There have been divergent views on whether tearing down Saddam’s statue and attacking it with sledgehammers was instinctive or stage-managed. However, it clearly marked the fall of a dictator.
Such is the power of statues which, though lifeless, exude authority and are at times associated with certain regimes.
Smashing of statues could mark the end of an era as was the case in independent Zimbabwe when the people chose to bring down an effigy of Cecil Rhodes, the founder of the colonial state that was named after him.
In the case of Saddam, the statue was more of an attempt to appear omnipresent, as it was erected in the main square in Baghdad, at a time when he was the leader of the oil producing country.
This was one of the rare cases where, apart from Stalin, a serving head of state, government or any other institution had an effigy erected when they were still in office.
Communication expert Rufaro Gunduza says erecting a statue for a leader who had acquitted himself or herself well is one of the “multiple ways in which the state chooses to remember, honour, appreciate and solidify the memories of their living and departed gallant citizens”.
What happened last month when the government pulled down a statute it had erected to honour the memory of the late Vice President Joshua Nkomo in Bulawayo has raised questions as to who owns national icons.
Nkomo, a father figure in Zimbabwean politics, had been honoured in different ways since his death 11 years ago and this included naming roads, an airport and a polytechnic college after him.
The decision to erect two statues, one in Harare and the other in Bulawayo, was ill-fated as it faced resistance and criticism, leading to the abandonment of the project. Issues raised included failure to consult the family, location of the statue and the size of the effigy.
Other national icons, especially those who participated in the liberation war, have had roads and schools named after them to honour them for serving the nation. Analysts said honouring national icons should be chosen in consultation with the respective families as it has social, political and at times religious significance.
Gunduza said the initiative to honour an icon should be spearheaded by the state, which not only consults but “educates the family and friends of the hero through a task team which is sent to introduce the concept, justify the state’s intentions and articulate the value to the family and the nation as well as the best location of the statue.”
“So, national icons are owned by the state,” said Gunduza. “Situations and circumstances are never uniform. For instance, Joshua Nkomo was accepted as a national hero and ‘father Zimbabwe’. Such a label automatically transcends family, ethnic and political prisms.”
Gunduza said while there is consultation at the initial stages, the statue itself belongs to the state and routinely becomes a national heritage site which would attract tourists and others.
Another analyst and lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, Godfrey Museka, said the issue of honouring heroes through statues was a “relatively new concept in Zimbabwe” and the people should be educated about it.
“If a statue is to be erected, there is a social, political and religious significance and the family may not take it politely if they are not consulted,” said Museka. “The social aspect comes in with the fact that the family of the icon would interact with the public after the erection of the statue and during times of political tension, there are people who may vent their anger on family members.”
Museka added that when one takes a traditional religious perspective, then the family has every right to claim ownership as it is taken that a dead person’s spirit needs rest and erecting the statue could trouble the spirit.
Honour is not only bestowed in the individual’s native country but foreign countries may also choose to do so. An example is that of Nelson Mandela whose statue was erected in London and there is another one in Sandton City (Johannesburg).
Museka said the honour and ownership of national icons may also have political motives.
“I think the recent attempt to erect a statue in honour of Joshua Nkomo in Harare and Bulawayo, was done because the late vice president was seen as a symbol to harmonise the people at a time when people are not trusting each other,” said Museka.
Another analyst, Phillip Pasirayi, who is also the executive director for the Centre for Community Development, said national icons belong to the nation and not one sect but there should be consultation with the family on anything that is being done.
“No one should gain political mileage out of the honour,” said Pasirayi.
Pasirayi added that honouring icons should entail nationwide consultation, which could be done by empowering parliament to deliberate on any issue related to this.