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Opinions of Sunday, 20 February 2005

Columnist: Kuyini, Ahmed Bawa

The Northerner Identity: Pespectives on ethnic relations

Time and again when the manes of ethnic groups are mentioned in Ghana, one of the terms used is ?northerners?. It is an identity that conveys feelings of positiveness and pride for those being so defined, but for Ghanaians outside of it, it means many things negative. Visiting this topic has been precipitated by an email following the recent request by our association for support from Government to deal with the Dagbon crisis and the killings after the recent elections. Initially, I chose to ignore this email but 4 days ago I read it again decided to address the issue briefly. I intend to be civil and not let my emotions carry me in this exercise.

I produce below the email followed by my personal perspective. From: View Contact Details
Date: Mon, 17 Jan 2005 10:25:04 EST
Subject: Re: [dagbon] FW: (no subject)

My dear brother,
Charity begins at home. you and your people should start the dialogue to live in peace before the Government can provide the security you are talking about. Your northern people are the cause of Ghana's proplem. We provided free education since time immemorial while the rest of the people struggle to make earns meet to pay their school fees. After your free education, where are you now? Are you contributing to pay the cost of your education? You are now hiding in Canada, Ottawa and having the audacity to write rubbish to irritate our ears. If you people will kill yourself who cares. Your people need to take initiative first. If you even kill your brethren through guinue fowl misunderstanding, how much more can the Government do to bring the so called peace and security you are making noise about. You rather should grow up. We will not entertain that stupid thing again. If you want to kill, resort to that in your Northern part for we know you people. Abamutusi

The content of this email is similar to other utterances that many northerners have perhaps heard many times over. They often reveal the disheartening conception and image some Ghanaians hold of people of northern decent. However, what is surprising is why these conceptions prevail even into the 21st Century.

The irritating thing about this current email is the reference to the Dagbon crisis as a northern problem and the baggage of words suggesting that northerners are unworthy of any services provided by Government. I wonder whether this type of response is based on hate, a negative attitude or ignorance. If it is his/her ignorance of the north that led to such sweeping generalisations, here is some education for Abamutisi and others like him/her.

There is always a tendency to define people from northern Ghana, as one bunch or category of people. Such a tendency to classify people without regard to differentiation emanates from an attitude of ?I don?t care what they are, or are not?. It is an old attitude common to group or race relations, and demonstrates lack of effort to know the specifics about the people in reference. This attitude issues from a ?We versus them? mentality, which is often coloured by perceptions self-awarded superiority and/or attribution of low value to the other people. It has resulted in stereotyping, by which many untrue descriptions are attributed to people from northern Ghana, including the tendency to feel superior or in authority over northern people.

However, this notion of and attitude towards people from Northern Ghana did not prevail until the colonial period, when the area was labelled ?The Northern Territories?.

Many centuries before the coming of the Europeans, tribal relations in Ghana were worked out on tribe-to-tribe basis. History tells us about the cordial and equal relationships/ interdealings that existed between ethnic groups from north and south.

The role of northern scribes using the Arabic script for record keeping in the kingdoms of the south including Krachi, Denkyira, Ashanti, etc is well documented. The relationship between Ashanti and Dagomba went deeper in trade and military spheres, and some members of the Dagomba warrior clans have Ashanti ancestry; even some southern kings have northern blood. Linguistically Gonja has a strong relation with Guans and relationships were good in the old days, when the salt mine at Daboya was a centre of valuable north-south trade. These relationships between southern and northern groups were for both good and evil pursuits, including sadly, the strong collaboration in the slave trade (e.g. between Dagomba and Ashanti). The coming of colonialism changed all that, providing a new definition of the north in relation to the southern groups.

THE ROLE OF COLONIALISM: Before the Ashanti, Brong-Ahafo and the northern territories were made part of the Gold Coast, the coastal area (called the colony) was like England. People from Ashanti, Brong-Ahafo and the north had to obtain a ?visa? to travel to Cape Coast and Takoradi.

The ?northerner tag? begun to be applied to the northern people after Ashanti and Brong-Ahafo were made part of the Colony. The British began to recruit large numbers of people from the north to work in the mines and cocoa farms.

With these large numbers being brought into these areas, the colonial government instituted a quarantine policy where by vehicles from the north were to off-load their cargo for screening at places like Kejetia in Kumasi. People were made to sit for days to get their ?visas? processed, and their clothes and belongings ?searched? and ?cleaned? before they could move further.

It was a treatment similar to what Africans and Asians suffer at airports and refugee camps in Europe today. It is this type of humiliating treatment by the colonial administration that led our southern brothers and sisters to began to see us with a different eye.

The Europeans are good at creating classes, and they effectively did that with the black race (Africans). They defined the Blackman?s status in relation to the whites and Asians during 400 years of slavery; downgrading our social standing and respect. Today every black person is looked upon with derogation and each one of us continues to wonder where this negative attitude is coming from, when we are in Europe or America.

In the same vein, the British attempted to create different classes of people in Ghana by attempting to make the northern people into the blacks of Ghana?s apartheid. Even though the missionaries had been running schools for more than 300 years in the south, the British colonial administration forbade any missionaries from opening schools in northern Ghana, on the pretence of saving us from Christianity. However, the declassified colonial Government documents showed that they wanted to leave the north as a labour reserve for the mines and cocoa farms of the south, and to stop us from asking for independence because we had earlier resisted any white settlements (Check Governor records in Tamale). It was only in the1950s that the first mission schools were opened in the north, and only in the 1940s did the colonial government allow northerners to be trained as teachers at Achimota.

Thank God, the British failed to make us into second-class citizens, because we the northern people have a spirit that accepts no subjugation. Our kingdoms were stable for many centuries before the coming of the Europeans. We are a people of honour and dignity who have served Ghana more honestly, and have often been insulted as less enlightened because of our tendency towards honesty, rather than corruption.

With a cursory look at this sad history of differential treatment, it is only a shame for Abamutusi to say

?We gave you free education??.? , as if the Government of Ghana belongs only to his people and not the northerners, ?. as if we are objects of his people?s possession to decide when and how to provide services to us?..and as if we don?t qualify for education, which was rather offered to us on a silver platter.

Well, what else do you expect from a reasonable central government if the north was denied education even though many of her sons worked in the mines and cocoa farms to build the wealth for the Gold Coast and the south? Nkrumah saw that we were treated similar to the black people in America who worked for 400 years to make America rich, and yet they were not given education and similar services available to the white population. The northerners love Nkrumah and treasure his unique foresight and spirit of nationalism, which is unparalleled let alone beatable by any son of Ghana and Africa so far. If it were left to others with such myopic, and selfish views about what is good for all of us as Ghanaians, the north will still be left in the dark. Just imagine how many ?centuries? it took for the central government to extend electricity from the Akosombo dam (which devastated many northern communities) to Northern Ghana? Nkrumah built the dam but we never got power until the good will of Rawlings.

More uninformed is this idea of ?.. we know you northerners?? as if northerners are inhuman and as if killings and deaths are limited to the north. Ask the Jews and Palestinians, IRA, ETA, Rwanda, etc what it means to be human in a conflict zone. Remember also that in the past, all ethnic groups in Ghana were involved in killing each other in wars. Further, while some southern groups sacrificed humans during festivals and special funerals, no northern tribe had or has human sacrifice as part of their traditional festivals and rites. We all learn to give up some practices of our past. To this end how could you judge ALL northerners as being inhuman?

These types of negative and arrogant statements are not limited to Abamutusi alone, unfortunately, but to many others.

The marginalization, depreciation and maligning of northern people is part of the legacy of the past, which has not changed with our enlightenment about human relations in the world. Some southern Ghanaians who have lived in America and Europe for many years still think they are better than a northerner because of ethnicity. In fact the delusion about this self-awarded superiority remains even when the northerner is more intelligent, better educated and well mannered than him/her. I am not surprised because we learn it from our European masters. Many Ghanaians in America /Europe have experienced situations where the last Whiteman at the work-place still thinks he is better than a well-educated or skilled Ghanaian Accountant, Engineer, or Medical doctor. Sadly our southern brothers think the same, even though we are all as black as charcoal. I still wonder what a northerner?s world would have been like if we were the only Ghanaians who had black-skin.


It is important to re-emphasise that northerners are not one ethnic group, and as Ghanaians we matter just like any one else in being recognised as distinct groups when an issue requires such distinction. We are also not the possession of any group who must decide by convenience when to provide us with a service. We are part of sovereign Ghana and the Government is obliged to cater for our needs, no matter how complicated those needs may be. Every society has its ills, no matter how small they may be. Dagbon?s problems are big?and unfortunate, but it is no license to insult and malign northerners. Dagombas owe Ghanaians peace, and are owed peace by Government and every Ghanaian. Abamutusi owes northerners an apology for those stupid, arrogant and uninformed sweeping statements. It is time for Ghanaians to know their history and alter their ways of thinking; a subject I intend to address during the coming week in ?If all Ghanaians were northerners or Fantes?.