African Studies Quarterly
Volume 10, Issue 1
Spring 2008

Reconstructing the Nation in Africa: The Politics of Nationalism in Ghana . Michael Amoah. London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2007. 248 pp.

In Reconstructing the Nation in Africa, author Michael Amoah examines the extent to which theories and debates on nationalism formed in eighteenth-century Europe and America are relevant to present day Africa. Amoah challenges the Eurocentric use of the late 18th century France as the threshold for the emergence of nationalism. He proposes that the term nation as defined by modernists could be applied to African entities which pre-date the French Revolution. The Ashante nation emerged in 1701 and the Fante nation even earlier.

Amoah argues that existing theoretical constructs are relatively successful in categorizing macro, but not micro expressions of nationalism as is generally the case in Africa's multinational states. He is critical of ethno-nationalism being presented as irrational or counter to patriotism except in nation-states. The book's brief introduction posits that a sense of nationhood can deteriorate or be lost over time and that in many African states nationhood was based on anti-colonialism and was strongest just after independence. Due to poor economic conditions, ethno-nationalism and "politics of the belly" have characterized much of post-independence Africa (p. 6). People quite rationally vote along ethnic lines (what Amoah terms rationalization of ethno-nationalism) or for ethnic groups viewed as good for the entire country (what Amoah terms figuration or civic nationalism). Whereas ethno-nationalism enhances patriotism in nation-states, it undermines it in multi-ethnic states, if ethno-nationalism and civic nationalism are not aligned.

To learn whether civic nationalism or patriotism among urbanites is separate from ethno-nationalism Amoah carries his laptop to markets, factories, malls, schools, and restaurants to log survey responses and undertake unstructured interviews. He examines voting in Ghana's 2000 presidential elections as a form of nationalism; one which is particularly complex in urban areas and uses Tema as his study site because it is the most ethnically diverse of Ghana's larger cities.

Somewhat unconventionally, Amoah's methodological approach and field research are described quite late in his book, much of which is devoted to a review of the literature on Ghana in support of the author's theory that Ghana's origin derives from a federation of native states rather than being rooted in modernity. Amoah uses place names in multiple languages as evidence of place of origin or ancestry and argues that in virtually all but portions of the Volta region, modern Ghanaians trace their origins to Guan people who migrated from the old Ghana Empire, which had its capital, Ghannah, near present-day Timbuktu in Mali. Amoah maintains that people of common ancestry, but with somewhat different ethnic identities ( Ashanti, Bono, Gonja) would have emerged as a nation "had there not been colonial intervention" (p. 70).

Amoah also believes that the Ewe of the Volta region would have emerged as a nation had it not been for colonial intervention and the partition of Ewe lands between the British and French. The emergence of an Ewe nation pre-partition is not difficult to imagine. The Ewe retain relatively strong ties even across international boundaries as evinced by the rapid absorption of Ewe Togolese refugees into Ewe homes in Ghana in recent decades.

Amoah's case for the emergence of a Ghanaian nation based on common heritage across Guan ancestry lines relies heavily on the work of Eva Meyerowitz. Meyerowitz's work, as Amoah admits, has been criticized by leading Africanists, including Jan Vansina, who described Meyerowitz as displaying a "'lack of critical judgment' in the 'handling of her sources'" (p. 93). Amoah is so convinced by the accuracy of Meyerowitz's work that he details potential inaccuracies in the works of her critics and positively presents authors who agree with her. Whereas Amoah's research does unearth some intricacies related to Ghana's electoral process, such as the role of ethnicity not only in who people vote for, but also who they would refuse to support, and that women are more likely to disclose political preferences to friends rather than spouses, he seems too willing to present only those facts which support his Guan ancestry hypothesis. Thus, his belief that his "book successfully traces the ethno-geographic origins of all nationalities in modern Ghana, fills the gaps, completes the jigsaw and explains the evolution of the phenomena" is a bit difficult to believe (p. 5). He dismisses Ashante-Ewe rivalries as post-colonial in origin and asserts that Ghana's relative political and economic stability can be attributed to its Guan ancestry and emergence of an Akan identity for much of its population.

Amoah finds that urbanites in Ghana do not lose their ethno-nationalism and tend to vote along ethnic lines even though they simultaneously recognize that tribalism undermines the state. He suggests that urbanites are only "partially detribalized" and that groups which believe they have been discriminated against, such as the Ewe and the Asante, are most likely to vote along ethnic lines or refuse to vote for a candidate based on the candidate's ethnicity (p. 132). The author notes Northerners have come to "see themselves as belonging to a common identity or 'brotherhood'" due to their common Islamic traditions and relative economic and educational depravity and that this regional identity further impacts voting patterns in Ghana (p. 70). Specifically, that the vice presidential position is typically slotted for Northern candidates in order to get ethno-nationalist based votes - which Amoah presents as another example of tribalism. He continues to argue that Northerners are well aware of this fact and "manipulate their ethnonational identity to their political advantage" in order to remain in the political sphere (p. 120). Amoah believes that Ghana will remain a democracy, but questions whether a revitalization of nationalism and patriotism is possible in modern African states and suggests that multinational states may not be viable in Africa.

Restructuring the Nation in Africa has several tables, but no maps, which could make it somewhat difficult to follow for general readers or even Africanists unfamiliar with Ghana. The two-page conclusion makes for a rather abrupt ending in which a more detailed recap of his philosophies could have helped the reader make sense of his arguments, and help transition more smoothly into his cursory introduction to global warming, Ghana's diaspora, the African Union and other topics tangentially related to book's main themes.

Amoah presents the politics behind the concept of nationalism akin to Dava Sobel's Longitude which exposes the politics behind the placement of the Prime Meridian. Restructuring the Nation in Africa should make for interesting debates in upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in International Studies, African history and politics.

Heidi G. Frontani and Kristine Silvestri
Elon University