Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Tribalism vs. Nationalism: African Dilemma

By Kwaku Apau

"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a tribal lay, and every-single-one-of-them-is-right."

— Kipling.
"We should all work for national cohesion and not tribal diffusion. Some mistakes might have been made in the past by the colonialists and some of our post-independence leaders but...can Africa afford another round of Biafras, Idi Amins and Bokassas?" A correspondent examines the issues of tribalism against the background of a new book by Mr Kofi Awoonor, Ghana's Ambassador to Brazil.
It would seem that Kipling was writing about Africa, with its multitude of cultures, languages and dialects, crisscrossing the continent like a colourful collage. The richness of its culture and the vibrance of its peoples make Africa look like a work of art created by the Almighty. It is estimated that there are about 2,000 ethnic or tribal groupings in Africa, some of these numbering less than 100,000, with dialects and cultures so unrelated to the group next door that verbal intercourse between some neighbours is impossible.

It is this lack of relationships and cohesiveness between neighbouring entities and recorded historical enmity between certain groups that have led historians to question the way the colonialists balkanised the continent into entities with artificial boundaries without regard to traditional ethnic groupings. Post-independence years in Africa have seen the brutal results of this arbitrary partitioning.

One may cite the massacre of 200,000 Hutus by the Watusi Government of Burundi in 1972; the 1959 massacre of 100,000 Watusis by Hutus in the neighbouring Rwanda; Idi Amin's solution to the Lango and Acholi problem; not to mention the tribally motivated tragic secessionist wars of Biafra, Southern Sudan and Eritrea in which tens of thousands have died and continue to die and millions have had to flee their traditional lands to end up in refugee camps where malnutrition and Kwashiorkor are rampant and the stench of unwashed humanity and death hangs heavy in the air like the legendary London fog.

In the remaining countries where no such atrocities exist, tribalism is institutionalised in the political and economic structures, favouring the tribe of the Head of State at the expense of other groups. A large number of our military Heads of State are so unsure of their abilities as leaders and in constant fear of being overthrown by junior and non- commissioned military officers that, in order to forestall this, all top-level and "sensitive" posts in government and elsewhere are given to trusted family members, relations and members of the tribe of the Head of State. The net result of this is that the country suffers, the best talents are ignored, certain groups feel alienated and disenfranchised, and corruption becomes the order of the day.

There is, therefore, something to be said for having a country with a homogeneous population. For one thing, it is easier to implement social programmes, it is easier for policies, ideas, knowledge to be diffused among the population even if there is a high level of illiteracy, simply because everybody speaks the same language and has the same customs. Very few countries in Africa have this luxury and offhand I can cite three: Swaziland, Botswana and Lesotho.

It is worth noting that the population of Swaziland is about 700,000; Botswana is about 900,000 and Lesotho 1.4 million. In other words, there are more people living in Lagos or Accra than any of these countries. It is just like collecting all the Gas of Ghana together to form a country. These are mini or micro-mini- states. Africa can be shredded into 2,000 such entities for the sake of achieving homogeneity. This, of course, is not a desirable solution, because the economic viability of such enclaves is doubtful, although Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland are classified in the middle-income oil importing countries with per capita GNP of (US)$510 for Lesotho, (US)$900 for Botswana and (US)$940 for Swaziland¹.

The economies of these three countries are tied to the mining industries of South Africa, they export labour, and the salaries repatriated by the workers account for large portions of their GNPs. Maybe there is nothing wrong with that, but then how many South Africans are on the continent for other states to export labour to?

Although it is true that the United Nations legitimise the claims of social entities to independence and sovereignty, irrespective of size, the bizarre sight of 2,000 new mini-states pretending to stand on their own two feet will make the economic and political plight of the present-day African continent look like a picnic. Luckily for all of us, so far, there has been no successful secessionist movement on the continent.

Several months ago, one evening after work, I sat down for a drink with a couple of gentlemen, who like myself were Ashantis. We, naturally, started to discuss the political situation in Ghana. The issue of tribalism came up, my two companions were of the opinion that the Ashantis should secede from Ghana. Their reasoning was that since time immemorial, the Ashantis have supported the rest of the country with their cocoa and gold, while every successive government, military or civilian, had treated the Ashanti region, and in particular Kumasi, with benign neglect.

They were particularly bitter about the present regime in Ghana for loading up the Government with Ewes. My reaction was swift and it was this, that secession was not the answer. The Ashantis should learn to use whatever political system exists in the country to prevail on the other groups to effect change. The Ashantis must not behave like the proverbial spoiled child, who threatened to take his ball and go home if his playmate did not allow him to win.

The Ashantis have always been resourceful, their history clearly shows that. They have never run away from a challenge. If they decide to develop the Ashanti region or Kumasi, they will be able to do it. They do not have to throw up their hands and run. There has been very little government inputs in the development of infrastructure in many parts of Ghana for a long time anyway.

In Accra, the expansion and development of the city had been due to private initiative. As we all know, 90% of the private economic activities in Accra are in the hands of people wrote2: from groups other than Gas. The Ashantis are also part of this 90%. If they feel so strongly about developing Kumasi, they could spend their money putting up structures there and not in Accra. The problem is that Accra, being the capital and a major air and seaport is clearly the place to do business. So it is a matter of choice, as it should be in any reasonably free society.

At least in the present Ghana, we have not reached the point where people are confined to certain areas and cannot migrate without official permission. This does not mean to say it cannot happen. It can, if people do not get involved in whatever way they can to establish a political system fair to all the citizens of Ghana. Maybe all these tribal groups living, working and developing together in the capital city of Ghana, Accra, will teach all of us tolerance and how to build a nation.

I have been living in the U.S. for some time. In the late sixties through early seventies, as a student in the U.S., we used to have African associations on campuses. From about 1973 onwards, these disintegrated into Ghana, Nigeria or Kenya associations. In the past two and a half years, at least as far as Ghanaians are concerned, the significant Ghanaian associations have been completely replaced by tribal ones like Asanteman, Kwawuman, Akuapeman, Ewe, and Ga Adangbe Associations. I am sure very soon it will become Kojokrom Citizens Association.

We may blame the colonialists for creating this problem, but we should blame ourselves even more for not being able to change it for the better and by compounding the problem for 20 odd-years that most African countries have been independent.

I, for one, think this trend is alarming. Instead of national pride, it is becoming tribal pride. That is not to say that one should not be proud of his or her tribe. No! One should never forget his or her roots. We are all enriched by them. All I am saying is that these tribal affiliations should not supplant national identity and pride. Africa, etc, etc.

What does one mean by a nation? I think the best definition was provided in a paper by Dr. Herb Addo of the Institute of International Relations, University of the West Indies, he wrote:
"A nation is the work, or the product, of time welding an integrated and cohesive unit out of a definite group of individuals through the commonality of such things as race, religion, language and history. This is not to say that these commonalities may not betray differences in order to have a nation. Differences may be present; but the main thing is that such differences, should they occur in the race, religion, anywhere in the world. language, or even class aspects of the life of this definite group of individuals, are not seen by the people themselves as enough to impair the common identity which they ascribe to themselves, and which, in their minds, and in the minds of others outside this group, distinguish them from any other group of individuals. What matters in the concept nation is simply that a group of people have, through the course of time, come to regard themselves as one, distinguishable from others, and having certain indicators to prove such oneness. The connotative property of the concept nation, then, is the complex identity of aspirations, views on life, and the strength which oneness produces."
I submit that if one accepts this definition, one will be hard put to identify more than four African nations. However, as distinct from the nation, the state has no such claim to oneness. The state is a legal entity defined by internationally accepted boundaries. It is in this category that most African countries fall.

Is it impossible for African nations to emerge? The answer is no! We may blame the colonialist for creating this problem, but we should blame ourselves even more for not being able to change it for the better and by compounding the problem for twenty odd years that most African countries have been independent. It may not be fair to use the example of the U.S., but it may be the closest in terms of heterogeneity to what I have called the African dilemma. There are more than 2,000 tribes living in the U.S. The American Indians, the Asian Indians, Filipinos (there are about 60 dialects spoken in the Philippines and most of them are represented in the U.S. population), Chinese, Japanese, all the tribes of Europe, all the tribes of

Among all these groups each year there are parades for Germans, Black Americans, Jews, Italians, Poles, Indians, Croations, Scandinavians, Chinese, Koreans etc. On these days, those ethnic groups show their tribal pride. There are even neighbourhoods that are also ethnic. However, this pride in ethnic origins has not replaced national pride. The Jewish and Arab- Americans may disagree vehemently on the Middle-East issues, but they are Americans first. School children salute the national flag and pledge allegiance to the nation every morning. In other words, this hodge-podge of ethnic groupings has been moulded into a nation of proud people as never existed

It may be true to say that other than the Black Americans, whose ancestors were forcibly sent to America, and of course the native Indians, all the other groups migrated on their own free will, unlike African countries where traditional antagonists were put together by colonial masters. The interesting fact is that in my so many years in the U.S., I have found Black Americans, contrary to popular belief, more patriotic than most groups.

I have never heard that a Black American has betrayed his country or spied on his country for a hostile government like other groups, although a reasonable number of them are in sensitive positions in government and the security agencies and consequently have access to information which, if passed on to a hostile government, could compromise the security of the USA. Secondly, if you run into a Black American, outside the U.S., he or she is more likely to show off his American citizenship than the other groups. The point here is that, even they who were forcibly transplanted, while holding their heads high as Blacks with African roots, have been moulded as part of an entity: that of a nation.

I believe African states are capable of developing into nations. The time for apportioning blame is long gone and we should pick ourselves up by our bootstraps. To start, African leaders should stop believing that they are destined by some divine authority to rule. They should accept that their only legitimate claim to head their countries is their subjects satisfaction that they are providing the kind of leadership expected of them. When this is accepted, they will begin to do what they are supposed to do in order to command the confidence of their subjects.

This in turn will prevent the propensity of these leaders to pad the national bureaucracy with incompetent nitwits. Citizens will be rewarded for competence, efficient contribution to the national goal and not for tribal affiliation or relations with the Head of State. Accountability of public officials will be demanded routinely without fanfare.

A cardinal rule that must be observed by African government officials, community leaders, chiefs etc is not to make inflammatory statements that pitch one group against another. This rule has been broken by Mr Kofi Awoonor, presently Ghana's Ambassador to Brazil and formerly the Chairman of the National Investigations Committee (NIC) of the PNDC in a recently published book.

In his book, he develops a conspiracy theory: Ashantis plotting against Ewes using rumours, innuendos and intuition, and connects General Afrifa with Lt Arthur's coup and the assassination of General Kotoka. It is a very angry book. It is acrimonious, vindictive, self-righteous and divisive. It is interesting to note in the book, Mr Awoonor's amazing sense of injustice but absolute lack of a sense of justice. He praises the courage of Mrs Justice Koranteng-Addow for having the guts to free Mr J. H. Mensah and mentions that it was Justice Agyepong who overturned his earlier conviction, but says nothing about their brutal murders and that of one other justice and a retired army major during the present regime. By the way, all the four murdered people were Akans.

He writes off the summary executions of the three former Heads of State, all Akans, as a lesson in Ghanaian history and in a very, very bitter language lambast these quivelling, impish Akans, who tortured him and his Ewe friends after their arrest for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Acheampong regime.

The point here is Mr Awoonor, current Ghanaian Ambassador to Brazil, is not the same as Mr Awoonor, private Ghanaian citizen writing about a situation in Ghana, past or present. As a high public official, such statements, not completely based on documented facts, definitely will not help the Government's effort to build a bond of trust between all its peoples. At least I hope that is the aim of the present regime. A Ghanaian Ambassador? Whatever happened to diplomacy?

Nationalism in Africa should begin and grow. We should all work for national cohesion and not tribal division. Some mistakes might have been made in the past by the colonialists and some of our post- independence leaders, but we are hurtling into the twenty-first century; can Africa afford another round of and Biafras, Idi Amin's and the Bokasgas! Our heads of governments and their officials bear a special responsibility to provide the kind of leadership that would promote tribal harmony, not hatred. For all our sakes, I hope someone on the continent is listening.

1. See World Bank reports "Toward Sustained Development in Sub-Sahara Africa”, August 1984

2. Approaching the peculiarity of the Caribbean plight within the paradox of the representative state in the contemporary world system," UN University Publication, Tokyo, Japan.

3. "The Ghana Revolution: Background Account from a Perspective", published by Oasis Personal Publishers, P.O. Box 125, Bronx, New York, 10451, USA.

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