Fire in Ogyakrom! Facts, Half-truths and Innuendoes

Fri, 19 Feb 2010 Source: Nkrumah-Boateng, Rodney

Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng (rodboat@yahoo.com)

The ashes of the inferno that consumed former president Jerry Rawlings’ home had hardly cooled off when the sparks of rumours and gossip went flying asunder, some as wild and as colourful as the orange flames that licked the colonial edifice in the early morning of St. Valentine’s Day. A typical Ghanaian pastime kicked into high gear immediately-no time to wait for a boring official report by the Ghana National Fire Service, with their ancient engines and useless water hoses.

Armchair fire experts offered their watertight opinions and swore by them in the complete absence of evidence, and in many cases, thoroughly coloured by their political lenses. Some said it must have been ex-president Kufuor and/or his NPP who set the place ablaze, as they are JJ’s mortal political enemies. It makes you wonder how an NPP man nicodemously slipped through the security net at the family home, casually sauntered into the yard and lit a bonfire under the house. Or did someone in a passing van painted in NPP colours throw a petrol bomb over the wall? Others shrilly insist that culpability surely lies with the Mills faction of the NDC, which wanted to teach JJ a lesson not to mess about with the Commander-in-Chief. In their fury, therefore the president’s dogs of war unleashed the fires of hell upon the Jerry household. They say the recent ‘who born dog?’ outburst by His Jerryship was the final straw that tipped the Asomdwehene over the precipice and made him see red in all its shades and hues. Then there are those who swear by their mothers’ left ankle that JJ was cursed by Alhaji Bature during a recent public spat by the latter, a claim the Alhaji has vehemently denied. Apparently Antoa Nyama, being a river god, does also have fire powers, even though every Class One child knows water and fire do not mix. Could the god not have caused a flood to sink the house? Surely that would be more plausible?

Most amusingly, there are those who insist that they can see Jerry’s hand through all the smoky haze. They theorise that JJ actually set his own bonfire so that he could get a shiny new house without inviting public scorn, and that he realized a dose of public sympathy might do him some good. In any event, goes the theory, if he simply went ahead and moved, then his arch political enemy Kufuor could also demand a new house too, something that could send JJ’s blood pressure right through the roof. So in a hissy fit, he is said to have engineered the inferno and arranged to be conveniently and therefore suspiciously as far away from home as possible on that fateful Valentine Day, risking the charring of his wife, daughter, and irreplaceable family items in the process. In other words, for the want of a new house, Madam Nana Yaa Konadu’s many scarves, ‘kabas’, ‘dukus’ and sunglasses, among others, were all sacrificed as a burnt offering. Without any evidence whatsoever, some even insist that the family moved out all its valuables before the fire and that it was an empty shell that burned like the fires of hell. This last theory reminds me of a friend of mine in secondary school back in the 1980s who decided he wanted to go abroad so badly after ‘O’ levels to join his parents in US of A that he deliberately failed his exams. He reckoned that if he avoided going to sixth form his parents would sprint him out of town out of exasperation. It backfired spectacularly. Such was the wrath of his parents that he remained firmly rooted in Ghana for the next decade before finding his own way out of town- to Libya. Talk of cutting your own nose, however crooked and pointed, to spite your face!

In recent times, the fires that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building and the Tema Oil Refinery suffered have all assumed conspiratorial undertones, with the allegation that the NPP was behind them, as it wanted to destroy evidence of their misdeeds in office that they had been unable to destroy whilst in office. In earlier times, rumours about the alleged rapidly declining health of the then presidential candidate Mills took hold and gained currency. Chairman JJR himself said some time ago that the responsibility for the serial killing of thirty-one Ghanaian women lay squarely at the feet of the NPP. We are still waiting patiently for his evidence. In some cases the rumour does not grow as an alternative to an official version but it is simply manufactured from scratch to create a certain effect. For instance, it was rumoured in the run-up to the 2008 election that the NDC had planned that should it gain power, it would execute certain prominent Ghanaians. The NDC had its fair share of brand new rumours churned out ably by its propaganda machinery. This latest fodder for the busy, grinding rumour mill has got yours truly thinking about the Ghanaian psyche in such matters. I think this has roots in the fact that we still remain, to a large extent, a society that seems to believe that nothing just happens on its own or by accident-there has to be a remote, often spiritual reason ascribed to it. Especially with deaths, it is common for people to argue that the deceased was so young and nothing was wrong with him/her, so therefore they must have been spiritually dealt with by a business or love rival. Nobody seems to die a natural death in Ghana. Similarly, some wealthy people are rumoured to employ ‘sika duro’, having commandeered a bow tie-wearing snake to vomit money every morning for them, or having sacrificed a nephew to a fetish in order to ensure steady cash flow. A barren woman may be accused of having excavated her womb in order to feed on it with her fellow witches on top of a neem tree in the dead of night. Other examples abound.

Perhaps it is from this traditional mindset which refuses to accept that ‘stuff happens’, and from which we haven’t quite evolved to our own Age of Reason, that the default position of conspiracy theory in the Ghanaian mindset emerges and flourishes with such abandon. Of course, conspiracy theories and a refusal to accept seemingly reasonable explanations for events is not exclusively limited to the Ghanaian or even African psyche-far from that. To date, several theories about government cover-up persist regarding aliens, UFOs and the deaths of John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana, among many others despite several official reports that provide simple explanations to them. But at least, in all these cited cases, those who have their own theories usually point to some empirical research or other credible evidence to back up their case, even if such evidence is not particularly watertight or conclusive.

In all conspiracy cases where people are skeptical about official versions, the reality simply is that the official version tends to be rather bland and unexciting and straightforward, whereas what goes into the rumour mill is usually salacious, tastier and therefore more appealing. If the report into the JJ or Ministry of Foreign Affairs infernos does for instance say the fault lay with defective electrical wiring, where is the excitement in that? Many people would rather claim, wide-eyed and without a shred of evidence, that someone-whoever that person was- actually deliberately burnt the place down for whatever reason. And they would claim it so loudly and with such confidence that you would think they were standing next to the person as he struck the match and set the place ablaze.

But then, it is too easy and very lazy to chastise the ‘conspiracy theorists’ without looking at an important underlying factor. In a way, I suppose part of the reason many Ghanaians do not trust or wait for official explanations is that they simply do not trust their leaders, of whatever political persuasion, to be straightforward with them and tell the truth. Over the years since independence, there has been a clear and growing chasm between the governed and the governing, and it is the resulting vaccum that is usually filled by cynicism, rumours and manufactured facts, which invariably travel faster and become accepted as de facto. When government ministers and those that support the party in power are alleged to have engaged in wrongdoing and investigations almost always exonerate them however glaring the evidence, then eventually the stink of a perceived whitewash begins to pollute the political air, and naturally people will believe government is lying to them even when it is telling the truth. The fable of the boy who cried ‘wolf’ readily springs to mind.

Let us hope that the government’s investigations into the JJ, Foreign Affairs and Tema Oil Refineries fires, as well as other pending matters are done properly and promptly, and guilty people, if any, are brought to book irrespective of where their political bread is buttered.

Otherwise, we should not be surprised if people continue manufacture their own versions of these events, however outrageous, and then defend them vigorously, arguing forcefully that there is no smoke without fire.

Columnist: Nkrumah-Boateng, Rodney