Ghana, one of the few English-speaking holdouts in Francophone-heavy West Africa, is suddenly talking about adopting French as an official language.
In 2017, Emmanuel Macron became the first French president to visit this former English colony in 60 years. At the time, Nana Akufo-Addo had been president of Ghana only a few months and had already signaled a fondness for the language of Molière by pushing for more French classes in his country’s educational system.
When Macron was in Accra, the capital, Nii Kotei-Nikoi, a Ghanaian Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts recalled, a French flag was hanging at the top of Ghana’s Independence Arc, a monument celebrating the country’s independence from its former colonizer, Britain.
“It’s just an example of how little critical thinking there is about our past colonial history with Europe and how the discourse is uncritical and unprogressive,” he told PassBlue in an interview. “How can a nation put a French flag over its Independence Arc?”
During Macron’s visit in 2017, he was greeted not only by this symbol but also with accolades by Ghana’s president, an openly Francophile fan. Yet Akufo-Addo was surprisingly blunt in speaking about his country’s “mind-set of dependence” on Western aid, causing a stir in Macron’s presence.
“Our concern should be what do we need to do in this 21st century to move Africa away from being cap in hand and begging for aid, for charity, for handouts,” he said as Macron fidgeted nearby (video below).
The Ghanaian president speaks French fluently, having spent five years at the international law firm Coudert Brothers in Paris. Last year, he told colleagues at the International Organization of the Francophonie, or OIF, that his dream was to live in a bilingual Ghana.
Multilingual might be a more accurate word, unofficially speaking: along with English, about 15 percent of Ghana’s population also speaks Ashanti, 14 percent Ewe and 11.6 percent Fante. Seven other African languages are more common than French, which is spoken by fewer than one percent of Ghana’s 28.8 million inhabitants.
Signs nonetheless point to a Francophone future in Ghana’s political circle. Its foreign affairs minister, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, reiterated Akufo-Addo’s desire for a second official language in March, during a weeklong Francophonie festival in Accra. The president’s initial announcement took place a few months after Macron launched his plan to promote the teaching of French around the world in 2018, including spending millions of euros to support African countries wanting to expand French education.
France has also invested 2 million euros in “multilingualism,” teaching African traditional languages, although it is unclear if Ghana is part of the initiative. The French foreign ministry did not respond to requests for more information.
While France’s influence in Ghana’s decision is unclear, if it goes ahead with Akufo-Addo’s plan, that would signal a win for both the Élysée Palace and the OIF. Yet West Africa is still dominated by the continent’s most populous and most powerful country, Nigeria, which is English-speaking and a neighbor of Ghana. Liberia and Sierra Leone, other Anglophone nations, are also nearby.
Ghana has close economic ties to France: Ghana is the seventh recipient of French investments in Africa, and bilateral trade between the two countries totaled more than 500 million euros in 2017, or about $558 million.
Douglas Yates, an expert in Francafrique (France’s foreign policy in Africa) and a professor at the American Graduate School in Paris, thinks that some French diplomats may support the move.
“I don’t see any particular interest France could have in Ghana that the Ivory Coast or another West African country doesn’t have,” he said. From “a regional point of view, Ghana can use French to make regional connections — French would serve Ghana better than any other language.”
The push makes sense geopolitically speaking. The African continent now represents half of the world’s French-speaking population. Although Macron has voiced support for increased independence among former French colonies in Africa, France’s cultural influence, also referred to as “soft power,” remains strong.
“If you want to reach out to France, appeal to them through culture,” Yates told PassBlue.
Economically, politicians say, Ghana would have much to gain by bonding with other Francophone countries, including Ivory Coast, Togo and Burkina Faso, which surround it on three sides. But locals aren’t quite sure. According to Nii Kotei-Nikoi, the Ph.D. student, it is sometimes easier for people in the region to do business in local languages, which many countries often share.
For example, Ewe is also widely spoken in Togo, and Ashanti languages are also spoken in Ivory Coast. Even in countries where French is the official language, Kotei-Nikoi noted that local languages tended to be widely spoken, mostly by people who are not part of the “elite,” he said. Finding a balance between teaching local and foreign languages seems difficult to achieve, but Ghana seems more inclined to invest in teaching French than teaching indigenous languages.
“Many indicators are positive: There’s political will, there’s a need and a positive answer,” Alexandre Wolff, director of the French Language Observatory at the OIF, told PassBlue. “That is most clearly understood by Ghana’s geographical situation. The regional economic union is rising and Ghana has every interest to become Francophone.”
Yet some people in Ghana say that making French an official language will ignore the nation’s deep ties to African culture and indigenous languages.
A Ghanaian rapper, Okyeame Kwame, denounced the foreign minister’s announcement in March, saying in a tweet: “French as a second language is disrespectful to our pride and culture, it is bad enough that our first language is another person’s language. What is wrong with making one of our local languages our first language?”
Kotei-Nikoi echoes this idea: “I don’t like the hierarchy of colonial languages in Ghana,” he said. “Why not promote the teaching of our local languages, that are underfunded, along the ones of French and English?”
While Wolff notes that French classes tailored for hotel, restaurant and business workers could be an economic boost, Akufo-Addo’s vision of children reading both Shakespeare and Victor Hugo is easier voiced than attained. Ghana does not have enough French-speaking instructors to serve more than a handful of private students.
“Most students who learn French do it through private schools or the Alliance Française,” Wolff said. The Alliance Française, which promotes French around the world, charges about $150 for 100 hours of class time.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.