Yesterday, I made my usual rounds on social media as I usually do after my day’s work. This time around, I had just finished meeting the director of the graduate program and her assistant along with four other graduate students to look over and discuss the practice papers we had written for our upcoming preliminary exams, what other call qualifying exams for our PhD dissertations. I was generally upbeat yesterday after my rounds as the comments were critical but positive of my attempt. So I purposefully tried to ward off getting angry and spoiling my happy mood as social media invariably does to my mood. Then I saw a post from my favorite Ghanaian columnist: Manasseh Azure-Awuni.
Earlier, I had seen an article on multiple news sites I follow including the New York Daily News and my discussion group called “Black Studies and Critical Thinking” about a black woman defending the confederacy and arguing that slavery was a choice. I had seen this article two years back when it first got published on July 2015 during the heat of the 2016 US Presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I did all the mental and critical engagement I could with it back then so when it resurfaced this week because of the ongoing reenergized debate over Confederate statues and botched response to the Neo-Nazi and white supremacist rally turned terror attack in Charlottesville VA by the bumbling US President, I decided needn’t to waste my time engaging it. But then Manasseh shared the article on his Facebook post literally endorsing the errantly ignorant view held by this sad young woman. But like I said, I decided not get angry on the day so I let him go instead of responding to him because I knew his history with this topic. But a few friends and other Ghanaians on social media seemed pleased with his aggravatingly simplistic, ahistorical, and honestly ignorant view on slavery. So I thought I should respond in a more educated and less polemical way he did to an issue he knows very little about as shown by his views. To be clear, I am not a slavery scholar as my area of studies goes further back to the sixteenth century. However, the contact between cultures comes up all the time in my studies. So I am offering a view as a somewhat tangential scholar on the topic but also as someone who has read quite a bit on slavery scholarship on my own.
Back in 2016, I read one of Manasseh’s columns and was infuriated. As someone I respect, I had hoped that when he tackled an issue like slavery that required expert knowledge, he would consult actual slavery scholars or consult a history book to say the least. But alas here we are. In that January 20th, 2016 column, Manasseh had conflated corruption of twenty-first century African National governments and politicians with a supposed moral decay that allowed as he put it for the “betrayal of the collective interest of the Black race” by our ancestors. In that column titled “From slave trade to terror trade: How African leaders sell their people for favours”, Manasseh in his disdain for the decision by the then Mahama administration to allow ex-Gitmo prisoners into Ghana went on to muddle so much history essentially blaming what he called “the Africans” for 95% of blame for slavery whiles the white man got 5%. How he got to those figures, he still could not justify or when he tried, he made a fool of himself. So I was not surprised when I saw his new post endorsing the ignorant view of this lost black young woman. But it is important to unpack exactly what slavery was and how it functioned in Africa in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.
If you want an exhaustive history of slavery as it happened in Africa prior to our contact with the West, please refer to these works: Yaw Bredwa Mensah – Archaeology of Slavery in West Africa 1999, Joachim Jack Agamba – Beyond Elmina- The Slave Trade in Northern Ghana, Ella Karen – Memories of the Atlantic slave trade in history teaching in Ghana- Breaking the silence?, Trevor R. Getz – Slavery and Reform in West Africa: Toward Emancipation in Nineteenth-Century, Akosua Adoma Perbi – A History of Indigenous Slavery in Ghana From the 15th to the 19th Century among other major publications on the history. I can send you copies of some of these publications if you want to read some of them and further your knowledge on slavery. If you want to read about African history as it pertains to the way African society was organized and ran, you might do well to read Kwame Arvin’s Aspects of the Ashanti Northern Trade in the Nineteenth Century 1970, Braimah et al’s Amankwatia, Osafroadu – History and Traditions of the Gonja, Ivor Wilks’ Asante in the Nineteenth Century: The Structure and Evolution of a Political Order and Northern Factor in Asante History, as well as Tamakloe Emmanuel Forster’s A Brief History of the Dagomba People. What I am going to say below are all captured succinctly in these books and many others if you so choose to read and educate yourself.
Before I go forward, this exactly what Manasseh wrote and why I need to respond to this as concisely as possible:
“I agree. It was a choice. They came and gave us booze. And we went as far as to the North to catch our fellow blacks and sold them off. If we had United against the white slave raiders, we could have ambushed and killed them all before they got to the coast with their slaves even if they managed to catch our own. It’s dishonest to hide our roles and blame others.”
What Manasseh showed in this short post, and in the 2016 article I mentioned earlier is gross ignorance or gross misunderstanding of history. Before the formation of the modern state, most societies were organized according to the clan or tribe or ethnic group. This was not peculiar to Africa. So the interests of the clan or the tribe or the ethnic group reigned supreme in every society across the globe. So when the English were fighting the Scottish or the Irish on the British Isles, they were fighting for their separate national identities, which at the time corresponded with their ethnic or tribal allegiances. So it would be historically inaccurate to suggest that the British were treacherous against their own brothers when the IRA engaged in bombing campaigns across Britain seeking Irish independence or the Scotts were selling their brothers out when they accepted the protection of one mainland European power or the other against the English. That will be a grave misunderstanding of history. The cobbling together of different ethnic groups or tribes to form the modern state is a new phenomenon in world history. Even today, we are still struggling the world over – from the United States to Nigeria to China to Spain to extricate from people’s minds the allegiance to the tribe and transfer it unto the state. The question of national allegiance is still a hotly debated issue.
So when Manasseh ignorantly and simplistically claims that “they came and gave us booze”, what is his basis for the ‘us’ used in the sentence? Who constituted the ‘us’? In his conflation of twenty-first century African polities with ethnic and tribal polities of the fifteenth to nineteenth century polities, he stripped Africans of their indigenous history and lumped us all together in the mythos of monolithic Dark Continent created by the West. When an Ashanti man went to war with a Dagomba man, he was not going to war against his people. He was defending the only political union he knew: the Ashanti nation against a hostile rival nation: Dagbon nation. The Ashanti competed with the Dagomba just as the Frenchman competed against the German or the Irish competed against the English. In as late as 1990s, the Irish were still fighting the English and no one in his or her right mind would accuse the Irish of sabotaging their European brothers and sisters. What is dangerous about what Manasseh is doing is perpetuating the mythos of Africa as a monolith created by the West as well as helping them shirk responsibility for the brutality of chattel slavery (different from indigenous slavery practiced in Africa at this period) they instituted once they got enslaved Africans off the shores of the continent.
There was no uniting against the white invaders as Manasseh puts it. The Akan were just as foreign to the Dagomba as the Portuguese were to either group. We are trying to create a new Africa where our imagination of national solidarity moves beyond the tribe but that doesn’t mean we should inscribe on our past the new principles we are trying to build.
In as much as it would be ridiculous to claim that the Holocaust was a choice, it is much the same to claim slavery was a choice. The Ashanti owed no allegiance to the Dagomba at the time because we did not have a sense of black identity at the time. We operated as independent and often antagonistic polities as was the case everywhere else in the world. A century after slavery ended in Europe, Europeans fought two deadly wars among themselves leading to more war deaths than at any other time in history. Would you point fingers at Europe as a whole with such chagrin as you do with Africans in this post? Was going to war with Germany a choice for the Hungarians or the French or the Brits? It is important we learn how to analyze history. There was no collective “we” in Europe during World War 1 or World War 2. And neither was there a collective we in Africa during the slave trade to be given booze. Likewise, there was no collective Africa to take an arbitrary 95% blame.
When we talk about the holocaust, we single out Germany or any other such historical atrocity. We need to do the same with Africa. We are not a monolith, at least not yet. Our history of seeing every black man as kin is an infant one. Let us not mix what and where we want to be with what we were a hundred and fifty years ago. We definitely have to make sure that our new leaders are accountable to us and responsive to our needs instead of selling us out for trinkets. When we draw parallels with the past, we have to draw accurate parallels, not made up identity we never had. I still believe Manasseh is doing good work writing regular columns in a country where we seem to shy away from writing. But I think on this issue, my brother holds a very outdated, ignorant, and detestable opinion not backed by serious reading.