Ethnicity and Political Division in Ghana
Ghana is often regarded as West Africa’s best-governed country, with a relatively well-established system of democratic rule. Although the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index for 2011 rates Ghana as a “flawed democracy,” it is nonetheless only one of two democracies listed in the region. (Mali appears in the same category on the map, but it has recently lost its democratic status.) Ghana’s December 2012 presidential election reinforced its democratic standing. The election was certified by nonpartisan overseeing groups as generally free and fair, although numerous accusations of irregularities were made. The losing political party also rejected the results as soon as they were declared, but it decided to pursue the issue strictly through legal channels.
The recent Ghanaian presidential election was also of note for the high levels of qualification held by the two contenders. The winning candidate was the incumbent, John Dramani Mahama, who had taken office in July 2012 after the death of his predecessor, John Atta Mills. Mahama had been a long-serving Member of Parliament (1997-2009), and served a stint as Minister of Communications. He is a noted writer and historian and is passionately interested in agricultural technology. Mahama is also reportedly fluent in English, Akan, Hausa and three other local languages, and is proficient in Ewe and Russian. He gained his Russian-language skills when he studied at the Academy of Social Sciences in Moscow, managed at the time by the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee, from which he obtained a postgraduate degree in 1988. The losing candidate, Nana Dankwa Akufo-Addo, is a member of one of Ghana’s leading political families, closely related to three of the country’s founding fathers, collectively known as “the big six.” He is also a leader of the Ghanaian pro-democracy movement, and is noted for his practice of human-rights law. Akufo-Addo is also famed for his athletic abilities, having been Ghana’s national squash champion in the 1970s.
The election returns show Mahama winning handily across most of the country, with an especially strong showing in the north and an overwhelming victory in the eastern Volta Region. Akufo-Addo, in contrast, won only the Eastern Region and the Ashanti Region, taking the latter area with an impressive 70.9 percent of the votes cast.
At first glance, these returns seem to indicate political differences between the Ashanti people of central Ghana and the Ewe people of the eastern Volta Region. The Ashanti are an Akan-speaking group who had formed a powerful state in the pre-colonial era that successfully resisted British imperialism for decades. Ashanti nationalism still runs strong, and its traditional monarchy continues to function, reigning over a “constitutionally protected, sub-nation state.” The Ewe people, on the other hand, found their lands divided by European imperialism, and they are split today between Ghana and Togo.
After briefly pondering the election returns, I turned to a former student, Eugene Adogla, whose Religiously Remapped website has previously been noted on GeoCurrents. As he explained, several regional issues played out in this election. Mahama did very well in the north, as he is from the town of Bole in the Northern Region, and northern Ghana had not supplied a president since 1981. The overwhelming vote for Mahama in the Volta Region, Adogla explains, had more to do with his party affiliation than anything else, as the left-leaning National Democratic Congress (NDC) that he leads had been founded by Jerry Rawlings, a half-Ewe, half-British political leader who was Ghana’s military head of state from 1981 to 1993 and then its elected president from 1993 to 2001. Ever since the founding of the party, the Volta Region has backed NDC candidates. The strong Ashanti vote for Akufo-Addo followed a similar pattern, as his party, the center-right New Patriotic Party, had been founded mostly by people from the Ashanti and Eastern regions. Akufo-Addo is not himself Ashanti, but he is Akyem, an Akan-speaking group native to the Eastern Region.
As Adogla goes on to explain: “Historically, there has been animosity between the Akan in general and Ashanti in particular and the Ewe people; this goes back to the days of conquest when the Ashanti Empire dominated the Ewe. The days since have been marked by subliminal rivalry that occasionally boils over, though thankfully not violently. Politics has become an arena for exercising this rivalry.”
Religious differences have not played a major role in Ghanaian elections. Although, like most West African countries, Ghana is mostly Christian in the south and mostly Muslim in the north, Christianity overall dominates the country, with only around 15 percent of Ghanaians following Islam. Both candidates in the 2012 election are Christian. Mahama belongs to the Assemblies of God, whereas Akufo-Addo attends Ridge Church, an elite multi-denominational Protestant church located in the heart of Accra.