Photo by Ifeoluwa A

Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park, located in the heart of Ghana's capital, Accra, is a monument dedicated to the memory of Kwame Nkrumah, the leader of Ghana's independence struggle and its first president. The park has undergone several renovations since its original commission in 1956, and it features a massive statue marking the spot of Nkrumah's final resting place. As a social anthropologist who has researched and written about Kwame Nkrumah-themed monuments, I have explored the contradiction that generally characterizes monuments: built as lasting memories, they remain embedded in social and political conflict.

Nkrumah is widely regarded as one of the most influential African political leaders of the modern era. His vision of a liberated and united African continent influenced politics on the continent in the 1950s and 1960s. However, his legacy is not without controversy. In Ghana, there was vociferous criticism of "personality cult" and "hero worship." Alongside presentations of him as the country's "redeemer" were descriptions of him as a "dictator."

The idolization of Nkrumah began even before the country became independent. It had all the hallmarks of a new nation-state trying to establish a charismatic national "founder" to stabilize its creation. But, as I have shown, Nkrumah's story shows both the limits and dangers of doing this.

These debates have been matched by unfolding dramas around various efforts to commemorate him – before and after his death. Attitudes have shifted from straightforward veneration to confrontation and destruction and, finally, to more subtle forms of remembrance.

The memorial project was finally realized in 1992 based on the design of Ghanaian architect Don Arthur. The heart of the memorial is the mausoleum, surrounded by water basins, with fountains and figures of Asante elephant-horn blowers that traditionally accompany royal processions. The mausoleum stands in a landscaped park that is successively greened by commemorative trees planted by important international visitors. It is complemented by a museum that exhibits a collection of Nkrumah memorabilia. These include the famous smock he wore to declare independence, his desk at the seat of government, and numerous photographs.

The mausoleum itself, made of Italian marble, evokes a gigantic tree stump, but also draws on the imagery of Egyptian pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and the Eiffel Tower. The whole ensemble celebrates Nkrumah as a kind of chief. The shining large bronze statue erected in front of the mausoleum shows Nkrumah clad in royal kente cloth, not the humble smock of the original sculpture.

Opponents of Rawlings regarded the mausoleum project as an attempt to exploit the growing nostalgia for Nkrumah in his electoral campaign and to style himself and his party as worthy heirs of Nkrumah's ideas. Another major motivation behind the project was to show the world that Ghanaians, after many years of neglect, respected Nkrumah as a great African leader. This was actually the first time since his overthrow that Nkrumah was publicly commemorated with such splendor. The memorial park conferred on Nkrumah an indisputable place in the national narrative.

This status, however, did not mean that his political legacy was now without contest. When the anti-Nkrumah New Patriotic Party won the elections in 2000, they, unlike the 1966 coup-makers (who removed all images and monuments of Nkrumah), made no attempts to destroy the Nkrumah monument. However, the new government found other ways to correct, or at least complement, Nkrumah-centered nationalist narratives.

For instance, in the course of preparing for the golden jubilee of Ghana's independence in 2007, the John Kufuor administration created a series of monuments that commemorate the political heroes of his party, the New Patriotic Party. Most prominently, J.B. Danquah, Nkrumah's most noted political opponent, was honored by a renovated sculpture at a busy traffic roundabout in the capital.

This proliferation of historical monuments can be read as an attempt to neutralize the commemoration of Nkrumah. This was done not by eliminating existing statues of him, but rather by reducing Nkrumah's status to being only one of several national founders.

For the masses of Ghanaian students and foreign tourists who come to the park, the statue of a triumphant Nkrumah has become the dominant icon of the national hero and of Ghana's independence. It has been reproduced over and over again on thousands of private photographs and is marketed on postcards, posters, calendars, T-shirts, bags, towels, tea cups, and similar souvenirs.

However, there are still limits to the depoliticization of Nkrumah's memory. Heated debates over whether Nkrumah was a "democrat" or a "despot" flare up periodically. National heroes, as the case of Nkrumah shows, can divide people just as much as they can unite.

Developing the mausoleum into an attractive tourist site, as happened in the renovation and re-inauguration of the park in 2023, adds another intriguing twist to the long history of the commemoration of Kwame Nkrumah – another attempt at depoliticizing and nationalizing memory. The park remains a contested space, reflecting the ongoing debates about Nkrumah's legacy and the role of monuments in shaping national narratives.