Geographic Stigma & Economic History Amnesia

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.

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