The journalist, Manasseh Azure Awuni, in a recent facebook post has complained about attracting “…derogatory remarks such as “this otani too…” whenever he made comments perceived to be antagonistic to the NPP’s interests.

Since I have little room in my wretched life right now for an extended Ghana-style debate on the politics of ethnic prejudice as played, according to Mr. Awuni, by our two major parties, I would quietly have moved on.

But the ‘otani’ word caused me to linger for a while and, like a bad addict, I found myself stimulated enough to try another dose. The amateur historian in me felt that that part of Mr. Awuni’s statements is worth a post, even if I am certainly in no position right now to indulge myself in the other aspects of the matter, and the likely interminable debate that would ensue if I did.

We can split hairs all we want but there is no doubt that there is a degree of prejudice, albeit one that is declining over time, attached to members of the very diverse ethnic groups that make up the Geographic North (‘the North’) of Ghana. In that sense, the spectacular diversity of this upper half of the country does not matter as the prejudice operates in monolithic fashion. Much of that prejudice derive from a stereotype that the North and most people from that part of Ghana are noted for ‘economic dependence or a general lack of economic achievement’.

This is certainly a matter that goes beyond mere perceptions however. It has become objectively defined by official policy in such forms as ‘SADA’, ‘free Secondary Schooling’, and the ethnic dimensions routinely brought up in slum clearance in Ghana. Official policy throughout the post-independence period has sought to establish that the North ‘lags’ the rest of Ghana economically. Wishful thinking cannot counter such formidable categorisations by agents of the state itself.

What actually intrigues me the most, however, and the only reason for this post, is WHEN this ‘objectification of Northern economic low achievement’ started to gain currency. What caused it? What is it that made words like ‘tani’, ‘zongo’, ‘serem’ etc become synonymous with ‘economic subservience’ and eventually transformed them into abject insults?

Firstly, anybody who has done the most cursory reading about pre-colonial Ghanaian history know that the stigma that surrounds these words are of fairly recent vintage.

‘Tani’ to a 19th Century Asante simply meant one who comes from the Kingdom of Inta, which is what the Asantes called Western Gonja. ‘Zongo’ was what they called a major caravan town on the way to Salaga. And ‘serem’ merely referred to the Savanah belt that covered the southwards flow of the Black Volta and encompassed the grasslands to the North of the Tano.

An Asante person of some relative education in the 19th Century saw these lands largely in terms of economic opportunity. ‘Gooro’ or beese (i.e. ‘kola’) was merely a powerful medium of exchange through which trading arbitrage could make a struggling Aristocrat from Asante a man of means in a few years of dedicated intercourse with Salaga (perhaps the reason why we call certain ‘agents for hire’, ‘goro boys’).

Salaga was a great entrepot, and a constant feature in Asante foreign policy, which was overwhelmingly dictated by economic interests. So also was Yahndi (‘Yendi’) and several other major trading posts across the North. The typical Asante person of average education in the 19th Century was unlikely to have associated poverty with the North.

Some have mentioned the ‘donkor’ phenomenon, where bonded workers working the mines and farms of Asante notables tended to live in a condition of servitude akin to slavery and usually appeared to have been brought in from the ‘North’. Yet, a little probing would show that ‘donkor’ phenomenon, as well as the more ancient ‘nkoasom’ phenomenon, were all largely multi-ethnic affairs, in keeping with the fluidity and complexity of human bondage economics of the pre-colonial era. All the written records of the era suggested that ‘Intafou’ were hardly the central fixture of ‘donkor’ phenomenon. At the great river at Assin Manso, for a long time until the clearing of the highways to the fort the central trading exchange of slaves in the lower Pra area, slaves came from every conceivable ethnic grouping on these shores. The Akwamu for instance for all the time they were the chief slave traders in the South only traded other Southerners.

It is important to note that the ‘immense numbers’ of slaves that were delivered by the Asantes from the North to the Coasts, as recorded in coastal fort logbooks, were not necessarily Gonja and Dagomba people. The markets of the North were trading-exchanges of great international repute, and persons from all over the region, some of them from as far away as Dahomey and Moshie, were being delivered daily by raiders. The trade in slaves was, for the most part, a state-organised affair in Gonja and Dagbon. And even after Asante claimed suzerainty over those lands, local aristocrats by and large run affairs as they had always done.

Education? Well, according to the journal scribbles of the foreign observers who recorded many of the impressions of the time, such as Peddie, Frederick James, and to a lesser extent, Hope-Smith, the inhabitants of the Asante Dominions that came from the North tended to be largely traders, clerical workers, and to use modern terminology, consultants of a highly rated sort in medicine, theology, law and general administration. Top scribes in the Asante Court included Intafou and various Scholars from Yendi. In fact, the Europeans had taken to calling them ‘Moors’, and saw their own imperialist mission as one of competition with these Moors in demonstrating the superiority of Western science, letters, and management. At no point was it suggested in these various records that the Asante saw these ‘Northerners’ primarily as poor migrants subsisting on menial labour.

I use Asante because until much later Asante was the primary sojourning place for expatriates and visitors from the North. It was in fact Asante’s concerted national security policy to discourage persons of northern extraction from proceeding further South. This logic had strong economic roots.

If one was to engage in some crude historical GDP estimation analysis, with a view to comparing Asante GNP per capita with that of Gonja and Dagomba (the two main Kingdoms of the North in relative contact with the Southern Powers) simply by using volume of trade, value of trade, and population estimations (see Bosman’s ‘A New Description of the Guinea Coast’ for archetypal records) one might conclude that the average Gonja dweller was even economically better off than the average inhabitant of the Asante empire outside the gold-rich metropolitan cores and Akyem. (for assessments of an earlier period, cf. Kwame Yeboa Daaku’s ‘Trade & Politics on the Gold Coast’). Indeed after Asante lost their suzerainty following the Sagrenti war, the nobles of Salaga dismantled the Asante customs posts in the great market and the Asante government shifted their official trade policy to consolidating Atebubu and other entrepot markets in their Ahafo provinces.

The works of such scholars as Marion Johnson, Jan Hogendorn, Garrard and LaTorre, provides us with ample trade tables to compute the relative value creation in the main commodities supplied by the trading powers of pre-colonial Ghana. When you take a careful look at Asante’s take in gold taxes (about 18,000 oz as observed in the survey of Garnet Wolseley) and export in slaves (ivory was not important on the whole taking the span of the full century), and look at the margins on kola, as a counterweight, one cannot help but conclude that considerable wealth creation was going on in the markets of the North, and that this was the chief interest of Asante in ensuring the continued flow of commerce between their empire and the North.

So how did merely mentioning what were once geographic names associated with economic opportunity (Inta, Zongo, Serem) now associated with prejudice?

I will make the somewhat controversial point that much of the blame can be placed squarely on one phenomenon: COCOA.

The colonial imposition of this mono-crop economic pattern on Ghana that has been enthusiastically embraced by post-independent elites (until the sheer force of economic globalisation itself began to render it redundant) created a situation that overconcentrated extractive economic activity in the parts of Ghana fertile enough for cocoa cultivation and where the associated land ownership arrangements suited specific elites in specific parts of the country came. It also rendered other drivers of trade such as livestock, cola, groundnuts, etc. increasingly ineffectual. The thing is that diminishing returns eventually set in, and Asante, Sefwi and the other cocoa-growing centers have also seen a decline of their economic fortunes over time.

The intensity with which official economic policy has promoted the cocoa economy has been fairly similar to how the oil economy in Nigeria has wiped out the agricultural sustainability of the North of that country as well.

It is not by chance that the North of the Ivory Coast experienced the same level of economic subjugation (which political and security after-effects are still with us today) following the entrenchment of the cocoa mono-crop economy on that country.

Lacking access to land tenure in the cocoa-fertile parts of Ghana was largely responsible for nearly a century of slow economic atrophy that has steadily reduced the North to a state of economic low achievement.

If we were to free our minds from the shackles of uncritical, latter-day, sociology and the miseducation of poor public policy, we will come to appreciate the objective history of certain prejudices and remove the hold of stigma that such words as ‘Tani’ and ‘Zongo’ today have over us.

But that is the least of the benefits history has to offer all of us, and Mr. Awuni as well.

If you visited Wikipedia right this moment and pulled up the article on ‘Adinkra’, you would be told that the Adinkra motifs were originally invented by the Asante.
 
This intriguing factoid has had me musing for much of today. There are some interesting insights to be drawn from it.
 
Firstly, anyone with even the slightest interest in Asante history would find the claim amusing, even if perhaps wistfully so.
 
No, the Asante did not invent Adinkra. Adinkra was a symbolism that dates to the older Akwamu-derivative Kingdom of Gyaman. A Kingdom that lay astride what became Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Its grander half is probably in the Ivory Coast today.
 
The Gyaman Kingdom in the 18th Century came to lie between two powerful emergent empires, the Kong (created by the storied Ouattaras, believed to be scions of the even more glorious, by then defunct, Malian Empire) and the Asante. It was both the fortune of the Gyaman and also their misfortune that this made them an entrepot for the incredibly lucrative kola and ivory trades. Kola was one of three main currencies in Asante, and increasingly a vital part of its geo-economic currency policy.
 
Opoku Ware Tenten, the successor to Osei Tutu Opemsou, outmanouevred other powers in the region and sent forces to guarantee Asante suzerainty over the Gyaman and the entire Tano basin. The ostensible justification was a rumour, perhaps instigated by the Asante Court itself, that Gyaman had made for itself a Golden Stool as the personal property of Gyamanhene Abo Kofi. Having slain the Gyamanhene, the Asante imposed a garrison to maintain the free flow of trade. (Virtually all of Asante’s major wars were geo-economic in nature, involving the control of or strategic access to major trade routes).
 
It is at this point that the story gets interesting. For Gyaman actually learnt to play the diplomatic game well, and for half a century it flourished quite spectacularly. That is, until the rise of the War Party in the Asante Court.
 
Osei Kwadwo Okoawia, Asantehene, watched alarmingly as Gyaman actively courted the Sultan of the Kong and as the wealth of what was nominally a vassal state begun to grow tremendously. Gyaman was at one point so flush with ivory that it is said that Osei Kwadwo’s early plans of building a palace in Dwabirem, Kumasi (near Pampaso, where the military fort museum today rests), mounted on ivory frames (a feat later executed by the time of Bowdich’s expedition by successive Asantehenes) was driven by earnest accounts by traders from Bono.
 
It was in this state of of national pride that Kwadwo Adinkra Ababio became Gyamanhene. And it was he who elevated the art of Adinkra from an obscure craft into the deeply mystical symbolic form it is known today. Some believe that this was the early stages of a written script (perhaps similar to what the Bamum script became in Cameroon nearly a century later).
 
Unfortunately for Kwadwo Adinkra, he peaked at the time when the War Party was firmly in control of the Asante Government, and at a time when the quality of Asante generalship was at its zenith, never to be surpassed. On the Osei and Poku stool sat Otumfou Osei Tutu Ababio Kwame Asibe himself, also known as Bonsu, the Whale. The Asantehene whose impression on the Europeans cemented their tradition (dating from Okoawia’s era) of calling every Asantehene, ‘Sai’, ‘Say’ or ‘Zaay’ (a corruption of ‘Osei’), much in the same way that the Kings of Ancient Egypt are referred to as ‘Pharaoh’. For Osei Bonsu was a thoroughbred warrior-king.
 
Now add to that, the combined might of Opoku Frefre (the gun-breaker) – Gyaasehene, Amankwa Tia – Kontihene, Kwaakye Kofi – Asafohene, and Adum Atta – Adumhene. And what do you get but the Porcupine unleashed in all its ferocity.
 
Needless to say, the Gyaman Kingdom, the greatest of the Bono States, at least since the 13th century splendour of Bono Manso and Tekyiman, was completely crushed. Once again whilst the real reason was the control of the kola trade, the ostensible justification was that Kwadwo Adinkra had crafted for himself a golden stool. The offensive object was melted down and cast into funeral masks, using the skull of the slain King, which today hang on the Asante golden stool.
 
But then a curious thing happened. According to tradition, the eldest son of Adinkra, Prince Apau, a master weaver and undoubtedly a genius of the first class, was under hemlock forced to reveal his father’s hidden collection of Adinkra and other masonic-like mysteries. He was brought to Kumasi where he was put to task converting the prized ‘intellectual property’ into a form worthy of the Asante Empire as a whole, and its pan – Gold Coast aspirations. In such ways does imperialism sometimes express itself as an objective amplifier of the noble regardless of actual origin. In fact, in the half-century that followed, Asante power will carry the Adinkra motif from the Savanna, through the forest, to the very rocky forts of the Coast of what would become Ghana.
 
Why do we today remember Asante for Adinkra rather than Bono? And what does that tell us of our ideas of ‘accomplishment’?
 
Some people like to say that ‘ideas are nothing, execution is everything’. Yet, one can hardly deny that Kwadwo Adinkra executed. He did more than prototype. His contemporary fame was certainly a partial outcome of his flamboyance and creative spirit.
 
It turns out that ‘execution’ is not enough. True domination of a domain or field comes from PROPAGATION. One must be seen as the dominant idea’s most ferocious exponent to become identified with it, in a crowded marketplace of attention.
 
Take Elon Musk. He neither invented the domain of mass produced electric cars nor has he really proven its business model through flawless execution yet. He has taken over the public imagination and become the dominant motif of the very notion of a viable electric car industry and lifestyle because he is its chiefest propagator today.
 
So to repeat, sometimes execution is not up to it. Propagation is everything.

Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that ‘religions’ don’t really exist in that distinct phenomenal way favoured by colonial European classifiers. Because religion is such a loose concept, it is almost meaningless to place such values as ‘bad’, ‘good’ or ‘indifferent’ on it. That is to say it is probably as hard or as silly as trying to categorise a community’s ‘sense of beauty’ as being either good or bad. The object is too ephemeral for that kind of exercise.

You can watch the talk or read the transcript here:

https://www.ted.com/…/kwame_anthony_appiah_is_religion_good…

My response:

I don’t think I can agree with Prof. Appiah. The fact that religion can not be defined to fit perfectly within some specific boundary parameters doesn’t really mean much.

Almost nothing conceptual can be defined to that standard really. Not ‘terrorism’, not ‘politics’, not ‘sex’. Everything is ‘contested’. Actually, there was once a very lucrative industry in Academia built on precisely that fact. It was called *post-modernism*.

Imperfect definitions of religion are just as good as imperfect definitions of ‘morality’ or ‘nationality’. But we can make value judgments about them all the same. Or we can’t, in which case both knowledge and debate are impossible, so all this wont matter. But to the extent that we are in fact debating, we can make accomodation for some imprecision.

For instance, in the first half of the 20th century, ‘nationalism’ and ‘nationality’ were ‘good’ things. Now they are ‘ambiguous’ things, and many people around the world are indifferent about them. But few are troubled about the fuzziness of the concepts a la Benedict Anderson. They grasp it intuitively enough when they argue for trade protectionism or internationalism in the face of ‘climate change’, and implicit in their grasp and positioning of the concepts are value judgments.

On Prof’s other point about specificity in certain religions underwriting the generalisation of ‘boundedness’ to other ‘fluid ways of life’, I believe that this is standard in any epistemology. Are notions of aristocracy in Europe identical with that of China? Maybe not, but the broad contours can be useful for a careful analysis of a more universalist frame of ‘monarchy’.

Which is why I also disagree that it was the Europeans who burdened the rest of the world with bounded notions of religion just at the onset of the colonial age. Every explorer worth their salt since time immemorial has done the same.

Herodotus carved a pantheon out of Egypt’s profound complexity of Godhood and built ontological bridges between Mount Olympus and assorted Theban cults and mysteries. Ibn Batuta did similar things between Islam and a slew of African and Eastern rites.

From the moment we seek to explore our common humanity we set out to NEGOTIATE common VOCABULARIES. To the point where this even becomes self-fulfilling. The average Asante person today believes wholeheartedly that Onyankopon has *always* been the same as Yahweh. A God first perceived in the rainforests of tropical Africa unites in oneness with another first described in the shrublands of Mesopotamia. Is this a material fact? Well, it is a negotiated settlement. We are mentally osmotic creatures. Boundedness can be acquired. Most people today can recognise religion as a distinct domain in their own affairs and in the affairs of other people. In that sense there is a clear target that can be subjected to judgment.

The Dalai Lama may not believe in a monotheistic, personal, God, as Prof asserts. But he has pantheistic notions that constrain the operations of life in traditional Lhasa, at least before the Chinese set about denuding the Tibetan culture. Some have called some of this ‘caste logic’. Some say it is ‘feudal’. Much of the logic does definitely owe to a *supernatural* belief in reincarnation. That is religious. Prof might say that it is instead alter-scientistic or proto-scientistic, and not ‘religious’ per se, but that is, with respect, splitting hairs.

A good proportion of religious dietary injunctions, for instance, are proto-scientistic too. But they are ALSO religious because they claim origination from a source that human minds cannot fathom. In that sense they are ‘supernatural’, which in fact is the signature hallmark of religion.

The Dalai Lama can claim all he wants that he does not derive his power and influence from religion, but without an ‘organised supernatural belief’ in reincarnation by a certain community, he wouldn’t even be the Dalai Lama. A Tibetan republican or Anarchist is justified in that respect to blame religion if he so chooses in his pursuit of reform of that society. Whether we agree with the content of such a person’s value judgment or not, we cannot deny that it has a real, definite, object.

There are communities in Ghana that believe in the violent exorcism of witchcraft. Prof might argue that such beliefs are not necessarily creedal. But it turns out in actual fact that they are reinforced by eclectic doctrines from Christianity and native supernatural rites, and so we have seen that as native priests have declined in influence so have these beliefs. When you look at one of the last vestiges of this supernatural tradition, the so called ‘witches camps’ in the North of Ghana, it is hard not to see a strong element of religious control at play. You can certainly see parallels in certain ‘creedal’ Christian churches, and virtually none at all in Islam. But that is precisely the point. Within the same geographical boundary inhabited by people of generally identical culture, Christians, native religionists, Muslims etc., you can witness, evidently, the boundedness of beliefs that are sustained by social hierarchies, whether they are traditional African priests or charismatic Christian preachers, and thus the differential impacts on the behavior of different actors in that community. And when you do see this, you can’t help but marvel at the consistency of the religious experience.

If you are very perceptive, you might even see the same strong gender dimension at play. This was the doing of a religion alright, albeit one that has nearly gone extinct today. Just as the one that burnt witches at the stake in France and Germany not too long ago is also mostly extinct. And for those for whom woman-burning in the name of with-hunting is repulsive, the strong correlation between the decline of certain religious strains and the abandonment of the practice in highly disparate settings in Europe and Africa can only go to accentuate the objectness of the religious form in their mind.

And if they are so minded, an assessment of right or wrong would feel perfectly justified to them. But who can begrudge them?