Saturday, 16 March 2013

Sitting Ghana Down Around the Common Fireside

Sitting Ghana Down Around the Common Fireside
I think the time has come for Ghana to organise a conclave in which the good and mighty of this country will be locked in a dark room until white smoke, signaling the solution to our problems, comes out of the chimney. This thought struck me with such force last Tuesday, and because it was my birthday I went all mystical and began to believe, prophet-like that it was a divinely inspired message from God. However, divine or not, I think we ought to convene a Grand National Convention or Ndaba, as such gatherings are known in Zulu and its related languages in Southern Africa.

I had planned an idyllic evening - watching football with a glass of chilled something - without thinking of the rather fragile state of electricity supply in the country, and naturally my area was plunged into darkness at the most inopportune time. I decided to listen to Citi FM, which normally relays a very lively football broadcast from the UK, but on this occasion the station was re-broadcasting a Roundtable on the budget which it had organised in the morning. I am happy I listened to that instead of the football match.

The Citi FM programme brought home to me vividly two related notions that can no longer be denied. The first is that this country is not in a good shape, and two is that no one party or group of people can dig us out of the current mess; it needs all of us in a major national heave-ho to get us to where we want to be. Any further denials, recrimination, politicization and blaming will amount to a death sentence without reprieve. I kid not; neither am I exaggerating. The Citi FM discussion brought together the Minister of Finance and Economic Planning, his opposite number in Parliament on the Minority side, as well as civil society and research groups. As expected, Dr. Akoto Osei, the Shadow Minister tore into the budget and wondered how the huge deficit posted in it can be filled. The frightening bit is that the Minister did not appear convinced by his own words that things can get better soon.

There comes a moment in history when the normal ways of doing things are no longer sufficient and extraordinary measures are required because the nature of the beast requires it. We have reached such a point. To be able to reach such thinking demands rigorous jump from one set of beliefs to another, possibly one that is the exact opposite of the creed into which one was born. This is what is normally referred to as a leap of faith. This is now a requirement of our politicians if they are to be relevant to our purposes at the moment.

The budget presented recently by the government shows a huge deficit created mostly by fiscal overruns and a huge structural tilt towards salary payments and other forms of recurrent expenditure, but the evidence is all around and has been for quite some years now. For example, probably no government ministry, department or agency has been paid anywhere near two-thirds of its budget allocation for the past several years now, and the problem has become worse with some departments not having received any operational funding for about one year now. In simple terms this means that people are being pad without working. The problem appears to have been worsened by a situation in which departments and agencies that have no accountable outputs have been shown to have swallowed large chunks of our national income at the expense of areas we would rather spend the money on such as health and education.

As we have known since 1992, the budget deficit rises every election year and reduces within the next three years until the next election cycle begins. The trouble is that the deficit as a percentage of the national cake grows every time and shows no sign of slowing. To make matters worse, until this last election year, the previous deficits were accounted for by capital expenditure, that is, “projects” such as new infrastructure and repairs. In that sense, it could be argued that the election years deficits brought some physical benefits to communities in the country. This year, the deficit has not brought any such infrastructure but appears to have been gulped down by the rapacious appetites of recurrence, that is, salaries and allowances. 

The single spine salary structure has been fingered as the single biggest villain of the plot, but this is an absurd charge. The amount of money required to pay for the single spine was not a secret, or was the government not aware of its potential impact? Therefore, although it is reasonable to blame the new salary structure for the rise in the cumulative sum the government has to pay in salaries and allowances but it cannot be blamed for the budget overrun or the election year deficit. Now, no matter where the blame lies, the issue can no longer be swept under the carpet; to fall on another cliché, we need to tackle the bull by the horns.

How are we going to do this? The conventional wisdom is to heap the blame on the party in power and leave it to find a way out of the crisis. In this scenario, the opposition, however it is defined, will not play any constructive role but will snap at the heels of the government hoping it will stumble and fall. In normal times that is par for the course in any democracy. We are not in normal times. The other route is to call on all forces to get together to try and find a way. This is how governments talk but not how they walk. The task facing all of us is to get everyone to walk the talk of unity and cooperation.

We know in advance that any proposal for a serious national convention will be rebuffed by the NDC because no party in power will accept that there is a crisis. The NPP may also reject the idea because any honest effort to meet the challenges together will mean sharing their ideas instead of undermining the government with them. This means that the national convention must be organised by civil society, including the media, community organisations and faith-based groups. The rationale for calling for such an Ndaba stems from the reasonable belief that among our 24 million Ghanaians we ought to find solutions to our problems. I have to explain that I am not calling for a Union government – that term leaves a bad taste in many mouths; I am calling for a convention in which citizens come together to think about specific problems in specific contexts without any preconditions and prejudices.

No one political party is responsible for the mess because its trail goes deep into the thinning recesses of history. No one party or group alone can resolve it. Indeed, we ought to remember that political parties do not have a monopoly of solutions and the current situation is too critical to leave to politicians alone to resolve. During these difficult times even a dedicated ostrich will have to admit that the inside of a hot pile of sand is no place to hide one’s head. It is better to come out and face the music.


JUJU, MAGIC AND WITCHCRAFT IN AFRICAN SOCCER – Myth or Reality is a book written by a man who is vocationally qualified to explore this intriguing theme. The author, Francis J Botchway is both an ordained Presbyterian Minister and a trained journalist. He is now the editor of the Presbyterian newspaper, the Christian Messenger. For this book he interviewed scores of people from inside football, including players, coaches and officials and the foreword is written by veteran sportswriter and former Deputy Minister of Sports Mr. Joe Aggrey.

The book is available in several bookshops and also from the autor (0275 480 441)





Who is in charge of light bulbs?

The government has presented its budget proposals for the fiscal year and as with all budgets, in the unlikely event of a huge parliamentary rebellion on the Majority side, these proposals will be passed by Parliament and form the basis of our national administration in the current financial cycle. The government sets great store by this budget which is the first after the most unpredictable election in Ghana’s recent history with the outcome of the presidential ballot still in the laps of Supreme Court judges.

The budget blends high expectations with sensible and cautious spending in a mix that will hopefully impress voters while moving the country on to greater things. But my question is: who is in charge of light bulbs in this country? This question may sound inane in the context of a debate on a national budget but unless we fully appreciate the importance of that very issue all our budget rhetoric will lead to little impact.

As you travel up and down this country at night you come upon large areas of darkness broken by short illuminated stretches in places that nominally have working street lights. A case in point: a few years ago the new highway that climbs from Ayi Mensah at the foot of the Akuapem hills was lit all the way to Mamfe at the apex of the mountain range. The lights were installed as part of the new road for a good reason – to prevent accidents and save lives. Today, the lighting has become a patchwork of alternating light and dark with those sharp curves really plunged into deep gloom at night.

It is the same for the recently constructed George Walker Bush Highway which some wags have re-christened Killer Road. In the short time since its construction most parts of the road have gone dark at night. This has made that road even more dangerous for pedestrians because they cannot be seen clearly by drivers and they are in turn blinded by headlamps switched on “high” by drivers. This situation persists all over the country and is not a recent situation too. I wrote about this same situation when President Kufuor was in office and pointed out that even the street lights at the Tetteh Quarshie Interchange and those leading to his own house had not worked for months. Miraculously, the lights were all working a few days after the article appeared in this same newspaper.

Does it matter that street lights do not work because of dead light bulbs? Yes, and for the following reasons. If we cannot replace a light bulb to make a street light work what can we guarantee to achieve? A street light is something we all see every day as we go about our lives. We see them when they work and we also know when they do not work but how many of us complain. Yes, this is a representation of our attitudes to our nation: country broke or no broke – we dey in! Furthermore, we go to huge expense to put up light poles but drive and walk in darkness for lack of light bulbs. Does it make sense? Like the poor light bulb, the “little things” in our lives that eventually amount to a lot, have no owners. Who looks after light bulbs in Ghana?

Perhaps the simple light bulb is a metaphor for our country and represents the malaise and dysfunction that is holding us back despite the efforts that many people think they are making. So who is in charge of light bulbs in this republic? In other countries, especially the countries we admire so much, no street lamppost will go without a bulb for more than 24 hours. I have personally seen the people in charge of light bulbs elsewhere going round in a van to change the expired ones; here, it simply does not happen and no one is sanctioned for not doing it. It does not matter if a private contractor has been given the job; the responsibility lies with the government.

Now, substitute a light bulb for an office computer or life-saving equipment in a hospital or a broken window in a school, or a little pothole in a road… and you get the picture; little things without owners which grow to become budget items that haunt the President in his nightmares and gives him sleepless nights. Somewhere, tucked hidden a book in some ministry or department of state are names of people who should be responsible for light bulbs but have themselves forgotten their responsibilities long ago. They get paid every month.

One reason we are not developing as fast as we all think we are entitled to is because of our attitudes to public service. Perhaps only a small percentage of people are working in police, immigration, tax, or any other kind of public office for the love of it or even because that is what they set out to do. Most people working in the public service see it as the gateway to personal private gain and consequently hate the work they do, apart from the salary and other benefits, including bribes. Therefore, the higher they go up the professional ladder the more they are disinclined to go out and see things for themselves. Without any supervision the people responsible for changing light bulbs gradually “forget” because there is no side benefit to be had in fixing light bulbs or supervising a light bulbs contractor.

In the budget the Minister of Finance and Economic Planning referred a few times to Ghana’s “middle income” status, and as usual I felt nauseated at the mention of that farce. I do not suppose the honourable gentleman has been to Porpornya, Dakurpe and Juaboso lately… He could not have travelled on the Tumu to Jefisi Road in the Upper West Region or even driven around the gold-blighted streets of urban Prestea; how come parts of the same country are middle income when others are “no income”?

The reason for this huge disparity between the rich and the poor in our country is that the people who are responsible for lifting up the poor have rather exploited them to further their own nests. In that sense, no one appears to checks what goes on in this country – from light bulbs to mega-cedi judgment debts. That is the scandal. The President told his ministers at their swearing in to go out and see things for themselves but unless he has a foolproof method to check them and their officials he would have spoken in vain.

Soon after the 2012 elections a close confidante of President Mahama emailed me the optimistic message that J.M. is serious about making change. I loved it, and I believe that JM sincerely wants to change things but things won’t get changed by the rhetoric of the State of the Nation address or the provisions of the ballot unless and until the President ensures that the persons in charge of light bulbs do their job.


This was a good week to read a bit more about Kwame Nkrumah so I reached for NKRUMAH the Man written by Genoveva Kanu and published by Delta. This is one of the most intimate pen portraits of Nkrumah written by a person who was very close to him. Although published about 40 years ago it is still fresh and accessible because it dispenses with ideological posturing and cuts to the core of the first President as a human being. It is available in most bookshops in Ghana.