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Opinions of Saturday, 27 November 2004

Columnist: Yakubu, Adams Sheriff

Tribal Sentimentalism - A real threat to democracy

The first time I really paid attention to the issue of tribalism was some years past when someone (readers may want to remind me) described the phenomenon as a national psychosis which according to him, was eating deep into the fabric of the Ghanaian community. If you look up the meaning of the word psychosis, it is explained as a severe mental derangement that results in the impairment or loss of contact with reality. If that definition is anything to go by, then we certainly have an arduous task to execute.

The term tribe however has generated a considerable amount of controversy. Some trace its genesis to colonialism stating that it was a term coined by the colonialists to label Africans as a primitive lot. In sociological and anthropological literature, the term means different things- common language, common culture, ancestral lineages, common governments or rulers. Anthropologist Michael Olen notes ?the term tribe has never satisfied anthropologists, because of its many uses and connotations. Societies that are classified as tribal seem to be very diverse in their organisation, having very little in common. Yet others contend that the term is shrouded in ambiguity and must be discarded.

There couldn?t have been a better term than ?psychosis? to describe the tribal phenomenon in Ghana. We allow our ethnocentric feelings to becloud our sense of judgement so much so that we are unable to embark on a national discourse without making reference to our tribes or ethnic affiliations. In our Ghana today one cannot express an opinion without being branded tribalistic or ethnocentric. It appears there are no longer any level-minded people in Ghana. Or better still there are no nationalists in Ghana.

Express an opinion and all that the reader does is to read some tribal meaning into it. For example if I commend President Kuffuor and his team for stabilising the cedi, someone reading this article will jump to the conclusion that I am an Asante or an NPP man and if he happens to belong to this, he will say ?he is one of us?, in which case he will swallow everything I say hook, line and sinker. Conversely if I reprimand the same Kuffuor for his incessant trips abroad and the rather unpopular HIPC initiative which has been unleashed on Ghanaians, the same person will turn around and say ?there they go again, these NDC or Ewe people?? So where do I stand? The question which however borders my mind is ?is NPP synonymous with Asantes or NDC with Ewes or Northerners?? If that is the case then where do the other remaining forty-something tribes stand? Does it mean that those people are not Ghanaians?

If this stigmatisation is anything to go by, then where lies the spirit of nationalism and patriotism which Nkrumah and his compatriots fought indefatigably to build and bequeath? As some pessimists put it, we are gradually drifting to a situation where nation states will give way to tribal states. If that ever happens, we would have been turning the hands of the clock of progress forty years back.

Sometimes it is ludicrous when you pay attention to this whole issue of tribal sentimentalism. Starting from the North, a Wala man feels he is superior to his Dagarti brother (even though it is obvious that there is no difference between a Dagarti and a Wala. A Dagarti becomes a Wala when he converts into Islam. Infact if there is any difference at all it is infinitesimal). The Dagarti on the other hand will hate you for the rest of his life if your tongue slips and you call him a Lobi. That is an abomination. If you move down to Northern Region, the Dagombas and Gonjas on one hand feel they are superior to all the other tribes in the Northern part of Ghana. They will not mince words to tell you that all tribes are equal but some are more equal than others. Now, aggregate all of them and bring them down south and you are faced with another scenario. The Asante in a cheeky voice will call all of them ?NTAFUO? (whatever that means). And yet if you go further south to the coast, the Fante will tell you that he is superior to all (Asantes, Bonos,Dagombas,Walas,Gonjas and what have you.). The Fante man knows that with his impeccable English, he is the custodian of the Whiteman?s culture which all of them aspire to attain. The Fante knows that at least he doesn?t level his Rs or raise his Ls. So what are you talking about?

But you drift down to the Volta region and it is a different ball game. The voltarian, knowing that he has a fair share of the educational cake will go Hmmm! He is a man of few words and will rather not join this entire hullabaloo about ethnic superiority. And now if you have the wherewithal to leave the beautiful coast of Ghana to come to the Whiteman?s land, the issue assumes a different dimension. Your own nephew, who, by a sudden twist of fate was born say in England sees you as an African and addresses you as such. When both of you walk into the train, he will rather sit by the Whiteman than sit by you. And yet the Whiteman sees all of you (whether British-born or African born) as Africans. After all the Blackman originally came from Africa. And he is right in that sense.

Meanwhile even among the whites they have their own differences. The English feels he is superior to the Welsh, Irish, or Scottish. It is a chain-like sort of thing. I could go on and on. But readers will agree with me that the difference between what pertains in Africa and that in the West is the fact that the Westerners have not allowed this dichotomy to becloud their sense of judgement. When it comes to issues of national importance, they all attend to it with unparalleled unanimity. That is the spirit we want in Africa- unity in diversity.

Tribal wars in Africa have contributed tremendously in the stunted growth (or the lack of it) of African economies. One can cite the genocide of Rwanda, the rather clandestine tensions between Shonas and Ndebeles in Zimbabwe, the continuous and perennial problems in Nigeria, and of course the Komkomba war of northern Ghana. It is estimated by the UN that in the southern region of Africa alone, between 1980 and 1988 over 1.5million Africans (about 62% of them infants) died as a result of these ideological differences. It is further estimated that within the same period some member states of the southern African development co-ordination conference (SADCC) lost a whopping sum of over $62 billion in gross domestic product.

In addition tothe above repercussions, we can also cite what I will call institutional tribalism. In Ghana we have often complained about the issue of square pegs in round holes. Tribalism can partly be blamed for this. For example there is always the tendency to feel that once the Managing Director is a Kusasi, he must give me the job even though it is obvious Kofi Braboni is more qualified than I am. This phenomenon does not auger well for the development of our nation.

Tribalism in any manifestation is a stumbling block to our development as a people. Take for example what happened between me and this Kwahu brother at work here in the UK. I was having a gossip with this brother about the behaviour of some of our African brothers (nationality withheld). These African brothers have often assumed they are superior to any other African from a different country. Being Ghanaians you know we like to gossip. So during lunch time I tabled the issue and to my utter dismay my Ghanaian brother went like ?don?t mind them. Nka eye Ghana a, omu ye ntafuo. Kwasia fuo!? meaning don?t mind them, if it were in Ghana they are nothing but ?NTAFUO?-whatever that means. He said this oblivious of the fact that I am a full-blooded Northerner. Now put yourself in my shoes. How would you feel? Would you be able to chat a common course with this compatriot? What is even more disturbing is that this is someone who has obtained all the certificates you can think about- the Bscs and Mscs. One would have expected him to know better and guard against this verbal diarrhoea.

So what is the way forward? There is no denying the fact that Ghanaians are peace-loving people. So the earlier we deal with this canker the better it will be for us. In Britain and most of the advanced countries, it is criminal for anyone to make a remark, or behave in a way that has the potential of inciting racial passions. The effect of this law is that people are not able to make manifest the deep-seated prejudices they may have against you by virtue only of your colour or creed. This has helped to tremendously reduce racist feelings and has helped ethnic minorities to co-habitate peacefully with the rest.

I was tempted to say that politicians and governments must be the torch-bearers in dealing with this problem. However given the fact that they are the worse offenders in that, it will parochial to entrust them with this responsibility. The elite cannot also do that in that even in our universities people vote along tribal and religious lines.

So the only way out of this quagmire is to entrust parliament with the responsibility (as the case has always been), to promulgate laws that will make it criminal for anyone to openly make derogatory remarks about other people?s tribe. We have always led the way, and this is one way we can again show Africa and the rest of the world that we are capable of dealing with our problems.

MARCUS GARVEY of blessed memory is quoted as having said ?Be proud of your race today as our fathers were in the days of yore, we have a beautiful history and we shall create another in the future that will astonish the world.? But what I have to say is that even as we go about swaggering about the superiority of our race; let us use that to be an element of unity. The reason for which we are created into nations and tribes is (as the scriptures say) for us to be able to identify ourselves. Let it remain so!



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