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06.03.2003 Feature Article

Talking Drums Of March The Sixth!

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Rhapsodies On 'Kindness' - Verse 21 Many Ghanaians, and indeed many Africans, scholars, historians and observers of Africa view the corruption, patronage, cronyism and general failure of the post independent Africa as attributable, in part or fully, to the phenomenon that is widely labeled as 'tribalism'. So ingrained is this conventional wisdom that any manifestation, promotion or assertion of ethnic consciousness or nationalism is immediately labeled as divisive and dangerous to the unity and integrity of the state. However, it is my assertion that, this attitude confuses ethnic nationalism with what has been called 'tribalism'. The purpose of this Rhapsody is to distinguish between the two phenomena in Ghana, whilst recognizing that 'tribalism' is the expression of ethnic consciousness under the constricting influences of the extremely centralized post-colonial unitary state. Ethnic consciousness is intrinsic to the existence of every Ghanaian. An objective phenomena that is the product of centuries of our existence as Asante, Dagomba, Anlo, Fanti and Ga, it has been fundamental in shaping our collective consciousness and personal world views, whether we like it or not. Whether we like it or not, our ethnic consciousness will find an outlet to express itself, and under conditions of a supra-ethnic Ghanaian nationalism, that has been concretized in the unitary state, ethnic consciousness has no choice but to manifest itself right at the level of the centralized state. Normally, ethnic consciousness should find expression and give itself form at the level of the paramouncy, district or region, but the nature of the Ghanaian state, and a constitution that denies any political expression based on ethnicity or regions leaves ethnicity to other outlets of expression but in national politics and in the life of public institutions. Further, because economic life in Ghana is founded around the sectorial mode of production that have ensured that the fruits of 'developments' are limited to areas of extractive economic activity and its associated economic activities, the competition that results from our collective aspirations to scarce national resources take on an ethnic bias. Considering that ethnic consciousness is built around an intricate system of kinship, the state then atrophies into the focal point of multiple webs of kinship-based relationships, each trying to outdo the other in the dissipation of wealth and 'development' to recipients down the hierarchies in nodes of the web. In the ensuing vortex of corruption, nepotism, ethnic violence and land tenure problems that have plagued Ghana and Nigeria, and that have in Liberia and Sierra Leone spun into catastrophic disintegration, and which threaten the Ivory Coast with similar disintegration, pundits are quick to blame the existence of so many tribes and by default ethnic nationalism as the cause of the maelstrom. This is 'tribalism', simply, the manifestation of ethnic consciousness that has been totally subsumed by an unforgiving national - statism, which most often is a replica of the colonial form of administration, but presided over by natives. "You can destroy a nation, but it is another thing to destroy the spirit of nationality" writes Casely-, and, indeed 46 years after the institution of a Ghanaian national consciousness, chieftaincy disputes, ethnic crises sometimes engendering violence of Fanonesque proportions, have sporadically rattled the smug tranquility of our national consciousness. I do not denigrate our national consciousness. Neither do I seek to promote ethnic consciousness at the expense of a common nationalism, as some have unjustly accused me of. Ghanaian nationalism will remain unproductive as long as it does not promote or find productive outlet for ethnic nationalism, and, if it continues to obscure centuries of history and culture in favor of a 46-year-old shell of nationalism that has long since dissipated after its initial objectives of self-government and independence were achieved. The imposition of a supra-ethnic national consciousness in Ghana has circumscribed the freedoms and initiative of the individual in society, and made the central state the arbiter in the whole direction of economic life. Even today, with talk of decentralization and private initiative, the central state still fixes 'tro-tro' prices, and provides school blocks and latrines. The people expect the state to initiate, and they to obey. Forty six years ago, the Founding Fathers when confronted with the question of directing the new ship of state, opted to create a new Ghanaian nationalism, based on a vague concept of an African Personality, that had no room for the ethnic consciousness and existence, which was the very foundation of the self-same African existence. Today our learned people, offspring off the same traditions that spawned the mess, repeat the same mistakes in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Our new people still denigrate any talk of ethnic nationalism as 'tribalism', choosing instead to flog the dead horse of Ghanaian nationalism, and celebrating every final wobble as progress. Today, in their desperation, they have substituted political alternation, a mere ritual of democracy, for democracy itself, whilst all around them the vortex of ethnic unrest, land disputes and patronage based on the competition for scar! ce resources, swirls turbulently. But, as Kwame Toure was wont to say, the march of history even if meanders occasionally, relentlessly proceeds instinctively onto the paths of justice, and the injustices of yester year are never vitiated by the passage of time. Our resolution lies in reconstructing Ghanaian nationalism by giving palpable form to the expression of the diverse ethnic essences that are its constituent parts. This is not to postulate a state based on tribal or ethnic entities as our learned men derisively, yet uncomfortably, assume, but to creative a vehicle at the regional level where ethnic aspirations are best articulated. Countries such as Switzerland, India, and the United States among others, when they were faced with similar moments of decision engendered by the similar experiences of oppressive and authoritarian rule, have articulated the aspirations of their component parts through the federalist system. Most of them have experienced immense benefits and have proven to be unqualified success stories in managing diversity. Even the over-centralized Nigeria Federation, which has become the depleted ammunition of those who oppose federation in Ghana, despite its civil war and the immense corruption that almost led to catastrophic disintegration of the society, has surprisingly held together mainly as a result of its rudimentary federalist nature

Federalizing the Ghanaian Republic with the present administrative regions as its component parts will provide this outlet for expression of ethnic consciousness, and provide multiple points of entry for the individual into participation in governance and in the discovery and exercise of his potential. Economic life and its direction would seize to be determined solely by the central state, and focus more on the needs of the masses as 10 additional semi autonomous governments plot the destiny of the state within a national program of development.

For many of our learned men and women, those 'exclusive' Ghanaians who have only experienced the culturally sterile void of life within the confines of Accra's modern institutions and exclusive residential quarters, who are so quick to dismiss any reference to progressive ethnic expression, take note that it is never too late to make the pilgrimage to rediscover what centuries of history has carved up. It lies within each of us, at once independent of, and integral to our wills. To rediscover it, as those who have will attest to, is a most uplifting revelation. It is much akin to the closure and spiritual awakening that many African-Americans experience when they return to the homeland and tour the old slave castles on the coast of West Africa.

Or perhaps we will take a cue from our brothers and sisters who live and work in clusters in the big cities of North America and Europe, those economic refugees who have fled Ghana because the state cannot fulfill her share of the social contract, and who despite being miles away from home in the capitalist world, choose to organize, socially, along both ethnic and national lines. Both provide the comfort space that rationalizes and even helps embellish life in a world where individualism is far from being superficial.

Kwesi Yeboah
Kwesi Yeboah, © 2003

The author has 34 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KwesiYeboah

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