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Opinions of Thursday, 21 February 2008

Columnist: Aidoo, Kobina

Burundi, Rwanda, DRC, Kenya…Could it happen in Ghana?

A follow up to Kofi Akosah-Sarpong's "Ethnicity: Releasing Africa's 'Suppressed Rage'"*

Thank you, Kofi, for a timely piece on an issue that I ponder endlessly, especially in the last couple of months. I sympathize with our brethren in Kenya and before who have become victims of what I believe is Africa's fatal bottleneck to development—ethnicity. But, as a Ghanaian, what keeps me up at night is whether it could happen here.

It's a disquieting prospect that many Ghanaians prefer to avoid discussing. There's a certain nonchalance that, somehow, we are immune from such strife and violence. The most common answers I get—from intelligent, well-educated people too—are 1) Ghanaians are a peace-loving people so we are incapable of such brutality and 2) We have so much inter-ethnic marriage that Ghanaians cannot easily identify by ethnicity, were the conditions for ethnic violence to befall us.

It's the nonchalance that keeps me up at night. I don't know if it's related, but most of the people who have given me these Pollyannaish answers are Akan, especially Asante. First, I shall rebut their immunity arguments. Secondly, I shall examine the condition of ethnic relations in Ghana. Finally, I will offer policy recommendations to mitigate the conditions that create ethnic strife.

*Don't believe the hype*

On the notion that Ghanaians are uniquely peace-loving, as a Ghanaian myself, I do agree that we are generally, well, agreeable, but history and research shows that most "ordinary" humans are capable of the most extraordinary inhumanities, under the right circumstances. We don't even have to look far. We have seen examples in parts of Ghana, as Akosah-Sarpong points out. I call many Kenyans friends—peace-loving people, if I've ever met any.

On the notion that our "high" number of inter-ethnic marriages makes us less susceptible, I really have no basis for comparison as I do not have the numbers for intermarriage in Kenya or pre-Genocide Rwanda for that matter. What I have learned is that inter-ethnic marriage alone is no immunity against ethnic violence, as this New York Times op-edby a Kenyan writer underscores.

*The state of our union*

Most philosophical perspectives on peace speak of the concept not just as the absence of conflict but the absence of the conditions that foster conflict. Spinoza called it "a state of mind; a disposition for benevolence; confidence; and justice." Let's examine ethnic peace in Ghana with three tests.

First, are there ethnic groups in Ghana that feel alienated? Anecdotally, yes.

Akosah-Sarpong's piece asserts a sense of exclusion among some Ewes. I personally know many other non-Akans who feel dominated by Akans, especially Asantes. These feelings of second-class citizenship are not without merit because some of us do look down on other ethnic groups. We all have derogatory names for some ethnic groups. We may think it's all in benign humor, but the recipients may not see it as such, and that's enough to create strife. I'm sure some white people in America believe the use of "nigger" is harmless humor. I was once on a *tro tro* in Accra when people openly derided some "Hausa" kids. My efforts to defend those kids were fruitless. Poor kids, they were not even Hausa. They were Gonja, if those people cared to know. I know because, as a Fante, the two years I spent in boarding school in Tamale have made me a better Ghanaian.

Second, do our ethnic identities supercede our Ghanaian identities? Sometimes.

Our voting patterns suggest so, to an extent. It follows, therefore, that our political parties and government tend to take on an ethnic character sometimes. Think about this: Does any particular ethnic group come to your mind when you think, say, NPP? CPP? NDC? If your answer is yes, then we do have a problem. The details of party membership may suggest more inclusiveness than first meets the eye, but does it matter? Perception is reality. In the Ghanaian Diaspora, many would rather join their Ewe, Ga, or Dagomba Association than a *Ghanaian* Association.

Third, how commonplace are inter-ethnic marriages? I don't know but they appear to be trending upwards.

With increased migration from villages to cities, an upward trend is to be expected. For my generation, I know anecdotally that most of my friends do not put ethnicity at the top of their checklist in choosing a spouse—I am Fante and both of my brothers are married to Ewe women. At the same time, I recognize that I may be considered part of the urbanized elite, and the worldview in my circles may not be representative of those of people in the hinterland. Besides, even if my peers may not care much about the ethnicity of their spouses, the reactions of their families to their marrying outside the tribe is telling of the state of the nation.

I open these tests to rigorous research, but, with my limited anecdotal information, I will assert that we are generally headed in the right direction of nation-statehood, but we're still fragile, as recent ethnic flare-ups have reminded us. We are hardly where we need to be ensure a healthy nation where the Ghanaian super identity trumps all else, and national politics is not primarily analyzed through ethnic lenses.

*Recommendations (mitigating the conditions that make conflict possible)*

Doris Thompson, an American journalist, considered peace as the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict. To that, I add "* preventing* conflict." True, most of Africa's ethnic strife comes from the arbitrary and sometimes diabolically calculated partition of Africa by Europeans. But, whether we like it or not, we're in it now and we have to fix it now. Some ethnocentric feelings have been cultivated since pre-colonial times, and deliberately exacerbated by the colonialists, and there are no easy policy interventions, but we can make our best efforts in that direction. I do not know what the government has done, is doing, or plans to do, but no one has monopoly over ideas, so if they are already implementing some of these, great! If not, they should start thinking about some of these.

1. Listen. Through quantitative and qualitative research, determine Ghanaians' layers of identity.

2. Make the government—any government in power at any time—reflect the ethnic diversity of the country. Political parties themselves, especially those in power, should take affirmative steps to build support in all regions—and should be seen to be doing so. In our infant, ethnically-charged, democratic experiment, it is risky to operate on the assumption that some regions will not vote a certain party regardless of efforts—even if that may be the case historically.

3. Bring overwhelming police and military force to pacify the slightest hint of ethnic violence in any small part of the country. Absolute zero tolerance is the only way. Some people will complain about the disproportionate force. That is fine—in fact, good—because it should be an example for the rest of the country. Of course, the government would have more political capital to do so if recommendation 2, above, has been implemented.

4. Make it a national development priority to open up the country, especially the northern parts. The plan to expand the railway system north is in the right direction. Apart from its practical importance, it has immense psychological value when one looks at the transportation map of Ghana.

5. Have a strategic communications plan to foster ethnic cohesion as part of our nation-building. Utilize both overt means, such as public service announcements, and more subtle tactics. Going to a Black Stars game is helpful, but hardly enough. For instance, it is more important for an Asante president to attend *Hogbetsotso* than it is for him or her to attend *Akwasidae*. Imagine the psychological value of President Kuffour visiting, say, Bolgatanga for three days, not for official business, but just to relax and see the area.

6. Promote domestic tourism.

7. Encourage inter-ethnic marriages.

These will be challenging to implement, and there will be resistance, but leadership is about orienting people to do things for the collective good that they may not do individually. Tellingly, when I have suggested the affirmative promotion of inter-ethnic marriages or for the NPP government to strengthen its outreach beyond the Akan areas, the same people who say Ghanaians are not ethnocentric have resisted the idea. For all his flaws, Jerry Rawlings made conscious efforts to break ethnic barriers, and Ghanaians should be grateful to him for that.

The question of ethnicity is but one of a long list of hard and uncomfortable questions that we as a nation need to start asking ourselves as we try to build a great society. The survival of our very union is at stake.

*Kobina Aidoo** The author is a Master in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School of Government and former Chief Editor of Africa Policy Journal. He is currently a fellow at Public Strategies, a strategic communications and public affairs consultancy in Washington, DC. *

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.