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Feature Article of Friday, 9 November 2012

Columnist: Tsuo, Cedric

Free Education Debate: A Tale of Two Contrasting Characters

The NPP free SHS Education Debate: A Tale of Two Contrasting Characters

The NPP’s free SHS education policy has generated more intense public debate than any other single issue in this year’s campaign. Some interest groups have gone as far as to come up with their own calculations, including student numbers, classrooms, dormitories, science laboratories, ICT facilities, etc, and their total cost, to support their respective positions. Yet, on close examination, one sees very little substantive difference between the NPP position and that of the NDC. The only difference is its timing. NPP want their programme rolled out in 2013. The NDC believe it should start in 2016. So, is all the fuss much ado about nothing? Ghana has been independent for 55 good years now. Frankly, three years either way hardly justifies the hue and cry over timing. Practical common sense tells me that if it is manpower development we are after, it is far more important, indeed urgent, first to train the thousands of unemployable university graduates roaming the streets looking for non-existent white-collar jobs to acquire skills that would equip them better to compete in both the public and the private sector job market or to become self-employed. Instead, we expend so much time and energy on this free SHS education issue simply because it is a populist agenda and potentially votes winner. It is extraordinary that as a nation, we never fail to get our priorities wrong. Why?

Nevertheless, the free SHS education debate has one important value, but not in education. Wittingly or unwittingly, it has exposed some character or personality traits of the two front-runners in this election. It raises a question about the kind of person Ghana should have as its president. Nana Akufo-Addo comes across as arrogant, condescending, opportunistic and overly combative; a man who has no qualms hitting below the belt to ridicule and embarrass the President. President Mahama, on the other hand, comes across as the complete opposite. He looks principled, arguing his viewpoint solely on its merits without personalizing the issue.

One can cite two instances at least in this debate when Nana Akufo-Addo revealed those character traits. During a rally in Kumasi officially to introduce the NPP parliamentary candidate, Mrs Patricia Appiagyei, Nana Addo told his audience that “ironically, President John Mahama Dramani Mahama benefitted from the free SHS concept introduced by the late Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah for the people of northern descent” and wondered why the President would oppose it now. He went on to elaborate saying that, as a young man, the President took advantage of the free SHS education for the “Northerners” at a time when his father, who was then a government minister, could have afforded to pay for his education (Ghanaweb 11 October 2012). Nana Addo similarly attacked the President at another rally at Drobo in Jaman South District, in the Brong-Ahafo Region, saying derisively: “some leading members of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) who had benefited from free SHS education some years ago continued to sabotage [his] realistic policy” (Ghanaweb, 14 October 2012).

As a class, politicians are like a chameleon. They change their colour to suit any environment that best serves their political ambitions. In short, they are prone to being opportunistic, and Nana Akufo-Addo is no exception to this rule, at least in so far as his free SHS education policy and the ensuing debate are concerned. Let me explain. The NPP is a re-incarnation of the UP, a party whose ideologies were diametrically opposed to those of Kwame Nkrumah. Today, NPP still invokes UP’s philosophy as their guiding ideological torch, as former president John Kufour did at the first IEA debate. Nana Addo’s forebears hated Kwame Nkrumah and his vision for transforming Ghana into a modern developed country with passion. Such was their aversion to the man that they even plotted to assassinate him. Yet today Nana Addo stands on a political platform not only to extol the virtue and wisdom of Nkrumah’s free education for the North. He goes overboard to embrace it as the blue print for the whole of Ghana! He has no reluctance addressing Dr. Kwame Nkrumah as “Osagyefo”, appellation UP loathed and treated with utmost contempt. This is an NPP u-turn of seismic proportions. Dr Kwame Nkrumah and Nana Addo’s forebears must be turning in their grave for different reasons, of course! Is Nana Addo now a true convert to Nkrumahism or is he wearing Kwame Nkrumah’s borrowed robes just to cash in on his “socialist” agenda to win votes?

I just wonder whether it is intellectually honest for Nana Addo to take Kwame Nkrumah’s free SHS education policy for the people of Northern Ghana out of its historical context and use it to mount a personal attack on president Mahama. Until Ghana’s independence in 1957, the only development that the British Colonial Government brought to the Northern Territory, as that geographical region was formerly called, was to plant the Union Jack there! Other than that, they showed little interest in the region, probably because it had no raw materials of commercial interest to them. The Colonial Government rather focussed their development, the little that they did, in Ashanti and the Colony, which together I term the “South”. The South has two advantages for them: rich natural resources, such as gold, diamond, cocoa, timber, and access to the sea. Consequently, the Colonial Government made no meaningful development efforts in the North, including establishing schools. There were no Achimotas there. The few educational institutions the North had were built and supported mostly by White Fathers Missionary Society. The people of the North were poor and were left to fester in their poverty, which explains the mass migrations from the North to the South. In fact, the Northners were treated both by the British Colonial government and the rich in the South as hewers of coal and drawers of water. (For example, the Northners could not enrol in then General Police class, which required Standard 7 Certificate, plus examination, plus interview. The Northners could only qualify for lower or menial class of “Escort Police”. I it was Kwame Nkrumah who abolished that class distinction in the Ghana police force.) During all that time Nana Akufo-Addo’s forebears and their children were being educated at prestigious ancient and expensive universities, in the United Kingdom, such as London, Oxford and Cambridge.

That was by and large the state of education in the North Dr. Kwame Nkrumah inherited. He found the situation abhorrent and immediately set out to change it. For him, the issue was one of uncompromising principle. The North was part of independent Ghana and it should not be allowed to lag behind the South. That was the reason why he initiated accelerated programme of school construction, including secondary schools, and the introduction of his free SHS education policy for the North. President Mahama hails from there and benefitted from Kwame Nkrumah’s free SHS education policy designed for that region. That being the case, one fails to see any reason why Nana Addo should use that as a stick to beat Mr. Mahama with, unless his strategy is to embarrass him. It is important to remember that the problem that Kwame Nkrumah sought to address is not the same as or even remotely similar to the one that Nana Addo now wants to implement. Nana Addo argues that president Mahama’s father, being a government minister, could have afforded his son’s school fees at any SHS in the South but chose to take advantage of Kwame Nkrumah’s free education for the North. That line of argument or attack can only be designed to paint a picture of president Mahama (or his father) as a scrounger for free education for himself whilst he denies the same free education for others now.

I wish to make two observations regarding that line of argument. First, during Kwame Nkrumah’s time, any Ghanaian form-five student who passed the Sixth-Form Entrance Examination automatically received a scholarship (free tuition, board and lodging, books and some pocket-money) for the two years, irrespective of the financial circumstance of parents. Now, I presume Nana Addo attended sixth-form in Ghana. His father was a well-to-do man and could afford to pay his sixth-form fees. Did Nana Akufo-Addo’s father pay his fees? If he did not, then Nana Addo owes Ghanaian voters an explanation as to why he himself took advantage of Kwame Nkrumah’s free sixth-form education, whilst he accuses the President of doing the same in not so dissimilar circumstances. Otherwise, Nana Addo is no holier than Mahama. Second, the President’s father might have reasons other than money for sending young son John back to the North to continue his education there. He might have wanted his son to grow up in his own social and cultural milieu, to experience at first hand the realities of life of his own people, as part of his son’s overall development. That vision should be praised, not censured. Most parents who insist on their children attending a particular school or schools in a particular locality do so for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it seems to me arrogant and presumptuous on the part of outsiders to impugn their motives, as Nana Addo has done in this free SHS education debate.

It is crucial in this debate always to remember that the poor state of educational development in the North that Kwame Nkrumah sought to rectify differed vastly from the present situation. Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s objective was to address a problem or an anomaly, specific to the North; no more than that. Nana Addo and his supporters of free SHS education also argue that in any event that is provided for in our Constitution. That is very true. But there are many other pressing, if not more pressing, provisions of our Constitution, e.g. fighting corruption, that are not being implemented satisfactorily.

In an election that is expected to be tight, the contrasting personalities or characters of Nana Akufo-Addo and President John Mahama may very well decide which of those two gentlemen should be preferred as president.

Cedric Tsuo

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