Ethnicity otherwise known as tribalism in Ghana
by Kwabena Opong
The issue of ethnicity or tribalism as known in Ghana has not been as confrontational as it has become of late further to a statement supposed to have been made by a prominent member of the New Patriotic Party (NPP). He is reported as saying among other things that the Akan majority controls 85 percent of Ghana’s resources but it is the minorities that control them. This, he is alleged to have said during a closed door meeting of the Council of Elders of the party in the Eastern Region at Koforidua. He has since then denied being the author of the said quote but that did not stem the tide of condemnation from the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and their supporters.
Wikipedia describes Ghana as a multinational independent state. I would rather describe Ghana as a multi-state nation. To further explain, what western anthropologists would describe as tribal groups are all states. One would refer to the Germanic states as they existed until 1815 when Otto Von Bismarck united them all into a single Germanic nation. What happened in 1957 when the nation assumed its political independence from Great Britain was similar to what happened in Germany in 1815. Independence brought together as a nation a number of states as Bismarck’s unification policy galvanized a divided Germanic nation.
Ghana has more than 80 dialects emanating from the various ethnic groups in the country. The majority Akan group is approximately 50 percent and it includes the Asante, Akyem, Fante, Nzema, Bono, Aowin, Sefwi, among several others. The Akan live mostly in the middle belt and the central and western coastal areas of the country, where 85 percent of the nation’s wealth is created from mining, agriculture, fishing among others, and share the same cultural traits.
Among African nations, only a few countries share the ethnic cohesion that exists in Ghana in spite of the country’s ethnic diversity. Comparatively, tribal prejudice is less prominent in the country than in such neighboring countries as Nigeria, Togo and la Cote d’Ivoire. Ghanaians have the country’s first leader, Kwame Nkrumah to thank for the relative ethnic cohesion that exists in the nation.
Political rivalry among Ghana’s various groups is not new. In the days before independence, parties opposed to Kwame Nkrumah’s Conventions Peoples Party (CPP), including the National Liberation Movement (NLM), the Northern Peoples Party (NPP), the National Congress Party (NCP) among several of them opted for federalism against Nkrumah’s unitary system of government. They were basically regional based but essentially tribal or ethnic-based political parties. Those opposition parties joined together to form the United Party. The opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) claims congenital relationships with the United Party that was led by the likes of Barfour Osei Akoto, M. K. Apaloo, S. D. Dombo, J. B. Danquah and K. A. Busia. The CPP on the other hand was more broad-based and inter-ethnic embracing young people most of who were unemployed.
A credit to Kwame Nkrumah was his foresighted approach to unite Ghanaians and to galvanize the new nation around the idea of Ghana. For instance, he set up schools around the country and young people from anywhere in the country could be admitted to any school notwithstanding where one came from. Young people were afforded the opportunity to meet and live with people from different parts of the nation. Inter-marriages among the several groups were also encouraged.
Ghana’s ethnic differences took a turn for the worse during the 1980s when former President Jerry John Rawlings ousted the CPP government of President Hilla Liman in 1981. Rawlings appealed to his Ewe tribal group and indeed had late Professor Kofi Awoonor on his side as his theorist and strategist. Dr. Awoonor’s The Ghana Revolution written in 1984 pushed for the marginalization and the disempowering of Asantes and Akans in general while justifying the usurpation of power by Mr. Rawlings.
Non-Akans were placed in positions of power in the public and security services. Rawlings himself did nothing to assuage the trending ethnic prejudice. In an interview with Gil Noble on ABC’s Channel 7 in New York, he complained about Kufuor leading a crusade in 1983 to lower the birth rate among Ewes while encouraging Ashantis to have more babies. This was an obvious untruth as at the time when political parties were still proscribed and no political activity was allowed by Rawlings’ PNDC.
The three high court judges and the military officer who were murdered in 1982 were all Akans while those businessmen whose businesses and personal assets were sequestered were mostly Akan.
The politicization of ethnocentricity in Ghana appears to downplay the need to address it for cohesion among the Ghanaian populace. The import of what is said or not said by anyone takes a backseat to the political capital likely to be garnered from the statements. Most often politicians will rather seek to gain from what fellow politicians say rather than address the issues involved.
It is not unusual for politicians to make prejudicial statements and impute them to motives other than ethnocentricity. While political enemies seek to gain from the mistakes of their opponents they also miss the wider implications of their actions and inactions. Ghanaians are complaisant when it comes to ethnic prejudice. They sometimes choose to ignore it or play them down for good reason sometimes. But they forget what happened in neighboring nations like Nigeria and la Cote d’Ivoire and even Rwanda could happen in Ghana too. What is happening now can develop into something more serious if it is not addressed. On occasion Ghanaians have questioned the ethnic sentiments that underline some policy implementations by the present government. Asantehene Osei Tutu II has warned against discrimination against Asantes for government jobs. The Asante king’s concern is no mere trifle. It is the second time he has openly warned the ruling government against prejudice in Ghana. The import of the concern shown by the king indicates a deepening issue that the government, civil society, and citizens should consider.
Almost two hundred years after the abolition of slavery racial discrimination against black citizens of the United States do not get along as they should with the majority white population.
Black men continue to be targeted by white law enforcement personnel for unlawful arrests and killing. Ghanaians do not have a history of ethnic discrimination. In the days of Ashanti hegemony in the territory occupied by present day Ghana and beyond, east and west, conquered tribes were allowed independent existence as long as they paid their tributes to the Asante kingdom. Vassals were not subjected to any form of discrimination and citizens from such states were allowed to settle in Asanteman if they so wished. By tradition, Ghanaians hardly refer to the background of individual. Slaves could integrate into society and own property.
They could marry into the slave owner’s family if they so wished. May be that is the reason for the complaisance among most Ghanaians, especially the Akan stock.
Discriminating among Ghanaians for tribal reasons is an aberration. It could lead to untold issues and must be addressed by governments. There are enough reasons for Ghanaian to carry on with the legacy of unity bequeathed to the nation by Kwame Nkrumah. Ghanaians used to be proud and were considered unique wherever they were. Is it true today?
The writer is the Publisher/Editor-in-Chief of Amandla & a Director of the Cemter for Media Peace & Initiatives (CMPI)