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Opinions Sun, 9 Oct 2011

The Tragedies of African Democracies

The Tragedies of African Democracies: why the best doesn’t mean good

Politics I

Since Ghana returned to constitutional rule in 1992, it has been a bastion of stability in a region of political instability. Apart from pockets of internal conflicts mostly related to chieftaincy issues, elections have normally passed without degenerating into open conflicts as has been the case in a number of countries on the continent. This is not to suggest that Ghana is free from the tensions that mark the campaigns and elections in other countries in the region. Despite the tensions associated with the campaigns and the elections, things have normally returned to normalcy with the high-pitch arguments, haggling, and the vituperation. There is nothing wrong when political opponents disagree to agree, but when high-pitch vituperation substitutes for policy discussions, then I am afraid the bus is heading to a ditch. This chapter takes a look at three thematic areas of politics – politics of self-aggrandizement, political vendetta, and elections – in attempt to construct the political scenery of Ghana.

Politics of Self-aggrandizement

Although there have been suspicion and accusations of vote rigging on both sides of the political divide, these accusations and suspicions are well managed, thus ensuring they never degenerated into political chaos. In 1992 when Jerry John Rawlings won the presidential election with an overwhelming 63% of the votes, the New Patriotic Party (NPP), the main opposition party at the time rejected the presidential results and boycotted the parliamentary elections. The party had earlier complained about manipulations by the ruling party, which placed it – the NPP - at a disadvantage. Consequently, Prof. Albert A. Boahene, the party’s presidential candidate wrote the “Stolen verdict” which depicted the election as the legalization of an illegality where a coupe maker morphed into a civilian president.

Politically, therefore, there was no contest for the National Democratic Congress (NDC), which was itself an offshoot of the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC), the military junta that preceded its formation. As it were, the NDC had a freehand in parliament to do whatever it pleased. There was no opposition through the officially defined conduit in a democracy – the legislature. The opposition NPP could only be heard from the sidelines, occasionally convening press conferences to state its position on some national issues issues.

By 1996 the opposition must have learned some lessons from sitting on the sidelines and watching the ruling party have a free ride in running government. Towards the 1996 general elections, the NPP began mobilizing in earnest against the feeling of dissatisfaction among its ranks about the decision to boycott the 1992 election. It was only with the benefit of hindsight that they realized what it had cost Ghana in that critical moment when opposition was needed to give meaning to the newly formulated constitution of the 4th republic.

On the sideline, though, the NPP pushed very hard to affect government policies. The mobilization of the masses to protest the implementation of the Value Added Tax (VAT) in Ghana in 1995 was a classical example of how the NPP could be heard even from the sidelines. The Kume Preko,” a Twi slogan meaning “Kill me right now,” was an example of how the NPP worked from the sidelines. It attracted thousands of Ghanaians who poured onto the streets of the capital, Accra, to protest the introduction of the Valued Added Tax. In the course of the march, and according to the opposition, a group of armed men, on a counter demonstration, opened fire on the demonstrators, killing four of the Kume Preko demonstrators.

The point is that for the ordinary individuals who laid down their lives on that early morning May 11 1995, the protest was about what they perceived would worsen their already wretched living conditions. The demonstration was successful, as it forced the government to shelve the “killer Value Added Tax” in the estimation of the demonstrators, but at the cost of four lives and injuries to many. The victory was short lived though, as the VAT was later watered down and reintroduced.

The real test of Ghana’s fourth republic came in 2000. Speculations were rife that Ghana’s strongman, Jerry John Rawlings, would not relinquish power and was effectively scheming to hand over power to his protégé and former vice president, John Evans Atta Mills. The opposition continued to work very hard, taking their message of change to the smallest of hamlets in the remotest parts of the country. They aroused the population from what might be termed a slumber. The opposition used the slogan “Akunta be see fom,” figuratively meaning, “uncle will come down from his high office,” in apparent reference to Rawlings (who is married to an Ashanti, an ethnic group that forms the core support base of the NPP, and by virtue of this marriage Rawlings symbolically becoming an uncle or akunta to the Ashanti) relinquishing power. The slogan caught up so well with the rank and file of the NPP that the election was not really a matter between Rawlings’ anointed contestant - John Evans Atta-Mills - and the NPP presidential candidate - John Agyekum Kufour, rather, it was about Rawlings. With examples from regional power, Nigeria, where General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the elections and arrested the Presidential candidate and business magnate Moshood Abiola, and many other examples of the sort around the region, the opposition could not have been more right, suspicious, and cautious.

When the election results were finally released the NPP trounced the NDC’s Atta Mills with over 10% of the valid votes counted. This reflected in the parliamentary results as well. The NPP annexed 99 seats in the legislative house against the NDC’s 92 seats. Kwame Nkumah’s once powerful Convention Peoples Party (CPP) won only a seat with the People’s National Convention (PNC) winning three seats. The NPP, therefore, had a clear majority in parliament to be able to implement its agenda without the stiff opposition associated with hung parliaments, or parliaments where the president’s party is in the minority, a situation which would have required building coalition with smaller parties, as observable in some European countries – Norway, the Netherlands, and Denmark, among others.

After the two weeks that separate the declaration of the final results and the swearing in of the winner, a new regime took over, driven by liberal ideologies. In public depiction of its political philosophy, its spokespersons and publicists minced no words in trumpeting an ideology many later saw as detrimental to the ordinary Ghanaian. Couched in plain language - the lingo of production and distribution – “the NPP is a property owning democracy,” they imputed. To them the idea is not what the state can do for the individual, but what the individual can do for himself/herself and for the state, subsequently.

One must admit there are two different political lenses. One has a magnifying glass which aids the politician to grasp the minutiae of challenges that confront a people and enables the wearer – the politician - to look straight into their eyes and proffer the most lucid solutions. The other has a tick dark glass, like the sun glass meant for the safaris in Kenya, it blinds the wearer from the direct glare of the sun. Similarly, the politician, once across the threshold to where power and influence are paramount, the latter sunglass blinds him from seeing even the most glaring challenges that he once was up in arms against.

The property owning democracy became property grabbing democracy. To the extent that state properties were sold to party functionaries with others converted to private properties. An infamous case was the attempt by a minister to purchase the very bungalow allotted to him as a minister of state. Issues of conflict of interest did not prick the dead conscience of the individual because his conscience was just lifeless from having to accumulate too much of state resources from doing nothing.

Gradually, the party became alienated from its base, the rank and file, the ordinary people who sacrificed their all to ensure the party was put in power to change the things they did not like. Returning to pre-election and postelection messages of the party, it was clear that the party was losing its focus. This does not in any way mean that the party did not take any bold decisions in its eight years in power. There were some decisions which were significant for Ghana’s forward match as a country, just as there were many missed opportunities, too.

In the pre-election campaign, the message was job creation for the youth. It was believed that even individuals referred to in Ghanaian parlance as “shoeshine boys,” young able-bodied men who ply their trade of polishing shoes and repairing footwear for customers, mainly by ambulating through the communities and drumming their small box containers, which contain polish, hammer, pliers, and all the accoutrements necessary for their trade, to attract customers, would also have decent jobs – white-collar jobs, preferably. The itinerant shoeshine boy then became what was later known as the “foot soldier” of the party, a probable source of the name foot soldier in Ghanaian politics. As he carried his box and drummed it in the communities to draw the attention of customers in pursuit of his trade, he also carried the message of job creation across to both the faithful and those interested in hearing the good tidings of the change that was about to overwhelm the country. Believe it or not, it was the change that would bring prosperity to all Ghanaians, including the supposedly narrow-minded Ewes who have always voted against the NPP. There would be jobs for all Ghanaians who wanted jobs. No Ghanaian would traverse the Sahara and the Maghreb, in an attempt to enter Europe to escape unemployment and poverty back home.

True to type, the gatekeeper must himself be satisfied before he can think of those out of the gates. The comfort of the legislature must be satisfied before other issues can be considered. Therefore, one of the most important issues of the time became how much to give to parliamentarians as a loan for their personal cars, and not how much of the business environment could be improved for entrepreneurs to create the jobs needed to prop up the economy. For the executive, access to the national wherewithal is already unlimited and unquestionable. Interestingly, a party that was vocal against a US$5 000.00 loan for parliamentarians for the purchase of vehicles for their parliamentary duties in 1992, when the first parliament of the fourth republic was inaugurated, now agreed on a loan facility of US$20 000 for each parliamentarian, an increase of 300% over what the first parliament of the fourth republic had received as a car loan.

As some Ghanaians put it, “these are the only times the mostly acrimonious legislative house concurs, when they agree on emoluments that are to benefit them directly.” The NDC sympathizers, who were not beneficiaries of this largess, were on the rooftops trying to draw attention to the hypocritical nature of the NPP. They forgot that if those of them outside parliament were not benefitting, their comrades who were once in the struggle with them became the most “honorable” among men within their constituencies and are direct beneficiaries.

If the economy had been stagnant and unable to create new jobs and to raise the standards of living for the poor, as Ghanaians are always told when there is a change of government (in 2000, the NPP allegedly inherited an almost collapsed economy, while the NDC took over in 2008 an economy that was in an intensive care unit, alleged by its finance minister), why would a new government that took office promising change table a loan facility of over 300% increase that benefits none but the legislative branch of government with government guarantee? Traders and business men, farmers and teachers, drivers and tailors, and even young graduates who are expected to create their own jobs, still go through the labyrinth of frustrating procedures to obtain loans with interest rates hitting the roof. At one point a loan from the bank attracted as much as over 50% interest rate. This might sound ridiculous, but such was the case and the private sector was expected to contract these loans and to create jobs for the teeming unemployed youth, while with a “yeee ye” in the legislative assembly, one could secure an interest-free loan on the back of the taxpayer. In his usual derisive tone, the strident editor of the Weekly Insight, Kwesi Pratt, Jnr. submitted that the taxpayers risk being ripped off massively.

The benchmark, mostly, for these sentiments, have been the poor and sluggish economy which makes it impossible for the economy to cushion some of these excessive demands by its state officials. These messages reverberated through the campaign messages of the NDC at the highest echelons of its leadership throughout the 8 years in opposition. The “corruption and hardship” message peaked up by the 2008 elections. It was concomitant with the efforts of the ruling government (NPP) to wheedle voters to believe things were under control by increasing expenditure and adopting all forms of public relations gimmicks to create the impression that the economy was doing well. However, they ended up achieving the reverse. Many perceived the economy to have been showing clear unhealthy signs.

But as soon as soon as the table turned by the beginning of the fifth parliament of the fourth republic, the loan facility to members of the legislative assembly was increased to US$50 000 with government guarantee in the NDC majority controlled legislative assembly. The Ghanaian Adam Smith, the economic minister, who once observed the Ghanaian economy on the wrong trajectory 6 months earlier was able to perform miracles to turn an ailing economy that was in an intensive care around with overwhelming success that ensured that those who draw fuel from the state 24 hours around the clock, those who are housed by the state, those whose children’s pampers and girlfriends’ pedicures and manicures are paid for by the state, and those whose ex-gratia in four years runs into a combine lifetime net salary of a teacher who works for 30 years, can access a US$50 000 loan facility with a state guarantee.

Economists inform us that human wants are insatiable in the face of limited resource, a basic source of conflict and the need for competition. But this basic economic principle is turn on its head when elective positions become exploitative positions without mechanisms to check their unbridled demands on the peoples de rigeaur tax contributions. Then the most bizarre of the demands was to come from legislators, soon after receiving free laptops, meant to enhance their duties, according to the source that provided the facility. On the heels of this facility came the demand for a whopping 8 000.00 Gh cedis (equivalent of US$6000 monthly in a country where GDP is only about US$600 and a teacher’s salary average about US$2, 500 per annum). This is notwithstanding a 17% increment for the legislature not too long before then.

If legislative positions are competitive but also voluntary, why would the taxpayer be made to shoulder the burden of providing free laptops to members of the legislative assembly when they can afford it? Should it not be the duty of the individual legislator to remain competitive by adapting to the network by making the necessary financial investment into what would aid his or her work?

Instead of this free provision to legislators, who can afford the facility anyway, is it not logical to invest this resource in an institution such as the police service rather? This is an institution, whose members, apart from their meager salaries and, perhaps, bribes do not have the luxury of the executive and the legislature to get things for free. Imagine what this facility, put to good use, can do for the police service. They could process cases in real time and deliver dockets to the courts even using same medium. Can you imagine what would happen when an alleged criminal who, by constitutional provisions, is supposed to appear before court within 24 hours, is put before court and cases are disposed in the shortest possible time? For instance, when the culprit does appear before court, the judge must have read the docket carefully and be abreast with the case, facilitating a speedy trial. It would reduce the time spent shuttling between court and the unnecessary adjournments. This way, Ghana would be making progress in keeping records on crime, expediting action on cases from the police stations to the courtrooms, and reducing the length of time spend in court. But Ghanaian politicians, perhaps African politicians, are only reasonable or brilliant when they are in opposition, as insinuated by the facilitator of the laptops to the legislators.

Keep tuned in…

The above-title is serialized into 30 articles covering issues of politics, corruption, education, immigration, the economy (Ghanaian economy), unemployment, land tenure, dearth of policy innovation, and stories from the frontlines - Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, ECOWAS and the AU. The series are syndicated and media houses/outlets interested in enriching the national debates in Ghana for the 2012 are free to publish all the series.

Prosper Yao Tsikata

Email: pytsikata@yahoo.com

Columnist: Tsikata, Prosper Yao