January 26, 1948: Chief Nii Kwabena Bonne II leads boycott of European goods

In 1948, Gold Coast was a British colony in West Africa; the people had no say in political or economic life. During World War II, large trading companies increased prices on scarce items to maintain profits. After the war ended, the high prices and shortages continued to persist.

In 1947, Chief Nii Kwabena Bonne formed the Anti-Inflation Campaign Committee in Accra in response to the inflated retail prices on goods imported in Ghana by European firms. In December of the same year, Nii Bonne sent a letter to the Chamber of Commerce in Accra outlining the position of the Anti-Inflation Campaign Committee: the prices on imported European goods were too high, which in turn made the cost of living nearly unmanageable. Nii Bonne and the Anti-Inflation Campaign Committee demanded that the European firms lower the prices of goods, especially cotton textile items.

Nii Bonne directed this letter to the United Africa Company (UAC), a subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever, in particular. Nii Bonne also included a date by which time a letter of response was to be received: 24 January 1948. If the European firms failed to send a response by that day, the Ghanaians would strike.

During the time the Anti-Inflation Campaign Committee was waiting for a response, Nii Bonne toured the country to explain his plan to boycott European goods to the chiefs and people of other towns and cities throughout Ghana. Nii Bonne’s plan received widespread support. The chiefs of Manya Krobo, Suhum, Akim Oda, Cape Coast, Sekondi, Tarkwa, and Axim either gave their support or pledged to join the boycott.

By the day the ultimatum was to expire, there still had been no response by the Chamber of Commerce or the UAC. The UAC had not considered Nii Bonne’s letter or the matter to be serious, as the company did not believe that the Africans could unite. The company believed that the Africans did not understand the value of money well enough to carry out a cohesive plan successfully. Nii Bonne’s letter had never even been forwarded to the UAC head office in London.

As was the plan, the boycott began on 26 January 1948. The products boycotted by the Ghanaians included cotton prints, tinned meat, and flour biscuits. Although the main items boycotted were European imported goods, goods from other foreign-owned stores, such as Indian and Lebanese products, were also boycotted. The boycotters were guided by the slogan “We cannot buy; your prices are too high. If you don’t cut down your prices then close down your stores; and take away your goods to your own country.”

The economic boycott was very successful as it resulted in the closure of many shops. On 11 February 1948, the Colonial government, which had originally declared that it would not interfere, as it was a trade dispute between the people and the foreign traders, was forced to arrange a series of meetings between the Chamber of Commerce in Accra and the Anti-Inflation Campaign Committee as well as the other chiefs who had joined in the boycott.

Tensions flared during the time the meetings were held, and on 17 February a crowd demonstrated in front of the magistrate’s court during the trial of a chief charged with imposing fines on non-boycotters.

On 20 February, an agreement was reached as some of the foreign firms assented to reducing their overall profit margin from 75 to 50 per cent. The Government announced over the radio that, as a result of the negotiations between the Chamber of Commerce and the Anti-Inflation Campaign Committee, prices on some imported goods would be reduced and the boycott would end on 28 February.

Although many boycotters, and other non-boycotting Ghanaians, rejoiced over this feat, they were disappointed when the prices were not reduced as much as they had anticipated. The boycotters and other Ghanaians had taken the 75 to 50 per cent reduction as meaning a 50 percent decrease in prices, but in fact it had referred to overall profit margins. Therefore, in reality the prices on imported goods changed very little, and as a result the change in the cost of living was negligible.

This campaign to boycott European goods and lower the cost of living in Ghana became part of the preparation for the 1949-51 campaign for independence. On the last day of the boycott, African ex-servicemen began a march from Accra to the British governor to present him with a petition, but were stopped by police. This led to rioting by Ghanaians in response to police brutality, which Nkrumah of the United Gold Coast Convention used to demonstrate the readiness of Ghanaians for independence. Nkrumah and members of the Convention People’s Party, which Nkrumah formed, then began to campaign for Ghana’s independence from British rule.

Apart from his campaign and successful organization of boycotting European goods, Nii Bonnie was a pathfinder who also pioneered a number of ventures which proved very beneficial to the country.
At the time of Europe’s great Depression in 1931, he successfully campaigned throughout the Colony for reduction in prices of foodstuffs, peace and tranquility reigned among the people, though there was the general anxiety of total destruction of the cocoa industry through the scourge of the swollen shoot disease. Consequently, during that period, the colonialists dubbed the Gold Coast Colony the Ideal Colony.

In February 1925, he became the first Gold Coaster to earn the British Royal Couple’s invitation to tour the Buckingham Palace.
In 1946, he hosted the Asantehene, Sir Osei Agyeman Prempeh II, and his 500-strong retinue at his residence, the Royal Castle and its precincts when they were in Accra at the invitation of the Colonial Governor for the inauguration of the 1946 Constitution.
One major outcome of his successful boycott of European imports the dismissal of some brilliant students from government high schools. The executive/steering committee of the UGCC broached the need for the establishment of alternative high schools for dismissed student supporters of the Nii Kwabena Bonnie-led riotous boycott of European merchants and traders. This led to the founding of Ghana National College, later adopted by Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah and became his legacy to date.
When Nii Kwabena Bonnie III died in the 1971 once a long meritorious service to Ghana, the great Ghanaian politician of Yoruba origin and the Speaker of Parliament from 1958 to 1960, His Excellency, Mr. A. M. Akiwumi eulogized him saying “He was a champion of the under-dogs and a good citizen who never liked anybody to take mean advantage of another. His spirit of nationalism and patriotism moved him to organize the famous 1948 boycott of imported goods, especially textile. In this enterprise, he awoke the entire nation at his own initiative. He challenged the scandalous advantage that was being taken by the commercial firms for selling these articles at extortionate prices Single handedly, he aroused the entire nation to realize their plight. The response to his call was spontaneous. The whole country boycotted imported goods and refused to buy unless the prices were reduced. This incident was one of the sparks which lit the torch of nationalism, which eventually culminated in the granting of independence to the Gold Coast, now Ghana, by the British Government. He played such important part in our nationwide activities to merit him a worthy place in the new history of Ghana. He was a real son of Africa and his passing was a great loss to our nation."