January 8, 1950: Positive Action Day declared by Kwame Nkrumah

Nkrumah distinguished two stages in the campaign: first, the period of “positive action”, a combination of nonviolent methods with effective and disciplined political action, and second, the stage of “tactical action”, a sort of contest of wits. CPP organizers first prepared people around the country for the first stage of civil resistance, the positive action phase. The government responded by testing the strength of the organization and its tactics. Three CPP journalists and the secretary of the Ex-Servicemen Union (partner organization) were imprisoned on charges of sedition, but the bail was quickly raised and paid by CPP volunteers. Hoping to forestall the threatened positive action campaign, government officials agreed to a conference with CPP leaders, which began on January 5, 1950. The British asked Nkrumah to postpone positive action while they studied the proposals put forward by the CPP and announced on the radio that an agreement had been reached. The CPP reacted by breaking off the negotiations and on January 8, 1950, called a mass meeting, telling the participants that a nation-wide boycott of British goods and a general strike should begin at midnight that day. In his speech at that meeting, Nkrumah presented the main weapons of positive action as being legitimate political agitation, press and educational campaigns, and, as a last resort, the constitutional application of strikes, boycotts and noncooperation based on the principle of absolute nonviolence. The strike began at the set time.

The same day, Nkrumah travelled to other key cities – Cape Coast, Sekondi and Tarkwa – formally declaring the onset of positive action in each of them, while CPP organizers spread the word to other areas. The strike paralyzed the country. Nobody worked, transportation was brought to a standstill, however, essential services like water, electricity and medical care continued to work, as the nationalist leaders had agreed. Positive action continued for 21 days, despite threats of dismissal of workers from jobs, numerous warnings and curfews, and the full evocation of a state of emergency (called by the Governor).

Seeking to create division among the participants and put an end to the strike, the government broadcasted radio “updates” of the situation, telling people in each city that strikers in other regions had already gone back to work. To counteract the government manipulation, Nkrumah called another mass meeting on January 11th, where he spoke for two hours to a large crowd. At 7 PM the same day, the Governor imposed a strict curfew and a series of emergency measures (the state of emergency would last from January 11th to March 6, 1950): public meetings were forbidden, all Party letters were opened and censored, an anti-African pogrom was encouraged (with armed Syrian and European civilians enrolled as auxiliary police and allowed to terrorize and even kill peaceful citizens), the Party newspaper and two others were banned and their offices were raided by police and closed, the editors of the opposition publications were jailed, together with many CPP leaders, including Nkrumah. None resisted the arrests. Nkrumah had instructed the country to keep calm and make “no demonstrations of any kind”. Although incidental violence on the part of the British occurred (for instance, Nkrumah’s personal assistant and some of his companions were beaten), overall, they acted with restraint. One serious incident marred the campaign: on January 17th, ex-servicemen staged a march to Christiansborg. The marchers clashed with police forces sent to stop them and two policemen were killed. Nkrumah did not stop the campaign and, at his trial, disclaimed responsibility for this “unauthorized occurrence”. He and his colleague were convicted for “inciting others to take part in illegal activities” and received prison sentences from six months to two years.

Positive action was over, but the solidarity it had demonstrated was channeled to electoral activity. When elections for the town council took place in Accra, Cape Coast and Kumasi, the CPP won majorities in all three cities. In April 1950, Komla Agbeli Gbedemah, one of the jailed CPP leaders, was released from prison. He immediately took charge of the Party as chairman and organized it for the forthcoming general elections (in the process creating a strong network of party branches across the southern half of the colony), receiving directives smuggled out of prison from the other leaders. 

The elections were held in February 1951, less than a year after the positive action campaign, and the CPP swept the country, winning 35 out of 38 seats. The British then released the CPP leaders who had remained in prison; they became the center of public ceremonies organized by the Party to maintain the cult of martyrdom that had developed around its imprisoned leadership and, as “prison graduates”, were awarded diplomas and celebrated almost as heroes. They promptly occupied their government posts. The governmental structure contained all the defects that they had protested against, but under Nkrumah’s leadership, they were worked out as the Gold Coast moved rapidly towards full self-government and independence.

Sources: Swathmore College - Peace Collection