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Ghana re-evaluates Nkrumah

Legacy of nation's first leader improves with appreciation of Pan-Africanism.

This statue of Kwame Nkrumah was vandalized after the 1966 coup that removed him from power. It is mounted behind Nkrumah's mausoleum at a memorial park in Accra, Ghana. (Ken Maguire/GlobalPost)

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.