Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ghana's culture of ugly noises

Ghana has not always been as peaceful and free as it is today. In fact, as recently as the early nineties, journalists could be harassed, or even incarcerated for speaking unpopular truths. It was not until the repeal of the criminal libel law by the NPP in 2001 that journalists had the freedom to ply their trade without the prying eyes of the powers that be.

Unfortunately, some elements in the press have abused this licence to the detriment of civil discourse. The newspapers and airwaves are rife with unsubstantiated and outright libelous claims about prominent people in the society. One victim of this press indiscipline is Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, the flag-bearer of the NPP. False allegations have been made time and again by his detractors in the media about his alleged cocaine use. Even though his accusers have failed to give evidence, and his lawyers have unequivocally denied the claims time and again, it is customary for  pro-NDC newspapers to insinuate cocaine use--even addiction--in every story involving him that they run.

It appears that until something drastic--like some media house being rendered insolvent by the courts--is done, the perpetrators of this injustice will not back down. In fact, some of them regard the fact that they have not yet been arraigned as evidence of the truth of their claims, given that Nana Akufo-Addo is himself a renowned lawyer. That line of reasoning is absurd and should be denounced in any civilized society. These journalists believe that until the victims of their media assault use the strongest measures possible to stop them, they should be taken for granted.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon transcends the media and politics.

Labour organizations in Ghana prefer strikes to discourse in making demands from the government. Perhaps, they have learnt from experience that that is the only language the government understands. It is also typical for groups to use public demonstrations as a first resort towards the resolution of an issue or the airing of a concern. Maybe, as a society, we have stopped listening to one another, or maybe, we assume the other could not possibly make sense if they do not agree with us. Whatever the reasons for this are, the trend is worrying and should be stemmed. We have learnt from our traumatic history to prefer a culture of ugly noises to one of silence, but that should not lead us to the extreme, where we become desensitized to the concerns--or even, plights--of others who might be hurting as a result of our deafened ears.


Friday, November 26, 2010

On burning witches

Yesterday, a mob burnt a 72-year old woman alive in Tema, a coastal city in Ghana. They allegedly accused her of witchcraft, poured kerosene on her, and set her ablaze. She did not die on the spot. She died today--in hospital--from injuries sustained from the ordeal.

The story did not make headlines because the Ghanaian media is more interested in other issues. This is not to make any normative claims about the rightness or lack thereof of the media's choices, rather, it is to point to the plight of old women who are routinely accused of being witches in Ghana.

Ɔbayifoɔ, the term used to describe these women is powerful and emotive. It has strong grounding in many traditional religions in Ghana. It is also the Twi word for 'witch' which is found in the Old Testament. It is alleged that witches can hinder one's progress in life--they can make or unmake you whether you believe in them or not. Thus, it makes sense to kill them in order to rid society of the evil they cause--it is just like killing a murderer to prevent her from causing further harm. In fact, witches are believed to eat human beings, so it is customary to blame the mother-in-law, or sometimes the mother of a barren woman for the woman's infertility.

The problems associated with accusations of witchcraft cannot be dealt with without addressing the religious angle. Many people think they are doing a good thing when they call out witches for corporal punishment, because of their religious beliefs, whether traditional or Christian. Hence, even though the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice has expressed shock at the development, religious leaders should add their voices to educate the public on right and wrong.

Can Samia resurrect Daddy's dream?

Samia Nkrumah, the beautiful, outspoken, and visionary daughter of Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, is vying for control over her father's sixty year old invention--the CPP. This is refreshing news for avid followers of Ghanaian politics as it promises to infuse a doze of freshness into the stale arena we know today.

[caption id="attachment_211" align="alignright" width="186" caption="Samia Nkrumah - MP for Jomoro and daughter of Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah"][/caption]

Given the early success of the CPP, it is utterly surprising how it has fizzled into oblivion. There are a few obvious reasons for this trend, paramount among them being the emergence of the NDC--the most viable option for left-wingers in Ghana's politics. Indeed, Sekou Nkrumah, son of Kwame Nkrumah, underscored this fact when he defected from his father's CPP to join the NDC--a decision to which Samia took strong exception. This point might be a little touchy for some observers of Ghanaian politics--a politics that for a long time has resisted ideological definition because of the capriciousness of the Ghanaian electorate coupled with the populist and opportunistic tendencies of the leading politicians. I will elaborate shortly.

Another reason for the CPP's woes--the fragmentation of the Nkrumahist front--is linked to the first. Many parties not-on-the-right of Ghana's politics describe themselves as Nkrumahist, rendering a hazy meaning to a concept that each of them has taken the liberty to define. The fact remains that Kwame Nkrumah was a complex political figure, and even though some would be quick to label him as left-leaning, his politics seems to me as more pragmatic than anything else. In other words, Nkrumah took the stances he took in the late fifties and early sixties mainly in reaction to the circumstances that prevailed in the world at the time (primarily, the Cold War). By that logic, Nkrumah could well be embracing free-market ideals today, a position hard-line Nkrumahists like Kwesi Pratt strongly reject. But that is precisely the problem.

I narrate this historical tale not to confuse the discussion, but to underscore the issues at the core of the CPPs woes. Nkrumah was pragmatic and charismatic, but above all, he was also idealistic. Under different circumstances, this would have been a blessing to his legacy, but this is the issue at the root of all the CPP's problems--they are stuck in a quagmire where until Nkrumah's very ghost breathes life into the party, those who are loyal to his ideals will continue to quibble about implementation details. The pedantic ideologues in the CPP have failed to articulate Nkrumah's ideals in modern tones much to their own detriment, because, even though the youth have heard good stories about Nkrumah and his ideals, they do not appreciate the olden ideological talk that accompanies those who espouse these ideals.

Samia has distinguished herself as an innovator and effective communicator. She employed these qualities in 2008 to unseat Lee Ocran (NDC) from the Jomoro seat which the NDC had held since 1992--a feat that was thought impossible until she actually did it. These qualities will serve her well in her new ambition to save the dying fortunes of the CPP. Indeed she has started such a project on a smaller scale: as the only CPP MP in parliament, she opposed the standing orders of parliament that required MPs from 'smaller' parties to join either the majority or the largest minority party for the business of parliament--a sign that she was going to assert her independence from the mainstream.

If she succeeds, she would have made history as the first woman to be elected chair of a major political party in Ghana. The novelty of her gender coupled with her youthful demeanor might be able to resurrect her father's baby--a welcome event that would energize politics and offer more alternatives to the electorate.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The shameless vilification of women in Ghana's politics

In a morally conscious, and arguably pharisaic society like Ghana, even the slightest hint of infidelity or sexual promiscuity can cast an irreparable dent on one's public image. It is for this reason that politicians like to spread rumours of sexual promiscuity about their opponents, knowing the potency of these accusations in Ghana's political climate. The unfortunate reality, however, is that these accusations of promiscuity do not seem to have any effect when leveled against male politicians--even though they are arguably more promiscuous than their female counterparts--leaving unscrupulous male politicians the option of accusing their female counterparts of the same wrongdoing most of them are guilty of, without any consequences to themselves.

[caption id="attachment_193" align="alignright" width="207" caption="Madam Patricia Appiagyei - Former Mayor of Kumasi"][/caption]

President John Evans Atta-Mills, Vice-president John Dramani Mahama, and former majority leader and current Minister for Water Resources, Works and Housing Alban Sumanu Kingsford Bagbin have all engaged in extra-marital affairs, all of which have been extensively documented (click on their names for the stories), but they hold highly responsible positions in the current administration. I cite these examples not to indict these honorable men, but to illustrate my point--there is no way a woman, if known to have engaged in similar escapades, would have been allowed the piece of mind to do her work, let alone to command respect from fellow Ghanaians like these men do. The women who fall victim to this canker are those who are considered too outspoken, or too successful, or too powerful for their gender; and it seems customary for their male counterparts to level these allegations against them, even if they have no basis whatsoever.

Older Ghanaians may recall the 'Fa woto bɛgye Golf' (trade your behind for a Golf) saga which involved Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, one time head of state of Ghana, and some women whom he allegedly lured with Golf cars for sex. Often when this story is recounted, it is to demean and shame the women involved, and not to impugn the morals of the head of state involved. This image was invoked by Maxwell Kofi Jumah (NPP), MP for Asokwa, when he accused Madam Patricia Appiagyei of attaining her post of Mayor of Kumasi by offering sexual favours. Even though Mr. Jumah later apologized for his reckless and unsubstantiated accusations, it is alarming that he did not receive stronger censure from parliament or even his party except for a feeble slap on the wrist. The consequences would have been disastrous for Madam Appiagyei if she were in Mr. Jumah's place and Mr. Jumah in hers.

The absence of punitive measures from the proper quarters on these unfortunate remarks should not lead to despair. It might be comforting for these adventurous women to note that they are in highly esteemed company regardless of the seeming thanklessness of the jobs they do, and that people like Baafoɔ appreciate their strength of character and willingness to serve their nation even in the face of great adversity.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Widen the tax net

Nobody will deny that the government needs revenue to run the country smoothly. The nagging question is how to obtain these funds without killing creativity, disincentivizing industry, or instigating revolt. I am disappointed by the pusillanimous solutions the NDC government has proposed in its budget statement released on Thursday.

[caption id="attachment_151" align="alignright" width="265" caption="Denominations of the cedi"][/caption]

In a country where more than half of those who are eligible to pay taxes do not pay because the government does not have the capacity to track down defaulters, it would make sense for an unenterprising administration to raise taxes on the already overburdened compliers rather than ruffle feathers by claiming that to which it is legitimately due.

Many of those who make a decent living, and as a result should be eligible to pay income tax, easily evade tax because they belong to the so-called informal sector, which to this day remains elusive--they resist definition and accountability. The questions that keep arising are "What should we do in the interim?" "What would you do?" To me, the answers are obvious. These questions annoy me because they underscore the bankruptcy of ideas that the administration, or the questioner feigns. They are rhetorical questions that are supposed to point out the all-knowing arrogance of those who dare to differ, and shut them up.

Ghana's problems are too pressing to play games with, so I will propose one solution: The government should vigorously pursue an intensive street-naming and house-numbering programme. The installation of such infrastructure will ease the process of tracking down workers in the informal sector.

The answer to the question "Where do you live?" is fodder for unadulterated hilarity. I live in the pink house with a tall mango tree in front of it that is close to the blue kiosk that is next to the barber's shop with a TV pole on top of it that is in the area called... As opposed to I live at 355 Black Stars Avenue. Many workers ply their trade without certificates (an issue for another day's discussion) and worse still, they do not have a permanent address with which correspondence like audit and asset declaration requests can be sent. This makes it trivial for them to evade tax.

To enforce the laws regarding proper street-planning and book-keeping will require enormous political will that is yet to be found in any of our democratically elected heads of state. For politicians who care about leaving a veritable legacy--significant developments attributable to their tenure--this should be worthy of consideration. The president who will be bold enough to brave this path will be hailed by posterity for being a true visionary.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Two problems with Ghana's police

1. They were chasing a criminal who escaped into a community with a few houses. They then searched around the community looking for this criminal whom they did not find. What  did they do next? They burnt down houses in the hope of smoking out the criminal! Those who grew up in Ghana may know that little children, for play, do smoke out rodents, roast them, and then eat them. This is the imagery, if I may submit, that run through the minds of the policemen who are the 'they' in this story.

[caption id="attachment_134" align="alignright" width="240" caption="This is not one of the houses that was burnt down. Rather, it illustrates the gravity of the police's action."][/caption]

While criminals were busily upgrading their skills in their dubious art of treachery, the Ghana Police Service was slouching. As a result, it has barely changed to reflect and respond to this reality. Some of the blame can be laid on the governments who have routinely paid lip-service to adequately equipping them, but in the end doing nothing.

Ghanaians can sympathize with the Service's underequipment, but the Service should resolve to upgrade itself by showing principle and self-determination in what it does to gain respect.

2. A young woman told a shocking tale of the ordeal of some passengers who were traveling from Accra en route to Tamale. According to her, the bus they were traveling in was stopped by armed robbers who seized their valuables and forced the men to rape the women. As the exigencies of Ghanaian politics would have it, the issue became one about the veracity of her tale--whether every single thing she said was true--even though a rudimentary investigation would have made it clear that an overwhelming lot of it was true.

Had people been more responsible, the real issue would have been why such atrocities could have happened on a major highway. You could travel from Half-Asini to Bolgatanga and be amazed at how few police barriers you would encounter, if any. Neither the police, nor those who supervise them (presumably the government) are making any efforts at rectifying this.

In a country where people are so blinded by politics that at least 50% of people will adopt a view because the leader of their party holds that view, the teachable moment in this tale will be lost until a worse robbery happens again.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Africa Watch has done

About a month ago, Africa Watch (who runs this magazine?) published rankings of MPs in Ghana based on their work on the floor of the house. The publication was not flattering at all, as many MPs received low grades for 'non-performance.'

[caption id="attachment_106" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Ghana's parliament in session"][/caption]

Varying degrees of outrage have been expressed in response to the publication. Mr. Osei Kyei-Mensah Bonsu, the minority leader in parliament and the highest-ranked MP raised some legitimate concerns about the publication. He pointed out that a lot of the work of parliament is done behind the scenes--in the committees, therefore, it would be wrong for an outside observer to judge the work of parliament without considering the input of individual MPs in their specific assigned roles on committees.

Even though most rating systems are imperfect just by the fact that they are based on only a few factors that are tuned to produce 'reasonable' results, the Africa Watch ratings might be flawed for other reasons as well. Firstly, it did not consider, as the minority leader pointed out, the 'behind-the-scenes' work that MPs may do on committees. Secondly, it only considered the contributions MPs make on the floor of the house. Thirdly, it did not publish the criteria that it used, making it almost impossible for MPs to improve their performance, assuming they are not already performing.

Given these flaws, one might be tempted to completely disregard it as misleading and mischievous; but there are benefits to the controversy it generated. One thing that this publication has achieved is that it has brought the work of parliament to the limelight. Even though many Ghanaians show a disturbing apathy to the work of their legislature, this publication reminded them to pay attention to the officials they go to the polls to elect every four years.

If parliamentarians are supposed to represent their constituencies by arguing issues in their favour, then their silence on the floor of the house might be a signal that they are not doing their work, after all--an issue of grave concern to well-meaning Ghanaians. Africa Watch has been able to draw attention to this disturbing phenomenon, and it is in that regard that their rankings have succeeded.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Museveni's critics miss the point

You want another rap? Yes Sevo!

Yoweri Museveni, the president of the East-African nation of Uganda, performed a stunt that is making waves in his home country and on the web. You can watch a video of the 65-year old doing a rap song in his gravelly voice here:

This song, which is now a hit in clubs and among the youth in Uganda has piqued the interest of an interesting set of observers who would otherwise have observed this election silently, if at all. This, to me, is positive.

I am, however, amazed by the lack of clarity in the reportage surrounding this story. Most of the reports on this episode have emphasized the fact that it is just a ploy to win young voters. If it were just so and nothing more, it would be a grievous fault. Rather, Mr. Museveni has revived the oratorical traditions in his political campaign in a way that his major opponent has failed to do. This has endeared him to the younger end of the electorate.

Often, politicians who use oratorical tropes to solicit pathos from their audience are dismissed as uttering mere words. How is one supposed to govern if he cannot mobilize action by convincing others to buy into his point of view? I am more concerned with the actual words that Mr. Museveni spoke than that they could be put to a danceable tune.

According to the New Vision, this is the interpretation of Mr. Museveni's words:
The stick I cut strayed into Igara where Ntambiko reigns. Ntambiko gave me a knife which I gave to millet harvesters, who gave me millet, that I gave to a hen, which gave me an egg, that I gave to children who gave me a monkey that I gave to the king, who gave me a cow that I used to marry my wife.

The second verse says:
Give me my stick! Invaders from Ngarama have arrived, shaking their bums like Rutendegyere. May thunder strike Rutendegyere from above where there is abundance that helps the rhinoceros to thrive. The rhinoceros feeds but remains ready for a buffalo attack. The buffalo, whose meat is salty. The salt that comes from Nsharira deep inside the kingdom.

What have I to say about these words? They are deep! It is the kind of oratory you would hear by the fireside from and old person--the kind that I fear we might be losing because of our failure to educate younger generations in the rich oral traditions of their forebears. The story Mr. Museveni tells is the typical story of many African families and people--the geniuses who make a heaven out of a hell. I am not going to speak to Museveni's success or failure in governing his state. All I care about is that he has struck a chord that has resonated with an important segment of the electorate, and he did so by a very dignified means that I think should be commended by all who care about the literary arts.