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Opinions Mon, 10 Oct 2011

The Tragedies of African Democracies

The Tragedies of African Democracies: why the best doesn’t mean good (Part II)

Politics of Self-aggrandizement

Despite “mounting poverty, African politicians have regularly increased their salaries – often discreetly, but sometimes brazenly, too. In June 1993, the Ivory Coast’s National Assembly doubled the salaries of its members without a public announcement or debate. The pay increase and even the secrecy might have been overlooked at other times. But civil service salaries had not been adjusted for 12 years; people had rioted when the government tried to reduce salaries by ten percent; and farmers’ incomes had been cut in half as a result of low world prices for cocoa and coffee. Were the parliamentarians embarrassed when word got out? Not at all. Even the ten opposition members, who were heavily outnumbered in a chamber of 175 seats, defended the pay increase serenely.” The opposition leader explained that “he stood for better working conditions for everyone. So why should he pass them up for himself? He added that no great leader, religious or political, had ever led his people out of their misery by being miserable himself. “Neither Moses, nor Christ, nor Mohammed was poor. Nor were Marx, Engels, Lenin, de Gaulle, Mitterrand or George Washington.” He was a history professor but failed to appreciate the facts of history. His defiance was reminiscent of the civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy’s reported remark during the 1969 Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC, when asked why he was staying in a hotel while his followers were in drenched tents on the National Mall: “My job is to dream dreams, and you don’t dream dreams in the mud.”

This is where there is disconnect between the electorate and the elected officials. All the electorates can do is to blather their resentments at some of these outrageous demands, but at the beginning of the new election cycle, the ethnic and political affiliation might even be so binding that considering the opposition candidate who might be more prudent is not an option. Would it not be possible for the electorate to know how his or her elected official voted on a particular bill? Today, in other jurisdictions, bills before the legislature are online and so are records of voting showing how each legislator voted on a particular bill, so the electorate knows what his or her elected official is doing or not doing in his or her name.

Interestingly, the explanation offered by some legislators has been the excessive financial demands from their constituents. Some claim they make donations at funerals, pay tuition fees for their constituents who gain admission to tertiary institutions and also pay fees for wards of constituents. Why should this also be the taxpayers’ responsibility? If a legislator thinks that making contributions at funerals and paying school fees for his or her constituents is the way to retain his seat, it should be tested at the polls and never to be the burden to the taxpayer. After all when a legislator has to pay fees for constituents, meritocracy should be the yardstick in selecting who benefits, not who is the legislators favorite. Similarly, why should the taxpayers fund funerals for a legislator? Is it all constituents who benefit from this and what is the merit in this funeral expenditure?

As the world goes through some of the most difficult times - the global recession - with governments cutting down on how much financial burdens they could shoulder, many had expected similar measures to affect political leadership in African countries. But in the African econometrics, the priority - even in national economic crisis - is the comfort of the leaders. It is never the hen that lays the golden egg. The hen can starve and still continue to produce the golden egg. Can it be a shared sacrifice when the need for austere measures to salvage a national economic crisis becomes a national cause? Or it can simply work in a way that the remunerations of state functionaries are pegged to economic performance? For instance, if the salary of teachers increases by 2% in a year, then that can apply to those in charge of the national kitty, too. In this case if the wages of civil servants and public servants depreciates in value, so would that of the state functionaries.

While there is no doubt that loans are financial resources made available to the individual by financial institutions, therefore a transaction between two contracting parties, these loans have special dispensations – they are guaranteed by the government. Otherwise, they would pass as ordinary transactions between ordinary individuals and financial entities with whom these individuals have contractual agreements for which the latter provides the financial lifeline based on the strength of the collateral provided by the individual.

This example is chosen not for lack of appreciation for the rudiments of these sorts of transactions, but it was purposively chosen due to the reactions from the political parties, the political messiahs, and the general public in matters of this sort. If based on the polarized political environment, the majority in parliament always has its way, it would be logical to suppose that the NDC, a party that brand itself as pro-poor, would ensure some of these spending on state functionaries are kept at their barest minimum. But as it were, both parties are culpable of the same lapses in political action and inaction. If voting patterns in the legislature are to come under close scrutiny, this is one area where the legislature would be seen to have concurred most in its two decades journey, irrespective of which party was in majority.

Bibliography: Collier, P. (2007). The bottom billion: why the poorest countries are failing and what can be done about it. Oxford: Oxford University Press 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.

By: Prosper Yao Tsikata

Email: pytsikata@yahoo.com

Columnist: Tsikata, Prosper Yao