Among the things Kwame Nkrumah is celebrated for today was his commitment to building a national identity that transcended the ethnic identities that made up Ghana. Nkrumah, an Nzema from the Western Region was first elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1951 as the representative of Accra Central.
In his book Dark Days in Ghana written in exile in Guinea after the coup that removed him from office in 1966, Nkrumah accused the opposition of exploiting ethnic tensions in campaigning against him. He stated that the push for federalism by the National Liberation Movement (NLM) focused on spreading discontent in the Ashanti Region with the support of the Asanteman Council.
He described the opposition United Party (UP) that were the post-independence opposition as “amorphous” having been formed by a collection of parties representing regional or ethnic interests after the passage of the Avoidance of Discrimination Act of 1957 which forbid parties from being based on ethnic, religious or regional grounds.
Nkrumah partly attributed the coup to ethnic interests. He observed that most of the coup plotters who formed the National Liberation Council (NLC) were of the Ewe and Ashanti ethnicity. He wrote:
There has always been a close link between the Ewes and Ashanti reactionary elements
He predicted (correctly) that the ethnic basis on which the NLC was founded would be its undoing. He wrote:
Its very foundations are unsafe. In addition, the position for the “N.L.C.” has been complicated right from the start by deep cleavages between Army and Police and by tribal animosities.
Given these run ins with ethnic tensions, one would expect that Nkrumah would have steered clear of using ethnicity for political purposes but apparently that did not happen. By his own admission, ethnicity was considered within his party, the Convention People’s Party (CPP) when it came to appointments. He wrote:
While I believe we had largely eliminated tribalism as an active force, its by-products and those of the family system were still with us. I could not have chosen my government without some regard to tribal origins and even, within the Party itself, there was at times a tendency to condemn or recommend some individual on the basis of his tribal or family origin.
While Nkrumah was no fan of chieftaincy, their political clout was such that he is accused of having interfered in selection of chiefs. In Dark Days he admits that he had to introduce a right for chiefs to appeal their destoolment because chiefs had been destooled in Ashanti due to their support of the government and opposition of federalism.
A sober article written by Professor Acheampong Yaw Amoateng, PhD in the wake of violent clashes that broke out between supporters of the Techiman and Tuobodom paramountcies in 2010, traced the animosity to the creation of the Brong Ahafo region out of the Greater Asante region by Nkrumah in 1959. Prof Amoateng suggests that Nkrumah took advantage of the Bono and Ahafo nationalist movement which arose out of the resentment felt by Bonos and Ahafos “because of the historically inferior status accorded them by the Asantes.” By creating the new region, the supporters of the nationalist movement became supporters of the CPP.
It would appear then that although Nkrumah may have wished for a truly post-ethnic society, he was not above exploiting ethnicity for political expediency himself. Forty-nine years after his overthrow, the nation still wrestles with the leviathan of ethnic politics. In dealing with this, exploring our history is always a good start.
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