African viewpoint: Messy divorces

Jerry Rawlings and John Atta Mills Jerry Rawlings (l) no longer calls the shots with President John Atta Mills (r)

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Ghanaian writer and opposition politician Elizabeth Ohene says that that the break-up of a political marriage is as painful as a real-life divorce.

A former first lady of Ghana lost an election most emphatically on 9 July, the same day that the new Republic of South Sudan was born.

While the events in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, were a joyful affair, the events in Sunyani, the capital of Ghana's Brong Ahafo Region, were very painful to watch.

Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings, wife of former President Jerry Rawlings, was contesting an election to become the presidential candidate of the governing National Democratic Congress (NDC) party in polls due next year.

Her opponent was President John Atta Mills, who was Mr Rawlings' protege and had come to power in 2009 with the firm backing of the Rawlings.

Start Quote

Pre-nuptial agreements never bring equal solace to both sides.”

End Quote

Both events, in Sunyani and Juba, came out of a relationship gone bad - a marriage that had broken down.

Whereas in all cultures we have devised elaborate rites for marriages, the process of breaking up remains mostly unstructured and messy.

The problem often is that it is very rare for both sides in a relationship to conclude at the same time that a marriage has broken down irretrievably.

The African Union (AU), like the Catholic Church, is resolutely against divorce.

What god (or in Africa's case, the colonial powers) has put together, cannot and should not be put asunder.

'Marital property'

The African map, as drawn by the colonial powers, is sacrosanct - no matter how absurd.

The AU, though, reluctantly endorsed South Sudan's independence.

As I watched the birth of the nation and the joy on the faces of the crowds in Juba, I looked at at the face of Omar al-Bashir, now president of a half Sudan.

I could tell he was hurting. Maybe, it had something to do with the sharing of the marital property and the oil revenue going to the south.

South Sudanese dance in Juba to celebrate independence South Sudan won independence after decades of conflict with the north

The problem is that even pre-nuptial agreements never bring equal solace to both sides.

Then, my mind went to a May dawn in 1994 in Pretoria at the inauguration of a certain Nelson Mandela.

Not exactly a divorce that one, but not quite a marriage either since this "new" South Africa did not require a new domain name or a new football team as South Sudan apparently does - but it did get a new flag and a new national anthem.

That, too, was a relationship among different races that had collapsed and was being re-engineered after years of trouble.

We all wished them well and have been watching their progress sometimes with anxiety but more often with a lot of pride.


A year ago they did Africa proud by hosting a successful football World Cup tournament and one got the impression this new marriage was working even if the partners were still adjusting to the shift in power.

My mind then went to a country much nearer to the new state of South Sudan - Eritrea.

It divorced from Ethiopia in 1993 after a long liberation war.

Like the crowds in Juba on 9 July, the Eritreans were delirious at nationhood but the divorce was traumatic for Ethiopians.

The sharing of the spoils had turned Ethiopia into a landlocked nation overnight, as the country's only port fell in Eritrea.

A group of people with their livestock in Somaliland Somaliland's independence has not been recognised by any other country

But an even more interesting example is that of Somaliland, which broke away from Somalia 20 years ago.

That divorce has not been recognized by officialdom but Somaliland has certainly left the marriage and we wait for the formalities to be concluded one day.

Which all brings me back to events in Sunyani.

The fall-out between the Rawlings and their one-time protege - Mr Atta Mills - was played out in full glare of the public.

It seemed to me this was a classic case of an abusive relationship where the marriage had broken down but one side was still trying to hold on to it.

I have not quite worked out who filed for divorce, but the truth is that the marriage is over.

Mr Atta Mills has spoken about working for unity, but that is just empty talk.

This was a divorce and we await the sharing of the spoils.

If you would like to comment on Elizabeth Ohene's column, please do so below.


More on This Story

Letter from Africa


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Liz's apparent position on boundaries is a distraction from the real problem confronting us: leadership. Arbitrary boundaries aren't unique to Africa: parts of Europe suffered the same fate after WWs I and II, and this hasn't impeded their development.

    On the S.African World Cup, yes, it "did [us] proud," but what about the huge cost? Where are the promised jobs? What about the unnecessary debt?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The emergence of South Sudan as a newly independent country and the 193 rd member country of the UN is regretably heart breaking. As the world is moving towards unification as in the European Union, the Sudanese chose the reverse. The AU insteading celebrating should condem this undesirable precedent. Africa united should be the watch phrase for Africans and their leaders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Both Former president Rawlings and the incumbent Mills are great men who have been enormously contributing to the history of Ghana. They both have to learn are that there are two things in this world that one does not borrow and those are wife and power. Trust is not a reliable asset in politics. This is another chapter in the democratic evolution of Ghana in general and NDC in particular.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    This was a rather childish article by Elizabeth Ohene with elementary suppositions and conclusions. It is the very lack of wisdom in the educated and political elite circles that continues to encourage the myopic take on events even as they happen.
    Issues in Africa are as complicated as the telephone hacking now facing UK. It requires intellectual honesty not hypocritical analysis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The divorce of Somaliland is as complete as the Senegambia union. It is only the massacre but the ethnic cleansing that has brought the people of Somaliland (SL) to this point. 75% of SL population has not lived under the Somali neocoloniolists!! All they know is The Republic of Somaliland...try to convince them to return to a union that was doomed from day one ....

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I have seen that Elizabeth Ohene is a very astute observer and writes excellent articles with equally good analogies. The comparison with divorce is very apt.

    It seems that the well-laid plans of the erstwhile Flt Lt have come unhinged.

    We would request Ms Ohene to write more on the subject of partition & the stark realities that such partitions cause to people & the two nations.

    S Basu


Comments 5 of 16


More Africa stories



Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.