Ideology, regionalism, self-interest and tradition: An investigation into contemporary politics in northern Ghana

Kelly, Bob and Bening, R. B. (2007). Ideology, regionalism, self-interest and tradition: An investigation into contemporary politics in northern Ghana. Africa, 77(2) pp. 180–206.



This article focuses on three concerns: (1) the historical and contemporary distinctiveness of the 'north' from the rest of Ghana; (2) the extent to which the 'north' is itself a distinct and united political entity; and (3) the relevance to the area of competing analyses of Ghanaian politics which emphasize: the continuing importance of a distinct 'northern' political consciousness; the role of competing Ghanaian political traditions based on ideology and related socio-economic divisions; the growth of conscious 'self-interest' on the part of individual voters; and the continued significance of local loyalties and rivalries, many of which pre-date the arrival of the British to the area in the final decades of the nineteenth century. The article argues that while no monocausal analysis of northern politics is adequate, longstanding internal divisions and rivalries, and distinct local issues, have been highly significant in determining the characteristics of its politics. It further suggests that whilst individual self-interest and ideological and related socio-economic differences have some role in determining the political sympathies and allegiances of members of the political elite, their independent role in determining voting patterns at the local level is limited. Longstanding local divisions and patterns of loyalty may vary in their intensity and impact from time to time, but nevertheless continue to have the potential to shape general political and specific electoral behaviour. Such an analysis is not peculiar to the north, with areas in the south and east also having significant traditional rivalries. It is, however, of particular significance in the north because of its history and the prevalence of common assumptions about the north's having a distinct political identity. Much of this article focuses on evidence gleaned from the 2004 elections, but it must be remembered that there are potentially serious limitations on the value of this source. In the first place it may be that electoral malpractice and various forms of vote rigging provide a distorted picture of what actually took place. While there were certainly attempts to buy votes in constituencies throughout the north, shooting incidents in Bawku and Tamale, and assaults and attempted assaults on election officials in at least three constituencies, the general impression was of a free, fair and credible election. Of more real significance, however, are the implicit features of an election - votes are aggregated so that we do not know the motivation behind individual voters' selections, and indeed each individual may have conflicting pressures and interests which have to be balanced into a single vote. It is certainly the contention here that underlying issues and actual electoral issues are not congruent; it is argued that only in a limited number of areas in the north did the underlying issues dominate the electoral outcome. It is, however, the potential for longstanding local divisions and loyalties to do so that is still significant today - and likely to remain so in the foreseeable future.

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