Reconstructing the Nation in Africa: The Politics of Nationalism in Ghana (review)
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Reviewed by
Amoah, Michael. 2007. Reconstructing the Nation in Africa: The Politics of Nationalism in Ghana. London: Tauris Academic Studies. 248pp. $74.95.

The tension between nation-building and ethnic identities is an important issue in most African countries. This attempt to "reconstruct the nation" makes a promising start when Amoah states that after the achievement of independence, national feeling anticlimaxes and needs resurrection. Unfortunately, the book overall does not live up to the high expectations that its title may raise, mainly because it contains shaky assumptions about the Guan-origins of Ghanaians and suffers from self-contradictory conceptions of nationhood and ethnicity.

In the first part of the book, Amoah discusses notions of nation and ethnicity. He critically appreciates the works of authors like Anthony D. Smith and Walker Connor, who stand for rather primordialist conceptions. Surprisingly, though Amoah himself at times uses the phrase "the imagination of nations" and similar phrases, he fails sufficiently to review the body of constructivist literature on the imagination of communities, which has contributed much to the debate in recent years. From various definitions of nationhood, Amoah distills a checklist of what constitutes a nation, and concludes that Fanti and Ashanti were nations before the eighteenth century. He aims at denouncing the Eurocentric and modernist view that nations are exclusively Western European phenomena—which is by itself an interesting argument. In contrast, Benedict Anderson and others have underlined the constructiveness of nations: nations have no essence and thus no features that can be grasped in a checklist; they live in their members' imagination. From these analytical differences, a serious question arises: did Ashanti and Fanti imagine themselves as nations in the sense of the word? or did, as Carola Lentz (1995:317) has argued, other forms of partly overlapping, fluid, and flexible identities prevail in precolonial Africa?

It remains unclear how the nationhood of Ashanti and Fanti relates to the author's core hypothesis, developed in the next chapter, "The traditions of origin." Amoah holds the view that "almost the whole of modern Ghana [has] migrated from the area occupied by the Old Ghana empire" (p. 51), and that Guan ancestry has made "a significant contribution towards the modern Ghanaian identity" (p. 51). The only exception is the Ewe, whose ancestors are to be traced back to the territories of contemporary Benin. In support of his assumptions, he cites the anthropological studies published by Eva L.R. Meyerowitz in the 1950s; however, Meyerowitz's theses are highly contested among historians. In chapter 4, Amoah tries his best to defend Meyerowitz against criticism, but the impression remains that some counterarguments [End Page 127] carry more weight than he wants to admit. Vansina, for example, whose critique is dubbed "unfair" by Amoah (p. 93), makes an important point when he reproaches Meyerowitz for dealing uncritically with oral sources and taking myths of origin for reality. From this point of view, it could be that the narration of migration from the north is simply a dominant discourse, taken up by indigenous populations already living in the area.

Amoah's project seems to be a reimagination of a somewhat "natural" solidarity of Ghanaians, very much in line with Smith's assumption that modern nations are rooted in "core ethnies," which are characterized by elements such as a myth of common descent, shared historical memories and a common culture, an association with a specific homeland and a sense of solidarity (Smith 1986:22ff, see also Amoah, p. 16). Amoah adopts this view for the Ghanaian case: "The comparative stability of the Ghanaian state . . . can be attributed mainly to the presence of a demographically dominant ethnie [sic]" (p. 63), by which he means the Guan. Apart from the fact that ethnic homogeneity does not necessarily lead to stability (Somalia might serve as an example), this view itself could fuel ethnic tensions, because the Guan ancestry does not encompass the Ewe, who are thus coming to stand outside the majority of Ghanaians in a way that could be politically counterproductive to nation-building. The transcription of an interview in which Akan resentments against the Ewe are reproduced at length (pp. 235–236) is unhelpful in that context. Furthermore...