Free SHS Is Not Going To Die With 2012

Thu, 31 Jan 2013 Source: Baidoo, Philip Kobina

I have been following the argument in favour of free education since it took a centre stage after Akufo-Addo’s interview on BBC’s flagship television programme Hardtalk. I have never been so riveted by any Ghanaian election like the recent one, and the credit absolutely goes to NPP for making it into an issue based campaign. Though, I am diametrically opposed to the proposition, and contributed vigorously against it, what I relished about it was the political consciousness it wrought in the electorates, in addition to the level of debate, which has never been seen in the country before. The interest it generated was phenomenal. Almost every thinking Ghanaian had an opinion about it. Even Mensa Otabil, who wanted to keep his head below the parapet, was embroiled through the back door by his unguarded comments in the past on the subject. It was total war when the battle was joined. There are those who bought into the idea with massive dose of reservation due to the inadequacies of infrastructure. At a point NDC got scared as the idea picked up momentum, and they bulldozed their way back into the fray on the back of a tired horse that it is not feasible now, but later. It was clearly a straw man’s pitch, which the Texas strongman Justice Sarpong wrote a withering sarcasm.

Economic thoughts were advance to support the idea based on the Keynesian principles, though it could not stand three minutes of intense scrutiny. However, the heart wrenching examples of moral argument was something else – you couldn’t simply ignore them. What actually animated my relentless attack on the proposal was the fact that the idea was coming from a party that inherently believe and celebrate small government. I felt that it was disingenuous to say the least. Where they lost me completely is when they started marketing that the money that was being used to pay judgment debt will be used to finance the free SHS project. I felt a deflation of our soaring democracy. This is tantamount to saying that they are not going to pay debt incurred by the amateurish incompetence and almost childish infused temper tantrums of our leaders who have saddled the nation with needless costs. What is the essence of their so called champion of democracy and the rule of law advocates they call themselves if they trample on the rights of others.

So with NDC winning the election, subject to the Supreme Court case, I thought the most celebrated talking point of the election was going to be interred. But the torch is still burning bright and being carried aloft by self-styled free SHS education advocates such as Katakyie and others. During the Christmas festivities the discussion that punctuated the usual friends and family get together was the election and its sticking point – free education. Some of the emotional revelation, which bordered on hysteria and bitterness, was initially attributed to the pain of not having the price. But as I sat down to critically analyse every idle point I came to the realisation that it is the authentic bitter voice of the Southern poor, which is not going to be silenced sooner or later. Another eye opener was that the free education mantra wouldn’t have gained any currency had it not been for the free education in the North vis-à-vis its absence in the South.

It is not a denigration to say that the Northerners did not value education in the past. Western education started in the South and meandered its way slowly to the North. Even as I write, there are certain Akan families who don’t value the education of women. Before independence only a handful of people caught the education fever. A lot of Ghanaian communities paid little attention to the importance of education, and in the North it was a different ball game. Now there is no sane person in the country who does not place a high premium on education. If there is any such then I don’t think the rest of the country should be paying their taxes for their education. Such people should be left to stew in their own ignorance.

One of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, Winston Churchill, in a speech at Harvard University said: the empires of the future are the empires of the mind. Nkrumah, who was then in the United States, might have heard about the speech, and possibly romanticised about its ramification. This is all conjecture, but having gone through the educational mill, and ultimately experienced and perceived the transformation it had on his personal life, it could be said that he did understand the power and potential of education. He, therefore, understood the possibilities and felt that the relative poverty of the North could be cured through education. So the major rationale for the introduction of free education in the North is because of the dearth economic development in the region. He reasoned that free education will open doors to facilitate rapid development. At the time, school enrolment in the North was next to nothing. So it was an enticement for parents to part with their children to be placed on the educational tramline, which was laudable then. But it has now outlived its usefulness. It is very difficult currently to make a justifiable moral case to support it when other parents across the length and breadth of the country make unimaginable sacrifices for a privilege that others have it for free. Is it now not an eye sore in relation to our current circumstances? Has it not reached a time that it needs a serious review and ultimately repealed? The fact is there are lot of parents in the South who break their back, literally sweating blood to educate their children while most of their counterparts in the North who have access to the fee free education are even much better off than them.

The current economic situation, which is not unique to Ghana, has made the cost of living very high. Compared to the period before Busia devalued the national currency, when the cost of living was relatively very manageable, the contrast now is very sharp. The value of education had not reached its zenith in the minds of most Ghanaians when it was instituted. Now the transformation has gone full circle. I remember years back watching Akan drama in which Esi Kom of blessed memory was caste as an illiterate who took a swipe at her neighbour for not knowing how to use her money wisely while she uses hers to buy pen. In simple English, she understood the essence of education. Now every parent knows the import of having to allocate some of their limited resources to buy pens and textbooks. And woe unto you if they attend government primary school you will need a private teacher in order to bridge the gap.

I realised from the plethora of articles pouring out of late the economic line has been dropped and buried. The premise of the debate has shifted completely. Leading the charge is the moral anchor, which I will stress again that it is absolutely very difficult to refute. Emotive titles such as: this is very unfair, what is good for the geese is also good for the gander; we all need a level playing field etc., fills the electronic media and you can’t simply ignore them if you have the interest of the nation at heart. Though, my opposition to the notion was purely based on economic principles, besides the notoriously unprofessionalism in the management of government programme and the ubiquitous problem of corruption; it has become difficult to keep up when it’s been effectively dropped. On the other hand, the moral aspect is now becoming an open wound that is festering dangerously to the detriment of the host – Ghana. The bitterness is real; it is palpable. You can feel the righteous anger when it is not being animated by polished people like Katakyie. The option available is to repeal it, or we can decide to brush it under the carpet now, but it will surface again at every election cycle with different apparels to upset the applecart.

However, no political party will ever attempt to withdraw this injustice, because they will lose all the political capital they have in the North should they attempt it. But in the interest, health and future of our democracy that is the only option open to us. To me the main unspoken reason behind the stalemate of the December polls is the lack of level playing field in our educational system. And to avoid a repeat the catalyst will have to be removed.

The simmering anger of the Southern poor parents cannot be contained forever. All that it needs is an unscrupulous political demagogue and we have a problem on out hands. In America their social security is dying a slow death unless there is a serious overhaul to fix the greatest Ponzi scheme ever conceived. but no politician is ever prepared to do something about it. American political commentators refer to it as the third rail of American politics – you step on it and you die. In Ghana our third rail is the free education in the North and its absence in the rest of the country. Any national politician or Northern politician who steps on it is a dead meat. So nobody wants to talk about it. No political party will attempt to stop the free education in the North, though it has become the huge elephant in the room. It is now a de facto sacred cow of Ghanaian politics; you dare not touch it. But our inability to tackle it will spell the doom of the country.

There are a lot successful Northern politicians who in all standards of fairness do not feel comfortable with the idea of free education in their backyard with regards to the rest of the country. The current state of affairs even stifles debate in the sense that I was going through some of the commentaries of the free education tag of war and a contributor was slammed down that he should not get involve, because he is a Northerner. And all that humiliation was for the petty reason that he enjoyed free education whiles those who were doing battle had to pay their way.

The current state is divisive and it cannot continue. However, eliminating a project that has been going on for decades is not going to be easy. The Northern politician and people who matter should understand the need for this at this juncture in our democracy. They have to know that it is for the health and most importantly the unity of the nation. It is obvious that there are parents who have planned ahead; curtailing it abruptly is going to cause tremendous shock. Therefore, it should be mitigated by giving a grace period for it come to end in order to prepare the minds of the people. No matter how painful it needs to be done.

Philip Kobina Baidoo Jnr. London baidoo_philip@yahoo.co.uk

Columnist: Baidoo, Philip Kobina