“Nkrumah’s Baby”: the Akosombo Dam and the dream of development in Ghana, 1952–1966

Research paper by Stephan F. Miescher

Indexed on: 24 Dec '14Published on: 24 Dec '14Published in: Water History


The Akosombo Dam across the Volta River in Ghana remains at the center of debates and imaginations about nationhood, modernity, and development. Originally designed in the 1920s to serve the British metropole, the Volta River Project was reshaped by the country’s founding leader Kwame Nkrumah in the 1950s. The revised project included a hydroelectric dam, an aluminum smelter to process Ghanaian mined bauxite, new cities, a deep sea harbor, and other infrastructural investments. The project became central to a modernization program that promised rapid industrialization and reducing the country’s dependence on cocoa exports. Public discourses increasingly identified the project with Nkrumah and his dream of development. In the course of its planning and construction, the Akosombo Dam became a manifestation of the personalization of state politics that engaged with international donors, multinational companies, foreign governments, and local expectations. Based on multi-sited archival and oral research, the article explores how public, government, and expert discourses about the Volta project produced different temporalities of an industrialized future that would transform the country’s rural past and create new cities, factories, and infrastructures during the 1950s and 1960s. The Volta scheme is an excellent prism to reconstruct how a large dam became not just the engine for the imagined transformation of Ghana during Africa’s era of decolonization but also a vehicle for multiple actors with competing agendas within the Cold War context. In this article, I unpack these interventions that led to a series of tensions and paradoxes. Analyzing the Volta scheme’s debates and public spectacles provides an account about the interplay between development aspirations and possibility, dreams and reality.