According to oral traditions, the ancestors of the Akan people, today the largest ethnic group, entered the country from the north and spread southwards between CE 1200 and 1600. The Fanti State of Denkyira was at that period already established on the coast. By 1400 the Akan had established their Bono and Buida kingdoms in the forested central region.
Their highly developed culture was centred on the city-state, surrounded by vassal villages, and rule by a court where the queen mother was often a more powerful figure than the king who, being sacred, was hidden from the people and consequently often politically isolated. The Akan traded gold and kola nuts for salt and cloth, in the west and north, and were also involved in the slave trade. In the 15th century, the Ashanti people waged war against the Denkyira Kingdom and by 1700 had gained control of the slave trade. They developed a powerful army and a centralised state, ruled by the Asantehene (king of the Ashanti nation).
Portuguese traders, arriving after 1450 in search of gold and ivory, named the country Gold Coast; appropriately since, by the end of the 16th century, it produced ten per cent of the world’s gold.
From the middle of the 16th century other Europeans began arriving; in the mid-18th century there were Dutch, Danish and British settlements. The British became involved in internal conflicts when they backed the Fanti against the Ashanti who were extending their power into the coastal areas. There were four wars in the 19th century.
The Bond of 1844, entered into by Britain and the Fanti chiefs, endorsed British control of small pockets of settlement; six years later Britain set up a legislative council to govern these areas. The British took over abandoned Danish settlements in 1850 and the Dutch settlements in 1871. By Orders in Council (1901) Britain declared the southern territory a colony by settlement, the northern territory a protectorate and Ashanti a colony by conquest. In 1922 a part of the adjoining German territory of Togoland was placed under British administration by a League of Nations Mandate and after World War II it became a UN Trust Territory. The principle of elections was introduced under the 1925 constitution.
During the first half of the 20th century, there was growing national pressure for self-determination, and the UK gradually surrendered control. The 1946 constitution required the legislative council to have an African majority. Following civic disturbances in 1948, the UK agreed that a committee consisting entirely of Africans should examine the structure of the country’s government.
In 1949, Kwame Nkrumah set up the Convention People’s Party (CPP) to campaign for independence. Elections took place in 1951, and the following year Nkrumah became the country’s first Premier. The 1954 constitution provided for a legislative assembly of 104 directly elected members, and an all-African Cabinet; the UK kept responsibility for foreign affairs and defence. The CPP campaigned for full independence. The general election of 1956 returned the CPP with a big majority.
Modern-day Ghana was formed when the British-administered part of Togoland voted to join the Gold Coast in an independent state, in a UN-supervised plebiscite in May 1956. Ghana achieved independence within the Commonwealth on 6 March 1957.
In 1960 Ghana became a republic, with Nkrumah as President, and in 1964 a one-party state, the CPP being the sole authorised party. However, less than a year later, Nkrumah was removed by military coup, the first of four coups.
The army and police set up a National Liberation Council, which dissolved the legislative assembly and suspended the constitution while a new one was drafted. Political activity was permitted again in 1969; a general election followed in August. It returned the Progress Party; its leader Dr Kofi Busia became Prime Minister, with the National Alliance of Liberals as the opposition.
In 1972, another military coup led by Colonel Ignatius Acheampong overthrew Busia’s government and set up a National Redemption Council. In 1978 Acheampong was replaced by General Frederick Akuffo, who promised civilian rule by the middle of the following year.
Two weeks before the elections were to be held in June 1979, a military coup led by junior officers ousted the government. Flt-Lt Jerry J Rawlings and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council declared that they had assumed power, in order that an honest election could take place. Elections were held as scheduled; they returned the People’s National Party, whose leader Dr Hilla Limann took office as President in September 1979.
Another coup, in 1981, put Rawlings back in power. He suspended the constitution and banned political parties. From December 1981 until November 1992 Ghana was ruled by a Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC).
In May 1991 the PNDC government set up a 260-member consultative assembly to oversee the restoration of multiparty democracy. A committee of constitutional experts was appointed to draft a new constitution for submission to this assembly. In April 1992 the draft constitution was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum; political associations were unbanned; and six opposition movements were granted legal recognition. The National Democratic Congress (NDC) was formed to contest the elections on behalf of the PNDC.
The November 1992 presidential election (witnessed by Commonwealth observers, and considered ‘overall free and fair’) returned Jerry Rawlings (with 58.3 per cent of the vote). The parliamentary elections of December 1992 returned the NDC with 189 of 200 seats in the new Parliament. The NDC united with the National Convention Party (NCP) and the Every Ghanaian Living Everywhere Party to form the Progressive Alliance. In January 1993 Rawlings was sworn in as President, and the Fourth Republic was inaugurated. In May 1995, the NCP left the coalition.
In the December 1996 elections, President Rawlings was re-elected with 58 per cent of the votes. Turnout was 75 per cent. His party, the NDC, won 133 seats. The opposition alliance of the New Patriotic Party and the People’s Convention Party won 66 seats, just reaching the level at which they could successfully oppose constitutional changes (which need a two-thirds majority). The elections were seen as a step towards full multiparty democracy; the opposition had boycotted the 1992 parliamentary elections, but accepted defeat the second time round. Ghana thus acquired a significant legislative opposition for the first time in 15 years.
After Rawlings was chosen as ‘life chairman’ of the party in December 1998, the NDC suffered a serious split in its ranks with the formation by some of its founding members of the National Reform Party, which was registered in July 1999.