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1. Academic perspectives

“What are we celebrating?”: Nation-Building and The Politics of Independence Commemoration in Ghana

Manuel Jojo MANU-OSAFO, Enoch LAMPTEY et Kofi Takyi ASANTE


Les célébrations de la Fête nationale sont des moments importants dans le projet de construction de la nation — moments au cours desquels les citoyens et les dirigeants renouvellent leur engagement pour la « cause nationale ». Mais en raison des sentiments poignants que ces célébrations évoquent, et de la nature essentiellement ouverte du projet de construction de la nation, les factions politiques rivales préfèrent utiliser de telles occasions pour affirmer des récits nationaux concurrents et contester les visions de l’avenir autorisées. Ces récits concurrents, qui émergent chaque année au moment des célébrations de la Fête de l’Indépendance du Ghana, se sont trouvés particulièrement chargés pendant les 50e et 60e anniversaires de l’indépendance du pays. Nous utilisons des données de provenances diverses (sondages et discussions publiques dans la presse nationale et à la télévision) pour examiner la signification et la portée de ces débats. Nous démontrons que même si les Ghanéens étaient d’accord pour dire que le Ghana n’a pas accompli grand-chose depuis l’indépendance, ils pensaient également que le pays « avait beaucoup à célébrer ». Cette observation quelque peu paradoxale vient du fait que les Ghanéens distinguent les aspects matériels de l’indépendance de ses aspects symboliques, reflétant ainsi les ruptures sociales prédominantes entre factions, idéologies et classes sociales. Nous avançons l’idée que, parce que la célébration du passé national n’est jamais politiquement neutre, les analystes ne devraient jamais prendre toute expression émanant de l’état comme allant de soi, mais devraient au contraire s’interroger sur les auteurs de cette expression, sur ceux qui ont à gagner ou à perdre de son acceptation, et sur les stratégies adoptées pour la propager.

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1. Introduction

1Ghana’s Independence Day, celebrated on 6th March, provides an opportunity for the outpouring of patriotic sentiments. In Accra, the Independence Day Parade is held at the Independence Square and is attended by past and present heads of state, members of parliament, ministers of state, foreign leaders and diplomats, school children, workers, and the general public. Similar parades and celebrations are held at regional and district capitals. The general expectation is that all Ghanaians would observe its significance by taking stock of the country’s progress and achievements, of challenges ahead, and of the collective destiny of Ghanaians. At the same time, it also provides an opportunity for vigorous debates about the state of the country (Anyidoho and Asante; Lentz).

2As regular reminders of significant milestones in a country’s history, national commemorations (re)centre “the nation” in the lives of ordinary citizens and provide important source materials by which the political elite may create and solidify a sense of nationhood among citizens. As such, national commemorations serve as indispensable tools of statecraft (Verovšek, 2016). While processes such as mass protests and demonstrations, workers union strikes, national elections, secessionist attempts, student riots, and coup d’états are definitely essential in the nation-building process, this essay focuses on struggles waged at the discursive level. Narratives of national tragedies and triumph, of legends and heroic feats are necessary ingredients in nation-building projects, and control of these narratives comes with control of political power. Memories of the past are amenable to selective interpretation in pursuit of present political ends (Asante 2020a; Chatterje-Doody, Precious and Tolz; Schwartz).

3The amenability of national memory to political instrumentalisation means that the relationship between commemoration and national attachment is complex. This relationship is further compounded by the fact that the boundaries of “the nation” and “the state” rarely overlap. In fact, political theorists such as Anthony Smith have argued that the aspirational ideal of nation-statehood is “a Western mirage”, although a politically useful one for elites and statesmen (Smith, 230; see also Linz; Guyot-Réchard). Political elites harness several instruments, among them holidays and commemorative events, to manufacture, reinforce, or transform peculiar interpretations of the past, in pursuit of their nation-building projects (Asante 2020a, 350-1; Verovšek; Schwartz).

4The nation-building process generates its own sets of grievances because its selective appropriation of national memory necessarily excludes certain factional interests. The ensuing struggle over the past and what it means for contemporary politics sometimes invoke or reinforce centrifugal pressures on the nation-state. As such, there always lurks beneath the surface residual subnational attachments/identities, which could be asserted in opposition to the overarching national visions or identities. Even in Western Europe where national states first emerged, countries continue to grapple with the political consequences of unintegrated or partially integrated subnational identities (Linz; Smith). In the former colonies, the perception of the “inauthenticity” of the nation-state makes this a particularly acute problem. According to Peter Ekeh (93), newly independent African countries embodied two essentially antagonistic publics, one civil, the other primordial, and the fact that “the same political actors simultaneously operate in the primordial and the civic publics… foments the unique political issues that have come to characterize African politics”.

5National commemorations in Ghana should be understood within this general context. There is a strong public discourse about the virtue of fostering national cohesion and a distaste for ethnic preference (Asante 2020b), and Independence Day celebrations provide an excellent opportunity for giving expression to this sentiment. Moreover, as an instrument for the creation of national identity, the celebrations present the discursive context within which visions of the nation and its accomplishments can be explicitly debated.

6Contemporary nation-building is multifaceted, incorporating political, cultural, and economic dimensions of national independence. In Ghana, the political dimension is more straightforward. It happened when Ghana became independent on 6th March 1957. The other two dimensions are more long-term national projects. Economically, the Nkrumah government embarked on an ambitious programme of economic transformation, significantly pursued under the broad rubric of “African socialism”, an indigenous model of development which explicitly tried to steer clear of the then-predominant Western models of capitalism and communism (Akyeampong, 2018). At the same time, the government also attempted to create a distinctive culture and to instil a national personality as a means of promoting and fostering national integration (Botwe-Asamoah; Harcourt). The success of these initiatives could be seen in the fact that although Nkrumah’s vision of a unitary Ghanaian state was initially fiercely contested by political opponents who instead proposed a federal state, the vision of a federal state seems to have entirely dropped off the national political imagination. The three constitutions promulgated after the overthrow of the First Republic have all affirmed the unitary structure of the state (Gyimah-Boadi and Awal).

7In this paper, we examine varying perspectives on the nation-building project by looking at debates surrounding the country’s independence anniversary celebration. To do this, we focus on how the country’s political, economic, and cultural development has been assessed by both ordinary citizens and the political elite. Even though national day celebrations are intended to mark a period of heightened national unity during which citizens and leaders recommit themselves to the “national cause”, they also tend to magnify contentions over the nation-building project. Owing to the poignant feelings that these celebrations evoke and the essentially open-ended nature of the nation-building project, rival political factions prefer to use such occasions to assert competing narratives of the nation and to contest authorised visions of the future. Because of this, national day celebrations provide a rare opportunity to study contestations and negotiations that are embedded in the process of nation-building.

8The paper draws on two main sources of data: quantitative data from a survey administered in 2017 and qualitative data from news reports on commemorative events, including speeches, press releases, and general public commentaries. The paper demonstrates that recollections of the past serve diverse purposes in the present—and very likely in the future too. It is important that such invocations of the past, due to their potential current and future ramifications on the nation building process, be critically evaluated and not simply accepted as fact or “self-evident”.

2. The Politics of Memory and Commemorations in Ghana

9The literature on holidays in Ghana emphasizes the use of holidays and commemorations as instruments for legitimizing both historical and contemporary political narratives. As political instruments, they can act as potent tools for the erasure of historical actors, narratives, and events from popular or collective historical remembrance and documentary records. Jean Allman terms this process as the “disappearing” of historical actors, whether great or small, from both human and documentary memory (Allman). She illustrates this using the case of Hannah Kudjoe, the national propaganda secretary for Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP). Kudjoe played a central and critical role in the fight for independence. For instance, she toured the lengths and breadths of the country clandestinely, and sometimes openly, organizing strikes and rallies against the colonial government. She was also instrumental in the pressure campaign that saw the release of the so-called “Big Six”, the political leaders who included Kwame Nkrumah and J. B. Danquah, arrested by the colonial government for inciting anti-colonial riots in the country. She was undeniably a key part of the decision-making nucleus of the CPP before independence.

10Given her central role in the fight for independence, it was inexplicable that her name was completely absent in any of the commemoration events during Ghana’s Golden Jubilee celebrations, or indeed in any of the earlier anniversary commemorations. Allman observes that since Ghana gained independence, Kudjoe’s central role in the independence movement has been publicly recognized only once, at a ceremony to mark International Women’s Day, on 8th March 1986, two days before her death. The programme was hosted by the New Democratic Movement in Ghana, a non-governmental organization which was fighting to return Ghana to democracy. In fact, not even a single governmental organization, ministry, or agency has honoured Kudjoe for her daring actions during the fight for independence.

11While Hannah Kudjoe’s memory was allowed to slip into obscurity, political elites are willing to fight for the preservation of the legacy of certain historical figures. In a bid to secure historical legitimacy for political power, Ghanaian politicians have systematically marshalled national holiday celebrations to challenge authorised versions of the past so as to (in)validate contemporary historical narratives surrounding the founding of Ghana as a nation. This was evident in the hotly contested issue of whether Ghana has one founder or a group of founders. Shortly after the National Democratic Congress (NDC) came back to power in 2009, the government designated the birthday (21st September) of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, as Founder’s Day. This became an explosive political issue, because as Edem Adotey (2019) argues, the move could be seen as an attempt by the NDC, a party that has its origin in military coups, to co-opt the legacy of Kwame Nkrumah in order to ‘whitewash’ its own troubled history and establish its raison d’être.

12In response, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) interpreted this move as an attempt to erase from the national narrative the roles played by the key figures who birthed the political tradition the NPP traces its roots to—the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), formed at Saltpond, in 1947. These figures include George Grant, J. B. Danquah, William Ofori Atta, and Edward Akufo-Addo. Accordingly, when the NPP came to power in 2017, it swiftly designated 4th August, the founding date of the UGCC, as Founders’ Day. Nkrumah’s birthday was still maintained as a holiday, the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Day. These struggles over how to appropriately commemorate the country’s founding reflect ongoing ideological rifts and historical contestations in Ghanaian politics, dating back to between the 1940s and the 1960s. These ideological and historical contestations are still invoked in present-day discourse because of their ramifications in terms of political support and legitimacy (Adotey).

13Thus, the choice to remember a historical event or figure is contentious because of its double-edged ability to confer honour and legitimacy while also erasing or forgetting others. Therefore, the decision to recognize something as worthy of historical remembrance is inherently exclusionary—and, therefore, political. Agbenyega Adedze, in a study of the politics surrounding the depiction of chiefs on postage stamps in West Africa, succinctly captured the politically salient nature of such decisions thus:

The images on postage stamps are not chosen at random … [they] convey the symbolic image of the master narrative of the ruling elite with the hope that the masses of people will rally behind these narratives and thereby suppress alternative interpretations of history (Adedze 68).

14Therefore, national commemorations and holidays, despite being widely perceived as tools for remembrance, also serve as avenues for delegitimizing and erasing histories and narratives, not just legitimizing and confirming them. This is what makes the politics of national commemorations so contentious, because the choice of whom or what to celebrate, or how they should be celebrated, are directly implicated in ongoing struggles for political power. At the same time, they also function as important tools for political mobilization. While commemorations tend to reproduce patterns of political exclusion (Anyidoho and Asante), the quality of the subjective experience of the commemoration activities matter for strengthening sentiments of national belonging (De Regt), and vice versa. In what follows, we shall explore the various ways that citizens assess the country’s Independence Day celebration, placing this within wider political debates about the state of the nation.

3. Methods and Data

15The paper draws on quantitative and qualitative sources of data to advance its argument. The qualitative data was gathered from speeches delivered during the various events, press releases, and general public commentaries on the Ghana@50 and Ghana@60 Independence Day celebrations in 2007 and 2017. Public debates surrounding Independence Day celebrations provide an opportunity to study competing narratives and the factional interests that promote or stand to benefit from particular articulations of the nation. Although national day celebrations provide an opportunity for a people to take stock of their collective performance and their prospects for the future, these introspections are never neutral. They reflect the prevailing factional, ideological, class and other rifts in society. The result of these evaluations could have implications for the distribution of reputational – or even economic – resources. As the previous section shows, in the arena of partisan politics, this exercise can result in hagiological or demonising projects intended to improve or hurt the political fortunes of factions associated with different historical figures. This implies that we should not take any particular articulation of the state as self-evident, but should instead ask about its authorship, who stands to benefit or lose from its acceptance, and what strategies are adopted to propagate it.

16The quantitative data comes from a survey that was administered to just under 1,000 university students in February 2017, the year of Ghana’s 60th anniversary celebration. Given this paper’s focus on discursive aspects of nation-building and national commemorations, the views of university students are important because their “daily round of activities gives them the greatest exposure to the legitimising ideologies of the state” (Asante 2020b, 7). Moreover, they constitute the microcosm of the educated elites who are heavily involved in the development and articulation of the various narratives of the state. These theoretical considerations shaped our decision to sample students for this study. While this places limitations on the generalisability of our findings, our purpose is not to simply draw conclusions that reflect nationally representative patterns but to leverage on our documentary sources to explain the observed patterns.

Variables and Analytic Strategy

17We performed inferential analysis using an ordered logistic regression model. Because we have an ordinal-level outcome variable, we used a cumulative logit model for our multivariate level of analysis. The cumulative logit model allows us to consider the ordering of the response categories. The two main explanatory variables from the quantitative data are respondents’ political party affiliation and their attitude towards the 60th anniversary celebration, a composite variable created from four question items to measure respondents’ attitude towards the celebration, worded as follows:
i) The 60
th anniversary celebration is necessary
ii) Ghana has a lot to celebrate,
iii) We have not achieved enough to justify the celebration, and
iv) We should put the money to better use.

18Responses on these questions range from strongly disagree, coded as 1, to strongly agree, coded as 5, with a neutral midpoint of 3. Mean scores higher (or lower) than 3 indicate agreement (or disagreement) with particular opinion statements, as shown in Figure 1. The responses on the first two questions were reverse coded so that the higher the number on the composite scale, the higher the likelihood of respondents having positive attitude towards the celebration. Other important variables used in the study included age, gender, respondents’ satisfaction with the state of democracy in the country, and the patriotic status of respondents.

4. Political Affiliation and Attitudes towards the Ghana@60 Celebrations

19Table 1 presents descriptive statistics on the characteristics of the respondents. As can be seen from the table, 43 percent of the respondents identify themselves as belonging to the NPP, 12 percent as NDC affiliates, 5 percent as Other political party, and 40 percent were neutral (not belonging to any party). About 51 percent of the respondents were females. The ages of the respondents ranged from 17 to 64 years, while the mean age was 21 years. Furthermore, about 42 percent of the respondents were satisfied with the state of democracy in the country while 31 percent of them disagreed with that assertion. An overwhelming proportion of respondents (86 percent) indicated that they were patriotic compared to only 2 percent of those who distanced themselves from any patriotic sentiments.

20Figure 1 below shows that respondents generally expressed agreement (3.7) about the need for a 60th anniversary celebration. And they also agreed with the statement that “Ghana has a lot to celebrate” (3.3), although they equally agreed that the country had not achieved enough to warrant a celebration (3.2). To unpack this paradox, we examine respondents’ opinions about the significance of national independence across the economic, political, and cultural dimensions. The results show that respondents agreed with the statement that Ghana’s independence was meaningless economically (3.2), although they disagreed that Ghana’s independence was meaningless politically (2.8) and culturally (2.5).

21This suggests an underlying pattern to these sentiments about the nation. Respondents appear to separate the material from the symbolic aspects of independence in their evaluations of the import of Ghana’s independence. They cherish the prestige and affirmation that comes with having the trappings of state sovereignty. This explains why they agree that Ghana had a lot to celebrate, even though they also acknowledged that the country has not achieved enough, economically, to justify a celebration. In fact, respondents expressed the strongest agreement (4.2) to the statement, “We should put the money to better use”.

Figure 1: Attitudes towards the Ghana@60 anniversary celebrations

Figure 1: Attitudes towards the Ghana@60 anniversary celebrations

22Because public debates around the celebrations are strongly driven along partisan lines, we estimate a logistic regression model using political party identification as our main explanatory variable. Our first model (see Table 2) shows that the odds of being in the higher categories of the dependent variable (refuting the assertion that the Ghana @60 Independence celebration is culturally meaningless) is 78 percent higher (odds ratio [OR] 1.28, p<0.05) among NPP respondents compared to their non-affiliated counterparts. In other words, respondents who are NPP supporters have the highest odds of disagreeing with the statement that the celebration was culturally meaningless compared to their other counterparts. On the contrary, the log odds of disagreeing to the cultural meaninglessness of the celebration is 0.12 lower for NDC supporters (OR=0.89), although this relationship is not statistically significant. That is, respondents who are NDC affiliates did not perceive the celebration to be culturally meaningful. However, the effect of being affiliated to the NPP compared with the non-affiliated is attenuated when we control for factors like patriotism and satisfaction with democracy (OR=1.09, p<0.58). The full model shows that respondents’ attitude towards the celebration was a significant positive predictor of sentiments about the cultural significance of the celebration (OR=1.21 p <0.001). In other words, as respondents continue to have favorable attitudes about the celebration, they are also more likely to disagree with the assertion that the celebration is culturally meaningless. Additionally, patriotic sentiments were negatively associated with the outcome variable. Thus, compared to patriotic respondents, there is a 30% decrease in the odds of indicating that the country’s independence is culturally meaningless for respondents who are neutral (indifferent).

23Results in Table 3 show similar patterns to those observed in Table 2. The odds of disagreeing with the assertion that the country’s independence is economically meaningless is 59 percent higher among NPP respondents compared to their non-partisan counterparts (p<0.001), while the log odds of perceiving the country’s independence to be economically meaningful is 0.46 lower for NDC respondents compared to their unaffiliated counterparts (OR=0.63, p <0.001). In other words, NDC respondents were more likely to agree that the celebration was economically meaningless compared with those without any partisan affiliation. Model 2 (Table 3) shows that although other controls were introduced into the final model, there are still significant differences among respondents. For example, the results in Model 2 (Table 3) shows that the odds of disagreeing that Ghana’s independence was economically meaningless is 90% higher for NPP respondents compared to their non-partisan counterparts (p<0.05). Similarly, the odds of disagreeing are 42% and 45% lower for NDC, and other respondents compared to their non-affiliated counterparts (p<0.05).

24Attitude towards the celebration was also a strong predictor of respondents’ perception regarding the economically meaningfulness of the country’s independence. In other words, for one unit increase in respondents’ favorable attitude towards the celebration, there is a predicted increase of 0.34 (OR=1.41, p<0.001) in the log odds of disagreeing with the assertion that the country’s independence was economically meaningless. Surprisingly, compared to respondents who are satisfied with the level of democracy in the country, those who are not satisfied are 0.38 more likely to disagree with the statement that the country’s independence was economically meaningless (OR=1.46, p <0.05).

25Unlike the findings in Tables 2 and 3 (Model 1), the results in Table 4 (Model 1) show that there is no significant difference among respondents’ political affiliation and the odds of being in the higher category of our dependent variable. That is, although the odds of disagreeing that Ghana’s independence was politically meaningless was higher (OR=1.20, p<0.534) among respondents who support the NPP compared to their non-partisan counterparts, the relationship is not statistically significant. Additionally, respondents who belonged to other political parties and NDC respectively had lower odds of disagreeing with the assertion that the country’s independence was politically meaningless (though not statistically significant). In our final model (Table 4, Model 2), both respondents’ attitude towards the celebration and satisfaction with the level of democracy were statistically significant. However, the odds of disagreeing that the celebration was politically meaningless was marginally higher for those respondents who are neutral compared to those who are satisfied with the level of democracy in the country (OR=0.78, p<0.10). In the following section, we look at the public debates around Ghana’s landmark anniversary celebrations in order to place these findings in their broader context.

5. Contesting the Commemorations? Debating the Meaning of Ghana@50 and Ghana@60

26As the statistical results reported above demonstrate, sentiments about the commemoration of the country’s independence and its significance are fractured along partisan lines. In this section, we shall discuss how this partisan divide has been manifested in public debates surrounding the two fiftieth and sixtieth anniversaries (stylized as Ghana@50 and Ghana@60 respectively). Incidentally, both anniversaries were observed under NPP governments (John A. Kufuor in 2007 and Nana A.D. Akufo-Addo in 2017). As such, the foremost critics of the commemoration events were key members of the opposition NDC in each instance.

27The most prominent critic of the Ghana@50 celebrations was the former president and founder of the NDC, Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings. Rawlings first came to power at the head of a coup staged by young army officers in June 1979. Described as a revolution and house-cleaning exercise, it resulted in the execution of three former heads of state and other senior army officers. The military government subsequently organised elections and handed power over to Dr. Hilla Limann in the same year. However, on 31st December, 1981, Rawlings staged another coup, citing corruption and mismanagement of the economy as his reasons. He formed the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC) which ruled Ghana until 1992 when multi-party elections that year returned the country to democracy. The main contenders in that election were the Rawlings-led NDC, and the NPP, then led by Prof. Albert Adu Boahen. Rawlings won the 1992 elections and the 1996 elections as well, with the NPP then led by John Agyekum Kufuor. Kufuor’s NPP contested and won the 2000 elections against the incumbent NDC led by Rawlings’ vice-president, Prof. John Evans Atta Mills. This was the general political context within which Rawlings couched his sharp criticism of the Ghana@50 celebrations.

28Three days before the 6th March anniversary, he issued a stunning press release announcing his decision not to participate in the celebrations. In the press release, he acknowledged his “honor and respect [for] the memory of the late Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the patriot and freedom fighter who not only led this country to independence from colonial rule but also laid the foundation for Pan African freedom on our Continent and in the Diaspora” (GhanaWeb 1-2). He further acknowledged “all those valiant men and women who made sacrifices in various ways, as well as those who lost their lives during the struggle for our independence from colonial rule” (GhanaWeb 1-2).

29Despite the stellar achievement of self-rule and independence, he, nevertheless, felt compelled to inquire “what is being celebrated,” and “in what sort of country?” (GhanaWeb 1-2). President Rawlings cited “pervasive corruption at all levels, missed opportunities for genuine progress, nepotism, tribalism and known cases of political torture and killings” as reasons why he was doubtful Ghana had cause to celebrate (GhanaWeb 1-2). He also cited “[the] decay of our local industry, the breakdown of our educational system, and an empty façade of “good governance” which earns the applause of those who seek to control us” (GhanaWeb 1-2). He questioned the very essence of the celebrations “when [after] all the celebration is over, we still have to ask ourselves where we are going to get our next job, our next meal and money for rent and our children’s school fees and hospital fees” (GhanaWeb 1-2). In effect, although Rawlings accepted Ghana had made political and cultural strides since independence, he nonetheless believed these achievements were dwarfed by the myriad economic and governance problems which had beset the country.

  • 1 The decision by the party can also be read as a reflection of the pro-Rawlings and anti-Rawlings fa (...)

30Who did he identify as the cause of the problems he pointed out? The immediate culprit was the NPP government, who he accused of eroding the gains made under his (Rawlings’) tenure in office: “The early days of the PNDC government were times of great sacrifice but by the time we, as NDC, a political party, handed over power to the present Government, we had restored Ghana’s pride and had regained the respect of the international community” (GhanaWeb 1-2). Since assuming power, he claimed, the NPP had reversed these gains and afflicted hardships on the citizens. He declared that as a result of these reasons, he could not “join Kufuor’s government for this anniversary [since] my conscience and my principles will not permit me” (GhanaWeb 1-2). He continued that he “cannot be part of a cover up for the defilement and violations of the principles of self-respect, pride and hope that underlie 6th March 1957” (GhanaWeb 1-2). Rawlings further accused “certain international powers, as well as sections of the international media [for trying] many times to gloss over or cover up the difficulties we face in the country today, all in a bid to whitewash the present government” (GhanaWeb 1-2). It is instructive to note that the NDC as a party took a different approach altogether on this issue. Its rank and file attended the celebrations despite Rawlings’ statement and absence at the celebrations (GhanaWeb 3).1

31Critics of Rawlings have pointed out that while it is indeed true that corruption, decay, and dysfunction are serious problems bedevilling Ghana as a country, the roots of these problems can be traced to his own 19-year tenure as head of state. They question why Rawlings places the blame for the deterioration of the nation’s development on every other leader but himself. Nkrabeah Effah-Dartey, who was NPP Member of Parliament for Berekum, from 2001 to 2008, gives a different account of the state of affairs when Rawlings’ successor, John Agyekum Kufuor’s administration took over the reins of power. His account deserves to be quoted at length.

32I was MP for Berekum from 2001 to 2008, and our NPP Administration took over from the Rawlings NDC era on January 7, 2001. I remember so well one meeting we had at Teachers Hall and Yaw Osafo Marfo, Finance Minister told us that the finances of Ghana were in total disarray. Apparently the NDC Administration used to give different figures to World Bank/IMF on the state of the economy and told Parliament something else. You remember inflation in those days? All national institutions were either in deep state of neglect, collapse, or disintegration. The railway had long collapsed with no single train moving. Ghana Airways had collapsed. STC had collapsed. Omnibus Services Authority had collapsed…Rawlings, a nation builder? (Effah-Dartey)

33It is clear from the competing accounts of Rawling and Effah-Dartey that national elites articulate multiple interpretations of the past to serve their political or ideological goals. While such politicised accounts may not be historically accurate, they tend to rely on selective emphasis or recall rather than outright untruths.

34Nevertheless, Rawlings’ determination that the country’s level of development is unsatisfactory despite fifty years of independence is a narrative by no means unique to him. It is, in fact, one shared across the political divide. President Akufo-Addo’s speech during the Ghana@60 Independence Day celebrations in 2017, although delivered in a less trenchant tone, nevertheless leaned towards the same position as Rawlings’—that Ghana’s independence has not been meaningful economically.

In 1957, we lowered the British flag and we jettisoned the name Gold Coast that had been given to us and took on the name, Ghana, the name of our ancestral home. The name Ghana was meant to give us a fresh start and mark the break from colonialism; and it was also meant to give us a sense of our historical roots and the assurance that we have a history, culture and civilization that preceded colonialism … At independence, the popular slogan was to seek first the political kingdom and all other things would be added. We assumed and, indeed, we expected that rapid economic development would follow the political freedom that we achieved. Sadly, the economic dividend that was meant to accompany our freedom has still not materialized. Sixty years after those heady days, too many of our people continue to wallow in unacceptable poverty. (GhanaWeb 4-7, MyJoyOnline)

35One difference between Rawlings’ position and that of Akufo-Addo is that the latter placed the responsibility of Ghana’s failure on the collective Ghanaian society rather than on one section of the political class. Another point of divergence is that even though Akufo-Addo admitted that the country’s current economic performance falls short of what was expected during independence, he did not question the actual significance of the Independence Day anniversary.

36The Rawlings press statement in 2007 and the Akufo-Addo speech in 2017 suggest that Kwame Nkrumah has become a master text to be woven into whatever narratives present actors deem fit for their unique political purposes. It is undeniable that his legacy, impact on history, and his international renown have risen to the point of use as master text in contemporary Ghanaian politics. Nkrumah’s words and history now constitute a blanket with which to impute legitimacy on present-day narratives and action. Of course, Rawlings’ recourse to Nkrumah can also be interpreted as a continuation of his and the NDC’s tried and tested method of using Nkrumah as a whitewash, noted above in the literature review. Akufo-Addo’s references to Nkrumah’s independence struggle slogan, ‘seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else shall be added unto you’, can also be interpreted as a call to action during what was still the early stages of his presidency, at the beginning of which he had equally tried to mobilise the country using the rhetoric of active citizenship (Asante 2020c).

  • 2 The literature on this topic is quite large and burgeoning, see for example Richard Reid, “States o (...)

37The issues raised in this analysis are of relevance to the broader literature on the politics of nationalism and nation-building in the postcolony.2 At any given time there are competing narratives deployed by national elites for defining nationhood, the nation, and the nation’s future prospects. Some of these narratives gain the recognition and acceptance of the people while others fail to resonate and are, thus, ineffective as tools for political mobilization and action. Understanding why narratives succeed or fail is a topic which deserves continued scholarly attention for it is by this that we can understand issues such as election outcomes, patterns of socioeconomic development and growth, and the sources of political conflict.

6. Conclusion

38We have argued in this paper that national commemoration is a double-edged sword, containing both centripetal and centrifugal tendencies. Ghana’s Independence Day celebrations set the stage for the outpouring of patriotic sentiments but also invite vigorous debates about the state of the country (Anyidoho and Asante; Lentz). This is due to the fact that national history is amenable to multiple interpretations, and such interpretations may be appropriated for political purposes. The statistical data presented in this paper demonstrates that sentiments about the country’s independence and its significance are shaped by partisan affiliation. Our analysis of public discourse confirms that this is manifested in public debates that heralded the Ghana@50 and Ghana@60 celebrations. This implies that the celebration of the national past is never politically neutral. Analysts should, thus, never take any particular evaluation of the state as self-evident, but should instead ask about its authorship, who stands to gain or lose if we accepted such an evaluation, and what strategies its authors are adopting to propagate their position.

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Adedze, Agbenyega. “Commemorating the chief: the politics of postage stamps in West Africa.” African Arts 37.2 (2004): 68.

Adotey, Edem. “A Matter of Apostrophe? Founder’s Day, Founders’ Day, and Holiday Politics in Contemporary Ghana.” Journal of West African History 5.2 (2019): 113-139.

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1 The decision by the party can also be read as a reflection of the pro-Rawlings and anti-Rawlings factional politics which existed within the NDC party at the time, (see Bob-Milliar).

2 The literature on this topic is quite large and burgeoning, see for example Richard Reid, “States of Anxiety: History and Nation in Modern Africa,” Past & Present 229 (Nov. 2015): 239-269; Erin Metz McDonnell and Gary Alan Fine, “Pride and Shame in Ghana: Collective Memory and Nationalism among Elite Students,” African Studies Review 54.3 (Dec. 2011): 121-142; T. O. Ranger, “Connexions between ‘Primary Resistance’ Movements and Modern Mass Nationalism in East and Central Africa. Part I,” The Journal of African History 9.3 (1968): 437-453; and T. O. Ranger, “Connexions between ‘Primary Resistance’ Movements and Modern Mass Nationalism in East and Central Africa: II,” The Journal of African History 9.4 (1968): 631-641.

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Titre Figure 1: Attitudes towards the Ghana@60 anniversary celebrations
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Manuel Jojo MANU-OSAFO, Enoch LAMPTEY et Kofi Takyi ASANTE, « “What are we celebrating?”: Nation-Building and The Politics of Independence Commemoration in Ghana »E-rea [En ligne], 19.1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2021, consulté le 26 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Manuel Jojo MANU-OSAFO

University of Ghana
Manuel Jojo Manu-Osafo ( is a doctoral candidate at the University of Ghana’s Department of History. He is also a research associate of the Centre for Cultural and African Studies, KNUST. He holds a MSc. in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology from the University of Oxford. He was a visiting doctoral student at the University of Alberta’s Department of History, Classics, and Religion (2021). His main research interests are in the history of military systems in West Africa and the social history of Asante. His article, “‘The Days of their Heedless Power Were Over and Done’: Dynamics of Power in the Military Structures of the Precolonial Asante State, 1874–1900” was recently published in The Journal of African History (2021, 62:2).


Bristol Community College
Enoch Lamptey ( is a sociology professor at the Bristol Community College, Fall River, MA, USA where he has taught for the past 5 years. Prior to joining this institution, he was a visiting sociology professor at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. He has a doctorate degree (Ph.D.) in Sociology from the University of Akron, Ohio (2017). He majored in Medical Sociology and minored in Race/Ethnicities. He holds a master’s degree in Gender and Development Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Ghana. He teaches courses on the Principles of Sociology, Race and Ethnicities in the US, Sociology of Gender, Medical Sociology, Sociology of Social Problems, Research Methods, Race, Gender, Class and Health.

Kofi Takyi ASANTE

University of Ghana
Kofi Takyi Asante ( is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER) at the University of Ghana. He is a sociologist with research interests in colonialism, citizenship, state-building, and the political economy of development. His publications have appeared in African Economic HistoryStudies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, Ghana Studies, and International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society. Until October 2018, he was a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse (IAST).

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