I woke up this morning ready to work finalize my syllabus for the literature course I am teaching to sophomore students this semester at Texas A&M University as my major work for the day. I decided to balance work with making some food and ended up settling on making light soup. So with the remaining goat meat I bought from the Iranian store in downtown College Station last week, I set out to make light soup so that I will have food for the weekend keeping in mind that the impending hurricane warning in Texas might mean I cannot cook for the rest of the weekend. As per my routine I usually do my morning social media rounds including my favorite Future Group: a platform on WhatsApp started by my friend Kombat – former SRC president of University of Ghana where we have young men and women from all over Ghana engaged in daily banter about the country and supporting each other as we envision a more perfect union, both social and economic, for our dear country.
The Future Group is perhaps my most visceral link to mother Ghana as I stay in the diaspora jungle trying to get an education degree. So I follow the happening of the page closely and religiously because it offers a lot of hope for the kind of Ghana I hope we can build. As I started cutting chili peppers (what we call naanzubua among the Dagomba of Northern Ghana), habanero peppers, bell peppers, and tomatoes among the many vegetables and spices I was using for my usually spicy soup, I went on the Future Group WhatsaApp platform. As my friends Steve and Elias will attest, I usually put on something to listen to while I do my cooking. So I was looking for something to put on as I start my cooking so I went raiding my Future Group for content. Then I saw an audio recording of the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Mr. William A. Quaitoo, making a categorically contemptuous and bigoted statement about what he called “northerners” and I was not surprised a bit. According to him, northerners were difficult people and were in the practice and habit of using non-existent crises to get money from the government. I responded that what he said was regular business in Ghana and that in other jurisdictions, he would have been forced to resign but alas we were in Ghana so nothing will happen. And then I went on with my daily work and later this evening, I opened my Social Media again to see that one of my colleagues on the Future Group, Kwakye Afreh-Nuamah, a journalist had taken up the course, calling out the deputy minister for his bigotry and demanding his resignation. So I thought I would write this on the various kinds of bigotry in Ghana and the dangers it poses to the social fabric of our country we all love and love to praise to no end.
Two weeks ago, I had an encounter with one of my friends and I will use this to illustrate the penetration of bigotry in Ghana and how most of us cannot even see it when it is in the open right in front of us or when we ourselves are presently engaged in it. After the US president Donald John Trump bungled his response to the terror attack by white supremacist James Alex Field Jr. in Charlottesville, Virginia, the president had blamed both sides of the mess in Charlottesville drawing moral equivalence between the white supremacists and neo-Nazis chanting hateful slogans like “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” alongside waving torches and Nazi and Confederate battle flags AND anti-racist marchers like ANTIFA and BLM. I wrote a number of posts on Facebook denouncing the president and his defense of these despicable neo-Nazis and white supremacists and particularly for his conflation of these hate groups with young people trying to oppose their bigotry and hatred.
My friend who has the habit of defending absurd things wrote on Facebook, not entirely to my surprise, that he opposed all groups who espoused any kind of supremacy including BLM, which according to him espoused black supremacy. Having been really unhappy that week, I was in no mood to be nice to him about his arrant display of ignorance and dangerous conflation of hate groups and evil with people and groups that opposed them. So I told him he was very ignorant of what he was talking about and he should educate himself and not conflate evil and the opposition to evil. As we usually do, when either of us disagrees strongly with each other publicly on Facebook, we tend to move our conversation to messenger where we can talk privately. So he reached out to me privately and immediately he took a condescending tone educated by his view of me as emotive and not intellectual as he saw it: this view I will argue later on is most likely founded on bigotry he isn’t even aware he has or unwilling to see that he has, it is this innate bigotry that I am afraid of especially in my friends who might think they are good people.
So this is what my friend said:
Why can’t you put your emotions aside and argue as an intellectual? I have noticed this about you and I keep reminding you over and over. Your emotions can destroy the essence of your argument. This style of yours is below you [nice cushion with a smiley emoji)
I knowing him decided not to engage him in his slight of my person so I went straight to the issue trying to get him to tell me how he had come to the conclusion that BLM was espousing black supremacist ideology. After a long back and forth that lasted about an hour, I forced him to confess that he really didn’t have any evidence to show that BLM was a black supremacist group and all he had was supposed to have come from a sensing or a feeling, from where he got it I don’t know as he said this: “I must admit, I don’t have evidence to that effect but I sense it is becoming racist.” He went ahead to delete the post in the spirit of having learned something from our discussion. I sent him the policy platform published by BLM which generally feels like a Bernie Sanders social democratic campaign white paper than anything relating to black people as a group more than anything. What happened next is utterly ludicrous.
After I had just got him to admit that he made a public post on a group based a feeling and not from reading and research, my good friend went ahead to say this to me:
But you have to work on your emotions. It is serious. I have told you about it several times. No one will be telling your weakness when they see it. You have strong points but you allow your emotions to ruin them. I don’t want to be stereotyping here but most of my Muslims(sic) friends are too emotional. Something I have observed personal [ly].
He went on a long tangent of Freudian psychoanalyzing me and telling me that my ID is stronger than my EGO and Superego and that I must learn to allow my Super ego to control my ID and ego. As usual, I didn’t respond to this condescending and infantilizing behavior and we went on with our conversation because I just found him too funny to engage at that moment. But the issue I want to point out in his engagement with me is his statement that his “Muslims (sic) friends are too emotional. Something I have observed personal [ly].” Most statements that go with “I don’t want to be…” are usually when the person knowing full well he or she is about to say something bad but doesn’t want to be judged for saying it. So they deploy that linguistic quip thinking it is clever. This idea he was peddling that Muslims are emotional is something I encountered throughout my stay in Accra at the University of Ghana. But I will come to it later. The irony in our encounter is the fact that my friend was accusing me of emotional argumentation when he was actually the one engaged in it in that moment. He hadn’t done his reading and made his mind about BLM based on a feeling or sensing. But he could not see the irony of telling me I am emotional in the same conversation when throughout our conversation he was the one who was without facts and I was the one asking him to stay on a logical and factual plane. He already made up his mind about who and what kind of mental faculties and psychological state I am in based on me being Muslim as if Muslim is a DNA which made me emotional than say him as a Christian. But if I were a Christian, he might have found another reason to tag me with the same stereotype he had in his southern Ghanaian mind. I would have been a “pepeni.”
There is a pervasive negative stereotypes of various groups in Ghana. One thing I love about Ghana, especially Northern Ghana where I grew up is the playfulness with which we do stereotyping. Between the Mossi and Dagomba, we tease each other with stereotypes that would seem vile to an outsider but the Dagomba has no better friend than the Mossi on our worst day. However in the modern Ghana, cross regional stereotypes often tend to have terrible political implications when and usually if employed by unscrupulous political actors. Some stereotypes are positive while others are negative. But the positive stereotypes can easily turn negative, as the history of the work pepeni has shown in Ghana. In Ghana today, the word pepeni, which used to connote “honest to a fault” trait among northerners thereby earning them jobs as security guards among other positions quickly turned negative in the face of competition for scarce jobs in the modern Ghana. So the abiding of these stereotypes of various groups in Ghana tends to hold us back as a people. Everyone remembers the calling of former president Mahama pepeni after he won the presidency when the word had almost ceased to exist in popular usage among Ghanaians. Then the infamous Osafo Marfo tape showing him sowing regional/ethnic discord by claiming only one region/people in Ghana has resources. In our body politics, we need to make sure we make no room for people who still espouse these kinds of views. But the putting of Osafo Marfo into the powerful senior minister set a stage for what some detractors of Nana Addo will claim is his leniency, to say the least, of ethnic/regional bigots like Osafo Marfo.
This is what the deputy minister said:
If anybody who is the north and said his farm was destroyed by fall armyworm the person must prove it. Our brothers (in the North) it is so difficult to deal with them. I lived there for 27 years, I speak Dagbani like a Dagomba and all that. They are very difficult people. Nobody can substantiate. If anybody says that his farm was destroyed by armyworm, the person would have to come and prove it. We have no records of that. It’s just a way of taking money from the government: that’s what they do all the time…
What you see in his statement is ethnic/tribal and regional bigotry. He tried to use what I usually see here among white racists who try to refuse to see their racism by claiming they have black friends. That is exactly what Mr. William Agyapong Quiatoo did right there. “I lived among northerners so I can make a claim putting them in a monolithic group and ascribing a bunch of negative stereotypes to them.” According to him, northerners are difficult because that is his experience living among the Dagomba. Again, northerners supposedly make up false stories to take money from the government all the time. If anywhere else in the world, this would be met with outrage across the political class but alas in Ghana, it is the opposition-crying foul while the ruling government keeps mute therefore bastardizing a unifying moment and making everything political. But it is not really surprising given that many a Ghanaian still hold on to their various kinds of bigotry even though we claim we are a united country and a peaceful people.
It is still seen as bad among Ghanaians for Muslims to marry Christians even though intermarriages are on the ascendancy. My own family has its own history of this bigotry and I have my own personal story to this effect. My grandfather is a staunch Sunni Muslim leader in the suburb of Tamale I grew up in. So when my aunt fell in love with a Christian and an Akan man, the family, especially my grandfather was staunchly opposed to the marriage. This was in the late 1980s but it illustrates the point I am making. After she decided she was going to marry this man despite my grandfather’s objection, he disowned her and barred her from coming to the family. I grew up knowing about the legend of my aunt. I have seen her only once in my life when I passed by her marital home once in a neighboring suburb with my friend and a family elder pointed her out to me. Since my grandfather is an intimidating patriarch, the entire family basically cut my aunt and her children off sad to say. One of the things I plan to do is go visit her home and children when I go back home. I am now grown enough to openly defy my grandfather. So I am not afraid. My aunt’s story in the 80s is not unique as many families in Ghana do this all the time based on religious bigotry or tribal prejudice.
I, on the other hand, have always been the type to shy away from ethnic or religious allegiance. The first girl I brought home when I was in Junior High school was an Ashanti girl called Yaa Asantewaa (sounds cliché but true). She was in her mini skirt when I brought her home to greet my strict Sunni grandfather and he was livid. At home, the family elders started saying I will end up being a pastor. I still find that amusing when I remember this episode and time in my life. Asantewaa was taken back to Accra after our Junior High school education and I have never heard from her again. The last time I heard of her she was supposedly with child and married so I ended any childhood dreams of reconnecting with my junior high sweetheart. In Senior High School, I didn’t do any romance as I was pretty much a bookworm in school but again my best friends in school were Ibrahim (a Gonja Christian – still my best friend) and Manasseh (an Ewe Christian). I have always been fascinated with difference and gravitate towards it all the time because I always see the opportunity to learn and grow. So I was not surprised when I fell for an Ewe Christian girl at the University of Ghana campus despite being a regular at the UG mosque during my first two years at Legon. I don’t think I have ever felt sure of something as I did with this girl at the time. But alas I was bound for heartbreak again as she told me she would not go out with me. We had been very close friends and study buddies so it knocked me off balance and I had the worst semester of my time at Legon when it happened. I suspect part of the motivation for her refusal had something to do with religion. One thing she asked me when I told her I wanted to marry her during one of our musings was whether I was prepared to convert to Christianity. Me being the open and straightforward person I have always been told her I would not. That it would be dishonest and counterproductive to do something like this when my heart didn’t believe in it. I know many people do that and after marriage, they don’t go to church or sometimes even go back to their previous religion to the chagrin of the woman and her family. I felt it was dishonest and dishonorable to do something like this to someone you love. So my dreams for a future with this girl went up in flames right there.
One of the challenges we have in Ghana is that public perception shapes a lot of personal decisions. And public perceptions are often reinforced by public figures that air these perceptions publicly reinforcing these values. When it was so clear that Osafo Marfo had been a bigot but was allowed to continue as leader in Nana Addo’s government (given the powerful Senior Minister role), it reinforced a destructive public sentiment. Fiifi Kwetey a former propaganda secretary (aptly non-ironic description here) of the NDC made comments that a Muslim can never be a president of the country and the NDC went ahead to make him a Minister when they came into power, it reinforced negative public sentiment and bigotry. Mr. Kwetey has yet to issue an apology to the Muslim community in Ghana. So there appears to be a sense in which bigotry against groups in Ghana is tacitly awarded and not rebuked in Ghana thereby making it appear fine to the Ghanaian public.
Unlike Fiifi Kwetey or Osafo Marfo, Mr. Quaittoo has issued an apology. Even in the apology, there are things to learn. In his apology, he still claims he could not deliberately try to spite northerners because he lived with them for 27 years. Again, that is a cop out and shameful behavior of a coward. Didn’t white slave masters live all their lives with black people and still went ahead to own and sold them? He then went on to lie that he meant to say farmers in all regions could be difficult. But if you listen to his taped interview, you can clearly discern the negativity, aggression, disdain and chagrin he has for people he calls northerners. Part of his bigotry is that he seems to conflate Dagombas with northerners. Living among the Dagomba doesn’t make you an expert on northerners. The Basaari or Chekosi or Chamba polity and way of life is as different from the Dagomba as it is from the Ga or the Ashanti given that the Basaari or Chekosi or Chamba were acephalous groups as opposed to the centralized Dagomba or the Ashanti. As a Dagomba, I always find it infuriating when I am used as a yardstick to measure northerners.
Mr. Quaittoo, just like Mr. Marfo and Mr. Kwetey is not fit to hold public office in Ghana. But alas we are in Ghana and their reprehensible views are not punished and discouraged by government after government so they continue to have the negative reinforcing influence on the general Ghanaian society. On my friend Afreh Kwakye-Nuamah’s Facebook post, there are many people asking for clemency for the bigoted minister showcasing how people are willing to allow these kinds of infractions to go unpunished. But more destructive and unsurprisingly are people defending his statement as innocuous and having no bigotry in it. These people themselves are bigoted so they hold these same kinds of views so they don’t see how his views can be bigoted. They are afraid they would have to confront themselves and change themselves so they decide to feign ignorance. These people are dangerous. And they are reinforced by the lack of discipline and leadership by the top brass of political leadership in Ghana.
If Nana Addo doesn’t fire Mr. Quaittoo just like Osafo Marfo, it cements my belief that most Ghanaian politicians, especially Nana Addo are comfortable having bigots whose views are inimical to the good of Ghana in their governments so long as it is politically convenient. It is time for Nana Addo to show leadership. We need to build a society where bigotry of any kind is absolutely not countenanced. As someone with friends across the ethnic and religious and geographical landscape of Ghana, I always find it sad to see leaders tearing our country apart when we have come such a long way to creating a more perfect union from our time as separate ethnic polities. I crave the day when we can live in a Ghana where everyone would be judged on the content of his or her character rather than his or ethnic origin or the religion he or she was born into or God(s) he or she freely chooses to worship.