Officially, Ghana has ten administrative regions. But the human tendency to simplify things has made Ghanaians put them under two broad categories: north and south. So, typically people answer questions about their origin with rather sweeping responses like “I am a southerner.” Or “I am a northerner.”
Fortunately, such simplified answers are almost always satisfactory to the interlocutors involved in informal conversations except those keen for details. It would be tedious and time wasting for one to say: “I am from Tanzui, a suburb of Bolgatanga in the Bolgatanga Municipality of the Upper East Region located in the Northern part of Ghana.” In response to where they come from. And given that a person's origin could be guessed from their traits or countenance, the question easily changes to “Are you a northerner?” or “Are you a southerner?” seeking for a simple yes- or-no answer.
The desire to know another person's roots is part of human nature and crucial to the formation of the relationship that exists between and among people. The knowledge could be used positively: to foster an understanding of the person's identity thereby strengthening the relationship. It could, on the contrary, lead to prejudice and stereotyping. Consequently, it could be an invective or an outright insult for one to say: “You northerner.” or “You southerner.” Usually, economic and political factors chiefly determine when someone's origin becomes a source of resentment, discrimination, or condescension.
The disheartening reality in Ghana is that being a northerner can be a nightmare if one has the ill luck of finding themselves in the company of ethnocentric southerners hell-bent on projecting themselves and the 'south' above the 'north'. Drawing evidence from their jaundiced pool of knowledge, they give varied reasons to back their assertions. They stick to a brazen failure to judge individuals by 'the contents of their character' and not by the actions and in-actions of others. Implied in the notions of south and north is ethnicity. It is not the mere geographical location which is eagerly exploited; it is the affiliations to ethnic groups. But it would be dishonesty to say all southerners engage in it.
The manifestations of discrimination and stigmatization based on the north and south divide can be plain or subtle. The plain ones appear easier to deal with than the less obvious but equally vile approaches. “As for these northerners deerrr! They never do anything right; they never change!” is easier to confront than a trained banker claiming she is unable to pronounce a name as pronounceable and syllabic as “Asakinaba” and telling you in an utterly condescending tone “I am not good at some of these northern names oooh.”
Many northerners have suffered unspeakable harassment in silence. They have had to bear with it as yet another weighty burden in the endless struggle for survival in a world already plagued by many other atrocious happenings. Others are fighting back determinedly. The result is a deepening gulf between the south and the north. It is a festering but concealed mutual resentment and hatred. The rewarding feeling of being Ghanaian is giving way to southern or northern allegiances with its undercurrents of ethnocentrism.
Some enlightened persons from both divides have sensed the potentially explosive nature of such a situation and are campaigning against it. But there are countervailing forces .Most destructive and virulent among them are opportunistic politicians who have no scruples whipping up tribal and ethnic sentiments for political expediency. They stridently remind voters of long-forgotten unfortunate histories, indiscretions and intrigues capping all that with “Vote for me; I am one of you.”
Recently, a redoubtable, award-winning journalist, in an article against comments linking the president's failings to his being a northerner, could barely conceal his outrage. He vehemently bemoaned such tendencies. He then went to great lengths to prove that it was inexcusable to draw such conclusions. Also in an emotional, witty and sardonic article entitled “I am a northerner”, the author lashed out at those who generalize based on isolated and individual cases of failure as a northern fate. “I am a northerner. And that is a shame, but please don't blame me, blame God,” the writer lamented. Writings like these and daily confrontations paint a gloomy picture of relations between north and south. They, most tellingly, show the pent-up feelings about the relationship that exists on the ground.
Some African countries, notably, Rwanda, Ivory Coast and Kenya have had to pay a colossal price for not tackling divisions head-on. South Sudan is still paying her price. We should draw from their horrifying examples and be more aggressive about our fight.
Civil society, religious organizations, government agencies such as the National Commission on Civic Education, schools and universities must advocate vigorously against this malaise. The media has a greater role to play. It should rid or be compelled by the National Media Commission and discerning citizens to rid its studios of characters who spread such sentiments.
A polarized nation is a risk to all notwithstanding who bears more of the brunt. May we see ourselves as Ghanaians and forge ahead as a united front against our myriad problems. May God bless our homeland, GHANA!
Emmanuel Asakinaba is a Linguistics student at the University of Ghana. His email is [email protected]