10 minute read

John Agyekum Kufuor Biography

The Development of a Political Mind, In and Out of National Politics


Politician, lawyer

Kufuor, John Agyekum, photograph. Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images.

John Agyekum Kufuor—often dubbed the "gentle giant" because of his imposing height of six feet, three inches—was elected president of Ghana in 2000 and re-elected in 2004. His 2000 election victory as leader of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) ended almost two decades of Jerry John Rawlings' rule and was hailed by various commentators as pivotal to the country's transition to democracy and as such was seen as a historic moment for the African nation. It was the first time that Ghana—the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence in 1957—witnessed one elected government hand the reins of power to another through the means of the ballot box.

Ghanaian politics coalesce around two political traditions deriving from the country's pre-independence period, the Nkrumah and the Danquah-Busia traditions. Kwame Nkrumah (1919–1972)—later to become the first leader of an independent Ghana—was general secretary of Joseph Boakye Danquah's United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), but in 1949 he broke away to establish the country's first mass political organization, the Convention People's Party (CPP). Ideologically, the Nkrumah tradition is associated with anti-imperialism, pan-Africanism, socialism, and state involvement in the economy, while the Danquah-Busia tradition, to which Kufuor belongs, is associated with liberal democracy, the sovereignty of the individual, private enterprise, and free markets. Political actors in Ghana readily locate themselves in relation to these two traditions. Indeed the NPP manifesto in 2000 opens with a quotation from Joseph Danquah (1895-1985) and describes the party as "the direct descendant" of the tradition. The NPP identified itself as the party of business and drew its core support from the Asante ethnic group, the urban elite, and the private sector.

The Development of a Political Mind

Kufuor was deeply imbued in the Danquah-Busia tradition, having been exposed to its principles and leading actors from a young age. Born on December 8, 1938, in Kumasi, the second largest city in Ghana and the Asante capital, he was the seventh of ten children. Like Danquah himself, Kafour could claim royal Asante lineage; his father, Nana Kwadwo Agyekum, was head of the Oyoko royal family, and his mother, Nana Ama Dapaah, was a Queen mother. Kufuor was brought up by his mother and she, like many Asante, was horrified by Nkrumah's vision of a unified Ghana and so promoted the idea of a federal Ghana. The family home became the headquarters of opposition to Nkrumah, initially called the Asante Movement, but later renamed the National Liberation Movement (NLM). It was through this organizational base that Danquah and Kofi A. Busia (1913–1978)—as well as other leading lights in the tradition—came to be regular visitors at Kufuor's home during his childhood and youth.

Excelling academically and in sports, Kufuor graduated from Prempeh College in Kumasi in 1959 and won five of the six prizes awarded to the year's best students. He skipped sixth-form (high school) to study law at Lincoln's Inn, London, where he was able to reunite with Busia. Busia introduced Kufour to his former supervisor at Exeter College, Oxford University, who assured him of a place to read law if he passed his bar exam, which he did in 1961. After a year of reading law, however, Kufuor decided his true interest lay in politics, and switched to read philosophy, politics, and economics, in which he graduated in a record two years. During his time in Oxford, Kufuor fell in love with Theresa Mensah, a fellow Ghanaian who had undertaken nursing training in Britain and sister of Busia's finance minister. He married Theresa in 1962 and together they would have five children.

At the behest of his mother, Kufuor returned to his hometown in 1965 with his wife and two young children where he practised law until 1969. For three years, from 1967 to 1969, Kufuor was also chief legal officer and city manager of Kumasi, a position that, according to his biographer Ivor Agyeman-Duah, exposed him to the practical realities and power politics of public policy.

In and Out of National Politics

Kufuor's first ministerial appointment was in Busia's Progress Party government, from 1969 to 1972, in which he served as deputy foreign minister under Victor Owusu, another old-time visitor to his family home. Reflecting on this period, Kufuor said: "I felt that I was almost being professionalised as a diplomat under Victor," as quoted by Ivor Agyeman-Duah in Between Faith and History: A Biography of J.A. Kufuor. But the political honeymoon was brief and in 1972 the military overthrew Busia's government and imprisoned several high-ranking officials, including Kufour. It was during his year long detention that he converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Upon his release Kufuor withdrew from party politics until conditions were more favourable; instead he immersed himself in business and served as chairman of the board of directors of the Ashanti Brick and Construction Company.

In 1979 the political scene opened-up once more, and although Owusu's Popular Front Party (PFP) lost elections to the Nkrumaist Hilla Limann, Kufuor reestablished himself in the political life of the country as opposition spokesperson for foreign affairs. After two years, however, Rawlings staged another military coup. Following Owusu's advice for him to stay in government in order to "control [the] excesses" of Rawlings' government, Kufuor served as minister for local government. However, citing irreconcilable political differences with President Rawlings, he resigned after just eight months.

At a Glance …

Born John Agyekum Kufuor on December 8, 1938, in Kumasi, Ghana; married Theresa Mensah, 1962; children: five. Education: Oxford University, BA, MA, Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, 1964. Religion: Raised Anglican, converted to Roman Catholicism, 1972.


Private law practitioner, Kumasi, 1965-69; Kumasi, chief legal officer and city manager, 1967-69; Republic of Ghana, deputy minister of foreign affairs, 1969-72, opposition spokesman for foreign affairs, 1979-81, secretary for local government, 1981, president, 2000–.


Ashanti Brick and Construction Company, chairman of the board of directors; Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), chairman.


Office—Office of the President, PO Box 1627, Accra, Ghana.

Kufuor re-entered national politics in 1992 when he ran for the chairmanship of the newly formed NPP, placing third. He was to wait another four years before being elected chairman of the party in 1996 and again in 1998, two years before national elections were due. In both cases, Kufuor faced bitter opposition and at times lacked support even from friends and family. Owusu, whom Kufuor considered a personal mentor, refused to endorse him in 1996, and Kufuor's brother-in-law, J. H. Mensah, who had served as finance minister in Busia's government, stood against him. The party primaries in 1996 were so acrimonious that Mensah urged party delegates to reject Kufuor like "expired cassava," according to Agyemen-Duah. Yet Kufuor was imbued with self-confidence and in 1998, when President Bill Clinton visited Ghana, Kufuor told the visiting delegates that the next time they came to Ghana they would greet him as president of the country.

Kufuor and "Positive Change" for

In an alliance with smaller Nkrumaist parties, Kufuor led the NPP to victory in the 2000 presidential elections under the slogan "Zero Tolerance for Corruption" and the promise of positive change. Both promises held great pertinence for the Ghanaian electorate: corruption had boomed since 1992 and on the eve of the election Ghana was in the throes of a severe economic crisis, including a sharp depreciation of the cedi (their currency), a downward spiral in oil import prices, and plummeting prices of cocoa and gold, which together constituted two-thirds of Ghana's exports.

True to the Danquah-Busia tradition, in his first post-inauguration speech Kufuor promised his country a "golden age for business" and economic growth through liberal freedoms and the rule of law. One of the most significant early actions of the Kufuor government was to sign up to the Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) initiative of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. This secured a three-and-a-half billion dollars in debt relief, but at the same time it stimulated a tumultuous domestic debate because, for many, Ghana had been demoted from being a star pupil of the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) to a highly indebted country that was at the mercy of the IFIs. Defending the decision, Kufuor argued that "all we have done by opting for the HIPC initiative is that we decided to tell the truth to the nation, which was that Ghana was poor and heavily indebted and could not service its debts," as quoted by Frank Asmah and Godfred Boakye in New African.

The controversy surrounding this important policy turn did not dissipate and the area in which Kufuor lived as president came to be known as the "HIPC Junction." The stringent conditions attached to reforms imposed by the IFIs—such as a 100 percent increase in fuel prices and a 300 percent increase in the price of water and electricity, coupled with the freezing of public sector pay—led to prominent labor actions on the part of nurses, doctors, teachers, and students. Critics of Kufuor's government have suggested that it is "in bed" with the IFIs and that it blindly obeys their directives. In response to such criticism, Kufuor's foreign minister argued that "our position and views as a centrist government happen to coincide on many occasions with the position and views of the IMF/World Bank.…It is much more a meeting of minds," according to Ankomah Baffour in New African.

Kufuor's government established a Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) in May 2002—modelled on those in South Africa and Nigeria—in order to examine abuses under the five military regimes that ruled Ghana since Nkrumah's government was overthrown in 1966. Critics argued that the TRC should have been mandated to examine the entire period of Ghana's independence, because abuses of the type to be considered also occurred during periods of civilian rule, including Busia's government in which Kufuor served. Opposition parties suggested that the entire exercise was a charade and anti-democratic because the NPP sought to use the TRC as a mechanism to discredit and dismantle the opposition, thereby keeping the media spotlight away from Kufuor's Ashanit-dominated government and its controversial economic reforms.

Kufuor travelled frequently and by August 2005 had visited sixty-three countries during his tenure as president, showing, his supporters suggested, that he had a reliable team which functions whether he is present or not. Two foreign policy decisions that elicited much domestic criticism were his support for the suspension of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe from the Organization of African Unity and the signing of an agreement with the United States to grant that country immunity from the International Criminal Court. Nonetheless, Kufuor gained much international support: he placed Ghana at the center of efforts to bring peace and stability to Liberia, he was the first to submit his country to peer review under NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's Development), and in 2004 was spokesperson for the six African leaders who attended a G8 summit in Georgia. Consequently, he was commonly perceived by the Western powers as one of the new brand of forward-looking leaders of the "African Renaissance."

Kufuor's three decades of public service are littered with comments, from detractors and admirers alike, intonating that he was a poor and uninspiring public speaker and even that he lacked charisma. Kufuor seems unfazed, however. In response to a question from the BBC's Mark Doyle as to whether he was boring, he said: "If boredom gives us peace and stability for people to go about their normal businesses and live in dignity, then I would say let's have more boredom." Boredom, however, was not the primary issue of concern for the forty percent of Ghanaians who continued to live below the poverty line of one dollar a day in 2004. Kufuor's ability to contribute to the increase in the living standards of the majority of Ghana's poverty-stricken citizens would be the real litmus test of the success of a leader that Africa Confidential called a "tall and cordial Ashanti prince."



Agyemen-Duah, Ivor, Between Faith and History: A Biography of J.A Kufuor, Africa World Press, 2003.

Hutchful, Eboe, Ghana's Adjustment Experience: The Paradox of Reform, James Currey, 2002.

Jonah, Kwesi, "Political Parties and the Transition to Multi-Party Politics in Ghana," in Ghana: Transition to Democracy, Kwane N. Ninsin, ed., Codesria, 1998.

New Patriotic Party, An Agenda for Positive Change: Manifesto 2000 of the New Patriotic Party, Accra, 2000.


Africa Confidential, November 24, 2000; May 4, 2001: June 1, 2001; August 31, 2001; April 5, 2002; May 16, 2003; November 7, 2003; August 6, 2004; December 3, 2004.

Africa Research Bulletin, November 1-30, 2001; August 16-September 15, 2002; December 1-31, 2004.

African Affairs, Issue 100, 2001.

African Business, February 2001.

Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, 41(1), 2003.

New African, June 2001; September 2001; March 2003; March 2004; August-Sept 2004.


Doyle, Mark, "Why Being Boring Is Good for Ghana," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/3663177.stm (August 17, 2005).

"John Agyekum Kufuor," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC(October 12, 2005).

—Naira Antoun and

Liam Campling

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: C(hristopher) J(ohn) Koch Biography - C.J. Koch comments: to Sir (Alfred Charles) Bernard Lovell (1913– ) Biography