When I was in Sixth Form, which is to say, before the dumbing down of a good bit of secondary education in Ghana, A’Level students were examined on three elective subjects and one mandatory subject called General Paper. The thing about General Paper is that, it was rather amorphous in content and thus difficult to teach or study.
The General Paper exam was more of an aptitude test than an achievement test. It didn’t test you on any specific knowledge you had acquired in a specific subject area; it tested you broadly on your reasoning and analytic abilities, on, for example, your ability to make logical inferences and deductions and draw neat distinctions based on certain stated facts or premises.
The ongoing debate–if a debate it is–over the recent statements made by the NPP vice presidential candidate Dr. Bawumia and the attempts to compare or contrast his words with the earlier utterances of the NDC’s Ms Dzifa Attivor have reminded me of the pattern of the General Paper exam of my secondary school days.
Statement 1: If you don’t vote for the NDC and the NPP wins power, they will send me and other Ewes to jail. They have a record of targeting and jailing only Ewes when in power. The NPP has a dislike or “aversion” for people of the Volta Region.
Statement 2: “Another major issue that I want to bring to the attention of the people is that; if we look at the Flagstaff House today, it does not reflect the people of Ghana in terms of religion….We are in this country living peacefully and nicely; Muslims and Christians.
So we believe in the NPP that Christians and Muslims should work together, and that is why whenever we pick a president as a Christian, we pick a Muslim as a vice… So if, Insha Allah, Nana Akufo-Addo becomes president, he will swear with the Bible and enter the Flagstaff and I will swear with the Quran and enter the Flagstaff House. So when we combine the Quran and the Bible, Ghana will be the major beneficiary. The blessings of God will be on Ghana if we have the two religions in the Flagstaff House.”
Are these two statements equal? They are, of course, not literally equal or equal in their literal meaning. But are they equal in other respects? Are they equal, for instance, in their moral offensiveness or social divisiveness? Is the second statement just a flip side of the second? Is
Dr. Bawumia the new Dzifa Attivor?
To answer these questions sensibly, we must try to situate those two statements in the appropriate contexts. (Sorry if you are anti-context.
Words usually derive their import and impact, including their offensiveness, from their context. That is why a “Whites only” posting on a toilet is bound to offend all but a racist, while a “Males only” or “Females only” toilet has no similar offensiveness even to a radical gender egalitarian. Context matters.)
The first statement is by a former Minister of State who recently resigned from the Government in the wake of a contracting scandal involving her ministry.
Until the scandal and her latest utterance, she didn’t have much of a public profile. She is a member of the NDC. The NDC has a long history of smearing its rival party, the NPP, as an Akan-exclusive party. Ms Attivor is not the first in her party to make the kind of allegation she’s made. She is only the first to personalize it this way. Since making the statement, leading members of the party, including its General Secretary, have backed her. Even before her utterances, the President, who belongs to her party, had also said on a visit to the Volta Region, her home region, that the NPP, during its 8 year tenure in office, did nothing for the people of the Region.
The NPP, according to the NDC narrative, hates or looks down upon the people of the Volta Region and also of the northern regions.
The second statement is by the three-time vice presidential candidate of the NPP. An economist, he has been known to keep his focus primarily on the economy and on economic policy.
A Moslem and a “Northerner”, he has not been known until now to make much political noise about his ethno-regional or religious identity.
Not even when, in 2012, the current President, himself a “Northerner” who often makes politics of his identity, took a jab at him and his party by telling voters from the northern regions that Northerners, too, were fit for the No. 1 slot on the presidential ticket, and not just for No. 2, and that Northerners should vote for one of their own as President.
Dr. Bawumia’s statement also comes on the heels of a recent statement by a non-Muslim member of the NDC government that NPP Moslems are not true adherents of the Moslem faith. Such attempts by NDC loyalists to drive a wedge between Moslems and the NPP are not new. Even during the recent heated debate arising from President Mahama’s unilateral importation of two Guantanamo detainees to Ghana, certain supporters of the Government suggested that opposition to the Gitmo 2 was religiously motivated.
So, are the two statements equal? Is Dr Bawumia just a male Attivor?
Both speakers are no doubt engaged in identity politics. Ms Attivor wants her Ewe kinfolk to cast their vote for her party on the basis of their tribal identity. Dr Bawumia invites his fellow Moslems to cast their vote for the ticket on which he stands on the basis of their religious identity, which he says has been consistently represented on his party’s ticket but not on the rival ticket.
Identity politics is not new to Ghanaian politics. The tribal version is, however, far more common than the religious one, although the close identity between Northern ethno-regional identity and the Moslem identity has often meant that religion-based identity politics often also assumes an ethno-regional appearance. There is also anecdotal evidence that tribal or ethno-regional identity often trumps religious identity in determining the voting choices of Ghanaians, a fact that might explain why there is less religion-based identity politics and more of the ethnicity-based kind.
The thing about identity politics is that it is usually unnecessary, because voters presumably know your identity, so telling your constituents about it would seem redundant; those for whom your identity matters or is decisive will vote with that in mind, and those for whom it is not decisive or relevant will disregard it. Obama didn’t have to go about telling black folk to vote for him because he’s black. He is smart enough to know that they know he’s black. No need to state the obvious.
Why, then, do some politicians go to the trouble of playing identity politics? The thing about playing identity politics is that, it insults the intelligence of the audience, in part because you are telling them something they obviously ought to know. But you fear they may under-rank the identity factor in their voting decision, so in telling them you are seeking to influence their ranking decision and get them to rank identity above all other consideration.
Identity politics is also the kind of politics candidates without a winning message or issue tend to gravitate toward. But it is also the kind of politics that thrives–because it often works–when the electorate has been polarized along identity lines and issues matter less and less in determining electoral outcomes. Otherwise decent politicians who get caught in that kind of toxic political environment might fear that, not playing identity politics when it is, in fact, the name of the game, would amount to unilateral disarmament.
For all of the sound and fury that has been generated by these two statements, but especially that by Dr. Bawumia, the truth of the matter is that Ghana’s contemporary politics turns a lot, sadly, on identity. And it is not because of illiteracy. In fact, the political class and their middle class cronies are often just as guilty of the affliction and are responsible for propagating it, given that they are its primary material beneficiaries.
But the other thing about identity politics is the danger of the slippery slope. Once you start down that path, it is hard to resist the descent down the slippery slope.
So, yes, both are guilty of playing identity politics. Both are guilty of appealing to the emotions of their constituents, not to their heads. That kind of talk is clearly out of character for Dr. Bawumia, who has earned his reputation as a politician who is about substance and policy, not identity politics. I feel his pain. In our kind of politics, the mindless rogue or rabblerouser has a competitive advantage over the cerebral policy wonk. What the former often gets away with, the latter will get roundly roasted for even attempting. So, I can understand Dr. Bawumia’s dilemma and some of the ensuing backlash. The nature of Ghanaian politics today is not made for his kind. It is made for (and by) those with little to lose and much to gain from taking the low road. We are supposed to let them have their way or else, I guess!
But saying that both Dr. Bawumia and Mrs Attivor are playing identity politics is where the parallels must end. The question is are both statements equally offensive and divisive? Are both speakers or their words a menace to our society? I will leave aside, for now, the question of the factual integrity of the two statements.
Is Dr Bawumia pitting religion against religion? Is he inciting Muslims against Christians? Is he fomenting inter-religious animosity? Is he accusing his rival party of religious hatred? Is he doing more than urging religious accommodation and representation, including, opportunistically, in the form of religiously balanced presidential tickets like the one he is standing on? Is that, in and of itself, a bad thing to say or a bad practice to advocate, especially in a country with our kind of religious demographics and in these times? Is Dr. Bawumia’s use of identity politics simply the religious version of Ms Attivor’s tribal one?
If you were presented with these two statements on a hypothetical General Paper exam, if your chances of entering the university depended on the analytic and logical soundness of your answer to the question, would you say that the two statements at issue are morally indistinguishable, one from the other? And if you are analytically capable of drawing a moral distinction between the two yet seem unwilling or unable to do so, perhaps you ought to ask yourself why. I rest.
(And just so you know, I am a Christian too, though not, like some, a religious zealot or fundamentalist. And I have absolutely no problem with a Muslim or Christian or atheist or African Traditional Religionist as President, just as long as Ghana remains a secular state and everyone has religious freedom and no group suffers state-sponsored religious discrimination or preference)
Source: H Kwasi Prempeh