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Book Review: ‘Down with Black Imperialism in the North’
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Opinions of Saturday, 8 August 2009

Columnist: Abdulai, Napoleon

Book Review: ‘Down with Black Imperialism in the North’

A Colonial History of Northern Ghana

By Ibrahim Mahama, Gillbt Press, Tamale, 2009, 140pp, price not stated.

The flurry of writings on colonial history of Africa has waned since the end of the Cold War. However, questions remain in the former British model colony Gold Coast (Ghana) about how Britain ruled the Northern Territories (northern Ghana) as a Protectorate. Ibrahim Mahama, a lawyer and seasoned politician provides an illuminating account of the struggle between the Germans, French and British in the rush to colonize the Gold Coast Colony/Ashanti Hinterlands. The Hinterlands were made up of present day Northern Ghana, Burkina Faso and Northern Togo. Europeans described those lands res nullius (no man’s land).

Mahama, with an eye to making sense of the impact and challenges of British rule, demonstrates that the three European powers used cohesion, warfare, lies, half truth to secure the Hinterlands; with Britain implementing a deliberate policy that made the Hinterlands a labour market for Ashanti and the Gold Coast Colony. In this engaging book, Mahama provides fresh information in the seven chapters with two chapters: Education and Economic Development of the Northern Territories and Party politics and Independence as my favourate. The Northern Territories of the Gold Coast Colony/Ashanti remained contested lands until the British secured what is northern Ghana, the French what is Burkina Faso and Germany what is now Togo in 1890s.

The formidable Ashanti Kingdom was a ‘stumbling block’ to British desire to penetrate the Hinterlands. The Kingdom’s ‘policy, jealousy and inaptitude to commerce’ made it impossible for the British to penetrate the interior. This made Germany to set-up a trade post up the Volta River around Keta-Krachi to link up with the ancient Salaga slave market and also to control the all year round trade routes from Katsina, Bornu, Kano and the Lake Chad Basin. The kolanut, gold and salt route passed through Sasamadi and Yendi down to Kumasi and the coast. By 1880, the French had taken the lead in sending Captain Binger into the Hinterlands. He was met with disapproval from the chiefs and peoples. French territorial ambitions made British and German colonial offices in Berlin and London in 1888 to agree to share information and consolidate their colonial policies against the French. Britain believed in signing treaties. The French believed in having a physical presence and moved with lighting speed. The British were slow and lack determination and leadership. It was such French occupational policy that secured Wagadu, Tenkrugu and Sansamadu, thus reducing the influence and power of Mamprulugu and Dagbon kingdoms.

Britain moved troops from Gambaga, then capital of the Protectorate to conquer the Tongo hills in the face of fierce resistance from the Tallensis, Namdams, and Frafras. Dispropotionate fire power was used, which today could earn their leaders as guest at the International Tribunal in The Hague. In Dagbon, the Germans burned down Bimbilla and Yendi in 1897. Following the defeat of Dagbon at the Battle of Adibo, 17 miles on the Yendi-Bimbilla road.

Cheap labour from the Hinterlands enabled cocoa farmers and the gold mines to accumulate wealth. British colonial policy was to prevent the development of education, the key to sustainable development in the north. The first primary school was established in 1909 in Tamale. However, two years earlier, Wemah, the son of a soldier had organized his friends to learn marching, drilling and other forms of military training. He was following his father’s steps. This ‘Boys’ Company’ was later turned into a primary school. Wemah later became a teacher, and a House in Tamale Secondary School bears his name. George Eken Ferguson, a brilliant civil servant was later used by Britain to arrange treaties with a number of chiefs as preluge to colonization. In his discussion with the British agent, the Ya-Naa Andani 11 refused to accept a British proposal that trade in Dagbon be monopolized by Britain. The king said Dagbon was a free kingdom and trade should be free. All were welcomed.

Following the defeat of Germany in the First World War, and under the League of Nations’ mandate, Britain administered German Togoland and subsequent plebiscite allowed German Togoland to join the Gold Coast for Independence in 1957. This re-united the Dagbon Kingdom, as she was divided into British and German sections. The Yaa-Naa who is based in Yendi effectively lost more than half his Kingdom. The colonial officers forbid the Chiefs and people in Western Dagbon from contacting the Ya-Naa. However, the Yo-Na Pegu (Chief of Savelugu, and the most senior Dagbon chief in the British sector) had secret contacts with the King in Yendi. When colonial officers found out, he was des-skinned and sent to the village of Tong. Yo-Na Pegu is my maternal grandfather.

The British policy of manipulating pupils was so serious that they deliberately failed pupils to reduce the number to middle and secondary schools. By independence in March 1957, the north had a population of 1,288.920 with only one graduate in the person of Alhassan Gbanzaba who through some British humanitarian official was educated at Cambridge University. Sadly, Gbanzaba died in 1958. At independence there were very few persons from the north in the civil service, prompting one of the NPP’s leaders J. A. Brimah to state loudly: ‘Down with Black Imperialism in the North!’ Some may argue it’s the reality today, despite more than 50 years of Black rule (independence).

One of the interesting aspects of the book is the discourse on party politics in the 1950s. An alien but necessary culture, argues Mahama. The Northern People’s Party (NPP) was formed in Tamale on 11 April 1954 with the objective of ensuring ‘… that the control and direction of government in the country as a whole shall pass into the hands of the chiefs and their people as soon as they are capable to assume full responsibility and to press for the immediate development and progress of the Protectorate.”

The NPP leadership was made up of Yakubu Tali, Mumuni Bawunai, S.D. Dombo, J.A. Brimah, Jato Kaleo, B.K. Adama, Salifu Imoro, Adam Amandi and Abaifa Karbo. While Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP) was formed June 12 1949. It focused its popular political mobilization in the Colony and Ashanti. CPP won six seats from the north in the 1954 election, while the NPP won 12 with two independent candidates aligned to it. In the 1956 general elections nation wide, the NPP won 15 seats, the CPP 71, while the Ashanti based National Liberation Movement (NLM) had 12. Thus S. D. Dombo leader of the NPP was the first official opposition leader in Parliament and not K.A. Busia as the ‘revisionists’ in the New Patriotic Party (NPP) of president John Agyekum Kufour were propagating during the Ghana@50 celebrations two years ago. Until lions learn to write, hunters would always have a field day, so says a proverb from southern Africa.

The Northern People’s Party’s (NPP) opposition to the CPP’s slogan ‘Independence Now!’ had a historical reason. In explaining its opposition, the Ya – Naa Mahama 111 in 1949 told a group of southern politicians who were visiting Yendi that, if a man had three wives and they are all pregnant, the first 9 months, the second, 6 and the last 3 months. The first woman is delivering and demands the rest to deliver the same day, same time. Was that possible, the King asked the southern politicians? The Gold Coast Colony was under British rule for 150 years with functioning schools, hospitals, railways, civil service, paved roads, enhanced trade centres etc same with Ashanti which was under British rule for 50 years. The Northern Protectorate had nothing from British rule, except some 900 non-motorable roads. Mahama argues ‘the only valuable economic assets the British gave to the people were the road system, even though not motorable.’ The 900 miles began from Attebubu, which was part of the Protectorate to Bawku, Wa and Yendi. The only national agency which could have enhanced the development of the north, the Vet institute in Pong-Tamale was taken to Accra.

Following its formation, the NPP leaders began systematic opposition to independence in 1957, advocating that Independence had to be linked to the north’s rapid development. Mumuni Bawunia, (who later became a Minister under Nkrumah and Chairman of the Council of State under the John Jerry Rawlings’ presidency-1993-2000) epitomized that ‘We are not against our Southern brothers, but we are against political and economic domination by the South. We are against anything that will curtail our own freedom.” The NPP demanded a marshal plan costing 8 million UK pounds. The CPP was against the agitation for a federal government by the NLM. Nkrumah sought to alleviate the fears of the people’s of the north. To the great pan-African leader the debate over federation was only between ‘the Ashanti and the CPP’. He promised massive development for the north post Independence. The CPP government (1957-1966) is the only government that delivered its electoral promise to northern Ghana since Independence. The alliance between the NPP and the National Liberation Movement (NLM) of Ashanti is discussed in depth. Mahama suggests that such a strategic alliance between the NPP and the CPP would have been far better for the north. This would have made the Protectorate’s development higher and higher on the CPP agenda.

This well though critique amounts to a stinging indictment of British colonial policy-the foundation for the underdevelopment of northern Ghana. It is a plea for rapid development of Northern Ghana. Which, sadly the post 1966 military and civilian dictatorial regimes deepen with the destruction of agriculture and the non-exploitation of minerals such as gold, and iron ore. Ghana spends several hundreds of millions of dollars in importing rice, beef, milk and onions; the latter from landlocked Niger, whose soils are no better than those of Ghana. And yet, the country lacks coherent and actionable agricultural policy. A good actionable development plan could up-lift the North and other parts of the country from poverty. The military ‘nationalists’ in the regime of the populist Colonel Ignatius Kutu Acheampong demonstrated and succeeded in their agricultural policy between 1972-1974. And, yet after 35 years of ‘Operation Feed Yourself’, we are still at the mercy of incompetent bureacrats, politicians and their foreign backers. Yesterday, it was Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), Economic Recovery Programme (ERP), and Programme for the Mitigation of Poverty (PAMP). Today, the song across Africa is on Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). The improvement in agriculture in landlocked Burkina Faso, once part of the Hinterlands is not from heaven, but from thought and action by its leaders and people. Looking East and acting locally or in the words of Uncle Dan Lartey domestication is our answer.

This book is Ghana’s guilty secret. A must read for those interested in using the state to create the enabling environment to reduce abject poverty and systematic armed violence, It is a compelling reading for all those politicians and civil society leaders interested in understanding and contributing to the north’s development. Mahama's exposition is a profoundly informative for those who are concern with consolidating democracy, peace and national unity in the former British model colony. Finally, its only the good people of northern Ghana who can develop their regions. We better understand that. And yes, we can!


Napoleon Abdulai, works with the UNDP as CTA, SSR. Writing in his personal capacity. Napoleonabdulai2@yahoo.co.uk

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