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The masters of our universe


By Maxwell Oteng

California, USA. March 8, 2009

The other day on www.myjoyonline.com (Joy FM’s online news service), I listened to two Members of Parliament, in a stultifyingly comical rant, describe their salaries as “peanuts” and attempt to justify the controversial End-of-Service Benefits (ESB). My head started to spin as a cascade of questions danced through it including the following:

Didn’t these MPs (and all MPs for that matter) know what the salaries of prospective MPs were before they decided to run for parliament? Should we feel sorry for MPs for “offering” themselves up for national service? If people think their salaries are “peanuts” why not just quit and look for another job elsewhere that will pay you a better remuneration? Ah ha, this illusionary world of indispensability that some MPs live in – they can’t quit because they’re so indispensable, and because we’re so indispensable we should pay them more. But guess what, as Charles de Gaulle once said, “the cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.” If MPs consider their salaries “peanuts’, then how do we describe the earnings of the real producers of the largest share of our national wealth – the unassuming farmers How come we don’t have ESB for our farmers, the bakers of the national cake?

Hmmm the things that can make your head spin.

Oh, and there was one more question: how come we’re so interested in projecting an image of democracy without being interested in changing the antediluvian substance of our governance structure?

Given the controversy that has surrounded the ESB and in the wake of the global financial meltdown, I went to our local used bookstore, the magnificent “Logos”, and dusted off a copy of the timeless “The Bonfires of Vanities” written by Tom Wolfe to refresh my memory of “The Masters of the Universe”. Wolfe used the phrase “The Masters of the Universe” (MOTU) to refer to ambitious young men who, starting with the 1980s, began racking up millions of dollars every year — in performance bonuses at such investment banks as Salomon Brothers, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.

The MOTU has analogical application in the Ghanaian (and for that matter African) political culture. It seems that we have willingly cultivated the Masters of our Universe (MOOU) or, at least with implicit complicity, provided the fertile environment for them to thrive. The MOOU are mostly politicians and other public servants entrusted with public resources. In few instances you can find some in other areas of our society – in the private sector of the economy, in religious institutions or in headships of provincial chieftains. Interestingly the MOOU are supposed to be servants through leadership in various communities. They are expected to be the custodians and protectors of the national good. Unfortunately, they’re anything but custodians and protectors of the national good. This isn’t a recent phenomenon afflicting our political culture. It’s been with us since the birth of modern Ghana, and it has survived political eras and systems of governance.

The MOTU and MOOU are similar in many respects: they both live in self-elevated, ego-inflated planes oftentimes propped up by our own corrosive illusions and fantasies about the importance of wealth; they have such high appetence for power grab driven by aggrandizement; and their goals is to rack up busloads of money (if possible) by any means necessary even if it involves willful deceit and manipulations.

Yet the MOTU and MOOU are remarkably different in some respects. For instance, the MOTU ply their trade mainly in the private sector of the economy. But the MOOU are found ostensibly in the corridors of public institutions – they are the dauphins of the public sector. While both the actions of the MOTU and the MOOU can wreak havoc, the reach of the effects of MOTU’s actions is global, while the effects of MOOU’s actions are local. In the US for instance, even if you hate the modus operandi of the MOTU, you can’t help but admire the high level of creativity, ingenuity, sophistication and sometimes the intellectual depth these people bring to bear on their trade (take financial derivatives, for example). On the contrary the MOOU who bring these afore-mentioned qualities to their trade are few and far between. Take a look at the Ghanaian political diorama and you see that the display of creative approaches to political issues is unremarkably monochromatic.

The emergence of the MOOU underscores the most fundamental unresolved question of our politics: what’s the essence of public service? It also highlights the conflict between individualism and collectivism (or more appropriately between individualism and community). Individualism can help unearth latent potentialities and bottom-up complementarities in a society, but it can also, especially when practiced in public life, eat away the social and moral fabric of a society and undermine a society’s capacity to discover the common good. And this is precisely what has characterized our polity – at the national level the scale of the conflict between individualism and community has been tilting in favor of the former. As H. Kwasi Prempeh (a professor of law at Seton Hall University) observes, in Ghana the tendency has always been to use private solutions for national problems. I’ll even go further to say that the tendency has always been to use national resources to solve private problems. And by the way, do you ever wonder why this cancer persists in our country despite the level of intensity of religiosity in the country?

The consequence of the conflict between individualism and community in our national polity and the use of national resources to solve private problems is that Ghanaians have been left to stand for so long in what Parker Palmer calls the "tragic gap,” - the gap between the difficult realities of life and the knowledge of what is possible. The tragic gap can be described as the gap between the way things are and the way we know things ought to be. Ghanaians are asked to stand in this gap every day facing mounting economic challenges because those who are in charge of the management of our economic resources have consistently failed to deliver. We stand in the tragic gap because of our failure to recognize the importance of establishing systems of accountability to assure that national resources would be used judiciously for the development of the country.

How do we find the capacity to stand in this tragic gap? Maybe we can turn to Bellah and Co.’s “Habit of the Heart” to find some answers. It requires a call for our politicians in particular to transcend individualism and rediscover insights of our value-based traditions. For the country as a whole, it means building grassroots social movements that are anchored in higher aspirations – justice, equality, community, accountability democracy, citizenship and freedom. We can use our churches, mosques, temples, shrines, and our schools as springboards for engaging in community building. We need something (beyond the present-day religious rah-rah) that stirs the heart and soul, and constantly reminds us that the call to public service is a selfless noble call. Who will provide that something?

I invite you to visit my nascent blog for comments on this article and others and also for exchange of ideas http://africaneconomics.blogspot.com/ You may also contact me at maxii99@hotmail.com

Columnist: Oteng, Maxwell

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