The Watson Commission of Inquiry into the 1948 Accra riots described Dr. J.B. Danquah as the “doyen of Gold Coast politicians; the man at the back of nearly all political movements; the man from a famous chiefly family who but for accident of birth might have been a notable chief himself.” The report went further thus: “the man has great intelligence but suffers from a disease not unknown to politicians throughout the ages and recognised under the generic name of expediency.”
Indeed though it could be said that he was master of expediency, what was equally striking about him was his lively intelligence and his unending commitment to the course of liberal democracy. These were the qualities which established him firmly as advocate of a liberal democratic political tradition in the politics of Ghana.
Joseph Kwame Kyeretwie Boakye Danquah (better known as J.B.) was born on December 21, 1895 at Bepong-Kwahu, His father was Emmanuel Yao Boakye who was the chief state drummer of Nana Amoako Atta II, Omanhene of Akyem Abuakwa until he became a Christian evangelist at 40. His mother was Lydia Okum Korantemaa of the Royal family of Adadientem near Kyebi. The couple had four other children: three girls and one boy besides J.B. Danquah. But Boakye had a son, by an earlier marriage, who was 14years older than J.B. Danquah. This half brother was called Alexander Eugene Boakye Danquah and became popular as Nana Sir Ofori Atta I, Omanhene of Akyem Abuakwa. His family connections mode him grow up to accept the aristocratic order and this was to play n major role in his political life and work. At the age of six, J.B, began schooling at the Basel Mission School at Kyebi and later continued at the Basel Mission Senior School at Begoro. On successfully passing his standard seven examinations in 1912, he entered the employment of Vidal J. Buckle, a barrister-at-law in Accra, as a clerk, a job which aroused his interest in law.
On passing the Civil Service Examinations in 1914, he became a clerk at the Supreme Court of the Gold Coast. The experience acquired here made his brother Nana Ofori Atta I, who had become chief two years earlier, decide to appoint him as secretary of the Omanhene’s Tribunal in Kyebi. Following the influence of his brother, J.B. was later appointed as the assistant secretary of the Conference of Paramount Chiefs of the Eastern Province which was later given statutory recognition to become the Eastern Provincial Council of Chiefs. J.B.’s brilliance made his brother decide to send him to Britain in 1921 to read law After two unsuccessful attempts at the University of London Matriculation, he passed in 1922 enabling him to enter the University College of London as a philosophy student. He earned his B. A. degree in 1925 winning the John Stuart Mill Scholar in the Philosophy of Mind and Logic. This enabled him to enter for a Doctor of Philosophy degree which he earned in two years with the thesis, The Moral End as Moral Excellence. He became the first West African to obtain the doctor of philosophy degree from a British University. While he worked on his thesis, he entered the Inner Temple and was called to the Bar in 1926. During his student days, he had two sons and two daughters by two different women neither of whom he married, In London. J.B, also took time off his studies to participate in student politics, editing the West African Students’ Union (WASU) magazine and becoming the Union’s president.
Back home in 1927, he was offered mastership at the Prince of Wales College (Achimota College) to succeed Aggrey of Africa but he declined the offer and rather chose to go into private legal practice. Alongside his legal practice, he found time for two other things: first, to establish a newspaper and second, to help found the Gold Coast Youth Conference (GCYC). The newspaper he established was called the West Africa Times later renamed the Times of West Africa. The paper became the most popular Accra daily from 1931 to 1935 as it fearlessly advocated Fundamental Human Rights and denounced foreign domination. One of the most interesting columns in the paper “Women Comer” was written by Mabel Ellen Dove, daughter of Mr.Francis Dove, a barris-ter-at-law. J.B. Danquah married Mabel (as first wife) in 1933 and with her he had a son, named Vladimir. Elizabeth Vardon was his second wife.
The GCYC which J.B. helped J.E. Casely-Hayford to found in 1929 was to project him to become a leading spokesman of the Youth from the early 1930s up to the advent of Nkrumah, The GCYC, as a union of youth groups in the country, had its origins in the emergence of a host of clubs, societies and unions in the 1920s and 1930s. The first principal aim of the group was to heal the break between the chiefs and the intelligentsia that occurred in the 1920s and to bring those two groups and the youth together. Secondly, the GCYC was to inculcate in the youth the essentials of development and to exchange views on such matters affecting the vital interests of the country so as to ensure rapid development and progress on healthy lines, J.B. became the General-Secretary of the Conference in 1930. Other prominent members were: K. A. Korsah (later Sir). K Brakato Ateko, J.C. de Graft-Johnson. W.B. Van Lare and Edward Asafu-Adjaye, Under J.B., the GCYC held its first congress at Achimota College in April 1930 to discuss the Essentials in the Progress and Development of the Country, Subsequent congresses of the GCYC took place in Cape Coast (1938), Kumasi (April 1939), Akim Abuakwa (1940). It was largely through the work of the Conference that there was effective mobilisation against two bills: the Sedition Bill which extended the definition of sedition; and the Water Works Bill which sought to shift responsibility for the cost of water supply in the coastal cities from the government to the citizens. Later a delegation made mainly of members of the GCYC and led by Nana Ofori Atta I went to London to protest against the Bills. J.B. was secretary to the delegation.
A petition drafted by J.B. on behalf of the GCYC for presentation to the King of England protested against the two Bills and also asked for a larger number of Africans on the LEGCO. They also asked for representation on the EXECO and called for modification and improvement in such very important matters as the employment of Africans in the Civil Service, public health, medical services, dispensaries and hospitals. The delegation, however, failed to persuade the Colonial Office and returned home disappointed. J.B., however, stayed in England for some time to work at the British Museum, looking for evidence that the main Gold Coast tribes were descendants of ancient Ghana, the medieval empire Dr. Danquah with colleague members of the opposition whjch flourished between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. His research influenced the change of the country’s name from Gold Coast to Ghana at the time of independence. It was also largely through the work of the GCYC, which sent a delegation to the JPCC in 1937, that the intelligentsia made common alliance with the chiefs andpeopleto oppose attempts by 14major firms to control prices in 1937.The Conference led by J.B, also led agitation which later secured the reversal of the Government‘s decision to close down the Esiama Rice Mills. In 1941, upon request by JPC, a three-man GCYC committee (J.B. Danquah. Arku Korsah and Kojo Thompson) prepared a 400-page draft constitution foi the Gold Coast. In this J.B. and his friends advocated the union of Asante, th( Colony and the Northern Territories. They also advocated a central legislation of two houses: the JPC becoming the House of Chiefs and Legislative Counci transformed into a Legislative Assembly. The central idea of the memorandun was having a ministerial system of government. In what is considered as on of his greatest diplomatic missions, J.B. in 1943 undertook to persuade th Asantehene and the Asante Confederacy Council to accept the Constitutio which advocated the union of Asante and the Colony into a single council. He also got the Asante Confederacy Council to send a petition to the Secretary c State for the Colonies in 1943 on this stand.
When the Secretary of State, Oliver Stanley, visited the Gold Coast in the latter part of that year (1943), he presented to him the Constitution which had bee endorsed by the JPC, the Asante Confederacy and the. Municipal Members the LEGCO. As Richard Wight reports in his book, The Gold Coa Legislative Council, the memorandum and constitution took four hours read and that occasion marked “the zenith of Dr. Danquah’s celebrity as the Sieves of the Gold Coast”, The Secretary of State took Danqua) memorandum back to London with a promise of responding later.
Two years after that epic performance, J.B. was on hand to prepare another memorandum to the Secretary of State, this time protesting against the Colonial Government‘s acceptance of the minority recommendation of the Walter Elliot Commission Dr. Danquah with colleague members of that Only One University the Legislative Assembly College was to be established for the states of British West Africa. He demanded a separate University for the Gold Coast. The protest by Danquah and GCYC which was later joined by the Achimota Council, the Central Advisory Committee of Education and the JPC compelled the British Government to agree to establish the University College of the Gold Coast in 1948.
In 1945, in response to J.B.’s 1943 memorandum, the Secretary of State endorsed a new Constitution for the Gold Coast. The Bums Constitution, provided for the representation on the LEGCO for the first time of Asante and also gave the Gold Coast the first African-dominated LEGCO. Each Provincial Council was also permitted to elect one non-chief. Dr. J.B.Danquah, with the active support of his brother, Nana Ofori Atta I, was elected to represent the Eastern Provincial Council. The Rev. C.G. Baeta, then moderator of the E.P. Church, was the other non-chief who represented the Ewe section of the Eastern Provincial Council. As a legislative member, J.B. exhibited great style in debates which gradually led to the transformation of legislative debates as a whole. His power of analysis was also formidable. He was interested in everything; not just the big fundamental issues. He pressed for various development projects and fought relentlessly for Africanisation of the Civil Service. His advocacy of the farmers’ cause finally led to the establishment of the Cocoa Marketing Board in 1947. In recognition of all his contributions to the cause of farmers, a group of cocoa farmers’ organisation and producers presented him with an illuminated commendation, calling him
Akuafo Kanea. This award was presented to him atNsawam on July 13,1946. As J.B. worked in the LEGCO, he also sought ways to deal with the more fundamental issue of self-government. In January 1947, in conference with three friends, George Alfred Grant, a timber magnate, Robert Benjamin Blay and Awoonor-Williams, both Sekondi-based barristers, they conceived the idea of forming a new movement to seek self-rule.
After months of preparations, the UGCC was formally inaugurated at Saltpond on August 4, 1947 with J.B. delivering the inaugural address. The sole purpose of the Convention was ensuring that “in the shortest possible time the direction and control of the Government shall pass into the hands of the people and their chiefs.” To ensure that the UGCC attained its goal, it became necessary to get a full-time general-secretary for the party. None of the professionals on the Council of the party were prepared to give up their job for that duty. Ako Adjei who J.B, suggested for that post also rejected it. He in rum suggested Kwame Nkrumah for (he post J.B. later wrote a letter to Nkrumah urging him to return to take up the post. True to Ako Adjei’s promises Nkrumah within a few weeks, invigorated the UGCC. From a handful of branches in the Colony. UGCC began spreading throughout the country The rapid expansion of the UGCC came at a time when Nii Kwabena Bonne III, Osu Alata Mantse. launched a countrywide campaign to boycott goods of European shops, The boycott ended with the crossroads shooting incident of February 28,1948. When the riots broke out after the shooting. J.B, and other executive members of the UGCC who were then meeting at Tarkwa, quickly came down to Accra, and taking advantage of the situation, J.B. on behalf of the UGCC sent a long cablegram to the Secretary of State for the Colonies urging the recall of the Governor, the dispatch of a special commissioner, the establishment of an interim government which the council of UGCC would run and a Constituent Assembly. J.B. followed the cablegram with an address in the newspapers to the chiefs and people of the Gold Coast urging that The Hour of Liberation has struck.
Sensing danger, the Governor declared a state of emergency, and brought in troops from Nigeria to crush the riot On March 13. 1948 J.B was among leaders of the UGCC who were arrested and detained on the orders of the Governor. Later he and the others were released and made to appear before the government. J B. emphasised the Colonial Constitution of 1946 was outmoded and the Government under it was only a window-dressing. He also submitted a memorandum. A Basic Constitution for Ghanaians in response to a request made by the Commission to supply them with a draft Constitution for the Gold Coast, This provided the Commission useful insights into the political thinking and aspiration of the leaders of the Convention and formed the basis of the broad scheme for constitutional reform which the commission finally recommended. J.B’s contribution to the Commission was indeed great t and this gave him the appellation the “Doyen of Gold Coast Politics”.
When the Coussey Committee on Constitutional Reform was appointed. J.B. became a member and he signed the minority report that “the people of the Gold Coast should be given the opportunity to make the supreme effort for a stand now as a self-governing country within the Commonwealth.” The Ewait Committee, which included Danquah and other members of the Coussey Commission undertook the task of setting up a ministerial form of government under the Coussey Constitution where there would be 11 African Ministers each responsible for mnning a ministry and each with an European Civil Servant to help him.
As a result of the Coussey Constitution, general elections were held on February 8, 1951 to fill seats in the Legislative Assembly. Though J.B was elected as first rural member of Akyem Abuakwa on the ticket of the UGCC, his party fared poorly against the CPR This gave J.B. a great shock for he had, before the launching of the CPP, spearheaded the nationalist movement and confidently expected to inherit the mantle of the colonial power when in due course the handover of power was accomplished. Before his own eyes, however, he saw (what he thought was) his leadership taken over by Nkrumah and his CPP which roused the consciousness of the people with fiery oratory. In bewilderment, J.B cried out that the elections were rigged Of course, what he failed to recognise was that a revolution had been achieved by the Coussey Report, And unlike previously where he and his political colleagues could \ expect dignified nomination from the Provincial Council, they now had to tl campaign in the towns and villages and solicit the support and votes of the , illiterate masses whom many of them viewed with condescension and £ apprehensive distaste.
Because of the poor performance of the UGCC, it was forced to merge with other minor parties to give creditable opposition to the CPP. A leadership struggle among top leaders on the Ghana Congress Party (GCP) was to further weaken the party. At the 1954 general election. J.B. contesting on the ticket of the GCP lost by 3,622 to 4,958 to his nephew Aaron Asante Ofori-Atta in the contest for the Akyem Abuakwa Central seat.
Almost immediately after the elections, he received a cablegram from New York with news of the conferring on him of the first Bryony Mumford writing fellowship to the UN. He spent three months at the UN as a result. On his return in January 1954 to Kyebi, he was made Twafohene (senior divisional chief of Akyem Abuakwa) with the stool name Barima Kyererwie Dankwa. He later joined the National Liberation Movement (NLM) which had beer formed while he was in the USA and became a member of the movement’s Central National Executive Council. The path of violence which the NLM took to achieve its principal goal of federalism made the movement unpopular especially among the southerners who saw the movement as a tribal group. A general election called in July 1956 to determine which party would lead th< country to independence and settle the issue of federation, saw J.B. standinj on the ticket of NLM. He lost for the second successive time in contest for th Abuakwa North Constituency seat. He obtained 4,122 votes as against 4,67! by Charles Emmanuel Nimo of the CPP.
Though a passionate advocate of democracy, J.B. could not bring himself t accept his defeat. He accused the CPP candidate of rigging the elections. Wh£ he forgot was that he lost because of his elitist attitude and his ignoring the fac that, in a democracy, the votes of the masses were equally important with thos of professionals live Committee member. From that position, he continued t fight relentlessly for respect for human rights in the country. He opposed tb arbitrary deportation of Alhaji Amadu Baba and Alhaji Othman Larde Lalemic, two Nigerians living in Kumasi, which took place in 1957 and trie unsuccessfully to get the judiciary to stop them. He opposed the Preventh Detention Act (PDA) when it was passed in July 1958. When the PDA w; used against some opposition leaders, he defended them and earned the batt to the Court of Appeal. His statement in the Re Akoto and Others Case (Ci\ Appeal No, 42161 of August 1961) remains to date a locus classicus amoi habeas coipus cases in the country. In 1960 J.B. was nominated as the Unitf Party’s presidential candidate to contest the April 1960 elections agair Nkrumah, Though he lost he won a number of unexpected votes, receiving percent (124,623 by 1,016,076) of the votes and defeating Nkrumah in t Volta Region. The UP, after losing the elections, went into violent opposite against the CPP, J.B. the UP’s presidential candidate was equally very virule in his attacks: “the country had been wrecked by the governme incompetence and wasteful fiscal and administrative policies” he oft charged.The CPP responded by detaining Danquah and some MPs Victor Owusu, Joe Appiah, S.G Antor, D.K. Afedo, the Rev. Ametowobla – on October 3, 1961.The immediate grounds for his detention according to the detention orders served on him ware that on September 12, 1961 with two men, Ismaila Annan and Atta Border, he attended a meeting at which plans for subverting the CPP Government was made. It was also alleged that through him certain traders passed £ 10,000 to the workers of Sekondi-Takoradi to induce them to organise a strike against the 1961 Budget. From his Nsawam Prison, J.B. in his characteristic way, wrote several letters in protest against this detention. On June 22,1962 he was released. On January 8,1964 he was again arrested and detained after Police Constable Ametewee’s attempt on the life of Nkrumah on the grounds of the Flagstaff House. J.B. was alleged to have been implicated in the plot to assassinate the President. In prison, his health deteriorated fast and on February 4. 1965 he suffered a heart attack and died in the condemned cells of the Nsawam Prison. Despite the adverse political atmosphere of the day, he was given a hero’s burial at his hometown, Kibi.
A Committee of Inquiry that investigated conditions in prisons after the 1966 coup pointed out that J.B, was ill-treated and intolerable conditions were imposed on him. According to the Report he was chained and made to sleep on the bare floor. When he fell ill and suffered from asthma, he was refused medical attention,
For J.B’s relentless struggle for democracy and human rights in Ghana, the NLC which overthrew the CPP organised a national funeral for him and rehabilitated him. In 1967, the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences of which J.B. was a founding member, instituted the J.B. Danquah Memorial Lectures which are delivered annually in February. The NRC also honoured him by naming a traffic intersection after him. A monument dedicated to him was erected at the Danquah Circle on December 29,1990. The 350 cm high bronze statue which shows him in traditional cloth standing with his left hand resting on a pile of books clearly reveals that the man J.B. Danquah by his life and works has traversed politics and today stands for ideals of learning, scholarship, and cultural heritage.