Feature Article of Friday, 2 November 2012
Columnist: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi
Last Monday I had the privilege to attend a public meeting at Busa, a small community about 15 kilometres from Wa, the Upper West Regional Capital. It was organised by the Centre for the Promotion of Democratic Governance (CENPRODEG), one of the civil society organisations undertaking election related initiatives funded by STAR Ghana. The organisation’s three-pronged election focus is to promote the participation of women and the inclusion of disabled people in politics, to safeguard accountability of the elected to the electorate, and to ensure that the elections will be peaceful, free and fair. CENPRODEG has produced its Women’s Manifesto which it uses as the primary toll for its advocacy; consequently, I had expected to see mostly women at the event. The rest of the story is taken almost verbatim from my notes.
The road from Wa to Busa is deceptive. The first half is a tarred first class road but just as you are settling into the comfort of the ride it comes to a bumpy end so the rest of the journey is the familiar rock-and-roll affair which is the main feature of Upper West roads. On the way, Madam Abiba Nibaradun, the CENPRODEG Coordinator takes a call from “Honourable”. She explains that Honourable is the much respected Assemblyman who does the local mobilization for the community. Honourable is a retired Army officer who has returned home to help his people. I am really looking forward to our meeting because I just adore people who do what he has done.
Honourable Issaka Hamidu meets us as we stop in the village square which is also the market. Today is Market Day at Wa so many Busa women have left to do the final shopping before Sala, the Muslim feast holiday, which is being anxiously awaited here in this Muslim majority Region. Honourable is a distinguished looking man who has a kindly glint in his eye as he welcomes us. To my surprise there are more men than women seated but that is because almost all the womenfolk are at the market which shares the same space as the meeting place. Indeed, a dozen or so women join the meeting as we take our seats. Eventually more than 50 women could be counted among the 150 or so audience. I observe that the message really needs to get to men even more than women.
Honourable kicks things off by inviting the Chief Imam to pray. He is much older than Honourable and clearly revered in the community. Honourable, who is clearly the host – combination of Chairman and MC – invites Abiba to explain our mission. This is a verbatim summary of what Madam Abiba said after introducing our group which includes Abiba’s two colleagues, Joyce Kanton and Pacencia Maria Yuorpor and Daniel Amoah, our STAR Ghana driver who is doubling as photographer at the function: we have come again because the issues that we have been discussing with you are so important that our guests will report this meeting in the Mirror newspaper. We have been discussing the participation of women in public life which is important because women and men together should take decisions affecting the whole community. In this coming election, women should be empowered to vote for those they know will best represent their interests. We have to reject those who try to bribe us with magi cubes and “Keta schoolboys”; we need those who will address our problems of education, health and our very bad roads. We should not allow the politicians to divide us because when they get elected we don’t see them again, and then because of some small monies, our men become divided; brother does not talk to brother and families don’t eat together any more”. There is more of it but that is the flavour of it. The people love it because they know it is true.
The next speaker is Joyce, who like Abiba is an excellent orator. She speaks about the registration of minors during the voter registration exercise. She reminds the audience that registration is a formal and official process so if a child of twelve claims to be 18 it means officially that person is 18 and therefore will carry that age for the rest of his or her life. Some of the consequences would be forced early retirement, not qualifying for youth benefits such as training and scholarships. They nod in vigorous agreement.
Honourable invites questions and comments from the audience. It starts slowly. For about three minutes everyone sits still and I fear that the forum will end without any input from the locals. That was just the lull before the storm. The first speaker is a visually impaired man who stands in the middle of the circle with confidence. This is what he said, again verbatim: there is a disease killing us in this community. It is the disease of politicians taking us for granted. Every four years they come and tell us stories and after they get our vote they disappear. After they win even their secretaries refuse to take our calls. Their supporters fix a few bits of our gutters and think they have helped us. We are mostly farmers here. We need help with our farming and markets for our produce. Do we eat gutters? Loud applause!.
The next speaker was a woman who obviously needs no training in political leadership. She says that politicians are like errant husbands who make women pregnant and disappear. The people like this and clap and shout for more. She doesn’t need the encouragement. These people come to us only when they need our votes, after that what? Nothing! We now know their ways. Your programme has taught us to weigh things before we vote. They will not take advantage of us again.
Then it is the turn of one of the oldest men at the forum seated next to the Imam: Look at me and all the old people here at this meeting. Our knees are weak. If trouble comes with the election we the old men and all the women and children cannot run. I am begging the young men who are likely to provoke the trouble and will be able to run, to let peace reign. A woman seated next to the Imam says that the community should no longer expect the politicians to do anything for them. “Let us mobilise and repair our road so that they will feel ashamed when they come next time”.
A very eloquent young hairdresser analyses the situation simply, maybe better than any political science professor. It is the poverty, she says. And the illiteracy, she adds. They know that our people are ignorant and poor so the day before the election they come with soap and rice and a few such things. Even on voting day, agents of political parties lurk and suddenly thrust two cedi notes into the hands of people on their way to vote. A woman shouts a question from the other side: How many times will one bowl of rice feed you? Someone answers: one lunch, if you are lucky!
The final words come from Honourable. We are quite some distance from Accra but we know what is going on from the radio, newspapers and television. We are aware of all the controversies around biometric registration, the creation of 45 constituencies and the like. What it all means is that the Electoral Commission should be firm and fair. He stands erect like the soldier he was all his life. Now, he is a soldier of his people. He repeats: firm and fair.
That is the message from Busa, Upper West where the question was asked: Do we eat gutters?
*Watch this space for more stories from the Upper West Region