|Asantehene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II Photo courtesy|
Where Have We Come From? Where Are We Going?
I will talk about Asante identity, but from a slightly different angle and with a slightly different twist. I will look at how the Asante identity came to be and what lessons we might learn from the making or construction of that identity about the meaning of Asante identity as well as what it might teach us, as a country, about the project of nation-building. In covering this ground, I will draw some parallels with another identity with which I have become intimately familiar in the course of my sojourns and study: the American identity. I will try to draw out some interesting similarities between the construction of the two identities.
I will then devote the remainder of my remarks to the second half of the assigned topic, which, as I interpret it, is concerned with asking how a subnational identity, such as the Asante identity, might be harnessed for national development. Implicit in that framing is the supposition that there are good or positive uses of identity and there are bad or negative uses of identity. How, then, in the specific context of Ghana, must we use and not use identity? Not an easy assignment, I must confess. But in my life as a teacher, I have put my students through this kind of ordeal countless times. I, therefore, cannot be heard to protest too loudly, I guess, if the tables must be
turned on me every now and then.
I.The Making of the Asante Identity
The identity we have come to know as Asante is a rather modern, by which I mean, relatively new, identity. It emerged between the 17th and early 18th centuries; it did not exist before then. In this, it has something in common with the American identity, which also did not exist until around about late eighteenth century. Before then, there was Virginia and New York and Connecticut and Massachusetts and Maryland and Delaware and New Jersey and the rest of the 13 British colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America. These colonies were related by a common language, geographic contiguity, and, most importantly, a common colonial overlord, the King of England.
But each had a separate identity as a colony. It was not until after they had joined together in a war of independence against their common colonizer, and then, subsequently, transformed their triumphant military coalition into a political union bound together by allegiance to a new federal Constitution of the United States of America, that a common American Identity was forged. Hence, its motto “E Pluribus Unum”: Out of Many, One!
Those familiar with the history of the founding of Asante can already see the parallels. There was Kwaman, Dwaben, Mampong, Bekwai, Nsuta, Kokofu, Kumawu, et cetera, before there was an Asante identity. These micro-states were related to one another by a common language, a common neighborhood, and a common overlord, that being the King of Denkyira. But these micro-states were politically separate and autonomous of one another—that is, until they decided to come together, first, in the form of a military coalition or alliance to fight Denkyira. Upon defeating Denkyira, they then agreed to convert their ad hoc military coalition into a political union, their agreement underwritten by allegiance to a constitution symbolized by the Golden Stool. It was at that time that a new collective, federated identity, the Asante identity, was formed. Some historians suggest that the name “Asante” is derived from “osa nti” – because or as a result of war; meaning, it was the imperative of war—specifically, the war of independence against Denkyira—that brought them together to form a nation or common political identity.
It is important to note that, while many of these early states that comprised Asante were related to one another by “blood” or kinship ties, in the sense of belonging to a common clan—most notably, Oyoko—not all were so related. Importantly, Mampon, which became second in the order of precedence under the Asante Constitution, its Silver Stool next in importance only to the Golden Stool and its omanhene the Kontihene of Asante, was from the Bretuo clan, not Oyoko. Assumegya and Kumawu were Aduana, Offinso was Agona, etc. What this tells us is that, while the Oyoko clan predominated in number and came to hold the title to the Golden Stool, the Asante identity, right from the inception, cut across clan or “blood” lines. What mattered, above all, was a common allegiance to Sika Dwa, the Golden Stool. Asante Identity, then, was, from the very beginning, an inclusive identity, not closed or insular.
Indeed, one of the architects of the Asante Union, who, together with Osei Tutu, led and transformed the military alliance into a political union, the famous Komfo Anokye, a.k.a. Kwame Agyei Firempong, was himself originally a native of the distant, then Akwamu controlled Akuapem, from Awukugwa to be precise. In this regard, Komfo Anokye’s role in the founding of Asante may be likened to the Caribbean-born Alexander Hamilton, who, though not a native of any one of the original 13 colonies, became one of the leading framers and architects of the American Republic and Constitution and, thereafter, General-- and first President--George Washington’s right-hand man. With the founding of the American Republic, Hamilton became the first Treasury Secretary of the United States, laying the foundation for its economic system. Komfo Anokye, too, though a native Akuapem by birth/parentage, joined with Osei Tutu in the war of liberation against Denkyira, became Asante at its founding and, thereafter, lived and died as an Asante—and, not an ordinary one, but as Chief of Agona, Asante. You can call him a “naturalized” Asante. However you describe him, Komfo Anokye’s story does affirm that the Asante identity, as originally constructed, indeed transcended ties of consanguinity.
Historians also teach us that many rebellious Denkyiras joined with the Osei Tutu-led military coalition to defeat their oppressive King, Ntim Gyakari, and subsequently returned with the victorious forces to their home states. They also became Asante. Ivor Wilks indeed reminds us that there are many important stools in Asante to this day, particularly in Kumasi, that trace their origins to Denkyira. The Asante identity, then, is an integrative, absorptive identity, much like the American.
As the Asante nation-building project grew in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, by a combination of conquest and diplomacy— which, by the way, is how all the great nations of the modern world, in Europe and beyond, have been formed--Asante came to absorb, assimilate, and incorporate other pre-existing identity groups. This expansive and integrative process reached far and wide, so that, at its height, Greater Asante, as we have learned, covered a territory larger than present-day Ghana. This process of state expansion and nation-building was brought to an end, and in many cases reversed, only by the intervention of British colonialism and colonial policy.
Historically, too, Asante identity has been remarkably accommodative and welcoming, co-existing freely and harmoniously with other identities and identity communities on Asante soil. This is evidenced in the communities of Fantes, Anlos, and other non-Asante that have long called Kumasi and Asante home. It is how the Fante New Towns and Anlogas of Kumasi came to be. Of particular note is Asante’s historical acceptance, and even co-optation in its royal courts and bureaucracies under many different Asantehene, of Islamic clerics and of the Muslim community, well before Christianity planted a foothold in Asante. All of these communities of identity, whether ethnic or religion based, have found a welcome home in Asante, some going into well over a century.
II. The Meaning of Asante for Ghana and Its Development: The Uses and Abuses of Identity.
As Ghana, too, is a state in search of nationhood, trying to build a common Ghanaian identity out of a diversity and multiplicity of sub11 national identities, what can we learn, as a country, from the history of the making of Asante and Asante identity? A lot, if we study and take the history seriously.
First, the story of Asante teaches that a national identity is not a given. It is not something that happens accidentally; it is a project that must be pursued; it is something that must be purposefully constructed. The question is how? The Asante nation and the Asante identity did not drop from the sky, although one of its most enduring founding myths—a creation story, so to speak—involves Komfo Anokye’s magical act of conjuring the Golden Stool to descend from the heavens to rest on the lap of Osei Tutu. The Asante identity was created through purposeful and clever statecraft, including through the deployment of myth and unifying symbols—of which the story of the Golden Stool is the most notable.
What are our unifying symbols and creation myths as a country? What and how much purposeful statecraft have we invested into molding the Ghanaian identity? As the story of Asante teaches us, it is not enough, nor indeed is it necessary, to try to suppress or eliminate sub-national identities to make room for a national identity to emerge. Sub-national identities are not inherently antithetical or oppositional to a national identity. New Yorkers or Texans can be— indeed are--proudly New Yorkers and proudly Texan, yet all proudly American. A national identity—a sense of oneness—can be built on the foundation of sub-national identities. It’s a matter of what we do or wish to do with those sub-national identities.
Take our National Anthem, for example. How unifying is it? How does it make us all feel Ghanaian? What about it is Ghanaian? Why must it be rendered in English and in English only? We have had a Ghana Bureau/Institute of Languages for decades. Why can’t we have a national anthem whose lyrics and musical notes or melody are written and translated into and taught in all the major ethnoregional languages of Ghana, so that every Ghanaian living everywhere, whether or not a speaker or reader of English, can sing along in their own native language when the anthem is played? Why have a so-called national anthem that practically excludes about half the population, if not more, because it is written, sang, and taught in a language they do not speak, read, or understand? How is that nation-building?
We must go to Komfo Anokye and Osei Tutu for lessons in statecraft and nation-building, for their stories—and those of many of their successors--have a lot to teach us about How to/How Not to build one nation out of many.
Take the organization of the state, the Asante state. The rise of the political union called Asante did not come at the expense of the existing micro-states that came to constitute Asante. The Dwabens and Kokofus and Bekwais and Mampons and Kumawus were not dismembered or suppressed to make way for Asante. Though part of a political union, they still retained “home rule”, so to speak. Yes, they gained a new identity, Asante, but not by losing their old identities of Mampon and Dwaben and Nsuta and Bekwai and the like. The whole of Asante was not governed by one man sitting in the capital of the Union and issuing directives to be implemented by his appointed agents in different locations and communities across Asanteman. Control over all resources and wealth across all of Asante, notably land, was not centralized in the royal court in Kumasi. Each constituent state chose its own omanhene, though all had to swear allegiance to the Golden Stool—the Constitution.
Again superior statecraft and a good deal of diplomacy went into holding this delicate union together. For example, it had to take clever statecraft—a good deal of foresight and skills in strategic accommodation--for the dominant, mostly Oyoko founding states of the Asante union to cede to Bretuo Mampon, not another Oyoko state, the position as second in precedence and hierarchy within the union after the Asantehene.
Building a common national identity is not a one-time event; it is a continuous process that requires constant negotiation, give-andtake, and accommodation. The constituent units of Asante held together and stayed together because they must have realized that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. There was synergy to be gained from coming and holding together. Every part had a role to play in the union, had a voice at the table, at the halls of decision-making, and had responsibilities and rewards from membership. It was a mutual-benefit and mutual-aid association, so to speak. That’s what nation-building must be about.
So, going forward, how else might we use or not use Asante identity—or any other identity for that matter—to advance the development of Ghana. First, the how not. We must not use identity to engage in or pursue a game of zero-sum competition with other identity groups. A zero-sum game is one in which a gain by one sides necessarily means a loss by the other player. It is a game in which the whole does not gain or advance, as the gain by one must come at the expense or detriment of another. Ghana’s multiple sub-national identities must be engaged in positive-sum games, in building synergy, so that all groups benefit, and so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the path we have chosen as a country. Right from the beginning, we have pursued a policy of extreme centralization of power and resources in the national capital city, to a point where the entire country has been governed, by and large, at any given time, by one man located in one office in one city in one little corner of the country—with his directives and wishes carried out across the land by his personally appointed agents.
Advocates of this mode of governance argued and believed, at the time of our independence as a country, that it was the best way to unify and develop the country rapidly and evenly under a common leadership and vision.
The result so far has not vindicated the proponents and advocates of this form of political centralism. In place of balanced development, we have reaped lopsided, unbalanced development, centered largely in Accra—or more accurately, in the elite enclaves and neighborhoods of Accra. Vast portions of the country have seen little or no development. Worse still, the distribution of development has come to depend on the political discretion, grace, and preferences of a small Accra-based elite. Nothing good that needs to get done anywhere in Ghana, and nothing bad that needs to get undone, can happen, it appears, without the intervention of the President or one of his agents. The initiative, creativity, and sense of ownership and responsibility that come with local self-government have been stifled. Local populations no longer feel the need to protect our mineral-rich local rivers and forests because they reason, not incorrectly, that those resources do not belong to them and, moreover, are not used for their benefit; they serve the needs of elites and cronies in Accra.
With all power and resources and development centered in and emanating from Accra, our politics have also become predictably Accra-centric. The effect has been to turn our national politics into a zero-sum game in which one or the other coalition of ethno-regional groups competes on the basis of identity against their perceived rival identity groups for control of access to centralized power, resources, and development. Political mobilization of identity for zero-sum competition and the counter-mobilization it necessarily provokes and invites are not the way to build a common national identity and unity. Partisan mobilization and counter-mobilization of identity for the purposes of a zero-sum national political control can only have a centrifugal or divisive effect on our nation-building project—and worse.
The remedy for this growing state of affairs does not lie in episodic and insincere exhortations from central state elites for “unity” and “oneness” among Ghanaians. The remedy to the picture I have painted lies in a serious and credible devolution of power and control over resources and development to local communities and clusters of local communities.
This must begin with the complete democratization of local government, with the election of the mayors of all of our metropolitan and municipal communities. I focus on the metropolitans and municipals because these are local government units of sufficient size and scale that, given commensurate taxing and revenue-raising powers and substantial enough block grants from the national treasury, can chart their own development under the direction of local leaders and administrations that the local communities themselves elect and pay. Currently, under the Constitution, all districts put together, including metropolitan and municipal assemblies, are entitled in a given year—constitutionally that is—to “not less than five percent of the total revenues of Ghana” as their allocation from the State to be used for development. Five percent!
In practice, the percentage is usually more, but the important point here is that, constitutionally, 5% is all that our local government units, put together, are entitled to get out of our national revenues for development. Anything beyond that is essentially at the discretion of the Accra-based political class---which, essentially, boils down to the President and his party. This is an insult and needs to change.
By Prof. H. Kwasi Prempeh
Professor of Law at Seton Hall University School of Law, Newark, New Jersey.