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Opinions Sun, 29 May 2011

African Politicians and Media People: Two Indispensable Crooks

By Emmanuel Sarpong Owusu-Ansah (Black Power)

Politicians and media people occupy a very vital place in society. The activities of responsible politicians and media people considerably promote harmony and progress; whereas the consequences of the doings of irresponsible ones are nothing but chaos and retrogression. These two groups of people thus have huge roles to play in the progress or development of a nation.

Aristotle has argued in his famous work, Ta Politika (Politics or The Affairs of the State) that ‘man [or humankind] is by nature a political animal’ (that is, an animal that lives in a state or in cities). Hence, anyone who by nature is without a state, is either a bad person who disobeys laws, loves war, or above humanity. In other words, he who lives outside a political environment is either a beast or a god. He argued that when well controlled and monitored, man is the best of animals, but when isolated from society, law and justice, he is the worst and most savage of animals. This underpins the absolute need for a state (a well-governed and orderly society), that determines how life should be lived, and in which righteousness is rewarded and wickedness punished.

Contributing to Aristotle’s argument, Hobbes observed that a life devoid of politics or governance becomes ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ This statement made in his famous work Leviathan, was based on his conviction that humans are naturally egocentric and act on their evil impulses (i.e. they would do anything to acquire wealth and to protect it and/or their lives even if that involves the unnecessary killing of their fellow human beings); something he called ‘the state of nature’. In such an environment, that which is witnessed is nothing but the war of all against all (thus, everybody being at war with everybody). The only way of avoiding such a gigantic pandemonium according to him, is for society to have a political system or a system of government.

This thus gives birth to the ‘social contract’ theory where people give their powers and obedience to a ‘sovereign’ (a person or a group of persons empowered to decide every social, economic, political, and other issues in a state) in return for protection. This sovereign who could be monarch(s), aristocrat(s), democrat(s), etc. are generally referred to as political leaders or simply politicians.

It is clear from the above stated arguments, that the rationale for politics and politicians is to ensure that society attains and enjoys a peaceful environment. They are a means to conflict resolution, and to promoting and maintaining orderliness and progress in society. It is politicians’ obligation to restore tranquillity by reconciling parties in conflict through dialogue. Simply put, politicians are supposed to serve as guarantors to a peaceful and progressive society – they are expected to be instruments of harmony and progress.

The fact that politicians are human and could easily abuse their authority and stray from the path of progress, necessitates the establishment of an independent and impartial institution that could serve as a check on the excesses of political elites and to bring them back on track when they miss the plot of the drama of politics. This reinforces the absolute importance of the existence of independent media and media people in a political society, whose primary political or democratic role is to serve as watchdogs – a counterweight to despotic governments, by fully monitoring all state activities and exposing any abuses of official authority without fear or favour.

Media people are also supposed to serve as intermediaries between political leaders and the populace by conveying the views of the latter to the former, and monitoring the activities of the political elites so as to provide the public the information they require in order to act as responsible and patriotic citizens. It is also the democratic duty of media people to serve as an agency of information and debate which facilitate the functioning of democracy by providing a forum or platform for minority parties and groups as well as the general public to compliment and constructively criticize political leadership. The general role of the media is thus very vital in ensuring efficient and corruption free governance, as well as the promotion of a peaceful existence.

Disappointingly however, many politicians and media people in Africa are not performing to expectation. A considerable number of the former (political elites) have allowed themselves to be drawn into the thick mud of bribery, misappropriation of state funds and mismanagement; nepotism, ethnocentrism or tribalism; violence and murder; arrogance; promiscuity or relentless sexual misconduct; and many other vices. A substantial percentage of the latter (media people) on the other hand, are sadly abusing the freedom granted them, by wallowing in unhealthy practices such as bias reporting; intimidation and blackmail; unsubstantiated and baseless allegations or reports; the creation of unnecessary fear and panic; the incitement of tribal, civil and/or political unrest; and several other abuses.

These two bodies in the African community are supposed to be the key promoters of unity, harmony and progress, but they ironically tend to be the cardinal architects of disunity, chaos, conflict, and socio-economic misery.

Instead of tackling issues that are relevant to the populace and promote progress, many politicians including ministers, waist time, energy, and resources, incessantly arguing about immaterial issues, magnifying and accentuating trivial errors of their political opponents, and politicizing the occurrence of every single incident even if it has absolutely nothing to do with state politics. Such minds, can aptly be referred to as inferior intellects incapable of constructive thoughts, creative ideas, and progressive designs, and that only attempt to exploit trivial issues such as the insignificant “limitations” of an opponent (e.g. medical condition, vocal weaknesses, stature, physical appearance or looks, etc.) for incapacitated self-esteem and power.

Innumerable reports are read or heard of African leaders stealing millions and billions of dollars from their countries and depositing them in foreign banks when the vast majority of their own people lack the basic necessities of life: good drinking water, food, and shelter. Mr Olusegun Obasanjo, former president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is quoted by the BBC as disclosing at a meeting of civil society organisations in Addis Ababa in 2002 that Africa has lost $140bn through corruption since independence; and a considerable part of this money was muscled away by political leaders and their associates. The amount quoted here could in reality be far below the real amount of money lost through corruption. This obviously is one of the main reasons why Africa’s poverty is so severe.

No policies or achievements of immediate past governments are recognized or given any credibility by incumbent governments. A new political party comes to power and instead of carrying through projects begun by the previous government, it rather dismantles them and starts something else – projects that are never completed before it is also voted out of power. The incoming government also abandons the projects and starts something different even if the projects were discussed and approved by the legislature prior to their execution. So the cycle continues un-end, and the consequence is retrogression rather than progression. How can we talk of progress in a society like this? Do we blame this kind of dirty politics on the West, slave trade and/or colonialism?

When the entire people of a nation are crying for the execution of THIS project, political leaders are insisting on doing THAT project because the latter is the venture that gives them the opportunity to enrich themselves without being exposed. If in this day and age African countries are still heavily importing items as ordinary as frozen poultry and fish, tomato paste, sandals, clothing, cooking oil, canned fish, dairy products, and several others from outside the continent, then there is something terribly wrong somewhere. Many African leaders are obstinately failing to put in place meaningful economic policies, or lay down credible economic foundations for future generations to build on.

Instead of keeping a watchful eye on the activities of these failed political elites and exposing any abuse of authority, some African media people are rather “sharing a bed” with some of them. Realizing that they need media people more than ever if they are to win elections or secure their positions, many politicians have managed to establish unacceptably close bond with some media houses or personnel, bribing them in various ways (directly or indirectly). Consequently, many African media people have become toothless bulldogs – i.e. looking fearful but having no teeth to bite. Some of the obvious reasons why some media people are easily bribed by politicians are the growing emphasis on profits by media houses and the extremely low wages of media people in the continent.

Ethnicity and the sense of belonging are evidently among the major roots of media bias and malpractices in Africa. Some media people choose to sacrifice professionalism for ethnic, religious, regional and clients’ interest. In other words, how some African media people execute their day to day activities many a time is hugely influenced by their tribal or ethnic solidarity and loyalties rather than their national citizenship and culture. Many African media people and the publications they work for have assumed a highly partisan and politicised role in the continent. Their politicization according to Francis Nyamnjoh has succeeded in ‘dividing citizens into the righteous and the wicked, depending on their party-political leanings, ideologies, and regional, cultural or ethnic belonging.’ Media people in Koigi Wamwere’s opinion are thus the biggest propagators of what he calls ‘negative ethnicity’ – the notion that one tribe is superior to or more civilized than the other.

Many media people are so disrespectful of the need to base reports on facts and the collection of evidence that their role in promoting democratisation in the continent has been very limited and almost insignificant. Some even allow themselves to be bribed by politicians to fabricate and publish tarnishing stories about their closest political rivals, all in the name of media freedom.

Since people rely heavily on the media for information about their society and the performance of their politicians, and centre on that information in exercising their political rights, false information provided by the media usually result in misguided political acts. It is about time the autonomy of both privately and publicly regulated broadcasting and media was supported by a system of checks and balances.

As a result of the persistent failure of a considerable number of political leaders and media people to live up to expectation, the initial dream, that things would get better, now seems to be ‘… fading / into memories / like rain drops / falling into a river’, as the poet Gabriel Okara puts it. But let us not lose hope, because the beautiful and handsome ones are now born but yet to surface – yet to be granted the opportunity to mount the platform and do the job.

GOD BLESS AFRICA.

Emmanuel Sarpong Owusu-Ansah (aka Black Power) is a lecturer and investigative journalist in London, UK. He is the author of Fourth Phase of Enslavement: unveiling the plight of African immigrants in the West.

Columnist: Owusu-Ansah, Emmanuel Sarpong