In precolonial times the area of present-day Ghana comprised a number of independent kingdoms, including Gonja and Dagomba in the north, Ashanti in the interior, and the Fanti states along the coast. In 1482 the first European fort was established by the Portuguese at Elmina. Trade was begun, largely in gold and slaves, and intense competition developed among many European nations for trading advantages. With the decline of the slave trade in the 19th cent., only the British, Danes, and Dutch still maintained forts on the Gold Coast. The Danes (1850) and Dutch (1872) withdrew in the face of expansionist activities by the Ashanti kingdom; the British, however, remained and allied themselves with the Fanti states against Ashanti.
In 1874 the British defeated Ashanti and organized the coastal region as the colony of the Gold Coast. There was fighting between British and Ashanti again in 1896, and in 1901 the British made the kingdom a colony. In the same year the Northern Territories, a region north of Ashanti, were declared a British protectorate. After World War I part of the German colony of Togoland was mandated to the British, who linked it administratively with the Gold Coast colony. In the Gold Coast, nationalist activity, which began in the interwar period, intensified after World War II. Kwame Nkrumah of the Convention People's Party (CPP) emerged as the leading nationalist figure. In 1951, Britain granted a new constitution, which had been drawn up by Africans, and general elections were held. The CPP won overwhelmingly and Nkrumah became premier.
On Mar. 6, 1957, the state of Ghana, named after the medieval W African empire, became an independent country within the Commonwealth of Nations. At the same time the people of British Togoland chose to become part of Ghana. In 1960, Nkrumah transformed Ghana into a republic, with himself as president for life. By a 1964 referendum, all opposition parties were outlawed, and many critics of the government were subsequently imprisoned. Nkrumah followed an anticolonial, pan-African policy and grew increasingly less friendly to the West. Falling cocoa prices and poorly financed large development projects led to chaotic economic conditions, and in 1966 Nkrumah was overthrown by a military-police coup. A National Liberation Council (NLC) was set up to rule until the restoration of civilian government.
Relations with the Western powers improved, and in 1969 the NLC transferred power to the government of K. A. Busia, who had been elected under a new constitution. Busia's government was undermined by labor problems, an unpopular currency devaluation, and serious inflation, and in 1972 it too was overthrown in a bloodless coup led by Col. I. K. Acheampong. The constitution was suspended and a National Redemption Council (NRC) set up to govern; it pursued a more neutralist course in foreign affairs and concentrated on developing Ghana's economy. The country's large foreign debt was brought under control; imports were curtailed; and the state took controlling interests in foreign-owned mining and timber firms.
However, in 1978, Acheampong was forced out of office by a group of military officers. Low wages and high unemployment led to a series of strikes that further disrupted the economy. Formerly one of the most prosperous nations in W Africa, Ghana's economy was in severe decline. The government lifted a ban on political parties in 1979 but denied potential leaders the right to participate.
In 1979, Flight Lt. J. J. Rawlings overthrew the government and purged the country of opposition, then turned the government over to an elected president, Dr. Hilla Limann. The international community disapproved of Rawlings's tactics, and Nigeria cut Ghana's crude oil supply. Poor economic conditions, restrictions on the press, and allegations of corruption led to popular discontent.
Rawlings seized power again in 1981 and tightened his political control throughout the 1980s. He enlisted economic help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and in the late 1980s the economy began to show significant growth. In 1992 the government promulgated a new constitution and lifted the ban on opposition parties. Later that year, Rawlings easily won a disputed presidential election. In 1994 several thousand people were killed and many more displaced in ethnic fighting in northern Ghana. In the 1996 elections, which were generally termed fair, Rawlings was returned to power.
Ghana's economic recovery continued into the late 1990s. Under the constitution, Rawlings could not run for reelection in 2000. In the December elections, the candidate of the opposition New Patriotic party (NPP), John Agyekum Kufuor, was elected president; the NPP also won a near majority in the parliament. The governing National Democratic Congress (NDC) was hurt by the declining economy. Kufuor oversaw improvement in the economy, although poverty remained widespread in Ghana, and in Dec., 2004, he won reelection and the NPP secured a majority in the parliament. N Ghana experienced some of its worst flooding in decades in Sept., 2007, especially along the White Volta.
In the Dec., 2008, elections, John Atta Mills, who had twice lost to Kufuor, finally won the presidency after a runoff; Atta Mills's NDC also won the largest bloc of seats in the parliament. Atta Mills died in office in July, 2012, and was succeeded by his vice president, John Dramani Mahama. Mahama won the presidency in his own right in the Dec., 2012, elections, and the NDC again won parliamentary majority. The NPP unsuccessfully contested the results in court.