill-health, it will embarrass them because I would be walking in town. With that I packed the papers I brought to the Council chamber and left for my office. While there, Afrifa came and said the Council said I cannot do that (resign). I told him ”look you want to be the Head of State, they have sent you to come and take over. Take it.” And I packed off my things and left the Castle.
In retirement, General Ankrah occupied himself with various things, including participating in the activities of the Ancient and Honourable Society of Freemasons. He also occupied his leisure time with horse-racing, playing lawn tennis, gardening, reading and dancing. He was also a keen football fan; having played for Auroras and Accra Hearts of Oak in his youthful days. In his old age, he became a patron. And according to H.P. Nyemitei:
When Ankrah was appointed chief patron of the club, he often invited the executives to hold meetings in his house. He continued to show enduring interest in soccer and in varied ways identified himself very closely with the affairs and fortunes of the club…The entire membership of Hearts of Oak and the sporting public will always remember him for this profound interest in sports and the encouragement and recognition of sports as essential prerequisite for the development of young men and women in the spirit of playing the game in an atmosphere of healthy competition.
Lt.-General Joseph Arthur Ankrah died on November 25, 1992 survived by his third wife, Mildred Christian Akosua Ankrah and 13 children.
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Credit-# AKORA Audrey Quaye