The 13 January 1972 Coup and Military Experimentation in Political Governance*


Today marks 46 years after the coup d’état that became known as Acheampong’s coup and led to the creation of the National Redemption Council (NRC) and, subsequently, the Supreme Military Councils (SMCs). On such an occasion, it is appropriate to go down the country’s political memory lane in order to sustain the study of the country’s political-military history and make use of that history by learning some lessons.

On 13 January 1972, Col Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, then commanding the First Infantry Brigade of the Ghana Armed Forces in an acting or temporary status, led a bloodless coup against the government of Prime Minister Kofi Abrefa Busia, and President Edward Akufo-Addo, a former chief justice, under a quasi-Westminster parliamentary system, or a semi-presidential system.

This happened to be the second successful military coup by the Ghana Armed Forces in modern-day Ghana, six years after the first coup. The first military coup occurred on 24 February 1966 when Col EK Kotoka, Commander 2 Inf Bde, Kumasi, and his Brigade Major, Maj AA Afrifa, overthrew the government of President Kwame Nkrumah, leader of the Convention People’s Party (CPP) that had won Ghana’s independence in 1957 as an independent self-governing member of the British Commonwealth, the United Nations and the wider international community. Col Kotoka however invited Lt Gen Joseph A Ankrah to serve as chairman of the National Liberation Council (NLC).

The paper seeks to underline instructive lessons in extra-legal seizures of power by Col IK Acheampong in 1972 Ghana, and the dynamics and significant initiatives of the regime, as well as challenges of military involvement in politics, including of political transition.

Synopsis of Busia’s Administration, 1969-1972

Prior to the second coup in 1972, Professor KA Busia, a university professor and leader of the Progress Party, had assumed the reins of power by a civilian government of the 2nd Republic on 3 September 1969. The government was inaugurated on 1 October 1969 after successful elections following the first coup, and the NLC military regime, which was itself replaced by a Presidential Commission that was sworn into office in September 1969.

Busia’s government was confronted with economic difficulties and increasing inflation, allegedly arising from high foreign debts inherited from Nkrumah and those resulting from internal problems—US$580 million in medium- and long-term debts, 25% of the 1969 gross domestic product; according to the Daily Graphic, this figure accrued an interest of US$72 million and an additional US$296 million in short-term commercial credits. Within the country, an even larger internal debt fuelled inflation.

Busia’s remedies of austerity, involving IMF’s recommended structural adjustment programme alienated influential farmers, who even sympathised with the PP. In accompaniment, Busia imposed wage freezes, increased taxes and devalued the currency. These measures led to rising import prices that also severely affected the middle class and the salaried work force, precipitating Trade Union Congress protests. In spite of the government’s avowed democratic credentials, under Busia’s authority, the army occupied the TUC headquarters and block strike actions.

Coincidentally, Busia’s military instrument, the Armed Forces, was equally affected by the dire economic circumstances; both the individual and defence budgets tightened as a result, and Acheampong was to make this clear in his opening statement.

The jury may still be out on human rights abuses under Busia’s rule, which was also blighted by the dismissal of public servants, under the notorious Apollo 568 agenda. The action which was without reason, Ghana’s Supreme Court, by a majority decision, ruled against the dismissals whose legality was challenged by one of the victims, Mr Sallah. But Busia, in spite of touting himself and the Progress Party as democrats who believed in rule of law, blatantly not only attacked the Supreme Court’s judgment, but also stated emphatically that, “No court could enforce any decision that sought to compel the government to employ or redeploy anyone”.

At the international level, Busia’s dialogue with apartheid South Africa was not only contrary to the stand of the OAU. It went against the grain of Ghana’s longstanding image as a vanguard of Pan Africanism. This cross-grain policy was not helped by the equally obnoxious Aliens Compliance Order that saw the exodus of thousands of West African nationals from the country.

The introduction of a university students loan scheme, as opposed to the hitherto free education was seen as a way of introducing a class system into the country’s highest institutions of learning. Society was also vexed with the nature and future direction of the state.

These issues and questions around them also affected the popularity of Busia’s Progress Party and government. As early as mid-1971, Busia’s government appeared to have known all along about the threat of a coup. They however least suspected Acheampong, an Akan officer, as the architect. The elements of ethnicity and class and their role in Busia’s overthrow need further interrogation. Without explanation, though, Acheampong was to accuse Busia of tribalism.

Busia’s government acknowledged its awareness of the coup plot in an address at a Progress Party rally at Sunyani in his home region of Brong Ahafo. His Minister of Labour and Cooperatives, Dr WG Bruce-Konuah, assured the nation about the government’s measures “to contain the clandestine moves by some trade unions to overthrow it”, and declared: “the situation is under control and there is no need for alarm.”

Ultimately, Busia’s government was overthrown for its failure to meet national expectations or to effectively manage such expectations. Between them, the devaluation of the cedi in 1971 and the alienating changes in the leadership of the army’s combat elements, were the triggers for Acheampong’s coup, within 27 months of Busia’s assumption of office.

Motivations for the Coup

Following the script of military coups—deployment of the military at key points in urban centres, martial music on national radio, military announcement, etc—Acheampong and the military who were impatient with Busia’s civilian government sprung the coup on 13 January 1972 with the statement:

“I bring you good tidings; Busia’s hypocrisy has been detected. We, in the Ghana Armed Forces, have today taken over the Government from Busia and his ruling Progress Party. With immediate effect, the constitution [1969] is withdrawn, Parliament is dissolved, the Progress Party and all political parties are banned…”

In addition, he banned public meetings, proscribed political parties, and incarcerated leading politicians.

In an exercise labelled by CEK Kumado as “Revolutionary Constitutionalism?”, the NRC established itself through the National Redemption Council (Establishment) Proclamation, 1972, empowering the NRC “For such purposes as they may think fit to make and issue Decrees which shall have the force of law in Ghana.” It also provided a legal basis for the dismissal of Busia’s ministers, dissolution of the national assembly and the suspension of the 1969 constitution.

In July 1972—or perhaps at a later date in 1975—the NRC enacted a retroactive Subversion Decree establishing military courts that were empowered to impose the death penalty for offences such as subversive political activity, robbery, theft and damaging public property, and from 1973, for spreading rumours and for profiteering. These draconian measures were symptomatic of worsening social and political order, and of economic stability and prosperity, with steep declining GDP, export earnings and living standards.

Among others, the six or so key motivations for the coup, which led to its designation as a “military amenities coup”, included the following:

  • The Armed Forces and the Police took over the reins of government from Kwame Nkrumah (reference to the 1966 coup) because of his arbitrary dismissals, arrests and detention without trial, economic mismanagement and mal-administration in general and a host of other malpractices
  • The Armed Forces made history when it smoothly handed over the administration of the country to a civilian government on 1 October 1969, to bring home to the people of Ghana and the outside world the fact that “we were not motivated by love for political power”
  • In contrast to this, “every honest Ghanaian will agree with me that the malpractices, bribery, corruption, tribalism, arbitrary dismissals, economic mismanagement, dissipation of public funds, interference in judicial affairs and a host of other malpractices that characterised the Nkrumah regime, have come back to stay with us
  • “The first people Busia put his eyes on were the Armed Forces and the Police, some of whom were dismissed under the guise of retirement. The few amenities and facilities which the Armed Forces enjoyed even under the Nkrumah regime were taken away. Morale in the Armed Forces and the Police was lowered to make it impossible for Officers and Men to come together to overthrow the Government…
  • “Abuse and a mockery of the Constitution, non-compliance with the declaration of assets by MPs…”
  • The decision of the Armed Forces to once again take over the reins of Government was to “save Busia from total disgrace, from committing further blunders and to prevent him from totally collapsing the country before he runs away to enjoy the huge fortune he has acquired outside the country”

Structures of the Military Regime

Borrowing from the constitutional structure of the NLC, the Acheampong regime instituted a 9-member NRC. The members of the top tier were: Col IK Acheampong (chairman), Brig C Beausoleil, Brig EA Erskine, Commodore PF Quaye, Lt Col CD Benni, Maj Kwame Baah, Maj KB Agbo, Maj AH Selormey and Mr JH Cobinah (IGP). This structure constituted the “collective executive presidency” and, in the absence of any parliament, also exercised legislative functions through decrees.

The second-tier structure consisted of a list of military and police officers categorised as “commissioners” and members of the NRC. In functional terms, these commissioners NRC-members served as the cabinet for a comparatively modest list of 23 portfolios:

1.    Foreign Affairs 13.   Trade and Tourism
2.    Internal Affairs, IGP 14.   Transport and Communications
3.    Defence 15.   Education, Culture and Sports
4.    Attorney-General and Justice 16.   Education, Youth and Sports
5.    Finance and Economic Affairs 17.   Information
6.    Local Government 18.   Sports
7.    Agriculture 19.   Cocoa Affairs
8.    Health 20.   SMC Affairs
9.    Labour, Social Welfare and Cooperatives 21.   Special Advisor to the Head of State
10.  Lands and Mineral Resources 22.   Consumer Affairs
11.  Industry 23.   Fuel and Power
12.  Works and Housing

The third and last tier consisted of a list of nine “regional commissioners” for existing administrative regions of Ghana at the time, namely: Ashanti, Brong Ahafo, Central, Eastern, Greater Accra, Northern, Upper, Volta and Western regions.

The various commissioners were designated as members of the National Redemption Council as membership of the SMC was limited to the Head of State, the Inspector General of Police and the various military service commanders.

The Supreme Military Council I: October 1975 – July 1978

After about four and a half years of experimenting with the NRC model, the regime sought to consolidate political power, tighten the military’s control over government business, and address periodic tensions and suspicions within the armed forces that had emerged as the military regime’s key constituency. The presence of middle level officers—Lt Cols and Majs—some unit seconds-in-command, as members of the NRC, went contrary to the military norms and customs of the Ghana Armed Forces, and led to bitterness among the officer corps, as we as the rank and file.

In light of these dynamics, on 9 October 1975, the NRC was superseded by the SMC. Like its predecessor NRC, the SMC became the highest legislative and administrative authority.

In order to address the alienation of the NRC from the Armed, a Military Advisory Council (MAC) was also formed, to bridge the divide. The main function of the MAC was to provide advice to the SMC and enhance military involvement in the work of the SMC. It was composed of commanders of brigade formations and a wider range of officers, under the command of Maj Gen JA Hamidu, then Commandant of the Ghana Armed Forces Staff College (GAFSC), now the Ghana Armed Forces Command and Staff College (GAFCSC).

The composition of the SMC I was streamlined to seven members: the Head of State and Chairman, Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) of the Ghana Armed Forces, four service commanders of the Ghana Armed Forces—Army, Navy, Air Force and Border Guards—and the IGP.

Acheampong, who was promoted to the rank of General, served as Head of State and chairman; with the CDS (Lt Gen LA Okai and later Lt Gen FWK Akuffo); Army Commander (Maj Gen FWK Akuffo and later Maj Gen REA Kotei); Navy Commander (R/Adm CK Dzang and later R/Adm JK Amedume); Air Force Commander (Brig C Beausoleil and later AVM GY Boakye); Border Guards Commander (Maj Gen EK Utuka); and the IGP (Mr. Ernest Ako and later BSK Kwakye).

The SMC “planned” to return the country to civilian rule on 1 July 1979 under a concept of “Union Government” (UNIGOV) or nkabom aban, as the supporting song elucidated. Based on the Justice Gustav Koranteng Addow Report, Acheampong sought to turn Ghana into a no-party state. Ad interim, however, Acheampong and the regime of the NRC/SMC were marked by heightened mismanagement of the economy and rampant corruption. In an attempt to divert attention from these challenges, Acheampong brought forward the referendum on the UNIGOV concept, which had been proposed in 1976, to 30 March 1978.

In its report in September 1977, the Ad Hoc Committee on Union Government proposed the following definition of the concept:

“A form of representative Government of the people, having as its philosophical foundation the concepts of national unity and consensus, and selecting its functionaries from all levels and sections of the community on a basis other than membership of an institutionalised political party or parties.”

With the exception of the “no-party” criteria, the proposed definition was silent on or avoided expatiation of the other diagnostic criteria of the role of how the armed forces could participate in government and what the precise role of the military in government would be.

The key ballot question was “Do you approve whether or not some form of Union Government would become the basis of Ghana’s political system?” The referendum was won by a yes vote of 60.11% (1,372,427) against a no vote of 39.89% (910,386).

Acheampong appears to have miscalculated the realities on the ground to the extent that while the referendum passed, professional groups and students were vehemently opposed to the UNIGOV idea, which they perceived as a subtle plan by Acheampong to retain power. They maintained the strikes and demonstrations against the government which they had begun in 1977.

The Bloodless Palace Coup, 5 July 1978 and the Supreme Military Council II

In the face of a sharp socio-economic decline, a concerted opposition to the UNIGOV concept by students, and lawyers, nurses, and other professional who on occasions withdrew their services, as well as by religious bodies and traditional leaders, led to a steady erosion of the power of Gen IK Acheampong and the SMC I. Some of such groups were the Association of Recognised Professional Bodies (ARPB), the Front for the Prevention of Dictatorship (FPD) and the People’s Movement for Freedom and Justice (PMFJ) that included no less a figure than Lt Gen AA Afrifa.

With such a state of polarisation, the SMC I, after neutralising or ensuring that his loyal guards were changed, virtually “ambushed” Gen Acheampong in his office at the old Ministry of Defence in Burma Camp, where they allegedly forced him to sign a document for his resignation as head of state. It is uncertain whether he did sign the document or not. Be it as it was, Gen Acheampong, who felt betrayed AVM George Yaw Boakye to the SMC, initially refused to sign off on his own resignation. It is uncertain whether he did sign the document, as alleged by the SMC which informed the nation to that effect about what became known as the palace coup of 5 July 1978.

In reality, Acheampong actually survived a plot orchestrated in 1977, to remove him from power under the cover of Exercise Trojan Horse, a strategic field exercise conducted in the Volta Region in 1978. Empirical evidence suggests that other coup plots were hatched to eliminate Acheampong. When those approaches, including the option of bombing his house failed, the idea of a palace coup was considered as the best option.

In the wake of the palace coup, the government was reconstituted into the SMC II and remained in power. The SMC II was constituted by Lt Gen Akuffo as Chairman. Other members were Maj Gen REA Kotei (CDS), Maj Gen NA Odartey-Wellington (Chief of Army Staff), Maj Gen EK Utuka (Commander, Border Guards), R/Adm Joy Amedume (Chief of Naval Staff), AVM GY Boakye (Chief of Air Staff) and Mr Ernest Ako (IGP).

Lt Gen Akuffo further attributed the removal of Gen Acheampong from office and his resignation from the Armed Forces to the following reasons:

  • Being in the interest of peace, harmony and national unity
  • That he surrounded himself with advisers of doubtful ability and intentions
  • That he spurned the advice of Members of the SMC on a number of important occasions
  • That he unilaterally varied collective decisions of the Council and took several important decisions without consulting or even informing his colleagues
  • That the channel of communication between him and the rest of his colleagues virtually broke down
  • And that the whole activity of government had become a one-man show

Other factors ascribed for the removal were the high rate of inflation and kalabuleism. Kalabule was a generic term in Ghana and, perhaps in some neighbouring countries, for corruption, excessive inflation and price hikes by speculative traders. It was accompanied by shortages, excessive liquidity and slow-down in production, the budget and the mode of financing the shortfall in financial resources; speculative trading which increased the purchasing power of speculators ahead of inflation while that of various segments of the population grew at a slower rate, enjoyment of some unwarranted tax concessions under the Special Unnumbered License (SUL), the practice of bringing into the country goods in commercial quantities under the guise of personal effects, and the use of scarce foreign exchange to employ foreign labour under the guise of experts.

The SMC II was eventually overthrown by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) 11 months later, on 4 June 1979.

Significant Policy Initiatives of the NRC and SMCs

Some sources have attributed to Acheampong and the NRC/SMC the following changes and innovations:

  • Having hardly settled down in office, Acheampong and the NRC launcheda bold and popular food security programme, “Operation Feed Yourself” (OFY), In February 1972. With massive media engagement and government subsidies—farm inputs, access to credit facilities and duty-free importation of agricultural machinery—the government, through OFY, urged the population to engage in agriculture in order to increase food crops production, predicated on food shortages, and achieve self-sufficiency in food supply. A considerable amount of the spirit of self-reliance was built into the programme to break with the colonial past and correct Ghana’s “image of a beggar nation”
  • On 5 February 1972, Acheampong, in his attempt to reverse Busia’s fiscal policies, nullified the devaluation of the cedi and partially revalued it by 42%, with the popular refrain that “the NRC was going to seize the commanding heights of the economy”. To trumpet his nationalistic credentials, he argued that “yentua, okafoo didi”, literally meaningwe will not pay, the debtor also eats”. He further repudiated US$90 million Nkrumah owed to British companies, and unilaterally rescheduled the country’s remaining debts over 50 years, before nationalising all large foreign-owned companies. In spite of these policies being less painful and more popular, in comparison with Busia’s, these measures proved short-term and rather aggravated the problem of capital flow in light of the lack of a concrete economic policy framework
  • The National Service Scheme (NSS), in its original form, was established in 1973 as a programme, originally with the intention of deploying freshly graduating youth under the NSS arrangement, to ensure that priority sectors were resourced with the requisite human capital for development. The NSS contributed to the establishment of the National ServiceAct of 1980, Act 426, promulgated and passed by Parliament of Ghana to provide the scheme with a legal and constitutional framework
  • Successful implementation of Operation Keep Right,to changeover from driving on the left to the right on 4 August 1974, with the sound of vehicle honking and the slogan: “peeh peeh peeh, pooh pooh pooh, nyifa a nyifa naa nyen”, that is to say “right is right that is it”, notwithstanding the cost involved in changes in road and other infrastructure
  • After more than a century of using the imperial system of weights and measures, Ghana adopted the metric system on 2 September 1975, to align the country with its neighbouring countries
  • From about 1976, the Armed Forces spearheaded “Operation Haul Out”, among others, to check the spate of cocoa smuggling across the national borders; verify cocoa stocks that had been purchased but had not been evacuated, a phenomenon that was leading to corruption in the sector; and to evacuate the commodity from remote areas with poor roads and bridges
  • Importation of high performance Swedish/Austrian Steyr and Pinzgauer trucks, as well as Mowag armoured personnel carrier and fighting vehicles, as part of the re-equipping programme of the Ghana Armed Forces, as well as to enhance their capacity to undertake Operation Haul Out, and for routine administration and logistics
  • Importation of Fokker 27 troop transport aircraft for the Ghana Air Force, and Fokker 28 for presidential duties, in replacement of British Hawker Sidelleys and Herons acquired during Nkrumah’s administration, and the establishment of No 2 Sqn. For the Ghana Air Force, in addition to the El Wak stadium mentioned below, the construction of the El Wak Barracks in Accra
  • National reconstruction to promote employment, including the construction of dams; improving skills of workers; construction of the Dansoman, Teshie-Nungua housing estate and other low-cost housing in the Northern and Upper Regions, including Tamale Secondary School; undertaking face-lift projects in urban centres; rehabilitation of the Sogakope bridge; and the reconstruction/upgrading of stadia, including the El Wak Stadium, to international standards. The stadia facilitated Ghana’s hosting of 11th edition of the African Cup of Nations in March 1978 at the Kumasi and Accra sports stadia, which it won by 2-1 against Uganda
  • Construction of the Akuse dam and Kpong hydroelectric project, the third stage in the development of the Volta River Project, which was initiated in 1977 and completed in 1982. In addition, the Weija Dam and irrigation project, whose construction started in 1974 and was completed in 1978
  • Construction of the Tono Dam and irrigation project in the Upper East Region started in 1975 and was completed in 1985

These and other policy initiatives enabled contributed towards the promotion of national unity. In this regard, the Charter of Redemption is worth noting, with its seven principles:

  • One nation, one people, one destiny
  • Total manpower development and deployment
  • Revolutionary Discipline
  • Self reliance
  • Service to the people
  • Patriotism and international brotherhood
  • Mobilisation of the spiritual, intellectual and will power of the people

These principles, among others, also inspired the institutionalisation of both the national pledge and anthem that are in use to this date, and their recitals in schools and at public functions.

From the policies and public pronouncements of Acheampong and the NRC-SMC, the question could be asked: was Acheampong apolitical? In spite of the widespread perception at the time that Acheampong was an Nkrumaist and that staged the coup to facilitate the return of Nkrumah from exile in Guinea, was unproven until Nkrumah’s demise on 27 April 1972 in Bucharest, Romania.

Major Pitfalls, Dilemmas and Challenges

To say that the UNIGOV concept was controversial and contentious was an understatement given the perception that the results of the referendum were manipulated. The government allegedly tried to coerce Justice IK Abban, the acting electoral commissioner, to rig the UNIGOV referendum, when it realised that the cause was being lost. Thus, halfway through the referendum, when Abban rejected the coercion, he allegedly jumped over the walls of the Commission’s compound to go into hiding, out of fear for his life. He reappeared from hiding on 3 April 1978, in the company of three priests—His Grace John Kodwo Amissah, Archbishop of Cape Coast; Rev Hilary Senoo, Catholic Secretariat; and Rev C Awotwe Pratt, Methodist Church—to report himself to the Castle, where he was promptly relieved of his post. Ad interim, he was reportedly replaced by AM Quaye, and later by Justice Kingsley Nyinah, who supervised the 1979 election that brought Dr Hilla Limann to power.

In retrospect, the UNIGOV idea has some similarities with the transitional governance arrangements involving more contemporary governments of national unity among ruling government, opposition political parties and civil society, albeit in such post-conflict countries as Liberia and Somalia. In this instance, the perception that the NRC-SMC intended to perpetuate military rule, and the time and manner in which the idea was sold to the populace, undermined the UNIGOV concept.

Prior to the spat over the enunciation of the UNIGOV concept, however, the reorganisation of the NRC into the SMC in 1975 as a face-saving strategy instigated public anger against the government. Like Busia before him, Acheampong invoked the provisions of a decree to repress public sentiments. He forbade rumour peddling and, under the Newspaper Licensing Decree (1973), banned independent newspapers and detained journalists perceived to be too critical of the government. Further, he allowed the Armed Forces to break up student demonstration, including repeated closure of universities which, to him, had assumed the character of centres of opposition to the policies of the NRC; and, together with the Ghana Bar Association in 1977, the call for a return to constitutional rule and the formation of political parties.

An unintended consequence, especially of the UNIGOV agenda, was the increased awareness of society, notably professional bodies and sections of workers and youth, who were “radicalised” to speak truth to power in opposing the perceived attempt of the SMC to perpetuate its rule. A further development of this trend was the coalescing of the elite, across political parties, against the military and its arbitrary rule.

Coupled with rampant corruption marked by kalabule, Ghana experienced an unprecedented scale of rationing of essential commodities under a “chit” system, price controls, profiteering, hoarding and the bizarre manner in which import licenses were awarded to well-connected business women and men, including market women, with the “green ink” authorisation of the head of state.

The courts, which under the NRC Establishment Proclamation (1972) had been allowed to remain in existence with the same power, duties, functions and composition as they had before the coup, handed down ridiculously stiff sentences for petty offences—jailing a 69-year old woman for 2½ for smuggling 4 gallons of kerosene to Togo in 1977; jailing a 26-year old women for 4 years for selling Palmolive bathing soap at GHC 4 instead of GHC 0.87 or 87 pesewas and one packet Omo washing powder at GHC 4 instead of 46 pesewas in 1978, etc—while well-connected big smugglers and corrupt officials were left off the hook.

Under these circumstances, any goodwill that had accrued to the regime quickly dissipated. Even within the ranks of the Armed Forces, the UNIGOV agenda did not appear to have received popular support. At the durbar that Lt Gen Akuffo held with officers and men at the Burma Hall to explain the situation after Acheampong’s removal, some officers called for the vacation of all the SMC members, except the default head of state. They held the view that the head of state should appoint new members to run the affairs of state and transition the country from military to civilian rule.

The SMC, more than the NRC, was challenged over the governance of the economic sector, with an estimated inflation of 300% in 1978. This resulted in basic commodity shortages, halving of cocoa production to its 1964 peak. The situation was compounded by famine in some parts of the country. When the population cried out to Acheampong who had waxed lyrical when Ghana found oil in 1972—that God had withheld the oil find during previous bad administrations—his answer, ironically, was that he was not God to cause rain to fall.

Overall, the Acheampong coup of 1972 and the subsequent evolutions of the governments of the NRC, SMC I and SMC II were painful military adventures. They underscored the reality that military impatience and grievance alone are not sufficient or justifiable grounds for extra-legal seizure of political power.

While Acheampong and the NRC-SMC might have believed that national problems arose from civilian indiscipline and lack of organisation, their instructive experiences dispelled the myth or the notion that the military were better managers of the affairs of state largely because of their comparatively more coherent structure, organisation and thought processes. To the contrary, they brought to the fore the reality that the military, alone, did not possess exclusive knowledge, understanding and competence in resolving the country’s socio-political and economic challenges inherited by Busia, including Ghana’s foreign debt, the dynamics of the world market and the low commodity prices of the country’s single commodity earner, cocoa.

It is arguable that Acheampong and the NRC-SMC were also not better to able manage the morale of the Ghana Armed Forces and security services. One serious impact of the Acheampong coup on the Armed Forces was the ad hoc nature of the membership of the commissioners of the NRC, especially the regional commissioners, whose appointments were not consistent with normal procedures of promotions and appointments. For instance, it is uncertain that Acheampong would have attained the rank of General had it not been for his opportune place and role in government.

To recall the facts, the NLC consisted of a more compact and hybrid structure of four army officers and four police officers exercising executive power, and a civilian cabinet. In terms of the notion of transition paradigm, the NLC as a “grey zone” regime, presented Ghana as a model of semi-authoritarian state.

In clear departure from this model, however, the NRC-SMC compact, coupled with the deployment of regional commissioners, other officers and men as aides and advisors at different levels of government, represented a truly authoritarian military regime. They failed to consolidate the political transition achieved with the election of Busia.

Acheampong and the NRC missed or ignored the “opening” to revert the country to a semi-authoritarian state in 1975, when they rather opted to consolidate power under SMC I. In so doing, they also closed the political space, and stifled the will and potential of political parties and civil society to play a constructive role in the chaotic political transition process towards democracy. Had they chosen, among others, to bring civilians into a reformed SMC II in 1975, they would have repositioned Ghana at the pre-1969 timeline of the NLC. In default of that failure, the SMC went into disequilibrium and decay, with attendant fragile economic, socio-political and democratic prospects.

 The continued involvement of the military in politics raised challenges to the maintenance and restoration of military professionalism and ethics. The ad hoc manner of secondment and appointment of the regional commissioners created aberrations in the military hierarchy. By virtue of their political status, they wielded more political power and respect than other senior officers in barracks within the respective regions, who were professionally senior to them.

The exposure of the NRC-SMC and the regional commissioners to wealth, including the entitlement of tax-free special allowances, and their socio-political status, created tensions within the officer corps and among the other ranks. This tension was more manifest when officers and men vehemently opposed the idea of the return of their colleagues who had held seconded political appointments to active professional military service.

The fear of a counter coup and the need to ensure regime security meant that the armed forces found it virtually impossible to undertake effective collective training. The military intelligence directorate and apparatus was especially geared up to monitor and surveil military movements and other activities. This paradigm also affected trust among members of the Ghana Armed Forces, leading to deterioration of wider esprit de corps.

In fairness to the NRC-SMC, though, this paradigm had started from the Busia era, when the government sought to starve the Armed Forces of requisite resources. There is anecdotal evidence that the Busia regime grew fearful about the Armed Forces after a firepower demonstration to Busia’s government at the Bundase training grounds. The government then sought to lower the strength of the Armed Forces and rather focus on the Police. Unfortunately, the Acheampong’s regime appears to have fallen into this trap and carried it to new heights.

One of the lowest points in the image of the Armed Forces was when Lt Gen Acheampong, Chairman and Head of State was summarily stripped of his rank and status, apparently to appease officers and men of the armed forces and, perhaps, send a message to the civilian population of righting the wrongs of the Acheampong regime. In hindsight, this strategy proved insufficient, perhaps also hypocritical.

During the period following his removal from office on 5 July 1978, Acheampong had been placed under house arrest at the Presidential Villa at the Akosombo Dam (up to mid-July 1978) and later at the Government Rest House at the Amedzofe Hills (mid-July 1978 – 30 April 1979). He was also held at the Peduase Lodge when he was brought to Accra on 1 May 1979 to be stripped of his military rank and status. Immediately after that anti-climax to his professional military and political careers, Mr. Acheampong was sent to Trabuom, his village in the Ashanti region. Ironically, Acheampong who never travelled by air during his career, was sometimes moved around by air during this time.

In the afternoon of 1 May 1979 Acheampong was transported to 1 Inf Bde HQ at Kpeshie, under command of Col MA Abanah. After the SMC assembled with Lt Gen Joshua Hamidu, CDS, without any military courtesy to Gen Acheampong, Col Winfried Annor Odjidja, Director Military Intelligence (DMI), escorted the General to appear before the assembly. There is empirical evidence that after heated exchanges between Gen Acheampong and the SMC, ostensibly over the serious matter subject of his upcoming demotion and dismissal, the former was heckled and assaulted by the DMI in the presence of the escorts from the Mortar Regiment, now 66 Artillery Regiment, and personnel from 1 Sqn of the Recce Regt.

Upon the directive of the CDS (Lt Gen Hamidu), the DMI assembled the escorts and warned never to disclose the details of the incident.

As disclosed by the DMI to the assembled personnel, sometime between 13:45 hours when the escort arrived at the 1 Inf Bde HQ and 14:30 hours when the assembly broke up, on 1 May 1979, Gen Acheampong was informed about the decision of the SMC to the effect that he was: a) no longer to be addressed with any military title, b) barred from using any military insignia, c) stripped of his rank, and d) going forward, to be addressed forthwith as Mr IK Acheampong.

On the strength of the provisions of the Armed Forces (Miscellaneous Provisions) Decree 1979, Gen IK Acheampong was dismissed from the Ghana Armed Forces, giving effect to SMC decision on 1 May 1979.

Pardon and Rehabilitation?

The Acheampong regime perhaps comes next after Kwame Nkrumah’s government in terms of national development. It is the view that the regime also achieved a comparatively commendable level national unity. These development and socio-political capitals were however squandered, among others, owing to the regime’s obstinate adherence to the UNIGOV agenda, economic mismanagement and human rights abuses, especially during the latter stages of the regime.

On account of the blatant mistakes and omissions of the regime, should society condemn Acheampong and members of his regime to oblivion in perpetuity? If that be the case, how should society take account of the undeniable contribution of Acheampong and the regime towards the processes of democratic consolidation, albeit a painful one?

From these perspectives, should the collective image and memory of IK Acheampong and members of the regime be rehabilitated, taking into consideration, for instance, the rehabilitation of the collective image and memory of Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah and the Convention’s Peoples Party (CPP) after very severe vilification? Further, should the example of the Transitional Provisions of the Constitution of Ghana (1992)—especially Part – IV Miscellaneous, Sections 34-35—with regards to the collective image and memory of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC), be considered for the rehabilitation of the collective image and memory of the SMC, in contributing to greater national unity?

There is empirical evidence that such rehabilitation was initiated at the early stages of the government of Former President JA Kufuor, probably in 2001. With a view to strengthening Ghana’s nascent democracy, the bodies of the members of the SMC were exhumed and identified through physical observation, dental records and probably some DNA, for re-interment—individually at the discretion of the respective families—by the Ghana Armed Forces, after a memorial service at the 37 Military Hospital.

There is need to bring to finality the process of rehabilitating the collective image and memory of IK Acheampong and the SMC. This may help to promote greater national unity.


Barring the merits and demerits of its motivations, the Acheampong coup underscores the unpleasant reality that civilian misrule, political ineptitude and corruption do create conditions for military interventions. Especially in an era of self-styled life presidencies, in societies without democratic institutions, values and practices, the Ghana Armed Forces and the Police obviously found it expedient to dispel the notion that civilian misrule should be tolerated for the simple reason that civilian rule is sacrosanct.

In the process though, in spite of short term achievements, the unconstitutional coup by Col IK Acheampong in January 1972 ultimately negatively impacted the profession of arms and security services in many more ways than one. The coup laid the ground for further meddling of the military and police in the politics of the country, and was to have serious consequences on their professional discipline and morale, going forward.

These should be notes of caution to emerging democracies in the continent. Rather than merely being vigilant against military involvement in politics, civilian administrations should strive to uphold constitutional democracy, the rule of law, good governance and respect for human rights. They should eschew and fight against corruption and endeavour to meet the popular aspirations and hopes of society, including economic development.

On its part, the military should subordinate itself to civilian authority and oversight, subject itself to constitutional order and allow relevant institutions of state to do the politicking. Recent cases of military interventions in Zimbabwe, Guinea Bissau and elsewhere underscore these realities.

Towards these ends, there is need for continued concerted efforts of all of society to learn from the harsh lessons of history, and ensure that such tendencies that are reminiscent of the not so distant past, do not resurface and, worse of all, take roots in society, owing to complacency, ignorance, oblivion or a combination of all of these elements.

Controversial as it may sound, as part of that process, society should seek to rehabilitate the collective image and memory of military and other persons who willingly or unwillingly get involved in such unconstitutional enterprises. That would help in building national unity and democratic consolidation.


* The author would like to express sincere thanks and appreciation to all individuals who granted him telephone interviews, and for the useful pieces of information, perspectives and corrections to the working manuscript.

** Photo Source:


 Sources and References:

Aboagye, FB (Lt Col), The Ghana Army, a Concise Contemporary Guide to its Centennial Regimental History 1897-1999., (Accra: Sedco Publishing Limited, 1999), pp 100-102.

African Elections Database, Ghana Elections, at:, visited 6 Jan 2018.

Alhajj Newspaper, Busia’s Apollo 568 is back, 23 May 2017, Online at: Visited 10 January 2018.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Ghana Culture, History and People – Independence, at: <;. Visited 6 January 2018.

Ghana Government, History of Ghana – Post-Independence Ghana.50th Independence Anniversary Celebration of Ghana, archived from the original on 13 May 2012, at: Visited 8 January 2018.

Ghana National Service Scheme, at: Visited 9 January 2018.

Ghanaweb, Justice Abban Was on Acheampong’s Death List, 6 December 2003, at: Visited 9 January 2018.

Goldsmith, Jenny, Ghana between the Second and Third Republican Era: Recent Constitutional Developments and their Relation to Traditional Laws and Institutions, African Law Studies, at: Visited 11 January 2018.

Graphic Online, Remembering General Kutu Acheampong (1), Razak el-Alawa, 16 January 2016, at:

Infoclio, Anna Lemmenmeier, Operation Feed Yourself. Ghana’s experiment towards food self-sufficiency under Colonel Acheampong 1972-1978, at: Visited 9 January 2018.

Justice Ghana, The best of SMC & the National Anthem, at: Visited 12 January 2018.

Nana Akwah, Down the Memory Lane in Politics, the Odysseys of a Head of State – the Hall of Acheampong, Modern Ghana, Modern Ghana, 22 July 2012, at Visited 11 January 2018.

New York Times, Ghana Gets Metric System, 3 September 1975, at: Visited 9 January 2018.

Nifosi, Ingrid, A New Conceptual Framework for Political Transition: a Case Study on Rwanda, Online at: <>. Visited 16 October 2017.

The National Redemption Council Years, 1972-79, at:

Ziorklui, Emmanuel Doe, Ghana, Nkrumah to Rawlings, (Accra: Em-zed Books, 1969), pp 199-202, p 204.

7 thoughts on “The 13 January 1972 Coup and Military Experimentation in Political Governance*

  1. Good recap of Ghana’s politico-military history.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Collins Ogoe 13/01/2018 — 14:41

    Waow. This is worth reading and sharing

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Brig Gen Ben F. Kusi 15/01/2018 — 07:44

    Festus thanks for the excellent piece. Could not react earlier because I travelled over the weekend.
    I am particularly interested in the piece on UNIGOV. I think it was a master stroke which was mishandled. It was rejected by Ghanaians because they saw it as a ploy for Acheampong and the Military to perpetuate their hold on power.
    If Acheampong had handed it to Ghanaians as a parting “gift” it would have been warmly received and could have changed the course of our history.
    We could have avoided the pitfalls of multi-party democracy which has polarised us. We are not yet matured for multi-party democracy. It has tended to polarise us and fan the flames of corruption.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Ben, very cogent remarks largely articulated by Dr. Baffour Agyeman-Duah and others who commented on other platforms. The question is how soon,not later, that these issues will receive some attention in appropriate circles by relevant authorities and groups. Thanks


  4. Baffour Agyeman-Duah 15/01/2018 — 16:15

    Congratulations, Festus! A great read! The details, interpretation of events and perspectives are enlightening. You are on point raising the issue of rehabilitating and restoring the collective image, now that the Fourth Republic has been solidly consolidated and coups can be considered a “thing of the past” — Insha Allah! While Acheampong’s execution could be understood in the context of his time, we can look back today and wonder whether it was all worth it. Interestingly, some of his policy initiatives are relevant today and Ghana will be better off to muster the courage to adopt them –the OFY for creating self-sufficiency in food and agricultural production and UNIGOV to achieve political inclusion and lessen shrill partisanship and needless cacophony in our politics. Sadly, neither of the two election-winning parties (NPP and NDC) will touch and embrace his policies without offending their own sensibilities.


    1. Dear Prof, very cogent remarks. Let’s hope that these pertinent issues inform our political discourse going forward. Thanks


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