Oral traditions indicate that the tribes presently occupying the country migrated southward roughly over the period 1200–1600. The origins of the peoples of Ghana are still conjectural, although the name "Ghana" was adopted on independence in the belief that Ghanaians are descendants of the inhabitants of the empire of Ghana, which flourished in western Sudan (present-day Mali), hundreds of miles to the northwest, more than a thousand years ago.
The recorded history of Ghana begins in 1471, when Portuguese traders landed on the coast in search of gold, ivory, and spices. Following the Portuguese came the Dutch, the Danes, the Swedes, the Prussians, and the British. Commerce in gold gave way to the slave trade until the latter was outlawed by Great Britain in 1807. The 19th century brought a gradual adjustment to legitimate trade, the withdrawal of all European powers except the British, and many wars involving the Ashanti, who had welded themselves into a powerful military confederacy; their position as the principal captors of slaves for European traders had brought them into conflict with the coastal tribes. British troops fought seven wars with the Ashanti from 1806 to 1901, when their kingdom was annexed by the British crown.
In 1874, the coastal area settlements had become a crown colony—the Gold Coast Colony—and in 1901 the Northern Territories were declared a British protectorate. In 1922, part of the former German colony of Togoland was placed under British mandate by the League of Nations, and it passed to British trusteeship under the UN after World War II. Throughout this period, Togoland was administered as part of the Gold Coast.
After a measure of local participation in government was first granted in 1946, the growing demand for self-government led in 1949 to the appointment of an all-African committee to inquire into constitutional reform. Under the new constitution introduced as a result of the findings of this committee, elections were held in 1951, and for the first time an African majority was granted a considerable measure of governmental responsibility. In 1954, further constitutional amendments were adopted under which the Gold Coast became, for practical purposes, self-governing. Two years later, the newly elected legislature passed a resolution calling for independence, and on 6 March 1957 the Gold Coast, including Ashanti, the Northern Territories Protectorate, and the Trust Territory of British Togoland, attained full independent membership in the Commonwealth of Nations under the name of Ghana. The Gold Coast thus became the first country in colonial Africa to gain independence. The nation became a republic on 1 July 1960.
During the period 1960–65, Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, steadily gained control over all aspects of Ghana's economic, political, cultural, and military affairs. His autocratic rule led to mounting but disorganized opposition. Following attempts on Nkrumah's life in August and September 1962, the political climate began to disintegrate, as government leaders accused of complicity in the assassination plots were executed or removed from office. A referendum in January 1964 established a one-party state and empowered the president to dismiss Supreme Court and High Court judges. Another attempt to assassinate Nkrumah occurred that month.
In February 1966, Nkrumah was overthrown. A military regime calling itself the National Liberation Council (NLC) established rule by decree, dismissing the civilian government and suspending the constitution. A three-year ban on political activities was lifted 1 May 1969, and after elections held in August, the Progressive Party, headed by Kofi A. Busia, formed a civilian government under a new constitution. During his two years in office, Busia lost much of his public following, and Ghana's worsening economic condition was the pretext in January 1972 for a military takeover led by Lt. Col. Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, who formed the National Redemption Council (NRC). Unlike the military rulers who came to power in 1966, however, the NRC made no plans for a rapid return to civilian rule. The NRC immediately repudiated part of the foreign debt remaining from the Nkrumah era and instituted an agricultural self-help program dubbed Operation Feed Yourself. By July 1973, the last 23 of some 2,000 persons arrested during the coup that brought the NRC to power had been released.
The NRC was restructured as the Supreme Military Council in 1976. A military coup on 5 July 1978 ousted Acheampong, who was replaced by Lt. Gen. Frederick Akuffo. Less than a year later, on 4 June 1979, a coup by enlisted men and junior officers brought the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council to power, led by a young flight lieutenant, Jerry Rawlings. Acheampong, Akuffo, and another former chief of state, A. A. Afrifa (who had engineered Nkrumah's overthrow in 1966), plus five others, were found guilty of corruption and executed in summary proceedings. Dozens of others were sentenced to long prison terms by secret courts. The new regime did, however, fulfill the pledge of the Akuffo government by handing over power to civilians on 24 September 1979, following nationwide elections. The Nkrumah-style People's National Party (PNP) won 71 of 140 parliamentary seats in the balloting, and PNP candidate Hilla Limann was elected president.
Ghana's economic condition continued to deteriorate, and on 31 December 1981 a new coup led by Rawlings overthrew the civilian regime. The constitution was suspended, all political parties were banned, and about 100 business leaders and government officials, including Limann, were arrested. Rawlings became chairman of the ruling Provisional National Defense Council. In the following 27 months there were at least five alleged coup attempts. Nine persons were executed in 1986 for attempting to overthrow the regime, and there remained concern over the activities of exile groups and military personnel.
A new constitution was approved by referendum on 28 April 1992 and Rawlings was elected with about 58% of the vote in a sharply contested multiparty election on 3 November 1993. The legislative elections in December, however, were boycotted by the opposition, and the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) was able to capture 190 of the 200 seats.
On 4 January 1993, the Fourth Republic was proclaimed and Rawlings was inaugurated as president. Opposition parties, assembled as the Inter-Party Coordinating Committee (ICC), issued a joint statement announcing their acceptance of the "present institutional arrangements" on 7 January, and further stated that they would continue to act as an elected opposition even though they had won no seats in the assembly.
Throughout the 1990s, Ghana's Northern Region has been the site of ethnic/tribal strife. The Kankomba, a landless, impoverished people, began to fight for economic rights against the dominant Nanumbia. In 1995, a curfew was imposed on the region amid massive strife.
Legislative elections were again held in 1996. By maintaining power throughout his elected term (1992–96), Rawlings became the head of the first Ghanian government to serve a full term without being overthrown. In 1995, Rawlings set up an Electoral Commission charged with setting up and conducting free elections complete with international observers. The Commission enlisted the help of all registered opposition parties and conducted a massive drive to register voters. In the balloting, held 7 December 1996, 77% of the electorate turned out, a substantial improvement over the turnout in 1992. Most observers credited the increase with the Rawlings government's increased transparency.
1n 1996, Rawlings was reelected to a second four-year term, having received about 58% of the vote to the Great Alliance Party candidate John Kufour's 40%. The NDC took 133 seats in the 200-member assembly. The NPP emerged as the leading opposition, taking 60 of the remaining seats. The next presidential elections were held on 7 and 28 December 2000, with Rawlings barred by law from serving a third term. Kufour won the election, taking 57.4% of the vote to NDC candidate and Rawlings' vice-president John Atta Mills's 42.6% in the second round of voting (Kufour won 48.4% of the vote in the first round, and Mills took 44.8%). Five other candidates contested the elections, and Rawlings relinquished power willingly. When Kufour took office in January 2001, he began investigations into alleged corruption and human rights violations during the time Rawlings was in power, which caused consternation on Rawlings' part. Also on 7 December, parliamentary elections were held; the second round of voting was held on 3 January 2001, and the NPP took 100 of the 200 seats, to the NDC's 92. The elections were judged by international observers to be generally free and fair, although there were reports of government pressure on the media and voter intimidation.
Tension between Kufour and Rawlings continued throughout 2001, and came to a head on 4 June when Rawlings, who was celebrating the anniversary of his 1979 takeover of power, gave a speech that implied Kufour did not have the confidence of the military. This was seen as a threat of another coup, and thousands marched in protest of Rawlings' statement. One of Kufour's first acts as president was to abolish the national holidays commemorating 4 June 1979 and the 31 December 1981 anniversary of the second coup that began the Rawlings era. Following Rawlings' speech, the military leadership stated its support of the Kufour government.
In early 2003, Kufour was host to talks between Côte d'Ivoire's new prime minister Seydou Diarra and representatives of the country's northern-based rebels in an attempt to reach an accord on a power-sharing agreement with President Laurent Gbagbo's government, after the civil war that broke out in the country in September 2002.
Ghana's leaders and citizens face unprecedented social threats. The National AIDS Control Programme (NACP) in Accra expects that by 2014 AIDS will account for 35% of all deaths. In 1994, AIDS accounted for an estimated 3.5% of all deaths with some 200 people being infected daily. In February 2000, the estimated HIV prevalence was between 4% and 5% nationwide. HIV/AIDS affects the development of all sectors including health, education, the labor force, economy, transport and agriculture. To curb the pandemic, Ghana has launched a national crusade against it.
Despite this setback to Ghana's development, in August 1999, representatives of Shell and Chevron signed a memorandum of understanding with representatives of Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana specifying that a gas pipeline traversing the four countries would be built. In February 2003, the heads of state of the four countries signed a treaty on establishing a legal and fiscal framework and a regulatory authority for the US $500 million West African Gas Pipeline (WAGP). The pipeline will be designed to carry an initial volume of 195 million cubic feet of gas.