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Tribute to my friend the Ga politician – Joshua Nii Attoh Quarshie

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From His lighthouse evermore;
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

In my youth, the name Attoh Quarshie was synonymous with a demagogue with the gift of the garb, but not only was I too young to listen to him speak but he was of a different party.  My late father was at that time the Councillor for Ward 7 Akoto Lante so that chance to meet him was lost during the heady days when his avowed objective was to deliver the Accra Central seat to the Ghana Congress Party. The intention of the opposition was to make Ghana Ungovernable because they disagreed with the election results.

But as I write today of Joshua Nii Attoh Quarshie variously called Jomo, I am faced with the difficult problem of writing about a politician without mentioning his flaws and I am conflicted because I have also been alerted that you cannot speak evil of the dead not that there is anything evil about my friend JA, as I came to call him when I got closer to him during the years from 1988 to 1994 when he must have relocated to Ghana after being in exile.

As I said I never heard him speak in the early 50s during the time of the ‘Troubles’ of politics in Ghana. But it was all worth the wait because in 1969, as a university student working for the Centre for Civic Education and delivering posters for the centre on election procedure to a mass of people around, I did get to meet him at a rally at Bukom.

He was donned in full campaign attire – white-white, with a walking stick and a white handkerchief that he used to wipe away his tears. His hair jet-black and fashioned in the Tokyo Joe style as always.   And yes, he spoke, he really spoke, he sang, he laughed, he cried, he quoted from the Bible. He spoke about the plight of the Ga people, he reminded us of the fact that a lot of Ga people in the Gashifimɔ Kpee, that he had founded as a movement to reclaim the lands of Ga and to seek equal opportunity in Ga were detained under the PDA, but he also reminded us that the detentions then continued with the round-up of the CPP Ga Ekomefeemɔ Kpee who were also carted to join those in the opposition in the same prison.

The solution he told the rally lay in a Ghana Nationalist Party led by the triumvirate Bannerman, Joe Appiah and Apaloo. They became dubbed as Ababasɛɛ and yet with all the ‘wɔ ngbontoɔ’ statements, they managed to win the iconic Accra Central and only one other seat in Ga rural.

So, when we met in London, it was at the early stages of setting up of Gadangme Nikasemo Asafo, a passionate plea from him to bring all together under one roof with a celebration of Homowo – this coincided and fit well into my own search for my identity in London. Our first few meetings were turned into pleasurable debates about the best fit structure of the organisation and the content of what we should do to benefit others outside our own Ga community. His views were congruent with mine in the exposition of our culture, the teaching of the language and the research into the history, culture and traditions. With the Organisation we organised to celebrate our festivals, we attended outdoorings, rallied around and provided support to the bereaved at funerals, and helped people to share their good stories. His vision for unity was sound but was always focused on liberation and redemption and defence of the Gadangme people.

GaDangme Nikasemo Asafo Homowo in London Selby Centre circa 1992

Our interaction extended to political issues, trying to seek convergence on what should happen to Ghana and considering the issues that would lead to effective political action.       His view was that the only way forward lay in a coalition of politicians from the broad spectrum of political thought in Ghana, even including the military and persons from the trade unions.

I felt that would be difficult to achieve especially after the rejection of UNIGOV, deep-seated mistrust and betrayal was not going to let that happen even if he willed it.

Once a politician, always a politician so in 1991, he tried to put together what he felt was a balanced coalition of former and future politicians – the Concerned Citizens Party to which he invited several people in exile who fitted the bill of what he was thinking could save Ghana, It was poorly resourced and did not have the commitment of people who were ready to go to Ghana after all the agitation in the UK.  Sadly, the coalition fell apart because there were no strong links with people on the ground in Ghana.

For such a political agitator and strategist always a true democrat at heart, he never found himself at the helm of office because his preferred parties never won political power, but he did spend a lot of time on the peripheral advising military dictators who listened initially to the advice he proffered and when he broke with them, subjected him to a lot of abuse and to jail. By discarding him they reinforced the self-fulfilling prophecy that all Ga political careers end in failure and sometimes disgrace and shame. Those who seek to write the history of the man should also recognise that he was prone to rushing to action when he has not apprised himself of the full facts and of the principled positions he took, some would have cautioned that he made haste slowly.

I learnt a lot from Nii Attoh, his recall was always vivid and he regaled me and others with stories about his early life as a politician and how he was able to serve other older politicians such as Solo Odamtten, a favourite for him and how these older people such as Danquah and Busia, Akuffo Addo pere, Obetsebi Lamptey and others, in turn, nurtured him from his initial position as a driver to becoming super political strategist who formed a Movement that he organised a veritable opposition to the CPP.

He suffered in jail for the Gadangme cause, ever a nationalist and his belief in equal opportunities and the preservation and upholding of the rights of minorities never left him.          There were several accounts about acts of betrayal and how people had turned him in and put him into trouble because of his enthusiasm matched by exuberance and action. But he also reminded us that – “Gamɛi anyiɛ amɛhie, anyiɛ amɛsɛɛ.” Getting them together was always going to be difficult. But one should never give up and he did try till his dying day.

His ideology was simple enough but profound, “give the Ga people respect for inviting all people of Ghana to Accra, but do not dispossess them of their prized possession of the land”. This always led to the statement that still rings around in Ga land when they feel that perception of marginalisation – Gamɛi Ashikpon Gamɛi Anɔni, what with all the unpleasant memories of the 1950s violence that was visited onto the streets of Accra – Oyɛmli, obɛmli, abaa shi bo tso.

In all my life, I have never seen anyone more passionate about the Gadangme cause. All one must do is to feed him a sob story about a perceived marginalization and Nii Attoh gets onto his phone to arrange a meeting of sorts and he gets a car to visit who can solve and salve the injustice.    He knew all who it was important to know, and it seemed easy for him to put the words required to get a result in the cause of the Gadangme.   He was a lobbyist par excellence, a super organizer knowing exactly what to say to motivate people in his frequent calls for action. He felt that there were questions that needed to be asked in a growing democracy but very few people want to bell the cat so to speak.        His command of the Ga language was super with the use of idioms and proverbs that were always apt and so was his oral history about Ga kingly succession and how they found common cause with the Dangme cousins in times of war and peace.

Ade Sawyerr and Attoh Quarshie
After a Gadangme Church Service at St Barnabas Church in Mitcham circa 1998

I never quite accepted the tenuous link that placed Gadangme in Israel and often teased him about his decision to reside in Stanford Hill amongst the Hasidic Jews, but he knew our customs and traditions well and, on several occasions, I found myself agreeing with his reading of politics though I thought that he only looked at it from one perspective that of the Gadangme People. But maybe he drew some inspiration from them having read the Ga Bible from cover to cover during the long years he spent in preventive detention.

Nii Attoh was a tireless and fearless organiser of people, a man who was willing to do all to help uplift the plight of his Ga people, he was not only an oral historian of great respect, but he remained sharp, clear and lucid to the end.

Nii Attoh,  ageless and fearless, proud Ga at all times – you often asked me this question and I never did find the answer for you – where are all the ethnic Ga politician gone!! – now you have also gone to join them at the ripe age of 100!!.

My heartfelt condolences to his darling wife Vicky and the children you know how we held the man who has departed in high esteem.

I leave you with his favourite song that I hope will wipe away your tears.

Wɔ mi fa gbɛ kɛya Kanaan maŋ fɛfɛo lɛ
Heni shika ŋshɔ plamai fɛfɛo lɛ yɛɔ
Heni ŋkɔmɔ kɛ minshɛ kpako yɛ jɛi daa
Shi wɔtsɛ Nyɔmŋmɔ shɛjeɔ wɔmii
Ehɛɛ plamai fɛɛfɛɔ lɛ
Jɛmɛi noŋŋ mitsui kpalɛɔ kɛyaa nɛ
Ni esa akɛ wɔkɛ Yesu ana amanehulu da
Dani wɔ aye ŋɔɔmɔ ni bɛ naagbee
jeɔ wɔmii

Nii Attoh – Yaaba Ojogbann – sleep well in the bosom of your Christian God your maker

Owula Ade Sawyerr –London June 2021.

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The Matters Arising blog is a collection of thought-provoking, thought-leadership pieces sprinkled with some blue-sky thinking on pertinent issues affecting African communities both in the diaspora and at home. It includes articles on culture, politics, social and economic advancement, diversity and inclusion, community cohesion topics. It is also a repository of the political history of Ghana, traditions of the Gadagme people of Ghana, and the Pan-African politics of Kwame Nkrumah. Read, enjoy, like, share, and join!


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