Nana William Ofori Atta (10 October 1910 – 14 July 1988), popularly called “Paa Willie“, was a founding member of the United Gold Coast Convention and was one of “The Big Six” detained by the British colonial government in Ghana (then Gold Coast). He later became a Minister for Foreign Affairs in the second republic between 1971 and 1972.
Nana William Ofori Atta was the son of Nana Sir Ofori Atta I who was the Omanhene (King) of Akyem Abuakwa between 1912 and 1943.
He was thus a nobleman of royal lineage, although the fact that the Akan people (to which he belonged) are traditionally matrilineal meant that he wasn’t a dynastic prince. William Ofori Atta attended the Mfantsipim School, one of the most prestigious schools in Ghana.
Owing to the influence of his father, Nana Sir Ofori-Atta, in the establishment of the Prince of Wales College (now the Achimota School) in 1927, William and his brother were transferred there in 1929. There, he was admitted to Form 5 and his form mates were Edward Akufo-Addo and Komla Agbeli Gbedemah. He was later among the first batch of students at the Achimota School who pioneered the intermediate degree programs.
These three (William Ofori Atta, Edward Akufo-Addo and Komla Agbeli Gbedemah) were the first candidates to be presented for the Cambridge School Certificate Examination in 1930 and they were all successful.
William went on to take his intermediate Arts Degree in 1930. While at Achimota, William grew more attached to his uncle (his father’s half brother), Dr J.B. Danquah, the doyen of Gold Coast politics, who was at that time the editor of the Times of West Africa. William contributed a number of articles to the paper, making evident his patriotism, anti-imperialism and wit. He became the first senior prefect of the college in 1932. His batch of students went on to form the nucleus of the University of Ghana. He became a lawyer in 1956.
In 1934, William accompanied his father as a private secretary in a high-powered delegation to the United Kingdom to protest against the Water Works and Sedition Bills. He was subsequently admitted to the Queen’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics in 1938. He was a member of the Cambridge University Democratic Front and gave speeches against colonialism and shared the same platform with Stafford Cripps, Creech Jones, George Padmore and Jomo Kenyatta.
On his return home, he taught at the Achimota School from 1939 until 1943. As a conscientious and devoted teacher, Paa Willie inspired and influenced his students by his learning and charming personality. He prepared his lessons assiduously and delivered them with stunning clarity, wit and humour. Today, one can identify many of Paa Willie’s former students who have distinguished themselves in various fields of our national life.
Among his illustrious History, Civic and Twi students were Dr Silas Dodoo, Dr Yaw Asirifi, Dr Badoe, Victor Owusu, R.R. Amponsah, K.B. Asante, Justice Francois, Justice Patrick Anin, Dr Leticia Asihene, Mrs Frances Ademola, Miss Getrude Vardon, Mrs Gloria Amon-Nikoi, A.B.N. Andrews and Dr Kwarko. In his Economics class were Justice Azu Crabbe, Justice Sowah, Justice Lassey, J.K. Lamptey (his former classmate), Reverend C.K. Dovlo, E.R. Madjitey, Robert Ampaw, Professor Twum Barimah, among others.
Paa Willie later left Achimota College owing to what he termed as ‘obstructionist policies’. This notwithstanding, his interest in education was unwavering and this took him to the Abuakwa State College. Back home at Kyebi, he worked for the Okyeman State Council. He served first as State Secretary until 1944, State Treasurer until 1947 and later as Principal of the Abuakwa State College.
In 1947, while still serving as the Principal, Paa Willie and a few courageous nationalists formed the United Gold Coast Convention (U.G.C.C.), which gave birth to the organised nationalist struggle for independence.
He was one of the signatories that sent the historic telegram to the British Government during the February, 1948 uprising against the colonial administration of the Gold Coast and this led to his arrest and detention on March 13,1948, together with other leaders of the nationalist struggle who became known as the Big Six’.
One colossal attribute that stands to Paa Willie’s credit is that “he brought to politics a new breath of sincerity, integrity, honesty and modesty”. He went through the rough and tumble of politics with equanimity and humour and never abandoned his principles even in the face of defeat, adversity and danger (and there were many).
His major preoccupation was service to his country and fellow Ghanaians. It was in this spirit that he served in several public offices as the Minister of Education, Culture and Sports in the second Republic, the Chairman of the Cocoa Marketing Board, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Chairman of the Council of State in the third Republic.
He later became the leader of the United Party in opposition to Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. He was detained by Dr. Kwame Nkrumah during the first republic under the Preventive Detention Act
During the second republic, he was Minister for Education and then Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Progress Party government of Dr. Busia.
He was an active member of the People’s Movement for Freedom and Justice (PMFJ) which campaigned against the ‘Union Government’ concept by General I.K. Acheampong, then Head of state of Ghana and Chairman of the Supreme Military Council (SMC).
This was an attempt by the military regime to extend military rule instead of handing back power to civilians. After the fall of the SMC, he stood for president in the 1979 Ghanaian presidential election on the ticket of the United National Convention coming third with 17.41% of the popular vote.
Eventually, he became chairman of the Council of State for the Third Republic.
William Ofori Atta became a devout Christian and played various roles in Christian circles. He was one of the founders of the Accra Chapel Trust, (now the Korle-Bu Community Chapel) an independent evangelical church at the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra in 1967.
Ofori Atta delivered the J.B. Danquah Memorial Lectures organised by the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1985. His topic was – “Ghana, A Nation in Crisis”. He died in 1988 and was given a state burial.