Remembering Dr J.B. Danquah, ‘Doyen’ of Gold Coast Politicians

J. B Danquah

Fifty years ago, on February 4, 1965, a ‘Great Light’ of the nation Ghana went off. On that fateful day, at 6:30 a.m, Dr Joseph Kwame Kyeretwie Boakye Danquah, a foremost statesman, the flower of West African scholarship, lawyer, journalist, poet, philosopher and indomitable fighter in the cause of human freedom, a patriot whose burning desire throughout his life was to secure independence for the Gold Coast, for which he suggested the name Ghana, died in a condemned cell No. 9 at the Nsawam Maximum Security  Prison.

According to Extract from the Report of the Commission of Enquiry Into Ghana Prisons, 1967-1968, “The life of Dr J. B. Danquah in the cells was regimented in the same manner as that of a condemned prisoner awaiting execution … his cell was subject to frequent rigid searches”. 

Danquah’s petition for release from detention, which eventually reached the desk of President Kwame Nkrumah reads, among other things, “Dear Dr Nkrumah, I am tired of being in prison on prevention detention with no opportunity to make original or any contribution to the progress and development of the country, and I am, therefore, respectfully writing to beg, and appeal to you, to make an order  for my release and return home …. I am here  required to sleep or keep lying down on the blankets and a small pillow for the whole 24 hours of the day and night  except for a short period  of about five minutes in the morning to empty and wash out my latrine pan … my health being undermined  and my life endangered by various diseases without being allowed to be taken to the Prison Hospital for continuous observation and treatment..”(J. B. Danquah – Detention and Death in Nsawam Prison, Accra Ministry of Information, pp.116-7).. He died at the age of 69, after a most remarkable, busy, selfless and noble life. 

Lawyer Danquah

I knew of Dr J. B. Danquah’s reputation long before I had the opportunity of meeting him personally on several occasions in 1949, when I was staying with his nephew, Mr William Ofori Atta, popularly known as Paa Willie, as a secondary school student at the campus of the Abuakwa State College, Kyebi. Dr Danquah,  generally known to his Akyem Abuakwa contemporaries as ‘Lawyer Danquah’ or Barima  Kwame Kyiretwie Boakye Danquah, was a frequent visitor  to the house  to engage in long political discourse  with Paa Willie, then the Headmaster of Abuakwa State College, during that critical period  of Ghana’s independence struggle. Both he and Paa Willie had just been recently released from detention as members of the legendary “Big Six.”

Meeting Dr Danquah 

During my first year at the University of Ghana, I eagerly joined the Legon student group which invited Dr Danquah to the Legon campus, on January 12, 1957, just before Ghana’s independence, to address us on ‘The Significance of the Bond of 1844.’ This was J.B’s finest hour. 

The lecture was just brilliant, highly illuminating and impressive. Dr Danquah received a long standing ovation, when he concluded on a memorable note: “:At independence on  March 6, 1957, we in the Gold Coast will be in a position  to tell  Britain that she is liberated  from the promise  (of the Gold Coast self-government) made 83 years ago in 1874, and  which has waited  too long for redemption.”

My other enduring memorable interaction with Dr Danquah was when I was the Bursar of Akuafo Hall, University of Ghana, in the early 1960s with Professor L. H. Ofosu-Appiah as Hall Master,  Professor Albert Adu Boahen,  Senior Tutor, Professor Alex Kwapong, immediate past Senior Tutor and Pro-Vice Chancellor, and Reverend Professor Gilbert Ansreh,  Hall Chaplain. – all great admirers  and friends of Dr J. B. Danquah.

Professor Ofosu-Appiah on many occasions sent me to deliver a note of invitation to Dr Danquah to the then prestigious Akuafo Hall Sunday High Table  dinner. After dinner, J. B. and his hosts, including the renowned Oxford University Professor, Thomas Hodgkin, first Director of the Institute of African Studies, ceremoniously repaired upstairs to the Master’s Hall for tea, coffee and warm interactions.

It was a delight, indeed intellectually satisfying, watching JB deeply engrossed in quality discussions punctuated with witty remarks here and there. Dr Danquah, no doubt, made a tremendous impact on me. 

Danquah’s  monumental contributions

It was, however, during the period of my  intensive research as an International Relations doctorate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science that I obtained a wealth of primary source material on Danquah’s  monumental contributions to the struggle for Ghana’s independence. The primary and secondary sources were collected at the Public Record Office in London, Rhodes House in Oxford, British Museum, Newspaper Library at Colindale, London, Regional Archives in Ghana, Legislative Council and Parliamentary Debates. 

As made clear in the primary sources, J.B. Danquah was a central figure in the nationalist movement in the Gold Coast and a leading spokesman  of the Gold Coast intelligentsia for more than three decades. He was closely involved in the main trends of colonial politics in the Gold Coast  from the 1930s to the 1950s: the demand for constitutional reform and agitation for self-government, the Gold Coast youth movements, the establishment and leadership  of the first political party  in Ghana, the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), which put self-government  prominently  on the political agenda, and the fixing of 6th March  as Ghana’s independence Day, in commemoration of the Bond of 1844 signed on  March 6. 

Relevance of Danquah today

J. B. Danquah’s life and thoughts have a refreshing relevance to our national pre-occupations today as they were in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. For lack of space, let me highlight just one issue, a canker with which J.B. was seriously concerned – incidence of corruption among politicians and public officers. 

On December 8, 1952, J.B. wrote to His Excellency Sir Charles Noble Clarke,  praying to Sir Charles ‘in the name of God to delay no longer but appoint a Commission of Enquiry into corruption and bribery as well as misuse of public funds that is going on in the country..”  

Dr Danquah added that he had already brought to the notice of  the Finance Committee information that had reached him  regarding the Assembly Press, which, scheduled to cost some 20, 000 pounds, ‘has cost the country about 84, 000 pounds’. 

He concluded that it was distressing that such things should ‘happen under Your Excellency’s governorship’, stressing that,  ‘Your Excellency may make use of your powers’  to save this country from being ruined by failure to tighten the screw  against ‘wholesale demoralisation of administration in the highest quarters’.        

Not satisfied with Sir Charles’s delay in tackling the corruption canker, Dr Danquah drew attention of Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah to the incidence of corruption among his ministers, commissioners and other agents of his government. With uncanny accuracy, J. B. predicted, in a personal letter to the prime minister dated November 4, 1959, that this nation would be overwhelmed by the rising tide of corruption and moral degeneration if members of government did not set the right example. 

He said: It ought to be quite clear by now that the practice of ministers, commissioners (high, regional or district) and other political agents of government taking  presents of money, or gold, or Kente, or in kind, from members of the public, including chiefs, is not healthy and does not inspire a decent public life…….

I should be happy if your cabinet would issue orders to stop it; otherwise corruption and fraud will never abate in this land and its increasing pace  will eat into all aspects of our public life, even the civil service…. Fraud and stealing are becoming rampant, even at the post office and in the Police Force because people see others make cheap gains elsewhere. 


How different is this from what we are experiencing today? Can we take a cue from J. B.’s life and endeavour, as far as we are able, to give selfless service to our nation under the Fourth Republic?”  

Undoubtedly, JB did not only bring about considerable national awakening in Ghana, he was also desperately seeking to bring about a decent Ghanaian public life devoid of corruption.

He was a courageous man, fearless in attack and in defence; his passion for freedom was aglow with action, and was greatly inspiring. JB dedicated himself to a total fight for the independence and self-government of Ghana without any thought of gain to himself or his relations; above all, he had an invincible love for  Ghana, as his country and his home.

The nation of Ghana owes a great debt of gratitude to Dr Danquah for the worthy things he did for the country: for the valuable books  the eminent scholar  and writer produced on our culture, our institutions and our past; for the great political struggle  the “Doyen” of Ghana politicians engaged himself in, resulting in the final achievement of self-government for this country; for the name ‘Ghana’ he suggested  to remind us of our great past; and for the relentless fight  for true freedom for this land, in the course of which  he suffered  and died as a martyr in detention camp.