Nana Yaa Asantewaa – an African Woman of Valour

| March 17, 2013
Picture from

Picture from

In celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD) which is commemorated every 8th March, I pay this tribute to the legendary Yaa Asantewaa, a great African traditional ruler and probably the greatest of them all in the last century. Many people have commented positively or negatively on Yaa Asantewaa without a proper knowledge of the historical and political circumstances under which she emerged to become the icon that she is. In the typical Ghanaian fashion, tribal sentiments are the overriding factor in deifying or demonising leaders. Yaa Asantewaa is no exception to this rule.

My wife queried me about not acknowledging IWD a couple of days ago. I told her it was demeaning to women to be given one day in a year, leaving the remaining 364 days for men. That is not my reality and I also believe not the reality of millions of Ghanaians and Africans who will tell you the crucial role played by their mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts in their everyday life. They celebrate every day in honour of these great women in their life. The Europeans fought their first war and called it World War 1, the second war and called it World War 2, now they make the whole world celebrate what is effectively the celebration of their women’s emancipation as International Women’s Day (IWD).

A brief historical account of the evolution of 8th March celebration juxtaposed against the story of Yaa Asantewaa will hopefully enable us to see the power and liberty of the African woman within the global context of women liberation and therefore how IWD should be celebrated in Africa.

On February 28, 1909, the first national Women’s day was celebrated in the US as a follow up to a declaration of the now defunct Socialist Party of America. In August 1910, delegates at the International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen organised under the auspices of the Socialist Second International and proposed the establishment of an annual International Woman’s Day as a strategy to promote equal rights, including suffrage for women. On March 18 1911, IWD was marked for the first time in many countries in Western Europe. In Vienna for example, demonstrators carrying banners demanded to be allowed to vote and to hold public office. Russia celebrated its first IWD on the last Sunday of February of 1913 and China declared in 1949 that 8th March would mark IWD. In 1977, The UN proclaimed 8th of March as the UN Day for Women’s rights.

Yaa Asantewaa, born in 1840, was made Queen Mother of Ejisu, a state in the Asante Kingdom, during the tenure of her brother Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpese as Ejisuhene or Chief of Ejisu. As you will recall, Asante had been formed as a federation by Anokye in 1701 and by 1742 had expanded through war to occupy present day Brong-Ahafo, the three regions in the north and some of the southern and coastal states. The relationship with the coastal states invariably brought Ashanti into conflict with European powers especially the British over territorial claims and trading routes. Many wars were fought between the British and its allies on one hand and Ashanti on the other.

It was the threat of Ashanti and its incursions on the coast that forced the coastal states to sign the Bond Treaty on 6th March 1844 with the British. That treaty turned the previously independent coastal states into a British protectorate and that began the colonisation process. It is important to note that Europeans had been on our coast since 1472 and had signed several treaties with local tribes but never directly involved them in the day-to-day governance of these tribes until March 1844. It is therefore reasonable to deduce that the primary concern of Europeans on our coast was economic. Politics became a convenient tool to expedite economic gains and we foisted it on the British. They did not have to fight to colonise us. We went to ask for protection from them.

After the first Anglo-Asante war which ended in 1831 during which Sir Charles McCarthy and Ensign Wetherall were killed, the British recognised the reality of Ashanti threat and proceeded to sign a peace treaty with them which held for over 30years. The Pra River divided the two spheres of influence. In 1863 Ashanti crossed the river in pursuit of a fugitive Kwasi Gyana and that started the second Anglo-Ashanti war. Ashanti seemed to have won the first two wars. The third war was started again by the Ashantis when they invaded Elmina in December 1873 after the Dutch had sold their possessions to the British and left the Gold Coast, but by March 1874 they had been comprehensively defeated.

Ashanti was made to sign the Treaty of Fomena in July 1874 which required that they pay 50 000 ounces of gold to the crown for war expenses, to guarantee freedom of movement of goods and people between Ashanti and the coast and crucially to renounce any territorial claim to the south. I believe this territorial claim has defined the relationship between Ashanti and the rest of the country and to a very large extent, our politics. The NPP slogan of ‘’ye gye ye man’’ in the 1992 elections was a subtle rejection of the territorial clause in the Treaty. The flocking of the rest of the country to the NDC was reminiscent of the protection the coastal states sought under the Bond Treaty.

Yaa Asantewaa was 34 years-old in 1874 and while there is no account of her involvement in the third Anglo-Asante war, she was old enough to see the humiliation of her kingdom by foreign led troops. When the British declared the Gold Coast as a colony in 1874, Ashanti was not included. It remained a separate province. This is additional evidence that the British were more interested in trade and commerce than governance. Who will buy a cow if he can get the milk for free? Ashanti even rejected a protectorate offer in 1891 and continued operating independently from the rest of the country until 1896.

By 1896, the British had become concerned about German and French presence in Ashanti and sought to gain full control of Ashanti once and for all. So under a pretext of Ashanti not paying the fine under the Fomena treaty, Sir Francis Scott led a multinational force to Kumasi in January 1896 to start the 4th Anglo-Asante war. Asantehene Nana Agyeman Prempeh ordered that no one resist and as a result, the empire crumbled. How are the mighty fallen? Prempeh and many of his lieutenants were exiled. The confederacy was dissolved and the title of Asantehene outlawed. Ashanti became a British protectorate, the only tribe to become so by force of arms. This is important because it clearly shows the difference between Ashanti psychology and that of the rest of the country.

In 1894 when Yaa Asantewaa’s brother the Ejisuhene died, she used her position as the Queen Mother to install her own young grandson as the new chief. That was and still is the power of the Queen Mother in the Ashanti political system. Yaa Asantewaa’s grandson and the new Ejisuhene was among those exiled with Prempeh after the 1896 war. Yaa Asantewaa thus became the regent of the Ejisu chiefdom until the next war which is rightfully called the Yaa Asantewaa War. Understanding this historical and political reality of Ashanti and Nana Yaa is very important in appreciating the factors which together made this great woman.

In March 1900, with a cloak of vulgar triumphalism, the British Governor-General of the Gold Coast, Frederick Hodgson entered Kumasi and made a speech to assembled Ashanti leaders which I reproduce below;

‘’Your King Prempeh I is in exile and will not return to Ashanti. His power and authority will be taken over by the Representative of the Queen of Britain. The terms of the 1874 Peace Treaty of Formena, which required you to pay the costs of the 1874 war, have not been forgotten. You have to pay with interest the sum of £160,000 a year. Then there is the matter of the Golden Stool of Ashanti. The Queen is entitled to the stool; she must receive it.

Where is the Golden Stool? I am the representative of the Paramount Power. Why have you relegated me to this ordinary chair? Why did you not take the opportunity of my coming to Kumasi to bring the Golden Stool for me to sit upon? However, you may be quite sure that though the Government has not received the Golden Stool at his hands it will rule over you with the same impartiality and fairness as if you produced it’’.

Proud Yaa Asantewaa still mourning the destruction of their kingdom and abduction of the king and her own grandson by these infidels could not take the extraordinary arrogance and disrespect exhibited by the Governor-General by demanding the Soul of her nation, the Golden Stool. That was the last straw and fighting to death to defend her heritage and dignity was the only option. Later in the day when the Ashanti leadership met to discuss their reaction to his speech and there was no agreement on the way forward, Yaa Asantewaa stood up and made this famous speech:

‘’Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it were in the brave days, the days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware, chiefs would not sit down to see their king taken away without firing a shot. No white man could have dared to speak to a chief of the Ashanti in the way the Governor spoke to you chiefs this morning. Is it true that the bravery of the Ashanti is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this, if you, the men of Ashanti, will not go forward, then we will. We, the women, will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields’’.

The reason for the war is very clear. The War was neither about restoration of the slave trade nor was it about whether or not Ashanti should be part of the Gold Coast (and in effect Ghana). It was resisting an obnoxious system represented by a disrespectful infidel who had the nerves to ask for the soul of her nation. It was a war of resistance against colonization. It was a moral war in defense of what is right and true. Yaa Asantewaa could not care less if other tribes had allowed themselves to be raped by the white man. She would have none of that in her territory. Any problem with that? She fought a war she knew she would lose but fought it nonetheless and paid the price. This is not some Ashanti manufactured history, the British will tell you the same story. It was only after this war that Ashanti became part of the colony on 1st January 1902. Thus Ashanti was under colonial rule for only 55years. This is also very important.

The relevance of Yaa Asantewaa to modern day Ghana cannot be overemphasized. We are in a more precarious situation than Ashanti at the time of Nana Yaa. The Hodgsons of today demand anything from us and we willingly give them more than they ask for. Who can stand up to the US, UK, France, Germany, and lately, China if their greed and interests clash with our sovereignty? Only recently, South Africa mortgaged its sovereignty to China by refusing the Dalai Lama a visiting visa. I know Nana Yaa turned in her grave and queried the spirit of Shaka with Wulomei rhetorical question, ‘’aso nyɛ hɔɔ wɔ da ni nyɛ gboi lo?’’ to wit, did you sell us before you died?

Yaa Asantewaa was not only a political and a military leader. She was a moral leader and a defender of the truth and human dignity. She was a transcendental phenomenon who cut across tribes, religions and even nationalities. She fought against an evil system and wherever that system surfaces, she becomes relevant. She was not a tribal hero, not even a national one. She was a foremost international hero who stood up against colonization and all that was evil. When the history of resistance to white penetration into Africa is to be written, Nana Yaa will be in the same class as Queen Nzingha Mbani of the Mbundu people (Angola). That is why Yaa Asantewaa has to be celebrated. But we must always remember that her relevance lies in the fact that she fought an evil system and not necessarily a racist system. The colour of the system she fought was incidental. Evil has no colour. We have evil systems all over Africa and fighting such should be the work of our modern day Nana Yaas. In my humble opinion that should be the focus of IWD in Africa. We want women who at the peril of their lives will defend the truth.

Defense of the truth does not have to be as dramatic as that of Nana Yaa. Whenever you fight injustice in whichever way, you further the aims of Yaa Asantewaa. It is reported that Ms Emma Mitchell resigned from Rawlings government because of the way the ex-President man-handled his vice, Mr. Ackaah. That was the spirit of Yaa Asantewaa at work. Emma did not resign because of violence against another woman by a man but one committed against a man by another man. She sacrificed her daily bread in the process. That cabinet meeting would have been like the Asanteman Council of 25 March 1900. There was an obvious bully in town yet not a single male minister lifted his hand in protest. It took a woman ‘’Nana Yaa,’’ Emma Mitchell, to do the right thing. That is what we call a liberated woman.

Yaa Asantewaa’s story is an excellent example of the power and liberty of an African woman, unadulterated by Islam and medieval European Christianity, and underscores the fact that whatever roles western women fought for, African women already had them and even more. In 1911 women were demonstrating in Vienna to have a vote and be appointed to public offices. In 1894, Yaa Asantewaa did not only have a vote but she actually appointed the ruler. In 1900, she was not just a public office holder but she waged a war against the powerful British Empire. Yaa Asantewaa did not live in colonized Ghana, so she could not have liberated Ghana. But if every tribe had just one Nana Yaa, Ghana would not have been colonized in the first place. We must not cut our noses to spite our faces by trivializing the achievements of Nana Yaa on the altar of tribalism.

I want my sisters to depart from the agenda set by western women in celebrating their IWD which is based on getting more from society, to grasping Yaa Asantewaa’s concept of woman power and liberty by giving to their communities and standing for truth and justice. The presence of women in government and other high-ranking positions means nothing if they would not stand up like Nana Yaa did. Do not take lessons about women’s rights from Britain. That nation waged war against Ashanti women and unashamedly exiled Nana Yaa Asantewaa. My sisters, you have enough to change Ghana and Africa for good. Fight evil even at the peril of your lives; resign from work if necessary, and take a stand for the truth. That is the way we should celebrate International Women’s Day. That is the best way to celebrate Nana Yaa Asantewaa.

Long live Yaa Asantewaa, Long live women of Ghana and Long live women of Africa.

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Category: Black History, Series, Women

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