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Mother Trinidad and Tobago

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 17, 2011

A few days after Kamla Persad Bissessar became the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago she dropped in at the headquarters of the Maha Sabha and announced blithely that the nation will adopt a multicultural rather than a transcendent cultural policy that served our nation well during its first fifty years of its existence. Such an announcement constituted a repudiation or reversal of Dr. Eric Williams's vision that was contained in his "Mother Trinidad and Tobago Speech" that emphasized our commonalities rather than our differences. Dr. Williams envisioned a nation in which we should consider ourselves Trinidadians and Tobagonians first, anything after that.

In his "Mother Trinidad and Tobago Speech" Dr. Williams intimated that we owe our primary allegiance to T&T rather than the various countries from which our ancestors came. In 2010, angered by the seemingly preferential treatment that Africans enjoyed under the People's National Movement, the People's Partnership (PP) decided to emphasize our difference rather than our commonalities thereby tearing away at the common cultural bond that holds us together as a nation.

The implications of these two approaches to nation building strike me forcible as I observe the turmoil taking place in Cote d'Ivoire, a neighbor of Ghana, where I have been renewing acquaintances with my mother land (sounds contradictory, doesn't it) for the past three weeks. Looking at the events in Cote d'Ivoire no one would deny that its cultural policy or its managing its various ethnic groups has been responsible for the deep mess in which it finds itself. On the contrary, Ghana's cultural policy has contributed immensely to its economic prosperity and political stability.

Ghana and Cote d'Ivorie began their national journeys in 1957 and 1960 respectively under the leadership of two strong-willed leaders: Kwame Nkrumah and Felix Houphouet-Boigny. While Ghana was subjected to British colonialism; Cote d'Ivoire was incorporated into the French system of paternalism and assimilation. Ghana embarked upon a socialist path of development that empowered the poor but proved disastrous for big businesses and foreign investors. Nkrumah was overthrown by the USA in 1966.

Cote d'Ivorie set out on a capitalist path. In the first twenty years after independence its economy grew at about 8 per cent per annum and was described as the "Ivorian miracle." While the Ivorian economy kept growing, the Ghana economy fell into desperate straits and did not recover until the early1980s. During that period it performed poorly and experienced minus growth rates.

By the early eighties the world recession took its toll on the Ivorian economy. By 1990 Ivorian prosperity began to decline. After Houphnet-Boigny died in 1993, Henri Konan Bedie, the new president, emphasized the concept of "Ivority" that favored indigenous Ivorians, excluded immigrants who formed one third of the populace and targeted Muslims. Although Houghnet Boigny made Alassane Quattara his Prime Minister, President Bedie prevented him from running for the presidency in the 1990s because his parents were not born in the Cote d'Ivorie. In 1999 a military coup sent Bebie into exile in France.

Ivority had disastrous consequences for ethnic relations which explain many of the problems that exist in Cote d'Ivoire today. Gbagbo, the former President, who was defeated by Quattara in the November 28 election, refuses to give up the presidency. Two of defeated candidates (Quattara, a Mossi and Bedie, a Baoule, who received 32 and 22 per cent of the votes respectively in the run-up elections) came together under Quattara to defeat Gbagbo.

Ghana on the other hand used culture as a bedrock value and anchored its development upon bringing its fifty ethnic groups together, a major policy initiative of Nkrumah. This policy, very much like Dr. Williams' transcendent cultural policy, explains much of Ghana's recent prosperity which has made it a beacon of stability in Africa. An updated cultural policy, adopted in 2004, reinforced Nkrumah's initiative. In his foreword to the latter document, John Kufuor, Ghana's former president, wrote: "One fascinating attribute of our culture is the strength and unity we derive from our diverse cultural backgrounds."

In 2007 South Africa awarded Dr. Williams its most prestigious national award posthumously. In making the award, Thambo Mbeki, former President of South Africa, declared that "The vision during our struggle for liberation was strikingly similar to the vision of the great West Indian historian and prime minister who directly addressed the great diversity of his country in the cause of national unity...This is the wisdom that we, too, apply for a single South Africa." It is no coincidence that President Mbeki was one of the first African leaders to go to Cote d'Ivoire to try to settle the conflict there.

Persad-Bissessar has every right to modify our cultural policy-preferable after national debate-although such a policy should not advantage one group over another. And it cannot only be concerned with how much money each group gets from the national treasury. The trenchant observations of Martin Daly's "Equal to Pythagoras" and Lenny Grant's "Knife-Folk: Dining in Golden Memories" (in Sunday Express, January 16) demonstrate PP's animosity towards the national instrument, the purveyors of that form and its calamitous approach to culture. When will they learn that culture cannot be quantified and/or reduced to how much money each form receives?

The proponents of Ghana's cultural policy argue that its culture "is established by our concepts of Sankofa, which establishes linkages with the positive aspects of our past and the present. It therefore embodies the attitude of our people to the interaction between traditional values and the demands of modern technology within the contemporary international cultural milieu." This suggests that in constructing national policy one cannot be unmindful of the relative value of each cultural input in the making of a nation's culture.

Multiculturalism cannot be successful if it does not inculcate the positive aspects of our past, wield them into a usable whole; and use them as a foundation that brings the nation together. Nor can it privilege one culture over another. Thoughtful consideration must be given to incorporating the Williams model into a new multiculturalism policy giving the relative weight and value to each strand of our cultural patrimony.

If Dr. Williams's approach to national culture is good enough for Ghana and South Africa, it should be good for T&T. It has prevented us from succumbing to the fate that now befalls Cote d'Ivoire. It is a necessary point of departure for any new formulation of our national culture policy.

Professor Cudjoe's email address is

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