The Volta River Project: How Kwame Nkrumah’s dream project was frustrated
In 1992, BBC-TV showed a remarkable documentary entitled “Black Power”. It was about Ghana’s Volta River Project which the country’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah had planned as the core of an intergrated industrial programme to transform the three-year-old independent Ghana into an industrialised country in the space of just a generation. The project was unfortunately hijacked by outside forces beyond Nkrumah’s control. His industrialisation dream thus killed, and Ghana has remained the agrarian nation that Britain left it at, independence in 1957.
The New African watched the BBC’s “Black Power” documentary and transcribe it as a reminder of what might have been. But here is a little background to help put the issue into broader context.. In his book, Africa Must Unite, published in 1963, Kwame Nkrumah himself explained the rationale behind the Volta River Project, and why he wanted it so much. here is an excerpt:
“Foremost of all, would be economic independence, without which our political independence would be valueless,” he wrote. “Under colonial rule, a country has very restricted economic links with other countries. Its natural resources are developed only in so far as they serve the interests of the colonial power…
In planning national development, the constant, fundamental guide is the need for economic independence.
In the industrial sphere, our aim has been to encourage the establishment o f plants [factories] where we have a natural advantage in local resources and labour, or where we can produce essential commodities required for development or for domestic consumption.
During 1961, over 60 new factories were opened [in Ghana]. Among them were: a distillery, a coconut oil factory, a brewery, a milk processing plant, and a lorry and bicycle plant.
In addition, agreements were signed for the establishment o f a large, modern oil refinery, an iron and steel works, a flour m ill, and sugar, textile and cement factories… For unless we attain economic freedom, our struggle for independence will have been in vain, and our plans for social and cultural advancement frustrated.
All industries of any major economic significance require, as a basic facility, a large and reliable source o f power. In fact, the industrialisation of Britain, America, Canada, Russia, and other countries too, emerged as a result o f the discovery o f new sources of energy.
Newer nations, like our own, which are determined to catch up, must have a plentiful supply o f electricity if they are to achieve any large-scale industrial advance. This, basically, was the justification for the Volta River Project.
This project, and the extension o f the port and harbour at Tema, will have a massive effect on our national economy and enlarge its development.
The Volta River scheme involves the production of hydro-electrical power by damming the river and applying the great volume o f resultant cheap power to convert our bauxite resources into aluminium and to provide electrification for the nation’s other industries.
The Volta is our largest river, and we have enough bauxite to feed an aluminium smelter with a capacity of 200,000 tons.
[New African note: A t the time, aluminium was the world’s miracle metal, used for the manufacture o f a wide range o f things — from clothing, to cooking utensils, building materials, etc].
As originally conceived, almost the whole output of the project was to be devoted to the working o f a smelter for rolling bauxite into aluminium sheets. This and the estimated cost o f £300m dimmed the attractiveness of the project.
Nevertheless, I put it up [as leader of government business before independence] to the colonial administration which could see prospect of raising the capital.
It was obvious that the project would have to wait for independence and that I would have to take upon myself the task of enlisting financial help from overseas. With independence, we would be in a position to give government guarantees to outside investors.
As soon as we became free, I started pushing the project, but quickly came up against a blank wall — the leading manufacturers of aluminium.
They were organised into a consortium controlling the bulk of the world’s output, and were not interested in a new competitor, still less in a new source of cheap aluminium.
They expressed polite interest; one even sent a study mission to make an on-the-spot investigation and then turned the project down.
In the middle of 1958, I accepted an official invitation from President Eisenhower to visit the United States. During the talk I had with him, I told him of the Volta River scheme.
This led to a meeting with members of the Henry J . Kaiser Company, one o f the largest independent aluminium producers. They promised to send a team of experts to reassess engineering aspects of the original scheme.
The team made [its] investigations and [was] favourably impressed. Their assessment report recommended the construction of the dam at a different point from that originally proposed and the extension of the scheme by the provision of two other hydro-electrical stations which would supply the more northerly part of the country with much-needed water and power…
“One o f the incidental results of the project will be the formation of an inland lake, which will cover 3,275 square miles and will be the largest man-made lake in the world.
The lake will, it is estimated, eventually produce up to 10,000 tons of fresh fish a year, much of it readily accessible to areas of Ghana too far from the sea for our sea-water catches to be readily transported there.
The lake industry may well become very important, and it is proposed to develop this as soon as the lake has filled, and the fish have had time to multiply.
A further advantage is that some 600 square miles of land around the shores of the new lake will be flooded each season at high water, and should be suitable for the intensive cultivation of crops such as rice.
The construction of the port and harbour at Tema was an integral part o f the Volta River scheme. Some 2000 workers were employed to build thousands of housing units, planned with modern shopping areas in each suburb, a good network of roads, and sites for the aluminium plant and subsidiary factories. These will serve, and be served by, the large port area with its main, lee and south breakwaters.
“The port started to operate in 1961, and already the town boasts almost 30000 inhabitants.the ultimate population will be 250000. A whole fishing village has been moved from the condemned slums in which it was housed to a new one providing modern amenities.
Tema is Ghana’s first planned city. To see its construction, and to remember the quiet palm-fringed cove which it replaces, is to feel a sense of creation and development. More important, to see our men at work and to recall their pre-independence lounging under the palms, is to refresh our faith in our capacity to build the country.
The harbour, one of the largest in Africa, took over seven years to build. Some two weeks before I opened the harbour at Tema, I officially launched the Volta River scheme by pressing a button to dynamite a slice out of the hillside at Akosombo.
Hundreds of people danced, cheered, sang and fired guns into the air as the local chief poured libation and offered a sheep in sacrifice.
One of my greatest dreams was coming true. In a few years, there will be sufficient power to serve the needs of our industrial growth for a long time ahead.”
But the dream was killed.