Short Memories, Even Shorter Political Expectations

Fri, 25 Sep 2009 Source: Casely-Hayford, Sydney

By Sydney Casely-Hayford, www.ghananewsmonthly.com

On the mantle piece in my home, I have a piece of sculpture from a fallen statue of a once formidable dictator in Ghana. On 24th February, 1966 together with a host of friends just turning teenage, we flocked to the front of Parliament house to see the statue of Kwame Nkrumah pulled down and broken in bits. My salubrious souvenir reminds me of the aggravation and fear in the run up to the events of 1966.

I clearly remember how much trepidation surrounded every conversation in our home, especially when friends and family got together. The latest gossip of who had been picked up by the secret services, who had been charged with what crime, the latest law passed over the radio and the machinations by the CPP government to control and manipulate the press. In those heady days no one was sure of who the enemy was and where they could be lurking. Those were dark days in Ghana. Not to mention the shortage of food and other commodities and the constant rhetoric to tighten belts and wait for the great days to come as we sought an impending political Armageddon. For those adults who disagreed with the way the country was being managed, public conversation was a guarded luxury.

My crowning moment came when I came back from school one day and announced that some party officials from the CPP were at assembly that morning and we had all been given scarves and membership cards and enrolled in the Young Pioneers. I remember the look especially on my Mother’s face when I asked that my dues be paid on time because I might get the opportunity to travel to Cuba or Moscow. I never became a Young Pioneer, I still have the scarf, I never made it outside the country.

I lived those days in the fear translated from family and their friends at the time, and even though I was in no danger myself, it started me on a journey of histrionics, which I still pursue even today. That era of dictatorship in Ghana was mean. It was a deliberate suppression of radio, print and television, controlled by one party and a progressive annihilation of all dissent in the country in an attempt to establish a cult of worship to benefit one person. Nkrumah did not tolerate different views and ideas, because he alone had the solutions and anybody who offered a counter view was against the cause. This was how we lived then. I therefore find it very difficult when politicians my age and more gloss over this period of our history as if all was well after independence until Nkrumah’s overthrow in 1966.

We marched for joy and jumped in the streets. We spoke freely and regaled in the latest politician who had been caught tripping across the border. In those days we had many cross-dressers. The newspapers were awash with political cartoons and revelations of wealth accumulation and excesses. We rejoiced in Nkrumah’s overthrow and this was for a great majority of Ghanaians. Those who cowered in their homes and run for cover were those who had unleashed their brand of terror and whose unwavering support for a dictator had served their best interests. Fast forward past Kotoka and the NLC and the overthrow of Busia on to Acheampong and his 1972 coup. Again, do you remember what we had to go through with that regime? Do you remember announcements over the radio dismissing this and that person and do you remember the press and media control and the suppression of dissent and the final culmination of the UNIGOV proposal? Just as Nkrumah did good things and we had Tema, Akosombo, GBC, etc. so also Acheampong left us memories of Dansoman, Operation Feed Yourself, “Yen Tua” and other clarion calls of rebellion against the West, who we eventually turn to when the communist rhetoric dies off and reality hits home. But there were dangerous times during Kutu’s reign as well and we were scared, very scared! And there was hardship. Food crisis, petrol crisis, the droughts (remember the famous “I am not God to create rain” speech?) and the “KOWUS women” bottom power cars, import licences, chits to buy food and cloth? So when Akuffo and his team took over, we took to the streets and rejoiced. We celebrated the overthrow and waited for the handover to a civilian government and a better future.

Then the May 15th uprising and the June 4th coup. The aftermath of events during the AFRC era are more recent and have been described by some as the most tyrannical in our history. Today we enjoy a period of free speech, democratic rule, voting rights and we are even contemplating a Freedom of Information bill. But the PNDC period was just as terrible as the dictatorship era of Nkrumah and Acheampong. The press was gagged, the newspapers were banned, economic policy was under the thumb of a select few cohorts and the country was under siege for a long time until we turned to the West for deliverance. It was not a matter of political ideology. We were suffering and hungry, the Rawlings Chain had started to get tighter, the communists were not pumping any money into the economy and we had no answers. And I remember moments when announcements came that JJ had been overtrown and we hit the streets only to return because it was a false alarm. Remember Courage Quashigah’s attempted coup? I have glossed over a bit, but we forget too quickly. Nkrumah was smarter than Acheampong and Rawlings. He knew he had the peoples’ voice in the run up to independence. Once there, he had control over just about every facet of government and did what he willed with the judiciary, the press and the law and his executive. He instituted laws to suit his purpose and passed Legislative Instruments when he had to. He even dismissed the Chief Justice Sir Arku-Korsah, because he was a stumbling block to decisions he wanted. Nkrumah wanted total control at all costs and he made sure he took it. The argument that it was not he but those around him never sat well. He had the power and authority to do as he chose and he selected his legislation accordingly. Eventually, his craving for total dominance led to the one party state, life presidency and the Prevention of Detention Act (PDA), giving him the right to jail any person he wanted. But why PDA? In December 1957, then interior minister Krobo Edusei announced in Parliament his intention to introduce the Act to “empower the government to imprison, without trial, any persons suspected of activities prejudicial to the State’s security”. The Act would carry a sentence, without a right of appeal to the courts of five years for conduct prejudicial. Nkrumah defended the bill in Parliament on the grounds that “firstly, the only persons who need be alarmed about it are those who are either attempting to organize violence, terrorism, or civil war, or who are acting as fifth columnists for some foreign power interested in subversion in Ghana. Secondly, the bill has been deliberately drafted so that the government can deal with any attempt to subvert the State by force. Thirdly, the Government is determined to preserve in Ghana both justice and freedom”. So to do this, he took away all the rights of Ghanaians to fair representation in a court of law!

The irony is that all the subsequent coup plotters alive today, would have been jailed under this law, but today we preserve a constitution that protects the lives of the most prolific coup makers in our history.

Lest we forget, those who fought for the right to free speech in our society were harassed, jailed, tortured and their lives made a living hell by these dictators. Cameron Dodou, Elizabeth Ohene, Harrunna Attah, Kwesi Pratt, Nana Kofi Coomson, Kweku Baako, Ben Ephson, to name but a few, are all prison veterans and for no reason that they dared to speak up. Our history is replete with all these stories and we should not deliberately leave these lessons behind as we usher in a better era of debate.

What we have to be aware of is the neediness of leaders. Nkrumah believed that Ghana and Ghanaians owed him a debt of gratitude for life, because in his view he was the only person who had brought salvation to Ghana and the African continent. His craving for titles and cult worship was mimicked and taken to even greater heights by Jomo Kenyatta, Mobutu Sesesekou, Robert Mugabe et al. Similarly, Rawlings believes that he freed Ghanaians from bondage of sorts and expects to be given that accolade every time. Former President Kuffuor similarly needed to award himself a medal of achievement, because he had survived 8 years as the President. Having been a President with record in the annals of history was not enough. He wanted to be known by a title. After all, others have had Osagyefo, Okatakyei, “Junior Jesus?”, Asumungwehene.

The assessment of leadership and achievement is a sum total of all that has been achieved in a governing lifetime. There are many sides to Presidential life and especially when you are mired in politics with competing agendas, we the people judge you from what impacts our daily lives and our future. We sit on the sides and see the evolution of our lifestyle from our verandahs in Ghana, our right to freedom and justice.

Nkrumah urged the fires of independence and hastened an independent Ghana in sub-Sahara Africa, creating a legacy, which Ghanaians are always proud to shout out before all others. He also set forth a standard of dictatorship hitherto unknown in Africa. Many African leaders have studied his example. Kutu Acheampong demonstrated how easy it is to corrupt a people with crude politics and sheer mismanagement. Rawlings is leaving us with a coup mentality and confused mind-set of standards, which no one seems able to decipher. Everyday, he proves to us that you can change the course of history by simply telling the same story differently and Kuffuor has left a legacy of corruption, which is still unfolding, the extent of degradation yet to be determined.

Our society prefers the easy path, always. By not recounting the true history, we only deal with what we record today, shaping tomorrow with myopic yesterdays. After all, if you do not know what happened yesterday, you cannot be blamed for making today’s wrong decisions.

Columnist: Casely-Hayford, Sydney