Kweku Bankole Awoonor-Renner (1898 – 1970), aka Mustapha Renner or Kweku Awuna-Renner is one of the most enigmatic and surprising figures in modern West Africa. He was the first African Bolshevik (Communist), a Pan-Africanist, Nationalist, anti-monarchist and the first professionally trained journalist in the Gold Coast.
He was a communist militant in Ghana trained in the United States (1921-1924) and then in the USSR (1924-1928); President of the West African Youth League (1935-1939) and the West African National Secretariat (1945-1948) as well as the Leader of the Muslim Association Party (1954-1957). For the Asantes, who hated him and for the right reason, he was best remembered for joining hands with Isaac T. Akunna Wallace-Johnson to help the Friends of Ashanti Freedom Society (anti-Asante kingdom restoration organization) to agitate against the restoration of the Asantehene.
Kweku Bankole Awoonor Renner was born in Elmina on the 6th of June 1898. He was named Edward Clarke Lewis Awoonor-Renner at his birth. His father was an upstanding Anglican and a famous Gold Coast lawyer with Sierra Leonean ancestry, Peter Awoonor Renner and the mother was Ewuraba Affra, an Edina (Elmina) royal.
The Awoonor Renner-family belonged to an old Western-educated West African family, descending from Sierra Leone, but one of them had married an Awoonor Williams (The Williams are also from Sierra Leone but one of them married an Anlo or Awuna woman at Keta. Thus, the name Awuna-Wlliams which is corrupted into Awoonor-Wlliams). Kweku`s father, Peter Awoonor Renner had been educated in England and Germany and had entered Lincoln’s Inn.
He was called to the bar in 1883 and thereafter came to the Gold Coast where he established himself as a lawyer and barrister in Accra in 1884. His brother, William Renner, who in 1912 took the name Awunor-Renner, and studied medicine at Liverpool and at the University College, London and took an M.D. Brussels. He was appointed Assistant Colonial Surgeon and served in Sierra Leone since 1884, acting at various periods up until 1902 as head of the Sierra Leone Medical Department.
Peter Awoonor Renner was engaged in Gold Coast politics and an active member of the Gold Coast Aboriginal Rights Protection Society (ARPS) which fought vigorously against the land Bill of 1897 and the Crown Forest Bill of 1900s. Weiss (2007:7) contends that Peter Awoonor Renner’s political engagement and his activity as a lawyer made it possible for the Awoonor Renner family to become part of the Gold Coast African political elite and its central mouthpiece, the ARPS. He came to associate with the leading activists such as John Mensah Sarbah, J.P. Brown, E. J. P. Brown, T. F. E. Jones, Jacob Wilson Sey, J. E. Biney, Kobina Sekyi and J.E. Casely Hayford.
This means “Bankole Awoonor Renner had been born in a family that both had a large family network, comprising at least the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone, and a political network” and “In fact, Kobina Sekyi was his godfather” (Weiss, p.30). Kweku`s mother descended from the royal family of Nana Kobina Gyan I, the Omanhen of Edina, who was exiled to Sierra Leone by the British after having taken over control over Elmina in 1873. Her father was a Dutchman, Captain Jan Van der Brutton.
Kweku`s childhood has scant information, but information from his own personal file in the archives (TNA KV2/1840, Bankole Awoonor Renner, personal file I, file M.S. 46492, page 1, and Extract from Gold Coast Police Report re the West African National Secretariat mentioning Renner, 13.2.1947) shows that he was educated at the Government Boys` School in Cape Coast, and at King’s College, Freetown, indicating his family network. After the completion of his education in Freetown, Kweku returned to Accra where he started to work as a journalist. According to the Gold Coast authorities, Bankole Awoonor Renner was connected with the Awoonor Press located at Pagan Road, Accra, whereas other sources claim that he was the manager of Awoonor Press.
In 1921, he left Ghana to United States of America, as one of the few Gold Coasters such as Dr J. E. Kwegyir Aggrey and Dr Mark Christain Hayford, both from Anomabo, to further his studies. In US, he attended Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, thereafter he continued his studies as a journalist at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pennsylvania in 1924.
Emerging as an important pan-African journalist, between 1922 and 1924 he was the secretary of the African Students’ Union of America headed by Simbini Nkomo and wrote for the NAACP-journal “The Crisis,” the Urban League’s “Opportunity” and the independent leftist “New Masses.” He kept his close links with West African intellectuals and published in his earlier journal, “The Horizon,” texts by Mensah Sarbah and Casely Hayford. And also became involved with Communism; joined the Communist Youth League in Pittsburgh and then joined the American Communist Party which arranged his registration at the Communist Workers’ Union of the East (KUTV) in Moscow.
Interestingly, on how Bankole Awoonor-Renner got money to travel to US, the Governor of the Gold Coast who represent the British Government`s dislike for African Communists would later recall that “It was rumoured at the time that he financed his trip by stealing money from his father, and from what we know of him, this is thought not to be unlikely” (see, TNA KV2/1840, Bankole Awoonor Renner, personal file I, letter from the Governor of the Gold Coast to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, 22/11/1942). The British gave ears to the rumours because Kweku had a disagreement with his father.
But through the writings of Dr J. B. Danquah in Awoonor-Renner`s 1943 poetry book, “This Africa” in page 8, he explained that Awoonor-Renner`s differences with his father was based on the choice of the career. Danquah writes, “According to custom Gold Coast sons of promise, especially if they are sons of lawyers, usually leave their country for abroad to study law or medicine – the ‘professions,’ later they become journalists and leaders. Bankole Awoonor-Renner did just the opposite.
He left first to study journalism, a vocation which in the Gold Coast is hardly accounted one of the professions.”
After spending only three years in the United States, Kweku left for Moscow via Berlin in the summer of 1925. Hanretta (2011:197) explains that it was “while in the United States or en route to Moscow that Awoonor-Renner created his first new identity.
He had been born Edward Clarke Lewis Awoonor-Renner and when he obtained his passport to come to the United States for education he did so as Edward Clarke Lewis Renner.” Thus, when he arrived in Moscow he was operating under the pseudonym Kweku Awuna Bankole. He arrived in Moscow with four other Blacks, namely the Jamaican Aubrey C. Bailey (alias: “Jean Dessolin”), the Afro-American Carl Jones (alias: “Dzhons”) and the Africans Holle Sella Tambo (alias: “Nelson”) and Sonya Kroll, and they were first taken care of by John Pepper, who represented the Workers (Communist) Party of America at the Comintern in Moscow. In a letter, dated 30.7.1925, Pepper introduced them to the KUTV (University of the Toilers of the East). It was whilst studying at KUTV that Bankole Awoonor-Renner’s political consciousness gained momentum. He concentrated on collecting material on the colonial situation in West Africa, which resulted in a lengthy study, “Report on West Africa,” which he presented in April 1927.
The study was a remarkable one as it presented a vision for future political activity in West Africa and outlined Awoonor-Renner’s strategic plans about whom to engage in anti-colonial activities. In addition, the study critically examined the colonial order and colonial economy produced by an African. This text inspired a three-page internal document further detailing a program of action in Africa made the Comintern to make Bankole Awoonor-Renner its envoy to West Africa.
He participated in the Writers and Artists Conference of 1927 and published a collection of poems, “This Africa,” which was translated into English in 1943 with a foreword by Dr J. B. Danquah. Thus, his stay in Moscow made him one of the first Communists of the Gold Coast.
By the end of 1928, Awoonor-Renner was back in West Africa, having transited through London, and then Freetown. His long-term plan for communist infiltration apparently under deep cover, he used his travels and his supposed professional activities to establish himself among the Gold Coast’s elite. By 1929, he settled in Sekondi where he founded “African Academy”, a cultural organization which was opened to the Colony’s ‘natural leaders’ (i.e. chiefs), religious figures and barristers in 1930. Kweku Awoonor-Renner also took a career in journalism, and according to Dr Danquah he revived J. E. Casely-Hayford’s old Cape Coast newspaper the Gold Coast Leader, editing it from Casely-Hayford’s death in 1930 until 1932, when it was shut down subsequent to a libel suit.
He also worked with Danquah`s “Times of West Africa”, and his poems were published in many newspapers of the colony throughout the period before the Second World War. His political activities were also intense. He was one of the main correspondents of George Padmore, who headed the office of the International Conference of Black Workers and edited the Negro Worker until 1933. He joined various nationalist organizations such as the Gold Coast Youth Conference by JB Danquah and the Council of the West African Youth League founded in 1935 by ITA Wallace-Johnson, of which he became the first president.
In parallel with his socialist and nationalist commitments, Bankole Awoonor-Renner became involved in Ashanti’s political affairs. In 1934 he moved to Accra where he founded the Asante Freedom Society to organize an opposition to the Asante Kotoko Union Society, which campaigned for the restoration of the Ashanti Confederacy, dissolved in 1896.
The objection to this Restoration was motivated by the fear of a double reinforcement of the colonial power, which would rely on a reinforced political figure – Asantehene (king of Ashantis) – to the detriment of local chieftains, who considered that such restoration could not be done without their approval. This combat was a failure for Awoonor-Renner; a new Ashanti Confederation was established by the British in 1935, headed by Nana Prempeh I.
Not to be bowed down by professional and personal frustrations of defeat and unpopular political moves, “Awoonor-Renner undertook the most dramatic self-transformation of his life. Sometime in 1941 or early 1942, Bankole Awoonor-Renner made a public conversion to Islam and adopted the name Mustapha Renner” (Hanretta 2011:201).
But this was not shocking because as early as 1926, Renner had expressed an interest in Hausa language when requesting information on courses of study from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Scotland Yard immediately suspected that he ‘might be contemplating the issue . . . of Soviet propaganda in Hausa and Fanti’. In April 1927 Renner had submitted a paper to the Communist University of the Toilers of the East in Moscow, arguing that mobilization of West Africans would have to take into account the presence of large numbers of Muslims in the region.
Renner’s paper demonstrated a profound lack of information about West Africa, claiming that 80 per cent of the population of British West Africa was Muslim. But, as one of a tiny number of black students at the university, and the only African, his argument seems to have convinced his instructors and earned him a reputation as something of a rebel.
As a Muslim and having part of the foundation of Moslem Association founded by Imam Muhammad Abbas, Awoonor-Renner ‘was elected under its ticket to serve as an unofficial [i.e. African] elected councilor’ for Accra Town Council from March 1942 to April 1943. During these thirteen months, Renner was one of the most active Councillors. He consistently defended the town’s Muslims, its African civil servants, and its poorer classes generally, and he frequently challenged the authority of the council’s British president, Norton Jones.
He lobbied for basic amenities for the Muslim neighbourhoods of Sabon Zongo and Nima, denounced the presence of a public latrine opposite the Accra central mosque, and defended the rights of Muslims, homeless since a major earthquake in 1939, to live in temporary buildings of rammed earth with wooden frames until proper housing could be provided. He was particularly outspoken on two issues that had been central to his election: the repeal of the one-shilling fee charged to Muslims for permission to kill rams in their homes during the celebration of Eid ul-Adha (the highest Muslim holy day), and the expansion of coverage of government money then given to Christian mission schools to include Quranic schools.
More generally, he called for what he considered the modernization of Accra along both economic and cultural lines, working for pay rises for most town employees and the extension of public transportation services, but also for banning ‘fetish drumming’ within town limits and prohibiting residents from allowing their children to go about unclothed. He embodied a very specific form of Islamic modernism which was in keeping with his image as a new kind of Muslim leader and a member of the Western-educated governing class of the colony.
In April 1943 he resigned his seat mid-term and returned to London to study law. In October 1945 he attended the Pan-African Congress in Manchester where he met Padmore and Wallace-Johnson and met a young compatriot, Kwame Nkrumah. In 1946, he took part in the formation of the West African National Secretariat (WANS), of which he became vice-president; He writes The West African Soviet Union , a pamphlet of about thirty pages which summarizes the political project of WANS: socialist and nationalist.
Renner returned to the Gold Coast in 1948, and threw his support behind the most radical of Nkrumah’s activities, culminating in the break with the UGCC and the campaign of ‘positive action’ in late 1949 and early 1950. Renner worked with Ga activists to bring Muslims into the CPP during Nkrumah’s imprisonment in March and April 1948.
He gradually re-established his connections with Accra’s Muslim leaders and, by 1950, believed he had a sufficient base of support to influence CPP policy towards Muslims and to push for a leading role for himself in the party. Many remember Renner’s split with the CPP as having been provoked by his failure to be chosen as a candidate for the Legislative Assembly elections in 1950. This may have reflected deeper tensions.
Renner had spent the period from 1948 to 1950 lobbying Nkrumah to take a more radical position instead of the populism towards which he was drifting. British intelligence officers — who had tapped the phones of the British Communist Party, monitored communications between Britain and the Gold Coast, and kept close watch on Nkrumah and his affiliates — believed that Nkrumah had definitively broken with ‘the RENNER line, being interpreted as the Communist line’.
For his own part, Renner told Basil Davidson in 1952 that the CPP’s accommodation with the British when Nkrumah agreed to take power ‘had transferred the initiative ‘‘from the hands of the oppressed to the hands of the oppressors’’’, and that this was his reason for moving into the opposition.
In 1954 he joined the Muslim Association Party(MAP) and ran for general elections in Accra. When the opposition to the CPP met in the United Party in November 1957, he became one of the members of his working committee.
With Joe Appiah of the National Liberation Movement – himself a figure of the WANS – he embodied this enlightened and radical opposition to the rise of Kwame Nkrumah. His frail health forced him to withdraw from politics in 1958 and then died on 27 May 1970 in Accra.
Akintola J.G. & Wyse, H.C. Bankole-Bright and Politics in Colonial Sierra Leone, 1919-1958, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 30
ASANTE, S.K. B, “Awoonor-Renner B.”, in The Encyclopaedia Africana, Dictionary of African Biography, Vol. 1: Ethiopia-Ghana, Reference Publications Inc, New York, 1977;
Danquah, J. B, “Bibliographical Note,” in Bankole Awoonor-Renner, This Africa, London: Central Books, 1943
Hanretta, Sean. “‘Kaffir’Renner’s Conversion: Being Muslim in Public in Colonial Ghana.” Past & Present 210, no. 1 (2011): 187-220.
McClellan, Woodford. “Africans and black Americans in the Comintern schools, 1925-1934.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 26, no. 2 (1993): 371-390.
SAMWINI Nathan, The Muslim Resurgence in Ghana since 1950, Christian-Muslim Relations, LIT Verlag, Berlin, 2006.
Weiss, Holger. Framing a radical African Atlantic: African American agency, West African intellectuals and the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers , Brill, Leiden, 2014
Weiss, Holger. “Kweku Bankole Awoonor Renner, Anglophone West African intellectuals and the Comintern connection: a tentative outline–Part 2.” Comintern Working Paper (2007).
Weiss, Holger. “The Making of an African Bolshevik: Bankole Awoonor Renner in Moscow, 1925-1928.” Ghana Studies 9 (2006): 177-220.
Weiss, Holger. “The Road to Hamburg and Beyond: African American Agency and the Making of a Radical African Atlantic, 1922-1930. Part Three.” International Journal 1 (2008): 237-254.
Kweku Darko Ankrah