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Opinions Fri, 18 Feb 2011

Let’s Admit, Tribal Dicsrimination And Stereotypes Are So Alive In Ghana

Let’s Admit, Tribal Dicsrimination And Stereotypes Are So Alive In Ghana

I must confess one of my favourite all-time calypso tracks is ‘Ugly Woman’, the Mighty Bomber version, originally written and performed by Roaring Lion in 1933, the calypsonian whose music career spanned 65 years.

This hilarious song has Roaring Lion advising the world, “If you want to be happy, living a king’s life, never make a pretty woman your wife. All you got to do is just as I say. From a logical point of view, Always marry a woman uglier than you.”

It is one of the best tracks ever composed and performed, I think.

But, there is something about the song which may be lost on the listener as he or she enjoys it: it answers to a long-held prejudice that physically attractive women are sexually promiscuous and unfaithful. Well, certainly, it had no effect on me when it came to making a bridal choice.

But, is there any truth in that stereotype about pretty women? Or does it stem from the fact that more men are attracted to pretty women therefore putting more pressure on pretty women to yield to more men than their less attractive counterparts? Or is there possibly an element of self-fulfilling prophecy, which dictates that once I am expected to be therefore I must be?

I chose to take this seemingly longer route to make a point, which I believe, has been lost on this national debate on what Nana Akufo-Addo said when he met his party executives and members in Koforidua last week.

Yes, Sir John, in his typical abrasive manner lambasted the regional party for failing its ‘son’ when Nana Addo contested in 2008 and lost the presidency by a small margin of votes. Yes, in their defence, they cited, among other things, anti-Akan propaganda by their political opponents in a region known for its strong ethnic diversity.

Still, what is hitherto lost in the debate is that discrimination is alive and kicking in Ghana like it is in any other society. Specifically, the statement brings to the fore some of the unhelpful ethnic slurs or ethno-phaulisms that cut across Ghana’s multiethnic society.

The silliest part of the whole debate is that it has been made to sound as if Nana Addo was preaching ethnocentrism. In fact, what he was rather doing was seeking to attack a negative ethnocentric stigma about Akans. He simply said: ‘They say we Akans are soft and can be bullied. No. That is not the case. Don’t let that stereotype win!’

Since when have those who advocate against negative stereotypes become the enemies of cultural diversity? Kwame Nkrumah was a hero to the entire black race because he would not accept the prejudice at the time that black people were inferior and he did not deal with it by exhorting blacks to go and attack whites. He inspired blacks to stand up and fight for their right to self-determination and believe that they were capable of running their own affairs.

Ironically, Nkrumah called himself a Hegelian-Marxist, I guess he did not know that the 19th century German Communist philosopher, Hegel, declared that “Africa is no historical part of the world” and that blacks had no “sense of personality; their spirit sleeps, remains sunk in itself, makes no advance, and thus parallels the compact, undifferentiated mass of the African continent.”

Indeed, one of the philosophers I admired during my college days, the Scottish philosopher and economist David Hume was no better. He said, “I am apt to suspect the Negroes to be naturally inferior to the Whites. There scarcely ever was a civilised nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent either in action or in speculation. No ingenious manufacture among them, no arts, no sciences.”

Immanuel Kant was generous enough to add the Asians, including the Japanese and Chinese to the equation. He said, “The yellow Indians do have a meagre talent. The Negroes are far below them, and at the lowest point are part of the American people.”

Do not despair. In 19th century Europe, Jews were classified as an ‘inferior’ race with specific physical and personality characteristics. In the early 1900s, studies and reports were commissioned in the U.S. to ‘prove’ that southern and eastern Europeans were racially inferior to northern and western Europeans. Immigration policies were influenced by these reports and studies, and also contributed to the growing isolationist viewpoint of U.S. government policymakers. Now they know better (well, we hope).

Nana did not say all Akans should go out there and teach the other ethnic groups that they were not soft. He did not preach hate messages against any ethnic group. He simply told Akans to not fulfil the prejudice that they could be bullied. Such pacifist postures only embolden the bully. Is it not true that the uncompromising defensive posture taken by the people of Atiwa, an Akan area, against hired macho men brought there to arguably intimidate the locals ran contrary to that stereotype?

Those who would see this as bad can only be those who believe their purposes are served well by fanning that stereotype that Akans are easy preys.

The primary critical question is this: are we saying that there is no ethnic slur of that nature against Akans? Since there is are we saying it is wrong to challenge it?

There are several ethnic stereotypes against all the ethnic groups in Ghana, even intra-ethnic ones such as Akyems are litigants and Kwahus are stingy. Are we happy with the situation where the negative ones of these generalised representations of our ethnic groups are not challenged?

Ethnic jokes have been around for as long as different groups of people have been mixing with each other. Some are meant to ridicule and depreciate. Some do, in fact, help to strengthen one’s sense of belonging and identity. It is even argued that cross-ethnic humour can help us deal with hostilities verbally instead of physically.

However, there are no clear, deliberate policies in Ghana to check, what sociologists call, ethno-pluralism, where cultural differences are deliberately highlighted to assert our ‘right to be different’ and our irrelevant and false sense of superiority, in some cases. There has been no study into how much damage this may be causing us, as far as I know.

Two months ago, there was a discussion on how NPP is perceived as an Akan party and the other ethnic groups appearing to gravitate more naturally towards the other party.

My take on it was that no national party could survive in Fourth Republican Ghana without having an identifiable ethnic base. The CPP, as big as it was historically, has been dwindling from election to election. They would not admit it but it has a lot to do with the fact that it hasn’t got a ready ethnic base from which to feed.

The trick, however, is to be able to spread your party’s appeal beyond its ethnic base. This is what the PNC has failed to achieve and that is why it is even losing its attractiveness among its original ethnic or regional base.

The NPP has been growing beyond the mainly Akan areas. But, its problem, I argued, is an inherited prejudice that has existed historically between the dominant Akan group and the other groups long before party politics but kept alive by their expediency of party politics. We can only deal with this if the people themselves across the ethnic divides are prepared to deal with it and that calls for deliberate national education.

Is the NDC making a lot of noise about the reference to Akan in the Nana message because it recognises the inherent risk in all Akans identifying themselves with the NPP? I am not so sure how true this fear is because people vote not only according to their ethnicity. The more the NDC makes an issue out of this the more they risk building in the minds of Akans that the party in which their interests are best served is the NPP, perhaps.

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial, said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character." It is pointed out that in taking a courageous stand against racial hatred, Dr. King was subjected to personal injustices which culminated in his murder at the hands of a racist assassin. Yet his message of tolerance, intergroup dialogue, of coalition-building, of resistance to injustice, has endured.

We are all proud of the brave resistance which the ordinary people of Tunisia and Egypt put up in defence of their right to democratic governance even at the risk of their lives. They did not turn their backs to the gun shots, rubber bullets, tear gas, “Molotov cocktail, stones, and all the intimidations that the state security personnel and pro-government people threw at them. Some died, some got injured but the consequences of their courage should fundamentally change their respective nations for better forever.

Dr J B Danquah and Obetsebi-Lamptey, the two nationalists of the UP tradition, also made the ultimate sacrifice. They died not like cowards but like men of valour for their beliefs. They believed Ghana deserved to be free from dictatorship and that the rule of law, multiparty democracy, respect for human rights, individual liberties and free enterprise should be the principles by which this nation should be governed. This has come to pass.

However, it is being threatened by electoral malpractices, lack of trust in the institutions of state and checks on the tools of democratic accountability. Once again, men and women of courage are required to stand up against the erosion of the above values.

Let us be conscious about our own prejudices, because unchecked prejudice and bigotry lead to discrimination and, in some cases, violence or even genocide in extreme cases. The demagogues who are using propaganda to spread ethnic hatred are the ones who are dangerous to our society.

What we are fond of doing as a people is to resort to prejudice by subscribing to ascribed characteristics about a person based on a stereotype, without taking the time to find out the facts for ourselves.

Virtually all scientists accept the fact that there is no credible scientific evidence that one ethnic group or race is culturally or psychologically different from any other, or superior to another. It is your environment that matters most. Let us focus on building a new society where opportunities are not pre-determined by the circumstances of one’s birth.

Let us consciously fight discrimination in Ghana. When we judge people and groups based on our prejudices and stereotypes and treat them differently, we are engaging in discrimination, which makes us no different from the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis or other white extremists. Let us review, what Walter Lippmann called, the “picture in our heads” and look at things as they are and not what we have been made to believe they are...

In the West, the stereotype about black people there is that we are poor, scroungers, lazy, ignorant, criminals, and violent. Groups are formed to fight those prejudices there. What about us and our own demons here in Africa; here in Ghana?

The Author is the Executive Director of the Danquah Institute

gabby@danquahinstitute.org

Columnist: Otchere-Darko, Gabby Asare