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Opinions Sat, 15 Oct 2011

The Tragedies of African Democracies (Part IV)

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

Political Vendetta

The attempt to snuff the very life out of a political opponent began long before the advent of multiparty politics in Ghana. It must have existed before or even in colonial times. The divide and rule approach to governance, introduced by the British in most of its colonies, lends credence to this assertion. While there will always be divergent views in politics, it is healthy and much productive when it is done with some level of decorum and civility. This does not mean political opponents should not speak the unpleasant truths, but truth must be stated without resorting to low level verbal hazing. The court of public opinion remains the last hope of mankind in a democratic dispensation for leaders and those who aspire to lead to tell the people where they want to herd them. It is for this reason that ambition must counteract ambition for the public to make informed decisions about where they want to be herded.

Let me plough back an event in history to illustrate my point. When Republicans blocked the US Federal budget in 1994, it led to the shutdown of the federal government. Shutdown simply means financial flows to institutions on the payroll of the federal government did not receive such inflows until the impasse was resolved. The blockade affected the emoluments of soldiers serving abroad, welfare institutions, and even the wages of the president. Though seen by many observers as acrimonious, it instilled financial discipline and pruned federal government expenditure. The result was that Clinton achieved huge surpluses in the years to follow. This is when opposition can be said to be productive and in the national interest.

In Ghana, just as in most African countries, party politics has assumed vindictive dimensions, tending to be more disruptive than constructive. Same could be said of politics elsewhere such as in the United States, where even the president could be caricatured as a monkey and be called names. But where hatred leads to economic blockades and so on, then it becomes counterproductive.

Verbal abuses, name-calling, physical attacks, and economic blockades to stave off financial resources intended for legitimate business ventures of opponents have all become part of the political equation and are done with impunity. Political aficionados from either sides of the political divides in Ghana and elsewhere on the continent accuse the other side of being vindictive to their opponents. The question to ask is: “how is it that only the other side of the political divide is vindictive toward one’s side? Indeed, the answer is not farfetched. The ritual approach, a subcategory of approach under the genre theory in media analysis, provides ample evidence to the understanding of issues that plague society. It posits that what appears in the media is a reflection of society. It is simply the ways society speaks to itself, with popular genre seen as reflecting the moods, sentiments, and values of society (if you like, the way society speaks of itself). Though the media has the capacity to set the agenda for public discussions, they cannot tell us what to think, but what to think about. And at any rate, we all come to the media with our own biases which are only reinforced by the media. We may argue that this or that political party aided by such and such media outlets is being biased or exploiting some stereotypical images of this or that political party or politician. But if any high-ranking member of party A on the campaign trail accuses the presidential candidate of party B of being a drug user without evidence to back it, and members of the affected camp also accuse the presidential candidate of their opponent of hiding vital information about his health and family, and the media reports that and party aficionados ensure the message reaches every hamlet, would it pass as one side being vindictive to the other or the media being biased or exploiting stereotypical images of the opponent, or the media is just being a vehicle for those primary definers who have cultural capital? To this end, obviously, the two major political parties – the NPP and the NDC - are just a reflection of the Ghanaian society.

A close observation of politics in Ghana reveals that whatever the two main political parties in Ghana - the NDC and the NPP - accuse each other of is just a reflection of themselves and the Ghanaian society. Though the media cannot be completely exonerated from some of the political conflagrations that plague the society today, the media is just serving as a mirror and giving back to society its own images.

In 2006, during its national congress, some members of the NDC who disagreed with the handling of some issues within their party were alleged to have physically attacked their former national chairman, Obed Asamoah, leading to his resignation from the party. The message that filtered through the media in the days following this event branded the NDC as a violent party. A year or so down the road when the NPP convened a similar congress to elect its presidential candidate, a fight broke out after an accusation that an envoy of one of its presidential hopefuls was sharing money to influence the voting delegates – a clear sign of plutocratic tendencies characterizing the body politic. The affected presidential hopeful resigned in a fashion similar to the chairman of the NDC. There were many instances where naked violence was used by both sides on intra party rivals and inter party opponents. The bottom line is that whatever accusations are traded by the NDC against the NPP is simply a reflection of its own self. Both political parties cannot be insulated from the furor that has engulfed the political atmosphere in Ghana.

When the NPP took office in 2001, it committed itself to a duty of ensuring that all perceived corrupt state officials in the previous NDC regime were brought to book. The likes of the late Victor Selormey (Deputy Minister of Finance), Ibrahim Adams (Minister of Agriculture), Dan Abodakpi (Minister of Trade and Industry), Sepa Yankey (Chief Director of the Finance Ministry), Kwame Peprah (Finance Minister), Tsatsu Tsikata (CEO of GNPC), and many others were hauled before the courts for financial misappropriation and imprudent management of the national purse. The term “witch-hunting” became a catchword for sympathizers and stalwarts of the NDC who believed the judicial process was laden with vindictiveness and never an attempt to punish people for wrongs committed against the state. All the same, these cases went through the courts and verdicts passed. But when the process assumed extra-judicial dimensions, it became a tool for pursuing and punishing perceived political opponents and others who might have had nothing to do with politics.

Obviously, ministerial positions are political appointments and they go with each regime, whenever the table turns, no political position is permanent. As parties come and go, so would their political appointees. It is, however, enigmatic when the dragnet is extended to cover perceived opponents who are neither politicians nor political appointees. This is not to hold breath for individuals who are neither politicians nor political appointees but have in one way or the other been found to have involved themselves in undertakings that somewhat compromised their neutrality or make them corrupt and vulnerable to political backlashes when there is a change of government.

A typical example was the subtle but extra-judicial method by which the NPP deposed its perceived opponents from the civil service and other state institutions after assuming power in 2001. Ghanaians are very familiar with the mantra: “proceed on leave.” It was definitely a way of telling the individual that his or her services to whichever state institution he or she worked for was over. Many were hounded out of state institutions like the Ghana Armed Forces, the Ghana Police Service, and the Civil Services, among others. The infamous tangle between Mr. Hodari Okine, a former director of Ghana Immigration Service, a position which is attainable by rising through the ranks, is a case in point. The gentleman had the guts to haul the government before court and won the case for reinstatement, but the ever-powerful executive would not budge to the court ruling. To add insult to injuries, government rather moved to severe electricity and water supply to his residence in order to compel him to vacate the residence.

On a Detroit bound flight recently from Baltimore, an old friend and a staunch adherent of the NPP intimated to me that if there is one area of statecraft for which he personally admired the Kufour-led NPP, it was its application of the law and the use of the judiciary. What was his measuring rod? He referred to the military juntas and the NDC 1 as a measure of what democracy can offer when the rule of law is allowed to work. “It is like tending to appreciate daylight after experiencing long hours of darkness in a dungeon where there was no light,” he said.

While some appreciate the NPP’s strengthening of the court system, the regimes own actions and inactions undermined the very judiciary it had tried to strengthen. The Tsatsu Tsikata and the Hodari Okine cases and many others that could have been allowed to travel through the judicial system without executive interference, were interrupted by the executive.

“What about the president’s interference in the judicial system to free hundreds of taxi and bus drivers who were jailed for committing traffic offences?” I inquired. To this, he said “we must consider the glass half full and not half empty.” When the NPP could not nail the opposition NDC in the first round of the 2008 elections, there were attempts at every twist and turn to find ways - legitimate or illegitimate – to ensure victory in the runoff. A classical example was when drivers who were jailed by courts of competent jurisdiction under the Kufour-led regime for various road traffic offences were quickly released before the second round of the elections in the hope that it would change public perception and earn votes for the party. How the human psychology had been reduced to such low ebbs by politicians with the belief that all those ex-convicts and their families would find this eleventh hour political gesture as a move by a loving and caring president. Whoever advised the president on that decision must have been the most preposterous of all advisors the President has had to rely on. It smacked of direct political interference to gain political advantage instead of strengthening the hands of the judiciary and its appendage institutions.

Back to Hodari Okine’s case, when he was hounded out of the immigration service, it awakened the people’s senses of justice. Hodari was a director in the Immigration service of Ghana and he had prevented a Dutch national from disembarking in Ghana under the pretext of exploring investment opportunities. He had already encountered the Dutchman in his line of duty and considered the foreigner and his activities as inimical to the state. This warranted the intervention of an arrogant minister of state who misused his powers to upend laid down regulations and overturned the decision of the immigration director. This led to a standoff between the two gentlemen; a contest between crude power and the rule of law in which crude power prevailed. Hodari was asked to proceed on leave, a mantra that came to define the regime.

Hodari’s immediate family members felt it the most. His children were expelled from school for nonpayment of school fees and so on. This story was told again and again to whip up public sympathy. When the tables turned and the NDC took over power, Hodari Okine was appointed as Ghana’s ambassador to Libya. The question is whether Hodari was an element of the NDC behind the façade of neutrality (more precisely nonpartisanship) his previous office as a director of the immigration service demanded. However, weighing this issue from all angles, there is an implication that had change of government not occurred, Hodari would have finally been crushed physically and in spirit. Thank goodness, the democratic process ensures that when a government becomes unpopular and unable to represent the will of the people, it is voted out, so those who are at the receiving end of its draconian codes may have some respite.

But what about the countless individuals seeking to eke out a living and were effectively blockaded by a powerful state that should rather have been safeguarding their rights? Does a change of government bring any relief for ordinary people like David Amoah? You will read about David Amoah in subsequent articles. Does a change of government bring relief to ordinary civil servants who suffer injustice from the state in one way or the other? 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