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Opinions of Monday, 19 September 2011

Columnist: Sarfo, Samuel Adjei

Nkrumah, African Unity and Democracy II

( In Part One of the series of articles under this caption, this writer posited that by ignoring the democratic imperatives at the founding stages of the Organization of African Unity, African leaders compromised one major pillar for the true unity of the African nations. The writer also faulted Nkrumah’s dictatorial tendency as a clear obstacle to his mission to unite Africa, concluding that there can be no true unity without the prerequisites of democracy).
The second problem with the Organization had to do with the inability of the leaders to tackle the issue of language group separatism. African societies are rather discrete and were originally comprised of small autonomous language-based kingdoms which had been feuding since time immemorial. Instead of facilitating a process of internal unity among the different people with a Babel of languages as a prerequisite for the broader African unity, the architects of the continental unity left this issue unresolved. Indeed, many of the African leaders actually used the internal divisions based on languages and dialects as a means to maintain political power over the people. Thus, there was no proper inter-language cohesion at the base of the Organization to ensure a superstructure of continental unity. No wonder that up to today, there are still those who contemplate African unity without any reference to divisions based solely on language differentials. This is because from the very beginning, there was no congruence forged by the fathers between the unity of the language groups and the unity of the continent.
I have intentionally avoided the use of the word “tribe” to refer to these language groups because the term is a misnomer. Strictly speaking, there are no tribes in Ghana. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, (Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company) defines tribe as 1. A unit of sociopolitical organization consisting of a number of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent. 2. A political, ethnic, or ancestral division of ancient states and cultures, especially: a. Any of the three divisions of the ancient Romans, namely, the Latin, Sabine, and Etruscan. b. Any of the twelve divisions of ancient Israel. c. A phyle of ancient Greece. 3. A group of people sharing an occupation, interest, or habit: a tribe of graduate students. 4. Informal: A large family. 5. (Biology) A taxonomic category placed between a subfamily and a genus or between a suborder and a family and usually containing several genera.
The Collins English Dictionary, (Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003) defines tribe in the contexts of Social Science / Anthropology & Ethnology as a social division of a people, especially of a preliterate people, defined in terms of common descent, territory, culture, etc. 2. (Historical Terms) an ethnic or ancestral division of ancient cultures, especially of one of the following a. any of the three divisions of the ancient Romans, the Latins, Sabines, and Etruscans b. One of the later political divisions of the Roman people c. any of the 12 divisions of ancient Israel, each of which was named after and believed to be descended from one of the 12 patriarchs d. a phyle of ancient Greece 3. (Informal often jocular) : a large number of persons, animals, etc. b. a specific class or group of persons c. a family, esp a large one.
4. (Life Sciences & Allied Applications / Biology): a taxonomic group that is a subdivision of a subfamily 5. (Life Sciences & Allied Applications / Agriculture) Stockbreeding a strain of animals descended from a common female ancestor through the female line.
Thus, the term “tribe” has many elements of which language is either absent or constitutes an infinitesimal, dispensable and dismissive factor. Hence language alone does not define “tribe”. In fact, there is no word in the English language that solely describes any group that speaks one language. This is because social anthropologists have never seen language as an important characteristic by which to identify a group. The case is even worse with dialects (i.e. the mutually intelligible languages). These are not even mentioned or described, since they are morphed under one group identification. Thus a group dichotomy based solely on language or dialect is presumed an invalid nomenclature in the intellectual context, unless it is complemented by clear differentials in the elements of families, clans, or other groups who share a common ancestry and culture and among whom leadership is typically neither formalized nor permanent. Or a social division of preliterate people defined in terms of common descent, territory and culture. Or one breed of animals……
The foregoing facts notwithstanding, there can never be any serious talk of continental unity without the firm foundation of language group unity no matter how irrelevant this factor is in the context of social anthropology. This is because the African experience defies the normal world evolutionary trend, having been truncated by the imposition of advanced western epistemology while still retaining its medieval trappings. Thus to the typical African, language differentials still remain within the demographic definition of selfhood even well into decades of nationhood. Because of this unique African experience, the leaders of the continental unity should have resolved the chaotic African polyglot by bravely aiming for one official language and subsuming the rest of the tongues under the flag of African unity. For as experience shows, differences in language has no role in the unity of the continent except as an excuse for hatred, division and civil strife.
There is no use for African tongues in the project of African unity because there is no time in history when any people became truly united without sacrificing their group tongues for a more convenient others. So African leaders should have tackled the language problem head-on and united the continent under the egis of a single language. If they had taken the bull by the horn by enacting a policy for one united African language, the peoples would have responded by de-emphasizing language as a source of enmity disunity and violence. By failing in this regard, African leaders left the room open for the misconstruction of language as the basis for tribal identity, and the attachment to traditional languages as a bedrock for proselytizing hatred.
Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s work in forging the nation Ghana out of the various language groups must be highly commended. Under Nkrumah’s Ghana, a national policy was in place to eschew divisions based on differences in languages. The overall tendency was to subsume groups under the overarching umbrella of nationhood, regardless of their languages. The boarding school system, the composition and distribution of the members of the security agencies and ministerial appointments were all geared towards the unification of the greater Ghana. Unfortunately, the bolder initiative of actually suppressing the Babel of languages for the promotion of a single Ghanaian language was too volatile for the visionary leader, let alone the question of a single language for the African continent.
Killing the snake of disunity without a sweeping resolution of the polyglot question is like killing a proverbial snake without chopping off its head; for at the strike of thunder, the proverbial snake will wake up. Today, there are still intelligent African scholars who wax eloquent about African unity while venting hatred against people of different tongues. They blame the Whiteman for disuniting Africa without so much as a reference to their own contempt for other citizens who are the same as they are except for an insignificant differential in language. People have been called smelly, primitive, short, dark, eaters of excrement and ritual killers merely on account of speaking a different language. So the differences in language and dialect is not one that is dreamed up for debate; it is a real juggernaut for the unity of the African peoples.
By failing to contemplate the issue of language in the formative years of the continental unity, by not taking the bold initiative of forging one continent with emphasis on melding or melting the Babel of languages into one African language, the leaders of Africa have left one huge window of opportunity for disunity, because there can never be any true unity among people who cannot understand each other. If the biblical account is anything to go by, the most effective way to scatter the people is by giving them different languages. It also stands to reason that the best way to unite a people is to give them one language. By this logic, any unity of Africa, or the unity of a country for that matter, is meaningless unless it is coupled with the bold decision to unite the people under one language.

Samuel Adjei Sarfo, Juris Doctor, lives in Austin Texas. You can email him at