Tear Gas, Ethnic Tension and Elections

It’s election year in Ghana. I was having drinks with some friends when we felt something funny in our eyes. The next thing we knew, cars were racing down the main highway in reverse, people were running and scrambling to hop on one of the public tro tros and police/ambulence sirens going off. Apparently, police arrested an opposition leader of parliament that led to a scuffle with his supporters slinging rocks at the police headquarter and set a street on fire. And the police peppered tear gas and water canon to disburse the crowd.

At first, I was utterly shocked at how this can happen in Ghana. The arrested parliamentarian had announced on his radio program that he wanted to get rid of the Ewes, one of the main ethnic groups in Ghana. While like the US, Ghana has two major political parties and political discourse can get very heated, any public sowing of ethnic division is strictly off limits.  In fact, Ghanaians are so fearful of violence that often – the fear of violence itself, is the ultimate unifier of the country and gate-keeper of democracy.  Examples of bombings and killings from Nigeria are cited daily as examples to avoid at all cost.  In this case, even the Rwandan genocide has been compared. So this kind of rhetoric is unimaginable in the Ghanaian discourse and now the arrested leader is actually being tried for treason! Even his own party leader has denounced him.

But it’s not easy to maintain this kind of stability and peace – even in Ghana, which just like any other African country, has a myriad of ethnic groups since the boundaries of nearly all African countries were drawn arbitrarily during the colonial days. Just by looking at this map from wikipedia, it is seen how the Ewes are divided almost evenly into residents of Ghana and Togo. In fact, Ghana’s Volta Region used to be called “Togoland”, which was part of greater Togo that was actually a German colony. After the end of WWI, “Togo” was divided into British Togoland (which was adjoined to the rest of the British Gold Coast – “Ghana”) and French Togoland – which became modern day Togo. No wonder maintaining ethnic unity is difficult – the Volta Region of Ghana has more ethno-linguistic commonality with Togo than the rest of Ghana.

Whereas any other Ghanaian would be illiterate in Togo since they speak French, Ewes can cross the border effortlessly to do trade/business. They don’t even need to communicate in the official languages of their own countries. And the Ewes are only one example on that map. The Fon people of Benin are the backbone of the country’s economy as they import a lot of cheap goods into Benin from Nigeria (include dirt cheap smuggled oil/gas)…And the ethnic composition/complication in Nigeria is Ghana on 100X steroids…yikes

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