Monday, 20 February 2012

Welcome Mr. Baffour with an Unfamiliar Story

Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Ministry of Truth actually serves the opposite purpose of manufacturing falsehood and rewriting history to suit the purposes of the regime in power in Oceania, the fictional country of the novel. Mr. Orwell worked in the now defunct Ministry of Information in Britain and used his inside knowledge of the brand as a template. One is sometimes disposed similarly towards our own Ministry of Information, which has at times been a misnomer and its true purpose has been either to conceal information or provide a convenient communications cover for the government of the day. The temptation to turn truth on its head is ever present in perhaps the most overtly political of all government agencies, and it must be difficult to resist.  

Generally, the frequent tilting of its functions into the dark arts of propaganda and misinformation has been the reason why a substantial argument is frequently made for the abolishing of ministries of information as a principle. However, since there is no real prospect of our Ministry of Information disappearing in the foreseeable future the best we can hope for is a minister who will recognise its positive potential and guide it away from party political abuse. The moment appears to have arrived with the appointment of Mr. Fritz Baffour to that office.

The Minister-in-Waiting’s appearance before the Parliamentary Vetting Committee was a thing of beauty which we can only hope presages the coming joy.  I know Mr. Baffour from a distance as does everyone of mine, or our generation and I have met him only once and even then I was impressed by his equableness and even-handed approach to politics in the country.

There are two things that most impressed me about Mr. Baffour at his vetting. The first was his stated determination not to abuse his office for party propaganda. The second is his understanding of the need for the nation to construct a national narrative that will be the story no matter which political party is in power.

This is important if the Ministry of Information is to do its proper job. It is often said by way of explanation that the job of the Ministry of Information is to provide information about government policy and its execution. This may be technically correct but government business is everything going on in the country, and therefore the business of the Ministry of Information MUST be the business of the country as a whole, and not the narrowly defined interests of the government party as has often been the case.

Not a few commentators have pointed accusing fingers at Kwame Nkrumah’s government for the subordination of the Ministry of Information to the will of the ruling party as obviously happened in the First Republic. However, in the Nkrumah doctrine, so to speak, the state and the Party were indistinguishable from one another, and if a hierarchical distinction had to be made, the state would be subordinate to the Party, which was described as supreme. In practice, the Ministry of Information while loudly selling the Party also did a lot of social work through the Information Services Department, ISD, especially with its ubiquitous cinema vans which toured the country extolling, among other things, the virtues of using toothpaste.

The Nkrumah government arguably used communication as a means to bring people together, and that function, writ large was the mandate and remit of the Ministry of Information. Even then,when this nation was much poorer, and without the benefit of third and fourth generation technology gizmos, the ISD used to mount regular exhibitions in all the regions on important aspects of our lives. It used to publish documents and even books about this country and coordinated its collaboration with other institutions, including the Bureau of Ghana Languages for publishing information in Ghanaian languages. Therefore, the irony is that during the period of formal one-party state the Ministry had a much wider role than people sometimes realize.

We have moved on from the one-party state; indeed, we have even moved on from military rule during which time the Ministry came into its own as a caricature of the Orwellian Ministry of Truth. The role played by the Ministry of Information during the ill-fated and farcical Acheampong UNIGOV referendum should be studied as a classic of the genre by all students of communication manipulation. During the PNDC era, the Ministry was a beehive of activity all aimed arresting the commanding heights of information and communication in what was largely regarded as psychological operation on behalf of the regime.

We have gone past that too, but some habits die hard, such as the penchant to control the media and the information (read political) agenda from behind the curtains at the Ministry of Information. The government has every right; some would argue even a duty, to be on top of the agenda but in our febrile political atmosphere it must be a saint who will always distinguish the government from the party where political advantage is on offer.

Mr. Fritz Baffour may not be a saint, but he has been around the information and communication block a few times and should know more about these matters than most of us. His desire to use information in an even-handed manner appeared real, and when he said on oath that he knew the difference between a goat and a cow (and presumably between a boat and a ship) many would be inclined to believe him.

That is the easy part. The more difficult assignment is the construction of the national story to which he made many references and spoke very passionately about. The last Minister in that office to show commitment to that such a cause was Mrs. Oboshie Sai-Cofie, who inherited the idea from Mr. Kwamena Bartels, her predecessor. She believed in the need for “national orientation”, which set out to inculcate basic patriotism and civic pride in citizens, especially children. The idea fizzled out when she was moved from the Ministry, and in any case the Castle did not appear to be mightily interested.

That we need such a story is not only obvious but important. We need to pull together in the same direction even in a democracy as loud with its trumpeted divisions. Let us cite the most obvious example: football. If the proverbial man or woman from Mars had landed in Ghana in the past three weeks that Mars-being would have struggled to believe that Ghana was taking part in the African Nations Cup competition. Where were the flags, the buntings, the support slogans or even young men wearing the replica shirts?

Other countries took full advantage of their participation to do a bit of branding and the host nations of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea went the whole hog of seeking to reinvent themselves with a successful staging of the games. The irony of the situation is that when you think about it, the real legacy of CAN 2008 which Ghana hosted is the Woyomi scandal which has so engulfed us that we were as a nation apparently unaware that we had sent out a team to seek honours on our behalf and they needed our support. Many Ghanaians were furious that Asamoah Gyan missed that penalty, but what had we done to deserve a win?

The Ministry of Information has a legitimate role to play in ensuring that the government party gets due credit but it has a bigger role in ensuring that all Ghanaians feel a part of the benefit of the credit, and even own the credit. In our famous “election year”, the management of the subtlety involved will make the difference between success and failure in the management of information for the common good. I have an unfamiliar feeling of success with this one.

This article first appeared in the Mirror Diary column in the Mirror newspaper