This month marks the 110 anniversary of William Ofori Atta (Paa Willie), a member of the ‘Big Six’. Impassioned by Ghana’s political and economic emergence, Paa Willie pushed for a number of economic policy guidelines with a singular aim: ensuring the development of a strong nation and a modern economy where citizens live in dignity.
For Paa Willie, the cornerstone of Ghana’s economic policy lied in the transformation of the agriculture sector into a highly productive and profitable enterprise that would provide a solid foundation for an expansive industrial programme. The underpinning strategy for achieving this transformation would be the expansion of the production base of the economy. It was a plan that required new sources of energy in order to create a balanced distribution of opportunities, including employment, among all sections of the population.
Aside from the importance of energy in the expansion of the production base of the economy, there is the need for an increase in the level of production of essential activities.
To this end, Paa Willie suggested that competitive private enterprise should serve as the main driver for the transformational agenda. This set him apart from the African zeitgeist at the time, in that while Paa Willie acknowledged the positive side of the Ghanaian society’s communal arrangement, he argued against communism while insisting that Ghanaians have always engaged in free enterprise.
In more specific terms, the thrust of such policies were aimed at five distinct areas: adequate food, clothing and shelter for the people; gainful employment; fair distribution of benefits of development, and; raising the standard of living for the citizenry.
William Ofori Atta was born at Kyebi on 10th October, 1910. His father, Aaron Eugene Boakye Danquah, was Okyenhene Nana Sir Ofori Atta I. His mother, Oheneba Abena Obenewaa, was sister to the Chief of Pramkuma, the Akyeame Hene of the State, and daughter of Okyenhene Amoako Atta I. William’s uncle – his father’s half-brother – was Dr. J. B. Danquah, doyen of Gold Coast politics. He was married to Mrs Mary Ofori Atta nee Amoah.
He attended the Government School at Kyebi from 1918 to 1925 and remembered with particular affection the famous headmasters of that institution – H. M. Grant, Sonne and Richard Akwei. In 1925, William and his younger brother Aaron Kofi Asante Ofori Atta who was later to be a minister in the First Republic were admitted into Mfantsipim College. He struck up lasting friendships with some of his class mates notably Kofi Busia and J. Kwesi Lamptey. While at Mfantsipim, he won the form prize for Religious Knowledge.
Nana Sir Ofori Atta had been instrumental in the establishment of the Prince of Wales College (as Achimota School was originally named) and William and Aaron were transferred to that College in 1929. There, he was admitted into Form 5, where his form mates were Edward Akufo Addo and Komla Agbeli Gbedemah. The three of them were the first candidates presented by the College for the Cambridge School Certificate examination in 1930 and all three were successful. William went on to take his intermediate Arts degree in 1930. He was the first senior prefect of the College in 1932.
In 1934, Nana Ofori Atta led a powered delegation to the United Kingdom to protest against the Water Works and Sedition Bills and William accompanied his father as Private Secretary. The delegation returned home but William stayed behind and was admitted into Queens’ College, Cambridge where he graduated with Bachelor of Arts (Economics) degree in 1938.
His interest in politics had perhaps been awakened by Mr. Ribeiro and the Reverend Lockhart at Mfantsipim. At Achimota he had grown more attached to his uncle, Dr. J. B. Danquah, who was at that time editor of the Times of West Africa. William contributed a number of articles to the paper under various pen names including Pro Patria and Amoako Gyampa. In these, his patriotism, anti-imperialism and wit were already in evidence.
In England, he became a member of the Cambridge University Democratic Front. He took part in public meetings and once spoke against Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Germany. He gave speeches against colonialism sometimes on the same platforms as Stafford Cripps, Creech-Jones, George Padmore and Jomo Kenyatta. In series of talks in Britain he campaigned for the independence of the Gold Coast from colonial rule and caught the eyes of the British press: “The son of Sir Ofori Atta, Knight of the British Empire and greatest friend of the Colonial government, says British imperialism is a fraud.”
During two vacations, William spent some time at the Cadbury’s factory at Bourneville to study cocoa problems from the manufacturing end. He was able to gather a great deal of information which he put to good use as early as 1936 when a commission to investigate the hold-up in the delivery of cocoa from the Gold Coast and to make recommendations on marketing consulted him to get an idea of the nature of the problem.
The nationalism that became evident among Achimota students in the late 1930s and early 1940s was largely inspired by Paa Willie. Among his illustrious students were Dr. Silas Dodoo, Dr. Yaw Asirifi, Dr. Badoe, Victor Owusu, R. R. Amponsah, K. B. Asante, Justice Kingsley Nyinah, Justice Francois, Justice Patrick Anin, Dr. Leticia Asihene, Mrs. Frances Ademola, Miss Gertrude Vardon, Mrs. Gloria Nikoi, A. B. N. Andrews and Dr. Kwarko. Others included Azu Crabbe, Justice Sowah, Justice Lassey, J. K. Lamptey (his former class-mate), the Reverend C. K. Dovlo, E. R. Madjitey, Robert Ampaw, Professor Twum Barima.
Paa Willie said he left Achimota School because of ‘obstructionist policies’. He related how he had been summoned by the Acting Principal and informed that a member of the Council had advised against his retention on the staff. William reported the incident and there was a meeting with Mr. Hugh Thomas the Secretary for Native Affairs and Dr. Danquah.
The Secretary referred to a voluminous file of letters which he did not allow them to see. It soon became apparent that the whole trouble was that, to quote William’s own words, ‘whilst in England, I had stood on the same platform as Mr. Creech-Jones’. There was another incident which may have had some bearing on his leaving Achimota. He was once asked to move out of the bungalow he was occupying in order that a European could move in. William retorted that he would rather go back to Kyebi and eat kontomire than move out for a white man.
In 1943, he did go back to Kyebi and served as State Secretary until 1944 and State Treasurer until 1947. He was then appointed Principal of Abuakwa State College. The College was facing an acute accommodation problem and a series of appeals to government for help fell on deaf ears. In February 1949, Principal Ofori Atta solved the problem: he simply marched the pupils singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ to occupy the Trade School buildings across the road.
He was a member of the Gold Coast Youth Conference founded by his uncle J. B. Danquah. In 1943, he delivered an address entitled ‘The Strategic Factors of our Economy’ in the series ‘Whither are we Drifting?’ organized by the Conference. The aim of the lectures was to prepare the conference to request changes in the Constitution and government for post-war Gold Coast, and it was partly as a result of the pressure of the Conference that the Burns Constitution of 1946 was introduced by the Colonial Government. In 1947, while he was still Principal of the State College (Abuakwa), he was one of those who founded the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), and it was he who coined its slogan – ‘Self-Government in the Shortest Possible Time.’
The Convention was a merger of two groups – the Accra group of Obetsebi Lamptey, Akufo Addo, Quist Therson, Modesto Apaloo, Ako Adjei and others and the Sekondi group of Paa Grant, Blay, Awoonor-Williams, J. B. Danquah and William Ofori Atta. After the shooting of Sergeant Adjetey, Corporal Attipoe and others in February, 1948, the ‘Big Six’ were detained on 13th March, 1948. William was sent to Wa, the first of a series of detentions that this great nationalist was to suffer.
Following the release of the Big Six, Paa Willie submitted two memoranda, one on general economics and another on the Volta Project to the Watson Commission set up to investigate the February incident.
It was the recommendations of this Commission which ultimately led to the promulgation of the Coussey Constitution and the first general elections ever held in this country in 1951. While still Principal of the State College, Paa Willie stood for election on the ticket of the U.G.C.C., and though the rival Convention People’s Party led by Kwame Nkrumah won the elections overall, William Ofori Atta won his seat in Akyem Abuakwa. This was a phenomenal achievement indeed in those days of mass politics and the charismatic leadership of Kwame Nkrumah.
With this victory, he left the State College and became a full time politician as a member of the Legislative Assembly from 1951 to 1954. There, in opposition, he won the admiration and respect of all the members of the House with his unique brand of humour, and the profundity, scholarship and relevance of his contributions. It is said that whenever he got up to speak, everybody sat up to listen. It is not surprising then that when he lost his seat in the 1954 general elections, among those who expressed regrets were some of his political opponents.
He went back to England primarily to study Law, something which he had resisted tenaciously in the 1930s. Though on his return in 1959 he enrolled as a solicitor and barrister and entered into legal practice at Kwakwaduam Chambers, he did not neglect political activity because of his incurable belief in participatory democracy. He often referred to Plato’s admonition that the lot of the wise who refuse or fail to take part in the politics of their land is to suffer the rule of fools.
He also believed in multi-party system government and our current political dispensation is a vindication of what he had stood and suffered for. As a champion of the rights of citizens which were curtailed during the first republican government under President Kwame Nkrumah he suffered detention for two weeks in January 1963 and for almost a year in 1964 from 17th January to 24th December. It was while serving his third term as a detainee that, he underwent a spiritual experience which was to change his life. He was a born again Christian, and became an evangelist/preacher of the gospel.
After the overthrow of Nkrumah’s government in 1966, William Ofori Atta once more became a full-time politician. He was appointed a member of the Political Committee of the National Liberation Council, a member of the N.L.C. Goodwill mission to the United Kingdom and the United States under the leadership of Dr. Busia, Chairman of Cocoa Marketing Board from 1966 to 1968, a member of the Constitutional Commission in 1968, a Director of the Governing Board of the Ghana Commercial Bank in 1969 and a member of the Constituent Assembly also in 1969.
The country was returned to civilian rule later in 1969, and Paa Willie was returned to parliament as Member for Akwatia on the ticket of the Progress Party which he had helped to form. He was a member of the Cabinet, first as Minister of Education, Culture and Sports and later as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The second republic came to an end with the Acheampong coup d’etat of 13th January, 1972. Paa Willie suffered his fourth detention, this time for about two months at Ussher Fort.
Paa Willie hit the political headlines again in January, 1978 as one of the founders and leaders of the People’s Movement for Freedom and Justice, and was detained for the fifth time. The main aim of the Movement was, in Paa’s own words, ‘the establishment of civilian democratic government in this country’, and this was achieved by the promulgation of the third republican constitution of 1979.
Paa was fully involved in this fourth attempt at democracy and was an active member of the Constituent Assembly. He also helped to form a broad-based party, the United National Convention and became its leader and presidential candidate. In the event, it was the People’s National Party under Dr. Limann that won the elections of June 1979. Paa Willie was appointed to the Council of State and elected its Chairman, a post he retained until the 31st December, 1981 Revolution. After that, Paa’s political activity was at a minimum.
By his exemplary political life, Paa Willie proved wrong those who hold the erroneous belief that politicians seek and assume power in order to amass wealth. Though he occupied many responsible and prominent positions of state, Paa Willie lived above reproach.
In 1985, he delivered the J. B. Danquah Memorial Lectures organized by the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences on the theme ‘Ghana, a Nation in Crisis’ and these were widely acclaimed. As has been mentioned before, Paa Willie born again Christian in prison in 1964 and after 1981, he devoted himself almost entirely to preaching. He toured the Country, preaching, admonishing, advising, settling disputes and initiating evangelistic activity.
Yes, Paa Willie was a man of many parts, but the remarkable thing is that he was a man of many successful parts. On the 14th July, 1988, Paa Willie’s prayer was answered. He died in the Lord and thus distinguished himself as a true Christian and Patriot. We celebrate him today and we thank God that he gave such a man to this land 110 years ago.
>>>The writer is the Executive Director of Christian Outreach Fellowship, an indigenous missionary organization which was founded by William Ofori Atta and other evangelical Christians in 1974. Emmanuel served as a missionary with COF in Jaman area and Sunyani in now Bono Region Region from 1988 to 1999. He was appointed Field Director of the Fellowship and relocated to Accra and served in that capacity from from 1999 to 2006. He is currently the Executive Director of the Fellowship. Emmanuel coordinates the activities of the William Ofori Atta Heritage.