ACCRA, Ghana — The heroic statue looms with its right arm aloft, in celebration of a nation’s independence. The head lies at its feet.
It may sound weird, but this is how Ghana commemorates its first president, Kwame Nkrumah. Part hero, part despot, Nkrumah led Ghana to independence and championed freedom for all Africans but drove his economy to ruins and set a precedent for authoritarian rule.
Now, at the centennial of his birth, Ghana is re-examining the legacy of Nkrumah, whose reputation took a beating after a military coup ousted him in 1966.
Not even a bronze statue of Nkrumah was spared. It was erected following Ghana’s independence from Great Britain in 1957, when Nkrumah was the leading voice for pan-African unity. But his autocratic leadership was his downfall. His statue was left headless in the coup aftermath.
But now, Nkrumah’s reputation is undergoing repairs. Ghanaians say his contributions should be respected, that Nkrumah’s dream of African self-reliance still resonates across a continent largely beholden to foreign governments and businesses.
And the head has resurfaced. It was anonymously returned and is being displayed beside the original statue, in a memorial park in the capital city. It won’t be reattached, officials said, because they don’t want to rewrite history.
“As the years have gone by and Ghanaians have realized the depth of what he was trying to achieve, not only for Ghana but for the rest of Africa, his image has undergone a resurgence, a considerable resurgence, and now especially this year it has almost reached a frenzy,” said Francis Nkrumah, son of Ghana's first president.
Nkrumah became a hero to fellow Africans — as well as to black Americans fighting racism — for chasing the British out of the Gold Coast in 1957. Renamed Ghana, the country was the first sub-Saharan African state to win independence, a milestone he described as “meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the African continent.”
Nkrumah envisioned a United States of Africa, writing that under a central government Africa would become “one of the greatest forces for good in the world.” It didn’t happen, as the continents newly independent countries did not want to relinquish power. But Pan-Africanism continued as an ideal and today Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is championing the same idea.
But while Nkrumah has remained popular among Africans — listeners of the BBC in Africa selected him “Man of the Millennium” over Nelson Mandela — his image at home is less adoring.
“The only problem was when he became a dictator,” said George Brown, a 60-year-old advertising executive in Accra. “He thought he was indispensable. Otherwise, he was a good leader.”
Nkrumah built schools and highways in Ghana but amassed a massive debt pursuing socialist policies. He became authoritarian and banned opposition parties and declared himself president for life, setting the stage for a coup d’etat.
Nkrumah claimed the CIA backed the bloodless coup. There’s no hard evidence of that, but declassified State Department documents, accessible online, clearly show that Washington wanted him out. Nkrumah hadn’t advanced American interests against communism and railed against U.S. interference in Africa, even while seeking American loans to rescue his faltering economy.
Ghana’s international airport was renamed not for its founding president but for Army Gen. Emmanuel Kotoka, one of the leaders of the coup, who himself was killed a year later in a rebellion. Nkrumah died in exile in 1972.
“Those who instigated the coup tried to distort to a considerable extent the image of Kwame Nkrumah within the country itself,” Francis Nkrumah said. “So one is not surprised that post-’66, his books were banned, his images were prohibited from display. That had a profound effect on his stature in the country.”
Even Ghana’s famous kente cloth wasn’t spared. A special weave had been dedicated to the president and his wife. It was called “Fathia Deserves Nkrumah.”
“It held that name until Nkrumah was deposed. Then they changed the name of the cloth to ‘One Man Does Not Rule a Nation,’” said Doran H. Ross, an expert in African textiles. “Then as Nkrumah’s reputation has been revitalized, it’s returned to its original name.”
Ghanaian President John Atta Mills cemented Nkrumah’s comeback when he declared in his State of the Nation address in February that “we intend to honor Dr. Nkrumah’s memory with a national holiday to be known as Founder’s Day.” He called Nkrumah the “illustrious founder of our nation.”
The Sept. 21 holiday kicked off an eight-month-long celebration. The head of the bronze statue is on display alongside the original statue at the site of the Nkrumah mausoleum and museum.
The leader of the planning committee said the series of events won’t simply rubber stamp Nkrumah’s work.
“We therefore eschew polemics and provide a platform for all serious players who wish to discuss or present views on the times of Kwame Nkrumah — views for or against,” committee chairman Akilagpa Sawyerr said at a Sept. 14 conference at the University of Ghana. “We believe that untested ideas are not worth celebrating.”
Among the events will be essay contests among schoolchildren.
“The point being,” Sawyerr said, “to move the discussion to the schools and the youth in order that the next generation will not make our mistake of forgetting Nkrumah, if only briefly.”