Ghanaian schools system eased the ethnic tensions that ruined many African countries

Kwaku Sakyi-Addo

Kwaku Sakyi-Addo

When, in September 1968, 11-year-old Daniel Kofi Baku arrived at the mountain town of Akropong-Akuapem, in Ghana's eastern region, to enrol at Salem Boys' boarding school, books, school uniforms and a box or two of sweets were not the only items in his baggage - he was carrying prejudice as well.

This was young Baku's first long journey from Kpong, in the Volta region, where he had grown up among his Ewe ethnic group.

"Initially, I had all sorts of ideas about other people, and they were equally suspicious of me," he said.

"But, within weeks of sharing a dormitory, we had discovered that we were all the same."

Nearly 40 years on, his prepubescent epiphany holds. Now a historian at the University of Ghana, Baku cites Ghana's predominantly boarding school system as "a key social leveller".

And Baku does not speak alone. As Ghana celebrates 50 years of independence its secondary boarding schools are the single most-cited reason for the country's escape from the ethnic tensions that have brought many African countries to bloody ruin.

The system puts children from the country's 70-odd ethnic groups into one pot and stirs them up to melt.

"We made friends without first asking which tribe you were from; it was totally irrelevant," recalled John Mahama, a frontbench MP for the opposition National Democratic Congress.

Ghana's wins at last year' s Soccer World Cup were cheered throughout the country.

"And, because that seed is planted in you when you're young and impressionable, it sticks."

The system became particularly entrenched when Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president, introduced a policy of mass education and established dozens of secondary boarding schools throughout the country.

Some fellow West Africans believe that a similar system might have altered the tragic script of their own country's political history.

"There were only a few boarding schools in my country and only the rich could afford to send their children there," recalls Siafa Camara, a Liberian who has lived in Ghana for 18 years running a non-governmental organisation.

"In Ghana, the boarding schools are plenty and students travel to different corners of the country for their education, so it has helped to narrow the social and ethnic cleavages."

Meanwhile, Nana Oye Lithur, a human rights lawyer, points out that one of the reasons there has not been a major ethnic-based conflict is because of "deliberate constitutional engineering".

For example, a political party will not be registered unless all 230 constituencies are represented among its founders, and it must maintain offices in at least two-thirds of all constituencies at all times.

It is illegal in Ghana to establish a party on ethnic or religious grounds which, Lithur said, ensured that "every political party is national in character in order to safeguard national integration".

All public appointments are required by law to have ethnic and regional balance. That makes it difficult for a president to load public institutions with cousins and nephews from his village.

These requirements for nationwide legitimacy have generally been part of Ghana's constitutions since the mid-1950s.

But Ghanaians also have an accident of history to thank - the fact that the country does not have two equally large and opposing ethnic groups.

The single largest language group, the Akan - which includes Ashantis, Brongs, Fantis, Akyems, Kwahus and Akuapems - constitutes nearly half of Ghana's population of 21million.

But the country is not entirely free of ethnic prejudice.

Due to a British colonial policy that led to northern Ghana becoming a source of manual labour, comparatively little investment in education and infrastructure was made there.

Nkrumah established a constitution that unified the country.

And, despite efforts by most governments since independence, the residual gap created by the old colonial policy remains.

Today, northern Ghana remains less developed than the south, and its people endure pockets of southern arrogance.

There are other warning signals too. For instance, the indigenous people of Accra, the Ga-Dangbes, feel that they are losing their lands around the capital unfairly to wealthy people from other regions.

"We mustn't take these feelings for granted," warns KB Asante, the 83-year-old chairman of the Ga-Dangbe council.

"Even if they're mere perceptions, the government must address and straighten them otherwise it is easy for embers to turn into flames."

The much-vaunted boarding schools are giving way gradually to a community system that allows more children than before to attend school in their own home region.

"This limits the mixing of people from different ethnic groups and social classes," Mahama, the MP for the National Democratic Congress, lamented.

"The old system allowed us to see ourselves first and foremost as Ghanaians."

In the post-jubilee years, Ghanaians must find creative ways to assuage Mahama's fears, build on their exemplary multi-ethnic harmony and ensure that children leaving their village on their maiden long journey do not carry ethnocentric garbage in their baggage.

l Kwaku Sakyi-Addo works for the BBC's Focus On Africa radio magazine programme.