Opinions Thu, 10 Jan 2013

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Our political system is broken

I am back in the US after campaigning in the Central and Ashanti regions of Ghana. My observations while campaigning in the villages led me to believe that we have a political system in which the electorate does not understand what they are voting for. At this time I simply want to present my observations. I will address my thoughts on comprehensive solutions in a later post.

Five decades and five years ago, Kwame Nkrumah declared from the Independence Square of Ghana that, “At long last, the battle has ended! And thus, Ghana, your beloved country is free forever!” He declared, “The new African is ready to fight his own battles and show that after all the black man is capable of managing his own affairs.”

Fifty five years after managing our own affairs, our political system is completely broken. To have a democracy in which the electorate does not have the capability to vote on something as fundamental as facts or issues is a tragic shame. After all, democracy should be participatory.

I had always feared that the integrity of our political system was lacking. The corruption of our politicians is legendary. The elite and educated have been infamous for their apathy and entitlement. But never did it cross my mind that our politicians would continuously exploit the country’s illiteracy and lack of political sophistication for their own selfish agendas.

We’ve all heard some of the stories. That Ghanaians will vote for you if you give them T-shirts which cost one dollar. That our political campaigns are not based on issues but on who can give the most money. That we vote strictly along ethnic lines. However seeing it in action is heartbreaking and despicable at the same time. It leaves a permanent scar of hopelessness on the mind. It is hard to believe that so many basic needs of a group of people will be neglected for so long and yet they will vote for you.

Bob Marley has mostly been quoted in the positive. But his words, “You can fool some people sometime but you can’t fool all the people all the time”, is beginning to look like a lie. In Ghana, you can fool all the people all the time.

How else can you explain the following? In Obuasi I saw abject poverty and squalor sitting right on top of abundance of gold deposits. In Axim I understand that gold could be obtained as a by-product of quarry mining. Think about that for a second. Abura Dunkwa area lacks hospitals, roads, clean drinking water in the midst of beautiful farming weather all year round.

I spoke with a young man named Kwesi in Obuasi who was manually pumping water from a well (hand pump). I asked him how many years he has been pumping water from the well. He looked puzzled, as if I was asking the most ridiculous question he had ever heard, as if to say, “How else should he get water?” After a second he answered as far as he could remember. So I asked how old he was. He said 14. I said you mean people have been pumping water this way for more than 10 years. He laughed and said, “Far more.”

Folks, it will cost less than $700.00 per station to get a pump and a tank up so Kwesi and his town members can fetch clean water without pumping. So they can get clean water by simply turning a tap.

It actually does get worse. Other kids don’t have it as good as Kwesi who simply pumps the water from the well. Let me explain. One of the more entrepreneurial citizens, Agya Owusu, devised a plan for making money. He invested in a tank and two water pumps: A smaller water pump for pumping water into the tank and a bigger pump which pressurizes the water and could be sprayed for car washing. Here is the problem. He draws the water directly from a flowing river so his car wash is located right next to the river. He washes off the soap and oil from the car right back into the river. I saw other kids walking down about 20 flights of steps to fetch water from the river perhaps for drinking: The river full of soap and oil from Agya Owusu’s car wash.

Thinking of the river full of soap and engine oil which could potentially be used for drinking is worrisome. It becomes even more worrisome when you think of the fact that the source of the river is in close proximity to illegal mining operations “galamsey” in Obuasi and perhaps could contain cyanide and mercury deposits from small scale mining activities.

If all these years, the electorate have not made it an issue to demand pipe borne water or at the minimum clean water from numerous wells in the town, then when are they going to make it an issue? Shouldn’t the electorate have voted the Minister of Parliament (MP) out by this time, if they don’t have clean drinking water?

I saw a long queue of small gas tanks. I asked a lady close to the end of the queue how long it could take to get her gas. She told me that one time she was there at 6:00 am and didn’t get gas until 6:00 pm. She uses the gas for baking. Here is a baker who spends more time getting fuel for baking than the baking itself. Yet she will probably never question her MP about the issue of getting gas. With a one dollar T-shirt, she will vote for him to earn 7000 dollars a month in an air conditioned car. It doesn’t make sense, does it?

I saw a sick older lady walking up a hill. I gently asked her where she was going. I thought she was going to say the hospital. But no. She was going to use the public toilet. Having a toilet in a home is a luxury. A public toilet that stink the whole neighborhood from the cool breeze is a blessing. Yet those blessings are few and far in between so she has to walk the distance. When are these folks going to make it an issue to question their MPs and Assembly Men about getting a toilet in every home? Is it really too much to ask that even without town planning every home should be designed with a pit for a toilet. Oh! By the way if every home had a sewer pit, they could actually produce biogas in homes and avoid those long gas queues.

Then there was the school bus I saw with kids sitting on top of each other like packed sardine. The narrow bridges through the town were temporary ones constructed decades ago. Soil erosion is continuous in between the haphazardly placed houses. In the mighty town of gold jobs are hard to come by. Hospitals are few and far in between. Beautiful houses constructed with no road network. When I was doing by best by driving slowly to avoid damaging the suspension of my mini-van , I was rather teased that I need experience driving on roads with potholes. Yeah, I sure do need the experience. I had rather I didn’t.

In Suhum someone had bribed the District Chief Executive, allowing him to build a gas station right where there should be a road. So you couldn’t drive to the beautiful houses behind the gas station. You had to park on the main street and walk through mud to get there. It’s mind boggling.

In Accra I asked a neatly dressed door man in uniform at one of the posh hotels how much he makes a month. He said 120.00 Gh cedis. I thought he was mistaken so I asked, “You mean 60 dollars a month?” He paused for a while and smiled, “Yes”. I asked, “How do you survive?”. He said it’s a miracle. A tip of 1 Gh cedi (50 cents) earned me a huge, “Nyame nhyera wo (God bless you)”.

Folks, these are just a few observations from the country we call home. It is one thing being corrupt, but to not give back anything to society is wickedness. It goes beyond corruption. To not ensure clean drinking water, toilet in homes, hospitals for the sick, basic road infrastructure when the provision of these basics could create jobs is painful to watch.

In a functioning democracy, there should have been plans for the provision of clean water to every home, plans for provision of gas to every home, building codes and permits for every home including insistence on the provision of toilets before securing a building permit, plans for construction of roads, hospitals and so on. Politicians at every level should run on how they are going to create jobs, build roads, provide hospitals, improve on education and making it affordable. The electorate should then decide which candidate’s plans are most likely to meet their needs and vote for that candidate. After four years, the electorate will then assess if the candidate was able to get the job done. If not they can vote him/her out bringing in another candidate with a better plan. This will make politicians accountable and force them to be responsible.

But this is not what is happening in our political system. Instead of politicians solving some of these problems, they wait every four years to shower cheap gifts on the illiterate electorate and they vote for them. This is why I argue that our political system is completely broken.

Much of these are the result of an illiterate electorate. They don’t know democracy means questioning leadership. Democracy means electing someone to serve your interest. Someone who will work to provide those basic needs; education, clean drinking water, polyclinics, drainage, roads etc. A heavy rain in Accra could bring the city to its knees because gutters to be used for drainage are rather used as garbage dumps. I caught someone in the act of throwing garbage in the gutter and I couldn’t shout loud enough from my car.

Close to the election cycle, the incumbent prints money, sells them in treasury bills, gets a few more loans which are supposed to be used for projects and spreads them around to win the election. At this rate, only the incumbent will have the money to spread. So it will become near impossible to change government.

After the election, prices skyrocket on everything . Gas price goes up, inflation skyrockets, food becomes more expensive and rents go up.

Politicians are therefore taking advantage of the illiterate electorate. It is wrong. What we need is a constructive paradigm shift to educate the electorate that politics should be about issues, policies and facts. Instead of taking advantage of the electorate, politicians should be educating them not to sell their votes for cheap temporary gifts which always cost them dearly in the end. We need to be educating them that it is more costly to take a T-shirt to vote for a candidate.

Selling their votes means they will continue to have roads full of potholes or no road at all in some cases. They will be drinking water full of soap, engine oil, cyanide and mercury. They will have no hospitals for the sick, no classrooms for the children, no farming tools, no plans for purchasing their farm produce and no jobs. They should be educating the electorate to hold their leaders accountable.

We should be educating the electorate that the politicians they vote for are not kings. Their role is to serve them. They have the right to question them, to call for town hall meetings, to voice their opinions even if the politicians do not agree with them. We should be educating them to stand up for their rights, to resist the temptation of bribery for votes.

What politicians should be doing is to fix this broken system. Instead if you try to change the system, your own political party will undermine you and get you removed. They actually have a term for it. It’s called “blocking the pipe flow”. That is to say you are preventing other politicians from getting their “fair share”.

The politician’s tap flows freely with his share of the national cake without having to lift a finger to pump from a well.

As I mentioned earlier, this article was simply to document my observations. Future articles will focus on discussing some solutions to our broken political system.

For now, permit me to conclude that I hope more people with the heart of fixing this broken system will rise up and build our beloved country. That the new African will finally rise up and fight his own battles and show that after all the black man is capable of managing his own affairs. God bless Ghana.

Copyright Kwabena Agyeman Nyanteh. Email: thekanpost@gmail.com

Columnist: Nyanteh, Kwabena Agyeman

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