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Opinions Thu, 19 Nov 2009

That is the Question!

My feature article titled “Public Inquiry into the Location of the Accra Mall Warranted” (Ghanaweb, 30 October 2009) attracted 89 comments, nearly one-quarter of which were exchanges between some of the comments-makers. (I use inelegant term “comment-makers” to distinguish them from “commentators”, a term generally reserved for experts engaged in analytical discourse or running commentary on events of national or international significance.) As a matter of principle, I never post a “rejoinder” to comments on my articles. Otherwise, we run the risk of getting bogged down in endlessly sterile comments, counter-comments and insults, generating more heat than light. That would serve no useful national purpose whatsoever.

This time, however, I decided very reluctantly to make an exception. I did so in the hope of making a contribution, however small, towards steering on-going debates about the Ghana we want in a more serious, rational and constructive direction than some of the comments have done. However, this does not imply a general re-opening or re-arguing of substantive points of my article. My purpose here is the following: (a): to show that Ghanaians who bother to write and post articles on national concerns are not frivolous people who have nothing better to do with their time and peace but serious-minded patriots whose only concern is to see Ghana governed in a more responsive and transparent manner for the benefit of all its citizens than has been the case since our independence in 1957; (b) to support other Ghanaians to drive home the point that insults and abuse are not the way forward for Ghana and its people; and (c) to underline that democracy by itself will not raise our standard of living an iota unless and until we, the people, are prepared and willing to subject the actions or inactions of our politicians to searching scrutiny without fear or favour. The recent exposure of British MPs’ expenses claim scandal could not have been possible without the vigilance of some individual British, and it should be an eye opener for the Ghanaian electorate. The scandal goes to show that even in a foremost democracy like the UK, politicians have feet of clay, how much more Ghanaian politicians!

Now, let me commence with the comments themselves. Generally, around 50% addressed the substantive points I raised in my article. Most of those comments agreed that the Mall could not have been located in a worse place in relation to the Tetteh Quarshie Roundabout. But some with courtesy counter-argued that a public inquiry would not be worth the cost and time. That was fair enough, although they seemed not to appreciate sufficiently one of my express reasons for calling for a public inquiry, i. e., the need to establish a regulatory system that would involve the general public in the vetting of projects of that magnitude in future, whether governmental or private. It was in this connection that I referred in my article to the Akosombo and Bui Dams. The remaining 50%, however, made no attempts to address my substantive points. Their interest in my article seemed to lie in the irresistible opportunity it offered them to insult me, personally, and Ewes and NDC, in general. Of course, the insults and abuse traffic is not a one-way street. It also flows in the opposite direction, along the well-trodden Ashanti/Ewe and NPP/NDC fault line.

I must confess that I could hardly recognize myself in the adjectives, which were used to describe me: “inward looking bastard”, “primitive”, “a fool”, “stupid pigs”, “inferiority complex”, etc. Words like “envy”, “jealousy” and anti “progress” were also thrown at me, with evident contempt for their dictionary meaning. The following are some of the insults. Someone, calling himself/herself Champion, wrote: “Major intersections and roundabouts are best locations for big Malls…It is sad to see inward looking bastard like you mo[u]thing against progress…” Another person, called Earl, advised me as follows: “Nyebro, people like you are not permitted in the mall, cos Nyebros are primitive…The mall only sells designer and other hightec class items, not agbelema.” One Naana wrote: “It will take you centuries to own such an edifice. Tsuo, how much were you paid for the job. Remember that villagers from the Volta Region come to Accra only to have a look at the mall.” One “Fools-in-Castle had this to say: “Are we going to have problem with every good project NPP made? That is obviously a stupid attitude, to say the least…” One Sadefe wrote of me: “A typical Ghanaian who is always looking for means to bring down those who prosper through hard work. Think of what you could do to help yourself and members of your family. Give reasons and cite countries where malls are not cited at such environment. Have you travelled outside this country?” Casting the insult net wider, one Obiri Nyarko, obviously oblivious of the irony regarding his own position, reminded me that: “Any fool can criticise. Ewes are so poor and brainless they will envy and jealous[sic]…any successful venture or businessman. This is Ewe inferiority complex…” Another person, called Civilized, wrote: “Ewes don’t like what is good and beautiful. Because they do not work hard and cannot shop at the mall they turn [to] criticizing…Ghanaians should [not] allow the minority Ewes to drag Ghana into the dark regime of their god JJ again. Well, if Tsuo thinks it [the mall] is not at a good location his NDC government should shut it down and use the place for trokosi shrine. A FOOL.” One Vienna Austria asked rhetorically, I assume: “Why is it that the establishment of this shopping mall is really disturbing NDC factions since they could not build such shop…Oh NDC let sleeping dogs lie…ayigbe party…stupid pigs.” Someone purportedly living in the USA did a quick arithmetic and came up with the following revelation: “Kufour’s 8 years gave us 1 mall. Rawlings’ 20 years could have given us 2 to 3 malls.” (I never knew that it was governments’ responsibility to build malls. We learn something new everyday. Don’t we?) My favourite insult came from one Kofi who apparently lives in the USA. The poor fellow had a strong urge to make a contribution to the litany of insults and decided, very unwisely in my view, to take Oscar Wilde’s advice and yielded to the temptation. The result was this memorable gem: “YOU NO MOST OF THIS PEOPLE ARE FOOLS BECAUSE GHANA NEED THINGS LIKE THIS IN THE COUNTRY. SO WE CAN BE HAPPY WHEN WE TRAVEL BACK FROM THE USA” (capitals mine)!!

Personally, I couldn’t care less about being insulted, even by Kofi, in my capacity as the author of the offending article. I was never prompted by Ewes or NDC to write. I did so out of my own volition because I felt that there was more to the decision than meets the eye. Given the magnitude of the Mall complex and its money spinning potential, I suspected that people in high places in the Kufuor government influenced the decision because they stood to gain financially for themselves, their relatives or cronies. That was my view; mine alone. Therefore, there was no sense at all in targeting all Ewes for insults and abuse. Of course, it is equally senseless that Ewe comment-makers should also insult all Ashantis and NPP, even if it was in retaliation. I often wonder why Ghana seems to have become a country of intolerant bigots. Today, it is political and ethnic intolerance. Tomorrow, it could be religious intolerance. Who knows how far this silliness will go? Those Ghanaians who have developed this mentality need reminding, perhaps, that there is room in Ghana for all us, irrespective of our ethnic origins and/or political persuasions. So, let us re-think our attitude and start behaving more responsibly for the good of Ghana and all of us.

I am a Ghanaian first and foremost. But I was born an Ewe. I had no control whatsoever over that event, and I owe no one an apology for being an Ewe. Similarly, an Ashanti, Fante or Ga, etc. etc., has no apologies to make to anyone for being born into their particular ethnic groups. That is a fact of our life as a multi-ethnic country and is cast in stone. Nothing or nobody can change that fact. The corollary is that we as a people have to change our narrow-minded and parochial way we look at ourselves and other Ghanaians of different ethnic origins. Those ethnic groups who consider themselves superior to others are welcome to live in their fantasy world. But they have no right to flaunt it in my face. More importantly, as far as I am aware, there are no provisions in the Ghanaian Constitution that differentiate between Ghanaians on the basis of their ethnic origins or classify them “superior” or “inferior”. So, let’s stop this nonsensical and puerile talk of ethnic superiority.

I believe that those Ghanaian comment-makers who take evident perverse pleasure in insulting and abusing other Ghanaians for expressing their opinions are the fringe minority, in sharp contrast to the vast majority of Ghanaians who may disagree with one another on issues but do so in a courteous, tolerant and intellectually stimulating manner. They are a blot on the Ghana’s political landscape and need reminding that the Ghanaweb is read the world over, and that they are giving our country the wrong image abroad. Insults are not a substitute for generating ideas or offering constructive criticism. I respect and admire people who can think and put their ideas lucidly on paper. This is the way forward towards national progress and development. After 50 years of underachievement, we should be taking a more critical look at our politicians and the way they manage our country’s affairs. So, let’s put a stop to this silly insults merry-go-round game immediately.

As I indicated earlier, one of my aims in this piece is to try and demonstrate that most of us who post articles are responsible patriots, who may be speaking from their experience vantage point. To this end, I shall very reluctantly open a small window into my own life as a response to the insults and abuse directed at me, personally, and Ewes, in general. I am an Ewe to the core but I am not an NDC supporter. Nor am I an NPP member. In fact, I belong to no political party. Kofi Wayo may be flamboyant or colourful (both in attire and speech) but he has a much deeper understanding and appreciation of Ghana’s economic and social problems and solutions than any other Ghanaian political leader. And it is a great pity that because of that image, his United Renaissance Party has been unable to attract large enough members to enable it to take off the ground. Had it done so, I might have been tempted to join his party. As of now, however, I vote for any party that presents a more responsive platform and is relatively high on my probity and transparency scale.

In one of my two previous articles, I criticised Rawlings on his human rights record following his April 2009 Kumasi speech, which I thought sounded somewhat sanctimonious. Comment-makers branded me a diehard NPP supporter. Now, I wrote about the horrific traffic consequences of the NPP government’s suspiciously corrupt decision to sanction the location of the Accra Mall and suddenly I metamorphosed into a staunch NDC member! Rawlings criticises president Mills and his government fiercely and openly. Does that make Rawlings NPP supporter (privately, though, I think the fine job he is doing for NPP should earn him automatic seat on their executive committee!) As a nation, we should learn to think nationally and rationally about our economic and social concerns, and I believe our governments have a responsibility to lead way in educating our people in this regard. Yet, I have seen very little evidence of that coming from either the Kufour or Mills government. (Rawlings produced revolutionary thugs--Legon has yet to recover from the devastation they visited upon our local Oxbridge--and they were hardly the kind of thinkers Ghana needed!)

Occasionally, I post articles on governance issues on the Ghanaweb. I do so not because I belong to a particular ethnic group or party. No, it is out of conviction that Ghana could have been governed much better than we have been since independence. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, never before in the history of mankind has a country promised so much and delivered so little! Nationally, there isn’t too much we can show for 52 years of independence, apart from our politicians (the ruling elite or class) getting richer and richer through greed fed and nourished by corruption and drugs trade, while the poor getting poorer and poorer. And I am genuinely concerned that our politicians have turned Ghana into unequal society.

I left Ghana after Sixth Form, studied at three of some of the finest universities in the USA and the UK (all on external scholarships by the way). I worked abroad for many years, including universities and intergovernmental organizations. My work took me to several countries in Europe and North America, as well as Africa. In Africa, I lived and worked in or visited Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zanzibar, and Zimbabwe. I moved into my own house in Accra after my return to Ghana. My three children were educated abroad, including university, and are now settled nicely there in their respective chosen fields.

I shop occasionally at the Mall (but not for “agbelema”; if I had need of “agbelimor” I wouldn’t drive all the way to Volta Region for it. Dabala Junction sells it!) I go to the Mall only to buy choice steak for barbecue (other items I pick up from small super-markets close by, which are also cheaper). But I don’t drive there. I go by taxi, as I have no wish to raise my blood pressure unnecessarily by spending hours in horrendous traffic and scorching sun and subjecting my body to intolerable level carbon mono oxide and noise. I love fish but I have no appetite for tasteless “cold-store” fish. At home, I have a small library (probably has a larger collection than the libraries of some of our present day senior high school libraries) where habitually I retire after breakfast to read and reflect. My subscription to the London Review of Books is delivered to me monthly and is always a priority reading. So, all in all, I can say that, although I am not rich (precisely because I have never been a Ghanaian politician!), I live comfortably enough, apart from the occasional inconvenience of water shortage and power outage.

Nonetheless, I am always conscious of the many problems of mere survival that the less fortunate Ghanaians face daily, and I attribute this to poor governance of our country by our elected politicians and self-imposed military junta. In the “prologue” to my article on the Mall, I quoted conventional wisdom that politics is too important to leave to politicians. That was the political message I wanted to deliver. Ordinary Ghanaians need to be involved in making decisions that affect their daily life or at least make a meaningful input into those decisions. Participatory democracy means much more than putting a cross against a name on a ballot paper every four years, as the case may be. Does the party you vote for have the right solutions for the economic and social problems you face as an individual and as a country? How do you ensure that the party you support delivers on its promise? It would be naive of you to vote and then go to sleep believing that the politicians would make all the right decisions and all would be well when you woke up. That would be a delusion. Blind and unquestioning support for your party is not what makes democracy tick. Democracy entails hard work. It won’t work on its own like a machine; it never has. You, the people, the electorate, alone can make it work. You have to ensure that the party you support and its politicians set the right priorities and deliver on them. This means subjecting them to searching scrutiny. You must question decisions you don’t agree with, and in so doing force them to explain themselves. In Ghana, we not do that enough, and those who try are set upon by some Ghanaians like a pack of bloodthirsty hounds with insults and abuse in the name of party or ethnic group. To be fair, I don’t blame the politicians alone for the sorry state of our development. We ourselves must accept our share of the blame.

The guy who always fixes my plumbing problems is an Ashanti, called Kwamena. He is married, with two children. They live in a rented place in Nungua for 50 Cedis a month. When Kwamena doesn’t have money for transport, which is often the case, he walks miles from Nungua to Accra, with his tools sack on his back, to look for a plumbing job at any construction site he comes across. Sometimes he is lucky. Most of the time he is not. Salifu, a Northerner, who lives in Madina, is my electrician. I talk to them a lot, sometimes over roast plantain and groundnut (one of my favourites). So, I know both men very well, and their economic and social situation is almost identical.

I spend countless sleepless nights just thinking about the plight of these two young men and, by extension, other Ghanaians in a similar situation and wondering whether our politicians are not failing people like Kwamena, the plumber and Salifu, the electrician. These two lads have some skill. But they are poor by any standards. Do our successive governments know how many million Kwamenas and Salifus are out there who need to be assisted to get out of poverty? Have they been identified and surveyed, their skills and competences assessed? Do we have institutions that can help train them further for better and regular employment, which would enable them to move out of poverty in a sustainable way? Does our job creation programme target the poor who have skills? I claim no expertise in this area but, to my mind, distributing cash to selected households is not a poverty reduction programme, unless you tie it to a self-sustaining production programme. What happens when the cash runs out in due course? What the Kufour government started and, I think, is being continued by the present government is actually a feeding programme, in UN parlance, not poverty reduction. Is this the right way to spend donors’ billions of dollars given us for poverty reduction? Isn’t this a legitimate query, irrespective of party affiliation or ethnic origin?

After reading the comments on my article quoted earlier, I asked myself whether there was any “neutral” issue of national interest that could genuinely be discussed or criticised on its merits without drawing instantaneous fire of ulterior ethnic or political motive. Take, for example, some of the decisions relating to construction of the Golden Jubilee House. (I am not raising the question as to whether we needed a Jubilee House or not.) As I remember, the Kufour government presented the project to Parliament, with a price tag of $40 million loan from India. NDC Opposition in Parliament queried it, arguing, inter alia, that the government had not provided enough information about the total cost to enable the House to make an informed decision. I can’t recall the responsible government minister at the time. In any case, he replied that he did not know the total cost and that Parliament would be informed from time to time as information became available! Surely, that was hardly a transparent way of managing public resources. Yet NPP-dominated Parliament gave approval. That would never have happened in any Western European or North American democratic country. Opposition and Backbenchers would close ranks and throw it out in no time. We now know that Jubilee House cost over $90 million, and rising. Why didn’t NPP parliamentarians have the moral courage to vote with the Opposition against it? Was NPP government’s handling of the project something that can genuinely be criticised, even by staunch NPP supporters, without resort to insults and abuse? That is both the political and moral question!

Cedric Tsuo

Columnist: Tsuo, Cedric