The power of protest and neutrality

Wed, 11 Feb 2009 Source: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

Committee for Joint Action (CJA), a pressure group known for protesting on national and international issues during the years of ex-President John Kufour, is fast evolving as non-partisan, objective, and national conscience.

Over the years, CJA has evolved into part of Ghana’s growing democratic governance culture, taking more or less a centrist position that has allowed Ghanaians of diverse political and religious beliefs to come together for a common national cause without fear of persecution.

No doubt, Ghana has been ranked among the top 10 performers on the Ibrahim Index on African Governance, the first comprehensive ranking of 48 sub-Saharan African countries. The Ibrahim Index is a tool to hold African governments accountable and frame the debate about the quality of rule in Africa. Democracy driven, its approach is based on scientific measurement of the degree to which African governments deliver political goods to their citizens, part of which involve the degree of freedoms to voice out national concerns on issues that worries them as the CJA is doing.

In appropriating Ghana’s flourishing democracy and freedoms, the CJA seeks to knock some sense into the status quo and broadly enrich the maturing democracy – it doesn’t matter which individuals, political party or institution, it is for greater national good, philosophically.

Of course, any issue as appalling as perceived largesse for ex-presidents becomes divisive enough to inspire organized protest and raise powerful emotional responses. The CJA’s protest against the implementation of the Chinery Hesse Committee report on ex-gratia award for ex-presidents reveals its emerging neutrality in its national mission – some protesters hatred and political prejudices aside.

The Chinery Hesse report looks like it was written for ex-presidents/ex-prime ministers of the rich developed countries and not poor, struggling Ghana, which is at the lower 142 rank out of 179 countries ranked in 2008 of the UN Human Development Index that measures human welfare world-wide. The Chinery Hesse report atrociously recommends six cars, two houses, US$1 million seed money for a foundation and a chunk of over US$400,000. Sounding unGhanaian in the face of dire economic situation, the CJA sees the package as “rape” of Ghana’s coffers from purportedly out-of-touch politicians and bureaucrats who appear unaware that in the authentic Ghanaian reality most people live on US$2.00 a day, some less so.

No doubt, the CJA, which actions aren’t new, but its increasing non-partisanship is, has to raise awareness and voice concern about important economic, social and political issues. The CJA is yet to take on an enlightenment garb and battle the inhibiting aspects of the Ghanaian culture as part of its progress mission. From pre-independence struggles to the on-going 17-year-old democracy, the power of protest, against certain perceived national wrongs or poor thinking, has been part of the cornerstones of Ghana’s progress as protesters shake the status quo a bit for it to come to its senses. Aside from other national/regional institutions, the CJA’s power of protest is an indication of Ghana’s progress barometer – for a moment just forget the UN, EU, Freedom House, ECOWAS, bla, bla, bla and other development measuring agencies and watch the CJA’s activities in relation to Ghana’s progress. Each regime has its measuring meter – now we have the Atta-Mills-meter, against which Ghanaians would measure how President John Atta-Mills and his National Democratic Congress (NDC) are doing – more protest means Atta-Mills isn’t thinking well and have to be boxed in to reason fine in the face of contemporary realities.

For now, the new Atta-Mills regime appears to have received mild punches from the CJA. The CJA has sounded that as per the national situation it will respond appropriately to Atta-Mills. Protests can be either mild or strong, depending on the circumstances – the more gratuitous governments are, as was the case under Kwame Nkrumah’s draconian one-party regime, Kutu Acheampong’s near-imposition of his juju-marabou-necromancer dictated Union Government against all realities, and the Jerry Rawlings military juntas that eventually resulted in a “culture of silence,” the stronger the protests.

Regimes may respond bizarrely to the protests but in the long run the protesters come out as the winners since they are more on the side of reality. As per protesting Acheampong was overthrown and killed, Nkrumah was overthrown and exiled, and Rawlings was supremely forced to democratize.

Protests aren’t only to check governmental excesses, foolhardiness and disconnections from reality but also let governments think well and put them in proper position. It knocks some sense into governments’ gobbledygook. It doesn’t matter whether civilian or military governments, the power of protest is part of the arteries running within the Ghanaian development and democracy processes.

Controversial pundits Kwasi Pratt Jr. and Kweku Baako are nationally known protesters who attempts to unblock the dirt that have blocked the development blood vessels. No doubt they have won national and international awards for being part of the national conscience and Ghana’s democratic growth. Pratt Jr., the managing editor of the Accra-based Insight, had consistently taken on official corruption and has called for enquiry into allegations of bribery pinned against some former government officials such as former couple Rawlings and his blustering wife Nana Konadu Agyemang, who ruled Ghana for almost 20 years with shaky accountability, transparency and muzzled freedoms.

And just as departing President John Kufuor ordered for the discontinuation of corruption case involving Nana Konadu and five others for allegedly “willfully causing financial loss to the State” in relation to the divestiture of the GIHOC Cannery at Nsawam, Kweku Baako, who thinks Nana Konadu doesn’t know what conflict of interest is as a first lady when she bought the GIHOC Cannery with her friends, served notice that he will continue with the issue by proceeding to the Commission for Human Rights and Administrative Justice for it to “probe the issue further to ascertain the truth.”

As citizens of a democratic country, Baako, Pratt Jr and their CJA folks have the greater freedom of speech and assembly for their protest activities against less freedoms in the years of military juntas and one-party systems. At the African level, Baako, Pratt Jr and their CJA family have a duty to the rights Ghanaians enjoy to the deprivation of such freedoms in other African countries.

But democracy or not, the power of protest is embedded in African traditions. As Maxwell Owusu, of the University of Michigan, explains in “Rebellion, Revolution, and Tradition: Reinterpreting Coups in Ghana,” traditional institutions such as the militant Asafo organizations overthrow traditional rulers, through passionate protest, who have violated traditional governance values such as “not being accountable to the people.”

Now-and-then the protest arteries are blocked that need to be cleaned, and now-and-then they are unblocked as the Ghanaian system naturally swings for equilibrium through the power of protest as, more than ever, the on-going democracy opens spaces for the rule of law and greater freedoms. With the fast developing mass media, the sleepy intellectuals awakening, developmental confidence increasing, and national consciousness rising, protest as a democratic tool is on the upswing, taking on diverse national issues and making governments retreat now-and-then as realities are thrown on their face.

The power of protest normally wheel around some individuals who have greater conscience, are highly public spirited and altruistic, are bold and daring, and are able to speak their minds freely without fear, despite sometimes the dangers involved. Kwame Nkrumah is widely known for protesting against the tyrannical British colonial regime and Nana Akufo-Addo, Baako, and Pratt Jr. against dreadful military juntas.

Either through Baako, Pratt Jr. or Akufo-Addo, short of broader public intellectual culture to take on pressing national issues consistently and put governments and national institutions on their feet, the CJA is increasingly assuming the clout as a medium for public intellectual thought and activity, a public conscience that perpetually attempts to push governments to think holistically, shakes parts of the system that are sleeping, and make the voice of the voiceless heard on national level in a culture with its high traditional paternalistic and gerontological tradition that either suppresses most Ghanaians’ voices or make Ghanaians afraid to speak their minds.

While over the years some national protest have been partisan, protests are increasingly becoming centrist or contrarian, depending on which of the political spectrum one is – shifting from one issue to another and back to the original issue. It doesn’t matter the political orientation of the key protesters, as democracy develops and developmental concerns become objective national issues the power of protests will help further develop democracy and freedoms.

It is in such atmosphere that the CJA will be judged, especially in taking on the traditionally entrenched and powerful status quo, and helping to further open up and organize government thinking.

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi