Heroes in public spaces: contested iconography and memorials

The world stood riveted as the drama unfolded in a Pretoria courtroom – the once hero and global icon of disability sports, now villain, “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius defended himself, albeit unsuccessfully, against murder charges. The unfolding drama, in the order of an OJ Simpson Mark II, and its Hollywood-esque appeal makes it impossible for art not to imitate life in the coming weeks and years. It was an absorbing spectacle that ramped up global TV ratings any time the proceedings resumed — in one episode, a prosecutorial approach that was savage and compassionate in turn, in another mind-boggling claims of mental incapacity, and in yet another, hints of book and movie deals, and so on. With the verdict in, Oscar found guilty of second degree murder, and already serving sentence, one would think this is over. But it’s not because there are many organizations that have to deal with the awkward fact that they had given him awards and accolades, perhaps to parlay the bright Klieg lights and clicking shutters that dogged his every step when his celebrity was on the ascendancy. Pity the small Italian town Gemona where angst at the news of his arrest was very tangible, with Mayor Paolo Urbani expressing the town folk’s shock. What do they do now with the larger than life mural painted in Pistorius’ honor when he was the monarch bridging the abled-disabled sports divide? How do they explain a problem like Oscar, when children ask about him five years from now?

The (re- or de-) memorialization of heroes, past or present, emerging or fallen, is an important planning function that is often taken for granted but needs a rethink on the appropriate hows, whos, whats, and whens. Whilst its implementation across most countries is often fraught with considerations that deny the personality being honored the consensual appeal to the general public, its management, whether as a monument or locale, often degrades more than it imprints the very memory being lauded.

This is how I felt as I watched the preparations and the actual event of the Ghanaian launch of the biography of boxer Azumah Nelson, “The Professor: The Life Story of Azumah Nelson”, and how the occasion brought together the cream of society — ex-President Rawlings, Sir Sam Jonah, Pastor Mensah Otabil among others.

As they forked out substantial amounts of money to buy the first copies in honor of this undisputed ambassador and boxing icon, events from the preceding week firmly made the point of the ambiguity associated with celebrity and personality-linked iconography on the urban landscape.

Nelson is three-time world champion and is often described as the best boxer to come out of Africa. He got a sports complex named after him. Fair deal. Yet prior to the august book launch, Nelson had disavowed the association of his name or brand with the facility due to its poor state. The state of the sports complex can best be described as fitting for camel racing or some such activity where the nature of the turf does not matter much. So dilapidated has it become that it serves only as a ritual for every Sports Minister to visit and promise (and subsequently fail) to rehabilitate it, as renowned sports journalist and BBC columnist Michael Oti-Adjei points out. Indeed it serves better as a funeral ground than a sports centre. The sad state of the complex raises the question of the responsibility for the quality and level of maintenance of the monument. Azumah Nelson can be said to be lucky enough to insist on a dignified level of maintenance for the continued association of his name with the edifice. What about those monuments named after heroes who have passed on? How can their legacies be protected with respect to the state of the monuments named after them? What can those in charge of the estate of those icons do to protect their image?

Danquah circle

Danquah Circle. Kwadwo Ohene.

J.B. Danquah, on one hand, and the three veterans Sergeant Adjetey, Lance Corporal Attipoe and Private Odartey Lamptey, on the other hand, are heroes of Ghana’s independence struggle. The former led the elite to fight through legalese and the latter led protesting soldiers who were returning from fighting on behalf of the colonial power in the Second World War. Eventually their respective struggles merged into a strong pro-independence movement whose work finally succeeded in March 1957. Today, there are monuments in their honor, namely Danquah Circle at Osu and Accra’s Nationalism Park. On February 28 every year, there is a wreath laying ceremony in honor of the three veterans, actively drawing attention as much to the monument as to the memory. The auspiciousness of Danquah’s memorial is not only tied to history but also its geography. Sited at the entry to “Oxford Street”, Osu, the monument opens to what is arguably the most sought after and visited locality in Accra, by tourists and residents alike, and is the focus of academic treatise on the penetration of globalization in local spaces.

Veterans memorial

Memorial park to the three veterans. Source: parksandgardens13.blogspot.com

Notwithstanding their legacy and prominence, these monuments suffer from lack of maintenance. This begs the question of which agency is responsible and what resources are availed for the management and maintenance of such monuments. Officially, the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board (GMMB) is in charge of all national monuments and artifacts. However according to their establishing law, Act 387 of 1969, GMMB is only empowered to identify, label and list edifices as national monuments, outlining specific procedures where they are of private ownership (See Section 11 and 16). Within the law, there is no clear mandate for the management of the facility. Similarly, the local government has no duty to maintain the facilities, even though in practice they are known to whitewash (some) monuments on occasion.

In some instances, the ambiguity and embarrassment stems from elsewhere. Sometimes the embarrassment materializes in the process of (re-) branding the monument or facility. We have had a number of instances which have left a sour note in everyone’s mouth and reinforced the importance of clear protocols on the process of naming the monuments.

Theodosia Okoh designed the national flag before independence. She was also a sports enthusiast and little wonder, very instrumental in the construction of a national hockey stadium which was subsequently named after her. This was without controversy and undertaken by (the late) President John Evan Atta-Mills, himself an avid hockey player in his school days and frequent player at senior level. Circa July 2013 and we find the Mayor of Accra, ironically commemorating one year of the passing of the former president, moving with the speed of lightening to rename the facility after the departed President, much to the chagrin of so many people, influential and ordinary alike. Okoh herself was bewildered and at 91-years-old protested much, loudly and to great effect. Such was the government’s great embarrassment that it promptly reversed the name change and had the Mayor personally go and apologize to the national heroine.

Another episode of renaming national monuments, this time pitting indigenous tribe folk of Accra against the sporting community, happened when the (self-same) Mayor decided to remove the name of the departed Ohene Djan, legendary sports administrator under the Nkrumah regime (1957-66), from the nation’s premier sports arena in Accra. Eventually the legacy of the sports doyen held sway.

"Golden Jubilee House" by Jessica Gardner via Wikimedia.

Flagstaff House. Jessica Gardner via Wikimedia.

Perhaps the most embarrassing was the public fight between the two main political parties of Ghana in the naming of the newly constructed seat of the Presidency in a period when power transferred from one party to the other. It exemplifies the crassness of the current practice of (re-) memorialization, crying out for re-framing and re-articulation. The presidential palace was built under President Kuffour (2000 to 2008) as Jubilee House in commemoration of Ghana’s golden jubilee, avoided by late President Mills (2008 – 2012), and occupied by current President Mahama and branded as Flagstaff House (through a farcical and discombobulated transition where the two names were conjoined).

These incidents can be characterized as confused attempts at (re-) memorialization and would suggest uncertainty in the protocols and operations of material heritage. They also demonstrate how monuments become sites of protest, as symbolic in their naming as in their erection. However, per Lefebvre’s discourse on “the rhetoric of spatial practice” “Monumental buildings mask the will to power and the arbitrariness of power beneath signs and surfaces which claim to expose the collective will and collective thought” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 143). That memorials are consensual and collective then becomes subjective, an issue of debate and not neutral process. The arbitrariness is an implicit part of the (re-)construction of memories yet it is often misunderstood or misconstrued to be “confusion”, “mismanagement” or “inadequacy”. Different interests serving different constituencies and deriving variable powers are all at play in the labelling and management of the monuments and memories. Clearly the memories of heroes, emerging or fallen, are captives of power and power, no matter how transient, is continually framing and reframing, irrespective of the “consensus” of today. Today’s memorials may not necessarily be tomorrow’s. Whilst they remain material imageries of personified histories and cultural reference points, homage must not be oblivious to the importance of management. Management that encompasses all interests and resources.


Kwadwo Ohene Sarfoh is an international housing consultant and urban planner. Currently living between Ghana and Liberia, he is supporting the government of Liberia to develop a national housing policy. He also has interest in slum upgrading and prevention, municipal infrastructure and finance, urban revitilisation, local governance and local economic development in Ghana and abroad. [email protected]

Main image: Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum — a memorial park erected in honor of the first President of Ghana, Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah. Via flickr user Guido Sohne.


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