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Subj: SIMPLE LIES & COMPLEX TRUTHS :  History, Ethno-Politics and Ghana Part 1
Date: 15/09/98



SIMPLE LIES & COMPLEX TRUTHS :  History, Ethno-Politics and Ghana Part 1

I have been reviewing postings on Okyeame and other internet discussion groups forwarded to me with a hawk's eye, and cannot but comment on the recent stream , or rather , flood of writings on our country's history and poliics.

In particular the regular and single-issue writings of one Kofi Ellison ( assuming that is his real name ! )  appear to be a load of myths , ignorance and  prejudice. His tribalistic outpourings are  crypto-intellectual; typical of the hog-wash that has come to symbolise the lamentable decline of our country's educational system .

I'm not the least surprised that so far he has been exposed as a  pseudo-intellectual by the genuine Ghanaian intellectuals on the net who have challenged him. In particular, Ellison re-hashes many well-worn and discredited tribalist arguments.

Here I propose to dissect the more interesting and misleading aspects of his outpourings

Ellison's argumentation is prototypical intellectual rubbish: muddled sequencing, baseless assertions, lack of hard evidence, and merely cottoning on to the points raised by others - nothing original; nothing even by way of decent critique. His word-juggling and other antics have set me pondering anew the term "creative eunuch". It also puts one in mind of a new Don Quixote of cyberspace, chasing issues where all else see none, and doing battle with imaginary windmills.

No hiding behind a wall of words, please.

Can Ellison , or anybody else for that matter,  also tell us the extent of the Asante "empire"?
What made the Fante part of Asante?
Do the Asante even have a word for "empire"?

Or would these people  in response rather indulge in some Boahenesque creative intellectualism?  They can either choose to argue in measured, reasonable terms or doggedly stick to their  brand of ethnic Utopianism.  It is dangerous to attempt to diminish the role of others as a way of raising one's own people.

The Purpose of History and the Whitewashing of Slain Africans

I have previously commented that the unwitting effect of the tendency to cast our history as an Asante versus European conflict is to trivialise our past and bury our heads in the sand where African on African violence is concerned. To portray the activities of Sir Charles Macarthy in the Gold Coast as as some have done in the past,  is to confuse effect with cause; and to fail to appreciate the deepest causations in our pre-colonial history (my emphasis). I emphasise, not for the first time, that Ghana became a colony in 1874; events preceding that date therefore fall within our pre-colonial history.

The tribal supremacist school of Ghanaian history  fails to mention or perhaps understand that the European force on the coast prior to 1874 was not an extension of the British state, but a collection of mainly untrained local fighting men organised by merchants engaged in normal mercantile activities.

A corollary of this is to understand that the military force fought by the Asantes was not the British Army, but a rag-tag and motley group which preceded the British colonial army (emphasis mine); the distinction is crucial to assessing the might of the Asante. After all, Asante's lemming-like military strategy was based on strength of numbers rather than inherent military might or superior tactical organisation; and is summed up in "Kum apem apem beba", in other words using one's own military manpower as cannon-fodder to saturate the enemy. It was impossible for a small group to operate such a strategy.

On the other hand, the British colonial army normally comprised a regularly drilled Hausa constabulary and West Indians with the bulk of fighting men being drawn from native tribes. The Gold Coast colonial army, when it came into being, was usually officered by superannuated or pensioned English, Welsh and Scottish personnel, effectively making it a Dad's Army of old war horses and a few third-rate officers; a tradition which was maintained even within the West African Frontier Force. Just by way of comparison, by the time some of these so-called fights against the "British Army" were raging on the Gold Coast, Britain's finest officers were in fact engaged in such battles as Waterloo (1815).

Assuming this tribal supremacist school of Ghanaian history follows my explanation of the mercantile nature of the European presence , it should have no difficulty appreciating that coastal potentates also had their own mercantile interests, frequently threatened by Asante blockade of the trade routes.

It was no coincidence that the fighting force under "British",  such Captain Charles  Macarthy, included large numbers of enthusiastic locals. The beheading of Macarthy may have commanded attention in Westminster, but the majority of the war dead were Fanti. Writing our history in a way that ignores such killings, and purely glorifies Asante exploits is mischievous.

Factual Inaccuracies and Quality of Sources

But is Ellison really competent to interpret the history of Ghana the way he purports to do?

"Sutor ne supra crepidam judicaret -" Let not the cobbler criticise a work of art above the sandal.

Ellison is entitled to eulogistic praise of the act of decapitation and the parading of human heads; but his facts are not entirely accurate. Macarthy was killed in 1824; in 1826 his skull was captured at Katamanso.

This last is documented by C.C. Reindorf History of the Gold Coast and Asante, Basel: Basel Missionary Society 1985, pp. 191-192 and at p. 196 ff. See also H.J. Ricketts, Narrative of the Ashantee War, London: Simpkin & Marshall 1831, p. 122 showing that the captured skull was sent to England.

Of course, this sort of misrepresentation could have been avoided if Ellison had spent time cloistered in some library checking his facts and gaining mastery of his sources before putting material on Okyeame.   

Secondly, Ellison does not seem to appreciate the momentous historical consequences of the disastrous Cape Coast campaign led by Osei Yaw Akoto after the death of his uncle Osei Tutu Kwamina.

The battle of Cape Coast was the first defeat by the Asante army on the coast. Again, Europeans were mere sidekicks to the essentially African fighting force made up largely of Fanti and Ga troops. Indeed the Ga role in the defeat of Osei Yaw Akoto at Cape Coast was the cause of the Katamanso war on the Accra plains, Monday 7 August 1826.

Boahen wrote in his article "Politics in Ghana, 1800-1874" in J.F.A. Ajayi & M. Crowther, History of West Africa, London: Longmans 1974 Vol. 2, pp. 167-261 at p. 197: "Asante's decline began with the defeat of the hitherto invincible Asante army near Cape Coast in May and July of 1824." Yet Ellison treats this significant event as though it was another footnote in Asante history.

Osei Yaw Akoto resolved to punish the Ga for helping the Fanti defend themselves, and thus led the Asante nation to disaster on the Accra plains. One would have loved to see Ellison dwell on aspects of the Asante preparation for Katamanso, especially the consultation of Muslim Kramo priests and the Dente oracle at Kete Krachi.

(The Dente oracle was after 1875 to play another yet crucial role in the history of Asante when the Dente priest supported the secessionist Juabens, Brongs, Kwahus and others). These sources predicted a devastating defeat on the coast. Osei Yaw Akoto ignored them and proceeded to Asantemanso, the first town of the Asantes, praying to his ancestors and causing large quantities of palm oil to be poured into the rivers.

Finally, one must state that Katamanso battle was a battle to punish the Ga, fought against the Ga, and on Ga soil. Moreover, Ga-Dangme troops constituted over two-thirds of the fighting men, and King Taki Kome I was King Paramount of all the fighting forces.

Yes, some Akwamu and Akyem fought in support of the Ga, but so too did some Assins, Hausas and Akyems who fought on the side of the Asante. None of this changed the fact that it was a fight between the Asante and the Ga; just as the presence of some West Indians, Indians, Africans, etc. in the British forces during the Second World war does not change the British character of the victory.

Both Reindorf and Ga oral sources attest to the nature of this essential Ga versus Asante war. Until the Anglo-Dutch exchange of forts in 1868 the Ga were predominantly within the Dutch and Danish spheres of influence. Thus English accounts tend to dwell on the contribution of nations within the English sphere of influence and do not always fully state the Ga character of the war.

Read Reindorf 1895, p. 196 ff. if you want to see the basically Ga character of the war.   

I cannot believe that all Asantes share Ellison's interpretation of Ghana's past and the supreme importance of the Asantes in Ghana. Many have complained about protracted discussion on Okyeame of Asante complaining, particularly on the basis of fairness, about the over-targetting of particular peoples.

Personally I am concerned about the possible effects propagandist articles such as the one under discussion might create in Ghana. Tribal, racist or blood-based ideologies as set out in charlatan Ellison's rantings  are dangerous and can lead to national disunity , disintegration and even genocide.

This charlatan and fraud Ellison, while presumably criticising Ewe tribalism, unashamedly trivialises the role of all non-Asantes in the history and development of Ghana. Carried to its logical conclusion his rantings would amount to a plain proclamation of a master tribe doctrine in Ghana. What would be the place of non-Asantes in Ghana if such doctrine were implemented?  

Elllison's Real Agenda : Ethnicisation of  Politics in Ghana

The general claim of Ewe political domination in Ghana ( in reality a coded phrase for anti-Asante discrimination) is only one of countless such allegations which seem to have become an obsession for some. I am personally tired of addressing these claims. Yet at the risk of being traduced as dabbling in tribal matters I feel compelled to continue to refute the unsupported claims of these latter day tribal supremacists such as Ellison.
Whatever the validity of Asante claims it is largely vitiated by the inclination of some Asantes to see the alleged discrimination as directed almost exclusively at Asantes.

There is currently in vogue a multiplicity of writers who while expressing genuine concern about aspects of ethnicity in Ghana see the victims as essentially Asante. Such a stance is misconceived; it puts the Asante in an invidious position. Certainly, the Asante are not the most deprived people in Ghana; nor has a cogent argument been yet presented which proves that the excesses of the Rawlings administration have affected the Asante more than most.

On the other hand, it can probably be proven that Asantes have been among the main beneficiaries of the present political dispensation. What about the Frafra, Dagomba, Dagarti, Gonja, Krobo, Guan, Kwahu, Assin, Ga, Nzima?

Are they exempt from the discrimination complained about or are they not entitled to equal political aspirations? One wonders whether Kwame realises that his article implies a natural Asante right to political power in Ghana which excludes the above and other peoples.

By rubbing people the wrong way in this manner Ellison only sets in train a self-perpetuating prophecy which creates considerable angst among various Ghanaian peoples. Will they and their children and their children's children perpetually tolerate a political configuration which sees power as only swinging between the Asante and the Ewe, with the Asante effectively claiming to be the master tribe of Ghana?

Ellison commented on the number of books written about Asante which can be obtained from This comment simply reflects his ignorance. Many books have been written about countless other peoples throughout Africa .

The works of Rattray on Asante which set in motion this ridiculous notion of Asante as a people apart are now generally recognized as eulogistic and not taken terribly seriously by serious intellectuals. It is interesting to note that the very political "historians" like Ellison who highlight Asante "uniqueness" when it suits and feeds their prejudices regarding our country's history,  are exactly those who find it politically expedient to turn to the idea of "Akanfo" universality in terms of modern Ghanaian politics.

Hence the now discredited myth of the Akan "majority" as a corollary to the allegation of Ewe "domination"; both of which are trumpeted most frequently loudest by Asante pseudo-intellectuals like Ellison.

Of course the credibility problem which will forever bedevil them is how to square this circle. The so-called Asante politico-military supremacy of the past was based on criminal acts of aggression against and enslavement of chiefly other Akan peoples ; a fact not lost on many non-Asante Akans.

SUZERAINTY : Misunderstandings and Misapplications of the Term

It was indeed Rattray's theoretical model of Asante as a feudal state , which gave birth to fanciful claims by others about supposed Asante "suzerainty" over others, such Wilks, Yarak et. al.

   It has been decisively disproved by amongst others Professor A.N. Allott, Akan Law of Property, University of London PhD thesis 1954.

This discredited feudal theory is at the heart of the "empire" thesis of the territorial extent of Asante. Kwame states that the Asante "empire" was greater in size than modern Ghana.

If it is seriously stated that Asante was feudal and the Asantehene had suzerainty over all peoples within this "empire", then logically the Asantehene could at some stage claim to have once owned all Ghana lands as well as some lands in Togo and Ivory Coast. For really suzerainty is a feudal term that involves land ownership. In this regard some might find certain recent developments in the Brong Ahafo region of some importance.

In spite of the blanket statements of Adu Boahen regarding Asante and the idea of an Asante "empire", the notion of an "Asante empire" remains a contentious and in all probability unsustainable. In the "Structure of the Greater Asante (1700-1824)", The Journal African History, Vol. 8 (1967), pp. 65-85 , Prof. K. Arhin has questioned whether there was in fact any such thing as an Asante empire, noting at p. 67: "I am not yet clear whether the territorial results of the Ashanti wars can be called an empire."

In fact, not all of the Asante wars even had territorial results. Yet in several of his writings Adu Boahen includes the Ga among the states conquered by Asante, but nowhere are we told when they were conquered; nor can Asante suzerainty over the Ga be assumed simply because the Asante had defeated some other power.
The plain truth is that Ga won every fight they had with the Asante: a skirmish over Asante interference with salt-mining in the Songor lagoon at Ada; the storming of an Asante garrison on Duffo island on the Volta; and most memorably at Katamanso in 1826.

The Fanti were never completely subdued, hence the frequency of Fanti-Asante skirmishes; they resisted continually, rejecting the imposition of alien authority.
Queen Dokua of Akyem and many of her subjects left for Accra when Asante gained ascendancy over Akyem. Yet Boahen's "map" of the Asante "empire" offers no possibility of any tribe within Ghana being outside the "empire". I have seen no evidence in the records yet of Asante soldiers and administrators at Brofoyedru or at Kpedze.