Ghana’s international airport name: A normalized abnormality

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Paa-Kwesi Heto and Ngūgī wa Thiong’o*

There is nothing so reminiscent of normalized abnormality as  arriving in Ghana and hearing  a loud noise bellowing through the speakers: Welome to  Kotoka International Airport, Accra, Ghana. Normalised abnormality refers to narratives of falsehood so ingrained in a society that individuals hardly see anything wrong with them. Honoring Kotoka as the gateway to Ghana is a badge of shame on the postcolonial leadership of Ghana since the overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah by a British trained military and police, made it even more infamous by doing so while Kwame Nkrumah was in China in solidarity with the people of Vietnam fighting against  the American armed attempt at recolonising Vietnam. The overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah was essentially an attempt to blot his Pan African vision of a united Africa in total control of its resources and becoming the center of united Black Power in  the world, envisioning Marcus Garvey’s vision of an Africa for balck people at home and abroad. United Black power in the Globe with an industriazed Ghana  as the leading light of the new vision for Africa.

Naming the Accra airport after Kotoka for his role in the 1966 coup is an excellent example of a normalised abnormality. Kwame Nkrumah and Emmanuel Kotoka represent two opposing ideals and traditions. Kwame Nkrumah symbolises Africa’s enduring aspiration for liberation, unity, and industrial development. He symbolises the idea that Africans are capable of self-governance and have the capacity for healing and decolonising their minds. He represents Marcus Garvey’s hopes for unity between Africans and the African diaspora and W.E.B. du Bois’ call for healing the black soul. Many African countries honour him, naming some of their treasured assets after him because they know that Kwame Nkrumah’s wisdom and vision offer Africa is a meaningful path forward.

 Emmanuel Kotoka belongs to a tradition of British commissioned soldiers who interrupted Africa’s freedom and development. Kotoka started his military career in 1947 as a soldier in the colonial military. He was trained to defend British interests in Ghana, pitching him against Kwame Nkrumah and other freedom fighters during the struggle for independence. Kotoka is part of an unfortunate tradition of Africans who opposed the independence movement by virtue of their service in the colonial armed forces and toppled post-independent African governments. Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Idi Amin are notable examples. These military traitors captured the fruit of independence they worked against. Therefore, it is ironic for independent African states to honour and celebrate such people as role models.

 Ghana named the airport after him as a reward for sabotaging the vision of Kwame Nkrumah, one of Africa’s most illustrious sons. The General Kotoka Trust Act in 1969 (N.L.C.D. 339), which provided the legal vehicle for the renaming of the airport, states, “And whereas the Government and people of Ghana wish to demonstrate their gratitude, for their liberation, and for the rebirth of freedom in Ghana, which was achieved by these gallant men by creating a trust to commit to posterity the memory of the late Lieutenant-General Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka, and the others who fell, and to provide for the widows and children of these gallant soldiers.” This quote shows that naming the airport after Kotoka has a deep meaning. It is not “JUST” an airport’s name. It was meant to bury the name of Kwame Nkrumah and his vision for Africa and Black people in the world.

Kotoka is part of a tradition of former colonial stooges  resurrected by the European colonial powers to sabotage Africa march towards self – reliance. The best example are Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba, inspired by Kwame Nkrumah, led the fight against Belgian occupation of Congo. Leopold II of Belgium was responsible for the muder of 10 million Congolese, one of the biggest massacres outside the massacres of Africans during the Europena slave trade. Mobutu was a colonel in the Belgian army fighting against Lumumba. But after independence, the Belgians instigated a coup in Congo and installed their stooge, Mobutu as the new leader of the Congo. The same for Idi Amin of Uganda. Idi Amin was a faithful dog of the British helping them fight against Kĩmathi’s Land and Freedom Army aka Mau Mau.  The British promoted him and returned him to Uganda in time for the Obote led Indpendence of Uganda.  Idi Amin would later overthrow  Obote and was immediately accorded state visits to Israel, France and Britain where he was dined and feted by Queen Elizabeth. See the pattern?

Therefore, memorising and honouring a traitor who took part in the coup d’etat that overthrew Ghana’s visionary, Pan-Africanist first president, Kwame Nkrumah, sends the wrong message to young Africans. It communicates Ghana’s enduring gratitude to Kotoka for derailing Africa’s growth and development on 24th February 1966. 

Removing Nkrumah from power set back the Pan-African unity project. It contributed to Africa’s failure to unite, which haunts the continent. It is a history we should not be proud of. But, unfortunately, that is what we are doing by celebrating an individual who played a pivotal role in the single event that weakened Africa’s prospect for unity. 

A valuable legacy of Kwame Nkrumah lies in his selfless effort to improve the living condition of people of African descent worldwide. Only a few people live by what they preach or profess what they belief in. Nkrumah was one of them. We need to inspire ourselves to learn from his commitment and service to the people of African descent, humankind, and the down trodden. For Africa and Ghana to restore Nkrumah’s spirit of service and dedication to the cause of African unity and development, we must correct this historical wrong. Until this historical wrong is corrected, we shall continue to tell the rest of the world that Africans value traitors over visionaries. We will continue to teach young Africans that being dishonourable to one’s nation is more valuable than selfless dedication to humanity.

Ghanaians will greatly serve Africa and humanity when they change the airport’s name. Changing symbols like the name of Ghana’s airport would strengthen Africa’s democratic tradition since it will tackle the problem of democratic backsliding at its root. It will recondition the subconscious minds of Africans to choose democracy over coup d’état peddlers and autocrats.

Put simply, decolonising the conscious and subconscious mind is not only an act of personal redemption but also the beginning of collective revival. Bob Marley reminds us in his Redemption Song that emancipation is a choice. Similarly, correcting a normalised abnormality is a choice. However, reclaiming the legacy of Africa’s most illustrious son, Kwame Nkrumah, is an unavoidable collective choice we must make.

 

Post-Script

We decided to write this story after Ngūgī’s presentation on Normalized Abnormality to Professor Cecelia Lynch’s Winter 2023 Critical Humanitarianism in Africa class, in which the topic of the airport’s name came up. Most of the story plot is based on a real-life event, but the names are fictional. In this essay, we want to draw attention to the detrimental effect of naming Ghana’s airport after someone who set the Pan-African project back, hoping it would inspire a constructive issue-based conversation and change.

Ngoryiyi, a gender-neutral Ewe name, means progress (transliteration: going forward). Further, we chose Kofi as one of the characters because Fantes, Asantes, and Ewes spell it similarly, symbolizing unity. Lastly, Asase Yaa, a Pan-African and fellow traveller, brings a thoughtful and critical perspective to the conversation, like the wise mythical figure of the same name. Asase Yaa is the goddess of truth, love, peace, procreation, fertility, and the dry and lush earth. It is an Akan god, but all ethnic groups in Ghana love and respect her. In Ghana, the elders frequently say they will consult the “old woman” when they want to solicit more input into their deliberation. Even when the elders want to take a break during a meeting to confer with each other, they say they need to go and consult the “old woman” and come back. Therefore, Asase Yaa, a female elder traveller, is the most appropriate character for drawing the attention of the reader to the normalised abnormality of the airport’s name.

1 Nyerere, Julius Kambarage. “Without Unity, There Is No Future for Africa.” New African, July 26, 2012. https://newafricanmagazine.com/3234/

2  Nyerere 2012. Ibid

 

* Paa-Kwesi Heto is an Ewe from Ghana’s Volta Region. He is a Tobis Fellow at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) Ethics Center and a Visiting Professor at the Soka University of America Graduate School. 

*Ngūgī wa Thiong’o is an award-winning Kenyan author and academic. One little-known fun fact about Ngūgī is that he travelled on a Ghanaian passport while in exile in the 1990s. He is a Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of California, Irvine.

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