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Ghana - Ethnic Groups

In 1960 roughly 100 linguistic and cultural groups were recorded in Ghana. Although later censuses placed less emphasis on the ethnic and cultural composition of the population, differences, of course, existed and had not disappeared by the end of the 20th Century. The major ethnic groups in Ghana include the Akan, Ewe, Mole-Dagbane, Guan, and Ga-Adangbe.

The subdivisions of each group share a common cultural heritage, history, language, and origin. These shared attributes were among the variables that contributed to state formation in the precolonial period. Competition to acquire land for cultivation, to control trade routes, or to form alliances for protection also promoted group solidarity and state formation. The creation of the union that became the Asante confederacy in the late seventeenth century is a good example of such processes at work in Ghana's past.

Certain communities, tribes and ethnic groups maintain a hierarchical culture in which the leading roles, such as the chieftain and/or high priest, are subject to a succession process. Chieftaincy disputes, which frequently resulted from a lack of clear succession, competing claims over lands and other natural resources, and internal rivalries and feuds, continued to result in deaths, injuries, and destruction of property. For example, in January 2011 one person was killed and two others seriously injured over a land dispute between Abiriw and Dawu residents, in Kuapem, North District. In March 2011 two police officers were shot in a chieftaincy riot at Akwamufie, Akosombo District. One of the officers died from his injuries.

The complex structure of royalties or tributes paid in the Mamprug-Dagbon-Nanung and the Gonja Kingdoms was very significant or important to every chief or King in these Kingdoms since it signifies that he controls and owns the land. Royalties or tributes payment served as an integral force in the Kingdom. It also demonstrated the power entailed in the Kingship. By a mere violation to offer or pay royalties or tributes meant that his reign was not being recognized.

Ethnic rivalries of the precolonial era, variance in the impact of colonialism upon different regions of the country, and the uneven distribution of social and economic amenities in post-independence Ghana have all contributed to present-day ethnic tensions. For example, in February 1994, more than 1,000 persons were killed and 150,000 displaced in the northeastern part of Ghana in fighting between Konkomba on one side and Nanumba, Dagomba, and Gonja on the other. The clashes resulted from long-standing grievances over land ownership and the prerogatives of chiefs. A military task force restored order, but a state of emergency in the region remained in force until mid-August 1994.

Although this violence was certainly evidence of ethnic tension in the country, most observers agreed that the case in point was exceptional. As one prolific writer on modern Ghana, Naomi Chazan, has aptly observed, undifferentiated recourse to ethnic categories has obscured the essential fluidity that lies at the core of shared ties in the country Evidence of this fluidity lies in the heterogeneous nature of all administrative regions, in rural-urban migration that results in interethnic mixing, in the shared concerns of professionals and trade unionists that cut across ethnic lines, and in the multi-ethnic composition of secondary school and university classes. Ethnicity, nonetheless, continues to be one of the most potent factors affecting political behavior in Ghana. For this reason, ethnically based political parties are unconstitutional under the present Fourth Republic.

Political alignments tended to form along purely local (clan and village) cleavages and reflected local interests and antipathies rather than general ethnic ones. Permanently binding political allegiance could be discerned only at the local level. Of the larger entities, only the Ashanti - proud of their tradition - regarding themselves as a nation even before the arrival of the British, and sharing a common interest in cocoa production - could be accurately described as forming a relatively permanent ethnic political bloc.

Despite the cultural differences among Ghana's various peoples, linguists have placed Ghanaian languages in one or the other of only two major linguistic subfamilies of the Niger-Congo language family, one of the large language groups in Africa. These are the Kwa and Gur groups, found to the south and north of the Volta River, respectively. The Kwa group, which comprises about 75 percent of the country's population, includes the Akan, Ga-Adangbe, and Ewe. The Akan are further divided into the Asante, Fante, Akwapim, Akyem, Akwamu, Ahanta, Bono, Nzema, Kwahu, and Safwi.

The Ga-Adangbe people and language group include the Ga, Adangbe, Ada, and Krobo or Kloli. Even the Ewe, who constitute a single linguistic group, are divided into the Nkonya, Tafi, Logba, Sontrokofi, Lolobi, and Likpe. North of the Volta River are the three subdivisions of the Gur-speaking people. These are the Gurma, Grusi, and Mole-Dagbane. Like the Kwa subfamilies, further divisions exist within the principal Gur groups. Any one group may be distinguished from others in the same linguistically defined category or subcategory, even when the members of the category are characterized by essentially the same social institutions. Each has a historical tradition of group identity, if nothing else, and, usually, of political autonomy. In some cases, however, what is considered a single unit for census and other purposes may have been divided into identifiable separate groups before and during much of the colonial period and, in some manner, may have continued to be separate after independence.

No part of Ghana, however, is ethnically homogeneous. Urban centers are the most ethnically mixed because of migration to towns and cities by those in search of employment. Rural areas, with the exception of cocoa-producing areas that have attracted migrant labor, tend to reflect more traditional population distributions. One overriding feature of the country's population is that groups to the south who are closer to the Atlantic coast have long been influenced by the money economy, Western education, and Christianity, whereas Gur- speakers to the north, who have been less exposed to those influences, have come under Islamic influence. These influences were not pervasive in the respective regions, however, nor were they wholly restricted to them.

Ethnic tensions, as a potential source of instability, have played a relatively minor role in Ghana. A 2009 Brandeis University report argued that Ghana has been spared the violent ethnic conflicts and the civil wars that have plagued West Africa. Despite the fact that it was composed of diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious groups, the country was said to have enjoyed relative peace and stability since 1993. However, the report warned against complacency citing Afrobarometer findings which showed that while the majority of Ghanaians (57%) perceived themselves as much Ghanaian as belonging to a specific ethnic group, the proportion of Ghanaians feeling only or more Ghanaian than their ethnic group was falling, while those feeling only or more ethnic was increasing. The report adds that during the rule of the previous government led by the NPP, the public perception was that the NPP favoured its ethnic members in public office appointments.

The stoking of ethnic tensions was a feature in the 2008 election campaign. The level of ethnic rhetoric in the media's reporting even prompted one of the candidates to issue an appeal to radio stations not to promote tribalism in national politics. The ethnic rhetoric was criticized by prominent civil society leaders. The Commonwealth Observers Group called the tribalism during the elections a “backward step for the maturing Ghanaian political system”. An article on Ghanaian news website My Joy Online accused some members of the previous NPP Government of stoking tribal tensions in the interest of politics in the run-up to the elections.

Subsequently, several articles discussed simmering tribal and ethnic tensions. An article in the Ghana Web news site from January 2010 claims that the current NDC Government is not doing much to resolve tribal tension. It states that there are “elements in Ghana especially the so-called opinion leaders whose incorrigible mindset of tribal bigotry” would derail any efforts at inter-tribal harmony. The article warns that “unless our national leaders take bold actions to confront it now; Ghana might one day be engulfed in a civil war”. Another article discussed the issue of one tribe being over represented in the Government and alleged that this resulted in the skewing of political appointments along tribal lines.

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Page last modified: 16-03-2017 19:02:48 ZULU