Last weekend, President John Dramani Mahama stirred the dangerous beehive of ethnicity. And he got himself deadly verbal stings from across the country. Even people who have no right to open their mouths in this matter had their bite. It reminded me of Dr. Paa Bobo’s song, “Abaa saa.”
The President said, while campaigning in Jirapa in the Upper West Region, that he pitied the vice presidential candidate of the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP), Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia. Dr. Bawumia is from the north, and the President was telling the people there that the NPP discriminated against northerners.
‘Vice president Aliu Mahama [who was from the north] served faithfully under President Kufour and so when eight years was up and Kufuor was leaving, the natural order of succession would have been that he should have been given the opportunity to lead that party.
“Seventeen people contested against him and defeated him…sometimes I feel sad when I see some of my northern brothers running around and also doing this [change sign]. They will use you and dump you,’’ he said.
Just when the fire attack was dying, a former newspaper editor and Ghana’s ambassador to Namibia, Alhaji Haruna Attah, stoked it. In an article, he tried to justify President Mahama’s statement and went ahead to allege that the opposition leader, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, had once told him that a non-Akan would not be allowed to lead the NPP.
It is unfortunate for Haruna Attah or anyone from the President’s party to try to defend the President on what he said. And it is an insult to the people of Northern Ghana for the President to tell them to vote for him just because he is one of them.
In a sarcastic Facebook comment, which many of my followers did not understand, I reminded the president how he and his party had also used and dumped the people of the north. President Mahama was the first person from the North to lead one of the two main political parties since our republic returned to multi-party democracy in 1992. One of the campaign messages of the president and his team to people in the three regions of the north in 2012 was that he was one of them. They were told about how they should not miss the golden opportunity of electing one of their own.
The President who is from the north, however, presided over the corruption and mismanagement of the social intervention policy, which his southern predecessor had put in place to help reduce poverty in the north. I am talking about the Savannah Accelerated Development Authority (SADA). So what moral authority did the President have to go there playing the ethnic, or more appropriately, regional card?
Indeed, you are one of them, but you and your family are far away from their predicaments. Your brother, who enjoys a number of contracts in your government, owns a private jet but a number of people in the north own nothing except their miserable and poverty stricken lives. Some do not know where their next meal will come from at any given time. The only way some of them can survive from one planting season to the other is to send their energetic young men and women down south to do degrading jobs.
And is the President saying that after he serves his term, the NDC would automatically give Vice President Kwesi Bekoe Amissah-Arthur the mandate to lead the party, as he implied in Aliu Mahama’s case? And who told him that everyone from the north would have been happy to have Aliu Mahama as President after his government left Dagbon very divided?
Finally, the people of the north are not immune to the effects of bad governance, corruption and mismanagement of the country. It is insulting to ask them to shut down their sense of reasoning and vote for someone merely because he/she is from the north.
No one knows how long this fierce debate about ethnocentrism will rage. But I’m sure about one thing: This will not be the last time we will talk about this. And the reason it will not end is because of our hypocrisy. President Mahama and the NDC who fan the ethnic flames for political gain are not the problem. They are only taking advantage of a problem. We cannot solve the problem because we are not prepared to admit that there is a problem.
There is ethnic discrimination in all parts of the country, but it is a taboo for the victims to talk about it. Even the major ethnic groups such as Akans face this discrimination. I have realised that there are two forms of this ethnic problem in Ghana. The first one cuts across the board. If an Akan and a Dagomba apply for a job in Tamale, it is more likely that the Dagomba will get it even if the Akan is more qualified.
Some of us believe Dr. J. Koku Awoonor-Williams is one of the best Directors of the Ghana Health Service to have headed the upper East Region. Because of his policy of ensuring that nurses trained in the region serve a minimum number of years before leaving for the South, there are adequate nurses to work in the region. But the manner in which he was removed left much to be desired. There were reports that some influential people in the region wanted “their own brother” to take over. This kind of discrimination affects all ethnic groups and people from classes of society, including university professors. Here, the people doing the discrimination do not look down on the one being discriminated against. They feel entitled to favour their brothers.
The second type the ethnic problem is what I call ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s ethnic group is superior to others. This is mainly suffered by members of minority ethnic groups. Here, the mere fact that you come from a certain part of the country, sometimes certain parts of same region, means you are towing a heavy trailer of bad qualities that makes you unfit to be viewed, accepted or treated equally based on your personal qualities and character.
I have written about my experience in the Ghana Institute of Journalism when one of our colleagues passed away in the Volta Region and some students vowed never to set foot in the region because the people are demonic. There was an assurance by the President of the Campus Christian family when we finally got onto the bus and people still had fears, that people in the region were not as terrible as they thought.
I know some people whose parents forced them to abandon their partners and marriage plans because those people were Ewes, Northerners or some of those minority ethnic groups with weird stories about them. The number of ethnic groups in the three regions of the North is equal to or more than the ethnic groups in the other seven regions of the country put together. But the term “northerner” has somehow been treated like an ethnic group. And all of us are tarred with the same brush despite our cultural differences. President Mahama’s failure is the failure of northerners. And Dr. Bawumia is seen as an exceptional northerner.
I am from the North, I grew up in the Volta Region and I am married to an Akan from the Western Region. I have wonderful in-laws and fortunately did not suffer this fate. But while we were dating, my wife came under pressure from some of her friends who knew who she was dating. They had no problem with me but they had problems with where I come from. And some would go to the extent of asking how it felt like to date a northerner.
The politicians, especially members of the NPP have been some of the worst culprits of ethnocentrism. They will argue that the party has not written anywhere in their books that they look down on others but their utterances show that.
When they discuss voting on tribal lines, the Ewes and the Volta Region are often attacked, However, the Ewes are Asantes and Akyem (Akans) vote the same way. The only difference is that the Ashanti Region is cosmopolitan and has many settlers from other parts of the country who vote for the NDC. In the same way, northern Volta has a lot of other ethnic groups that also vote for the NPP, but Ewes are often made to look like dimwits of a sort when discussions of block voting are held.
I have many friends in the Volta Region who have told me that President Mahama’s government has failed to live up to their expectation. They, however, cannot vote for the NPP because of how the party treats them. Some have said the best they can do in this election is that they won’t vote.
Since 1992, the NDC has been led by an Ewe from the Volta Region, a Fante from the Central Region and a Gonja from the Northern Region. But the NPP has never been led by a non-Akan, lending credence to the perception of the party as an Akan party. Some utterances by senior members of the party have not helped matters.
The NPP’s flag bearer Nana Akufo-Addo is on record to have referred to NPP supporters as “we Akans.” He was addressing party supporters. He has not admitted his fault and apologised for this but he has the audacity to say President Mahama is ethnocentric and divisive. This is the hypocrisy that is killing our country.
A leading member of parliament of the NPP, Kennedy Ohene Agyapong, in 2012, incited violence against a number of minority ethnic groups and the party did not condemn him. An elder of the NPP, was secretly recorded at a Council of Elders meeting of the NPP questioning why people from parts of the country without resources were governing the country when the natural order of things should have been that those from places with natural resources should govern. The NPP did not see anything wrong with this. Even within the NPP, there is a superiority contest and friction between the Asante and the Akyem.
Haruna Attah has alleged that Nana Akufo-Addo told him that non-Akans could not lead the NPP. People want us to dismiss his words because he has no evidence. It doesn’t make sense. When we have private conversations with people, we do not record them. And I won’t be surprised if Akufo-Addo said it. If he could publicly refer to members of his political party as Akans, why can he not say that in private. The bible teaches us that out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.
The most dangerous thing about ethnocentrism is that the victims dare not speak out. When you complain, others will tell you that you are suffering from inferiority complex. By the grace of God, I can stand shoulder to shoulder with any Ghanaian youth of my age in terms of achievement in my career and contribution to the building of the nation. So why should someone entertain the thought that I am inferior to others unless they are ethnocentrically wired to think that because of where I come from, I ought to feel inferior? For this reason, some people endure it silently and respond positively to dangerous messages like those preached by President Mahama.
So President Mahama is not the problem. He was taking advantage of the problem. It is dangerous and unpardonably condemnable. But condemning him and not tackling the main issues will not wish away the problem. Many people in the North and among other minority ethnic groups identify with him. And they agree with him. Some of us who endure these ethnic abuses at the workplace, church, relationships and in political discourse are able to put the national interest above everything else and move on, fighting our so-called brothers and sisters in government. But we are in the minority.
It’s about time we admitted that we have a problem and dealt with it through an honest and non-partisan way. The negative exploitation of our ethnic differences for political gain is hurting our democracy and our development. It is imploding because we have made it a taboo subject. And it may explode one day if we keep it this way.