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01.08.2020 Feature Article

What Do We Do With Statues? Confronting Our Ugly Past

What Do We Do With Statues? Confronting Our Ugly Past
LISTEN AUG 1, 2020

On May 25, 2020, the world was shocked to the bone, following the despicable manner in which George Perry Floyd, an African American was killed in Minneapolis in the United States of America.

The way the police, Derek Chauvin, contemptibly kneeled on the neck of Floyd, leading to the death of the latter, rightly provoked the anger of the world. The cry of the strangled Floyd, “I can’t breathe” became yet another source of inspiration to rightly challenge racism globally.

The response to the police was spontaneous across the world. This was precisely because it touched on an old challenge of racism that W.E.B. Du Bois referred to as the greatest challenge of the twentieth century.

It is conspicuous that the "colour line" continues to constitute a formidable challenge to the human race. This is based on the questions: how do we celebrate difference? How do I like someone who phenotypically looks different from me?

One of the responses to the death of Floyd was the agitations and general cry from the Black Lives Matter Movement to pull down statues. While the epicentre of the event was in the United States, the anger of the grotesque killing of Floyd spread like a bush fire to the rest of the world, including Ghana.

In most countries in the world, statues of persons, believed to have supported and/or participated in slavery or made racial slurs were marked for desecration, burning, and pulling down.

Before this event, Ghana had had a share of pulling down a statue of a person accused of racial ranting against blacks. In June 2016, the University of Ghana erected a statue of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), an Indian lawyer, anti-colonial nationalist, and political ethicist, who employed nonviolence resistance in his campaign against British imperialism in India.

The removal of Gandhi’s statue came as a shock to me. This was because as a young man, I read about Gandhi just after I had finished senior high school at West African Secondary School (WASS) in 2001.

I was impressed by his philosophies. I was particularly fascinated by Gandhi’s observation that colonial education promoted subjugation that dispossesses the students’ quest for liberty, self-respect, and self-determination.

Also, his ideals of truth and its significance in inter-personal relations offered important lessons to religious and some political leaders, including Martin Luther King Jnr and Dr Kwame Nkrumah.

And now as a young man with degrees in African Studies, I see some resonances between Gandhi and Franz Fanon (also known as Ibrahim Frantz), a French West Indian psychiatrist and political philosopher, especially on matters bordering on the socio-psychological impact of colonialism on the colonised.

But the two significantly diverged on the approach to ending colonialism. While Fanon recommended the use of violence to overthrow colonialism since the colonial enterprise was base epistemic, spiritual, psychological and physical violence, Gandhi recommended the use of non-violence based on a “mystified” truth.

Be that as it may, one of the key philosophies of Gandhi that appealed to me as a young man living in Maamobi, an urban slum in Accra, was his concept of satyagraha. The term satyagraha comes from two Sanskrit words: “Satya” (Truth), derived from “Sat” that means “being” and “Agraha”, which means “firmness”.

Satyagraha could, therefore, be conceptualised as the force and power invested in truth to fight social and political injustices. Satyagraha stood in contrast to the use of violence. This is because, in the philosophy of Gandhi, truth is the most important name of God. Truth, therefore, means God. Truth cannot lose in any contest, since God does not lose in a “war” with mortals.

Satyagraha thrives on three main principles: appeal to the oppressor, non-cooperation, and civil disobedience. As a philosophy, satyagraha was meant to encourage the colonised to decentre western cultural values and episteme.

It was designed to empower the colonised to appreciate the centrality of his or her culture in advancing self-determination and breaking free from the yoke of all forms of epistemological hegemonies.

The disapprobation of violence in the satyagraha is because the philosophy is based on love and humility. It extols love as the fountainhead of human life. Human beings are social beings with a penchant towards gregariousness.

As people with the quest to be together, we are drawn to cultogenic activities that are group-oriented, such as marriage, naming ceremonies, funerals, and political activities. For human sociality, framed as ubuntu, to be possible, there is a need for love and humility.

To consolidate the essence of love and humility Gandhi made some important statements that have captured the imagination of the world. These statements are: “An eye for eye only ends up making the whole world blind;” “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony,” and “Where there is love there is life.”

Given the central role Gandhi played in shaping the histories of the world and as part of the efforts at firming the diplomatic relationship between India and Ghana, the University of Ghana (UG) erected a statue at the Recreational Quadrangle of the university’s Balme Library.

The unveiling of the statue was calculatedly planned to coincide with a lecture the Indian President, H.E. Mr Pranab Mukherjee, was to give at the University of Ghana. The lecture was entitled: “India’s Partnership with Ghana: Youth and Education.”

While this venture was in the right direction, some concerns were raised by a section of Ghanaians. Gandhi has been accused of having harboured racial sentiment against blacks. In South Africa, Gandhi was accused of supporting the suppression of blacks.

Consequently, when a statue was erected in celebration of Gandhi and also consolidate the diplomatic relationship between Ghana and India, it incurred the wrath of some Ghanaians who felt they had to challenge the university’s initiative.

The initiative was principally led by two fellows at the Institute of African Studies, UG, Prof. Akosua Adomako Ampofo and Dr Ọbádélé Bakari Kambon.

The two fellows wrote a petition that mobilized the support of students and some Ghanaians to pull down the statue of Gandhi. But there was a counter-petition that was supported by Dr Kojo Opoku Aidoo, also a fellow at the Institute of African Studies.

After the case had dragged for a few years, Gandhi’s statue was pulled down in December 2018 to the delight of the anti-Gandhi petitioners.

In celebrating the removal of the statue, a law student, Nana Adoma Asare Adei, is reported to have told the BBC that: “Having his statue means that we stand for everything he stands for and if he stands for these things [his alleged racism], I don’t think we should have his statue on campus.”

For Kambon, the presence of Gandhi on the University of Ghana campus was “Gandhi’s statue is a neocolonial public relations gimmick by the Indian government to cover Gandhi’s pro-Indo-Aryan imperatives at the expense of Black dignity.”

To return to the global outrage against some statues and busts, as part of the outcry against racism that the killing of Floyd was marked as a highpoint of this social malaise, some Black Lives Matter protestors vandalized Gandhi’s statue in Parliament Square, London. They accused Gandhi of being a racist.

This action was condemned by the Labour peer Meghnad Desai, chairman of the Gandhi Memorial Trust. Meghnad Desai defended Gandhi in his (Desai) assertion that,

“It is sad that a man who dedicated himself to fight prejudice, oppression and imperialism has been treated with such callous disrespect.” He concluded that, “Gandhi was not a racist.” Desai said that Nelson Mandela, the first president of post-apartheid South Africa endorsed Gandhi that, “The values of tolerance, mutual respect and unity for which he stood and acted had a profound influence on our liberation movement and my own thinking.”

In addition to Gandhi’s statue, a number of monuments and memorials were destroyed or removed, or commitments to remove them were announced. Most of the monuments in question were in the United States, United Kingdom, Belgium, New Zealand, India, and South Africa.

In the heat of the pulling down of statues in the United States and some European countries, one of the WhatsApp platforms I belong to opened a discussion on this topic. In my response to the question about the ethical and logical basis of the pulling down of statues, I wrote as follows:

"I believe that racism, much as it is systemic and structural, is also a deep-seated issue of the heart. Managing differences is an existential challenge that we must all face. This is framed in the question: how do I like someone different from me? will the pulling down of statues help address this question? Possibly, in the immediate, yes, but it will not address the rootedness of racism, which is the human heart."

Today, in a conversation with a friend on the same issue of pulling down statues, I promised to write an extensive paper on the subject. I must begin by saying that, as a Christian, I view the issue from a Christian perspective.

While the Bible may not speak specifically about modern statues and the racism that they conjure, I will take principles from the Bible to frame my argument.

I begin by saying that the issue of pulling down or not pulling down a statue should answer the following questions: is the person whose statue has been erected sinless? Is anyone of us pulling down the statues sinless?

These questions should also offer some insight into why statues are erected. Basically, we identify three reasons for the erection of statues: we can erect statues to celebrate a sinless person; we can also erect a statue to celebrate a person regardless of his flaws and finally we can celebrate a person who was publicly, explicitly and incorrigibly evil.

From the above, it becomes clear that the only person who qualifies to be celebrated without any stint of sin is Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:15). Historically, none of the religious leaders or prophets of the major religions ever claimed to be sinless.

At least in the case of Jesus Christ, the debate is not about His sinfulness as it was about His claim to deity (I will discuss this later in another journalistic article). It logically follows that if we are to apply the first category, no human being would qualify to have a statue erected in his memory apart from Jesus Christ.

Rightly so, Christians have used the image of the cross to erect a memorial for Jesus Christ. This is because of two things: the cross is countercultural as it marks the eternal redemption of Christ (cf. Colossians 1:14; Ephesians 1:7-9). Second, Jesus asked as to carry our cross to be His true disciples (Matthew 16:24). The cross, therefore, sets Christians apart from the rest of the world.

The second reason for the erection of statues is where we celebrate people regardless of their flaws. At this point, we acknowledge that no man (use in the generic sense) is perfect, and yet we focus on the good deeds of the person to enjoin posterity to emulate.

This point is necessary because ever since the fall of man as narrated in Genesis chapter 3, no human being is flawless. Every human being has a confirmation bias to evil things. All of us are sinners and prone to sin (Romans 3:23).

We are sinners and therefore we sin. Given our brokenness and propensity to sin, it is only a miracle that we do good. This is precisely because evil is always present with us. It captures our imagination and finds expression in our actions and inactions. It is for this reason that we celebrate human beings who defy their ontological nature to sin to do good.

This lends support to some indigenous funerary practices in Ghana. Among the Akan, a group I have studied a great deal by being an insider, the word for funeral is "eyie", a contraction of the expression, "aye yi ye" to wit, "to praise."

Among the Akan, when someone dies, apart from an incorrigible criminal, the person’s deeds are celebrated. This is against the fact that they may never mean the deceased was a saint while on earth. It is rather to highlight the admirable qualities the person demonstrated for the living and posterity to emulate.

The invention of ancestorship in many cultures around the world is part of the efforts at immortalizing the moral values the deceased persons possessed and demonstrated while they were alive on earth. This implies that the idea of ancestorship was not to assume that the ancestors were saints on earth.

From this perspective, we can celebrate all human beings whose lives impacted their fellow human beings in impressive and productive ways. So, we can celebrate Kwame Nkrumah, K.A. Busia, J.B. Danquah, Jerry John Rawlings, John Agyekum Kufuor, and John Evans Atta Mills.

We can also celebrate Christopher Columbus, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Jefferson, Cecil Rhodes, and Martin Luther King Jnr.

Again, the reason for celebrating these individuals is not to say that they are/were holy individuals. It is not to whitewash their mistakes and sins, however, we measure their sins. It is not to also sanitize their past. It is rather to admit that they were broken humans who left some positive footprints for the rest of humanity.

This category includes Bible heroes like Abraham who lied (Genesis 20:1-13); Paul who persecuted the early Christians (I Timothy 1:13); Peter who betrayed Christ three times (Matthew 26:69-75); Moses who murdered an Egyptian (Exodus 1:11-12), and David who committed adultery and murder (II Samuel 11).

These biblical figures are heroes of faith, not because they never sinned. In fact, the Bible, unlike the Qur’an, gives an objective account of Biblical figures. It does not seek to sanitize their narratives: the good, bad and ugly lives of these Biblical persons are laid bare before all readers.

It is this candor of the Bible narrative that partly supports the credibility of the Bible. The objective and balanced account of these individuals is for us to learn from their good deeds and forgo their mistakes (I Corinthians 10:11). Most importantly, since they share the same human nature with us (James 5:17), it is for us to learn their persistence in doing good (Philippians 3:13).

If we pull down the statues of the persons, including those I have mentioned above, because of some of their flaws, we become liable for sanitizing history. We romanticize a “golden era” or “demigods” that never existed. We deny ourselves the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of those who have gone ahead of life. One of the truths I have learned about life is that we never invent new sins. We only build on new ones.

So, we are most likely to commit the crimes that those who went ahead of us committed. It is for this reason that George Santayana (1863-1952), who was a philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist, is reported to have said that, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

It is equally based on the importance of memorializing the past that Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855), a Danish philosopher and theologian said that, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.”

In my history class at WASS (1998-2001) and University of Cape Coast (2004-2008), one of the things I learned from my professors was that history is sacred. History must not be diluted. This is important to the extent that we must not seek to deface our history.

We can reinterpret history, like in the case of Joseph did when he reinterpreted the reasons for all the troubles he went through when he later met his brothers. When Joseph met his brothers after he had become a vizier in Egypt, he reinterpreted his enslavement and incarceration to mean that God used them for the good of his family (Genesis 50:20). Joseph did not seek to change the narrative. He only reinterpreted it.

Many African proverbs does corroborate my point. These include, "If you close your eyes then you will learn through an accident." The other one says, "The key to the future is knowledge of the past.” We also have one that says, “Move like the chameleon, keep one eye on the past and the other on the future.”

The point I am belabouring to make clear is that we should not shy away from our problematic past by sanitizing it. We must face the past and possibly reinterpret it to make sense of the present and surge on into the future. We should also not pretend we have a different narrative to leave posterity. Obliterating the past will only blindfold us to the evil we often commit.

As I have said, we are not going to be any better than those who have gone ahead of us. We share the same human nature as them. We are susceptible like them. If anything at all, we enhance the evil they did with sophistication (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Our predilection to commit evil has not changed. We still battle with the same human fallibility. The best of our intentions may lead to evil (John 3:19). We are not gods neither are we dogs. We are humans and we sin. The answer is the transformative power of Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:13).

The last reason for erecting a statue is celebrating people who were/are incorrigibly evil. I have not read anywhere that there is a statue that celebrates people we judge as evil. Is there a preponderance of a celebratory statue of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), the German politician and leader of the Nazi Party, anywhere in the world? Do we know of erected statues that honour notorious criminals who were decidedly evil?

In concluding, we may decide to pull down some statues to appease a group of people. But the root cause of racism may not be the structures in place.

We may change the structures; we may pass laws; we may demonstrate on the streets; picket at the offices of the elites, and destroy statues, and we may achieve some success in all these, but the cause of racism is the human heart (Matthew 15:19).

Sadly, years of schooling has not significantly changed the human heart for evil. The only accredited saviour who transforms life is Jesus Christ (II Corinthians 5:17). In the end, please ask yourself this: when your statue is erected someday, will someone have a reason to pull it down?


Charles Prempeh ([email protected]), African University College of communications, Accra

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