Ghana-man Ponderings: A brief discussion on ethnicity and nationality in African nations.

Featuring a guest columnist, Kweku-Attafuah Wadee, a Ghanaian student, currently a final year student majoring in Environmental Studies at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY. His interests include Energy Policy, Politics, History, Film, Business. In his free time, he enjoys, Cooking African, Asian and Latin American Food.


BY: Kweku Attafuah-Wadee

Growing up in the suburbs of Accra in Ghana, two of my greatest idols where Azumah Nelson, a world-renowned Ghanaian professional boxer, and Kofi Annan, the two-term UN Secretary-General. As an avid boxing fan, I would wake up early in the morning before school to catch a glimpse of Azumah besting a litany of opponents during prizefights in the US. In my ten-year-old mind, he epitomized Ghanaian strength and invincibility. Kofi Annan on the other hand was, well, Kofi Annan. He was the most prominent Ghanaian on the planet and the head of the United Nations, a position, I thought then, was second only to that of Bill Clinton.

Needless to say, Kofi Annan and Azumah Nelson were, and still are, two of the most prominent Ghanaian personalities. Nonetheless, even in my youth I could sense differences in the reception these two individuals received amongst various ethnic groups that make up Ghana.

Kofi Annan, as a member of the Asante ethnic group – descendants of a powerful empire that ruled most of modern day Ghana in the eighteenth and nineteenth century – is one of the most respected sages of the Asante people. Azumah Nelson, on the other hand, is a proud son of the Ga-Adangbe ethnic group of southeastern Ghana. Though the Ga-Adangbe people admire and respect the achievements of Kofi Annan as a Ghanaian, the strong ethnic bonds they share with Azumah Nelson place the now retired boxer on a higher pedestal in their hearts and minds. This sentiment is mirrored in the way Asantes perceive Kofi Annan.

Such expressions of ethnic pride and allegiance are not only prevalent in Ghana but also in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa; it is a powerful representation of the complex relationship between ethnicity and nationality in the region. The main question to be deliberated is not necessarily which one of the identifiers – ethnicity or nationality –Africans acknowledge, but rather, which identifier is considered a better representation of one’s identity and, thus, an indicator of the pivot of one’s allegiances.

The manner in which such questions of identity have been approached in African countries has led to profound socioeconomic and political realities that have stifled national growth and development. In post-colonial Africa, there has been a tendency, usually inspired by urban, political elites, to diminish attempts at promoting a strong sense of nationality so as to achieve short term economic and political gains by pitting ethnic groups against each other. This has led to the high incidence of ethnic fragmentation in many African countries and subsequent cases of political and economic disenfranchisement and civil war. The recent creation of the nation of South Sudan and the ongoing Tuareg struggle in Mali are archetypal present day examples.

European colonization of Africa is largely to blame for this predicament. Before I continue, I would like to emphasize that colonization did not give birth to nepotism and ethnic fragmentation in Africa. On the contrary, there are more than sufficient historical sources that indicate the presence of ethnic rivalry on the continent prior to contact with Western European nations. More accurately, colonization facilitated the modern expression of ethnic politics in Africa by creating new or exploiting entrenched ethnic power dynamics.

A textbook example of this phenomenon can be observed through studying the history of the West African nation of Nigeria. Before Nigeria was internationally known for its remarkable and vibrant film industry, Nollywood, or as a source of, let’s say, “annoying emails”, it made the international news circuit in the late 1960s due to a breakaway movement that had developed in its south-eastern region; the subsequent civil war is known as the Biafran War. Even today, there are certain elements, though weak, that are still agitating for a breakaway Biafran state of their own.

During the first week of November last year a group of about a 100 Nigerians, claiming to be members of the Biafran Zionist Movement, were arrested for treason during a protest that called for the secession of the oil-rich south-eastern corner of Nigeria. Chilos Godsent, a member of the Imo Mass Movement and a supporter of the protest, was noted to have made the following comments to the Guardian newspaper: “The policy and leadership of this country has done everything to exterminate and dehumanize the Biafran people. It is only through an independent nation that our capacity can truly be developed. Within that context we feel like we have the right to self-determination.”

Similarly, the internationally acclaimed Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe has recently expressed concern over the alleged persecution of Igbos, a prominent ethnic group in the southeast region, by the Nigerian government.

The Biafran War is an example of the intricacies of ethnicity and nationality in African countries and is directly linked to British colonial exploits in Nigeria and post-independence ethnocentric distribution of national resources.

The British colony of Nigeria, though a jigsaw puzzle consisting of about 300 ethnic groups, was to a certain degree dominated by three of these groups: the Hausa-Fulanis in the north, the Yorubas in the south-west and the Igbos in the south-east. As such, the British administered the colony based on the spheres of influence of these ethnic groups, creating three administrative regions. Of these three, the northern Hausa-Fulani region was arguably the most dominant economically. The British also implemented an indirect rule system that ensured that each of the major traditional leaders of the administrative regions were in charge of their own affairs, with minimal political interference from the British colonial establishment. This subsequently led to the creation of culturally distinct sub-colonies within the colony of Nigeria.

During the negotiations that led to the independence of Nigeria, the Hausa-Fulanis successfully demanded the continuation of the British style of regional division based on ethnicity within a new federal national state. Being the largest region in terms of size, population and economy, this decision ensured that the Hausa-Fulanis obtained the largest share of the wealth of Nigeria. The strong desire for independence, coupled with the fact that one of Nigeria’s main cash crop then, groundnuts, was largely grown in the north, outweighed the concerns of the Yorubas and Igbos over the potential Hausa-Fulani domination of the new government.

However, the power dynamics changed sharply with the discovery of oil in the Igbo-dominated southeast region. This immediately led to calls by the ethnic groups in the southeast for more say in the administration of the oil wealth; many in the south-east felt that their oil wealth was being usurped by the northern-dominated Nigerian government to the detriment of the economic and social development of the peoples of the south-east. These calls, unsurprisingly, were met with fierce resistance from the Nigerian government.

Hence, in 1967 leading military officials from the southeast attempted to secede from Nigeria, announcing the creation of the new state of Biafra. These rebels would be eventually defeated, but only after severe starvation, massacres and destruction of infrastructure in the southeast.

Like the Biafran War, many African conflicts are to a large extent entrenched in ethnic tensions and their ensuing power struggles, and these find their roots in colonial ethnic power dynamics.

With this history in mind, it is up to the current African generation to strive for a radical improvement in inter-ethnic relations. Trends promoting reconciliation such as in Rwanda today are very encouraging and should be replicated. Similarly, other steps, including discouraging ethnic-based political parties, addressing nepotism and promoting equality in relation to access to national resources and services, should be actively pursued.

It is also important to acknowledge new social developments that are helping to improve inter-ethnic relations. With rapid urbanization on the continent, the environment for social interaction between members of different ethnic groups has expanded. Especially for young urbanites, this has aided in promoting a stronger sense of national unity.

Personally, with my limited exposure to conflict resolution in Africa, I do not pretend to possess the silver bullet for this problem of ethnic rivalry. However, I do believe that promoting a better understanding of the historical events that have paved the way for ethnic strife in Africa is essential to reaching closure on this quandary.


2 thoughts on “Ghana-man Ponderings: A brief discussion on ethnicity and nationality in African nations.

  1. Certainly, this is a beautiful attempt to examine the ethnicity-nationality complex in Africa.

    I believe, however, that any such examination outside the context of the class struggle in Africa cannot expose the entire truth about wars in Africa.

    The projections of the Asumah Nelson and Kofi Annan achievements into Ga-Adangbe and Asante dichotomic prejudices surprise me. As a Ga-Adangme myself I have never thought of Azumah Nelson’s boxing greatness as a Ga-Adangme exclusive achievement.

    In the days of his active career ALL Ghanaians stayed overnight to watch his fights. All prayed for his success without any thoughts about his ethnic origins and most importantly there has never been any suggestion that the Ga-Adangme make exclusive claim to Azumah. I sincerely believe that the Asante will be surprised to read this.

    The same goes with Kofi Annan. To be frank, I even did not know that Annan was and is an Asante. Many Ghanaians, I believe, are similarly conditioned.

    And all this emanates from Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s governance style which brought Ghanaians together along national rather than ethnic lines. It is interesting that no reference was made to Dr. Kwame Nkrumah not just as the greatest Ghanaian but also as the greatest African that ever lived.

    I am not about to contest the achievements of Kofi Annan in comparison to Dr. Nkrumah’s. Let it be sufficient to say here that no Ghanaian can seriously contemplate such a comparison between a civil servant and a continental liberation fighter.

    Going back to Azumah, whom I knew at his age of six at the Mamprobi Ebenezer Primary School as a junior school mate, I think it will be erroneous to stretch the imagination of seeing him in ethnic terms as he will surely resist any such suggestion.

    Regarding the Biafran War, I think we need a serious class analysis within the context of which the Nigerian politico-military elite struggled over how to share the resources of Nigeria among themselves to the exclusion of the Nigerian masses across board.

    Certainly, the defeat of the Igbo politico-military elite, who dragged the rest of the Igbo population along into the War, has not led to prosperity for the Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba masses but to the prosperity of the entire politico-military elite of ALL the ethnic groups including those of the Igbo. Ojukwu did not die a pauper like many Igbo.

    Finally, let us state that this is just a rough reaction to the article written on the run. A more careful reaction will certainly suggest a co-operative attitude in addressing the ethnicity-nationality issue in Africa. Here, I have roughly tried to point out that an appreciation of that issue outside the framework of the ongoing class struggle in Africa cannot explain the problem of ethnic conflicts vis-a-vis the question of nationality in Africa.

    May I suggest to the writer to look for a short pamphlet on politics and ethnicity in Ghana at the Freedom Bookshop or the Freedom Centre in Accra at Kokomlemle in case he happens to be in Ghana. I am impressed with his humility and effort.

    • @CENCSA firstly, I would like to apologize for the length of time it has taken me to respond to your insightful ‘rough reaction’. After re-reading the article, I realize I might need to spend more time critically analyzing a wider range of factors that influence questions on ethnicity and nationality in an African context. Unfortunately for me, the wahalas of life have left me ‘stranded’ outside Ghana for now so I cannot immediately patronize writings you highlighted at the end of your comments. Nonetheless, I would be grateful if you could direct me to writings of similar depth that are readily accessible online. Thank you for your comments and from an Akyem backpacker (Kotoku) to a fellow Ga-Adangme cousin I would like to say “Nante yie!”


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