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Opinions of Saturday, 16 February 2008

Columnist: Tawiah, Benjamin

A Very 'Broken' African Lunch

with Dow Jones Newswires

“May be the problem with Africans is that they try to solve all at once problems that are simply too big to tackle, like poverty and corruption. Perhaps the answer is to start with the smaller things.” This is how a Dow Jones Newswires reporter rationalised the situation in Africa. She called it the ‘Broken Window’ approach, a method Mayor Randolph Giuliani’s administration employed to address New York’s terrible crime rate in the 1990’s. Instead of working out strategies to stop big crimes like gang assaults and homicide, their politicians chose to deal with small problems such as graffiti and fare cheating. When New Yorkers realised that relatively little crimes were not tolerated any longer, they on their own relaxed on the bigger crimes, thereby uprooting a deep-rooted social epidemic. The effect of the ‘Broken Window’ theory is amazing: If a country allows windows to stay broken and rubbish to pile on the streets, it sends a signal that more serious anti-social behaviour will be tolerated. So, the most effective way of solving bigger crimes is by fixing the small ones: broken windows and rubbish.

I wasn’t expecting her to know much about windows, especially broken ones. Her email had said that her schedule is oil in Africa, and she was quick to submit that she was new to the beat. But she appeared very knowledgeable about the African resource curse: a complex problem which is summed up in western journalism circles in just four words- the paradox of plenty. She came across as a brilliant woman who pursued the journalism career with a great deal of open-mindedness. And she is passionate about inequalities in the world: “In my own way, I have chosen journalism and a lifestyle that allows me to at least talk to people and try to better understand why these problems exist in places like Latin America and Africa and also to keep me aware of the privileges I have been granted.” It turned out that she knew a lot about Latin America than Africa. She had conceded in the mail that she knew so little about Africa. So, I wasn’t surprised that when she pronounced President Kufour’s name, it sounded like a Japanese vegetable. “How is President Cafu planning to manage the oil revenue?” Perhaps, Cafu sounded Brazilian than Japanese, the recording would later reveal. But she was not as useless on Africa as US Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee, is on foreign policy. She had heard that oil has been found in Ghana, and she wanted to find out what Ghana was doing to steer clear the path of Nigeria. Apparently, that was the purpose of our meeting.

She had googled oil and Ghana, and had found a wealth of articles on the subject, among which were several of mine. She had found more brilliant ones, but she decided to meet me because it would be cheaper and easier to trace me in London than travelling to Ghana. Before I would agree to the meeting, I typed Natalie Obiko Pearson into the Google search engine, and a sea of brilliant articles, mostly on oil, flooded my computer screen. She had written extensively on the oil in Venezuela, where she had spent some two years reporting for Associated Press before moving to London to join Dow Jones. A search on her background had revealed that she is a Haafu, a term for a half-caste in Japan. Her middle name had sounded Nigerian to me. She would later explain how a person who is half Japanese and half Australian could have a middle name that is so common in Nigeria. Her mother had found the name in a storybook. Natalie is perhaps the only Japanese who bears the name Obiko.

Meeting a stranger always has its anxious moments. Even though I had read her profile and could imagine her Haafu appearance, I felt particularly uneasy about the venture, because I didn’t have the information she wanted. I had not followed latest developments on the oil find very seriously. From my hideout in London, I could only be as informed as any westerner would be about Africa, because I rely on one source of information: the internet. But I had a professional duty as a journalist and an ambassadorial obligation as a Ghanaian to speak for my country, and as it turned out for myself.

So, how would I proceed? First, I did what any layperson would do: reach out to contacts in Ghana for updates. There, the broken windows were as broken as ever; nobody would talk to me. I sent emails to journalists I know, but nobody would honour my request. Then I made telephone calls to big media personalities who simply found me a bother, so wouldn’t answer their phones. After days of emailing and phoning without any feedback, I sent the Dow Jones reporter a mail that I would not be able to meet her as we had agreed, citing my inability to secure information on the details of the consultation the Norwegian government had had with Ghana regarding the management of the new oil find. She was quick to reply that she had suffered a similar treatment when she met some African officials from oil producing countries at an OPEC meeting. Even so, she was prepared to meet up for lunch all the same, to get to know me and to talk about the writing profession in Ghana. Then the Statesman’s Gabby Asare Otchere-Darko was the gentleman he has always been. His email filtered through at the eleventh hour, expressing some regret for not getting back to me earlier, while supplying the information I had requested in nicely worded sentences. He gave his personal email address, promising to readily look for any other information I would need in future. It is refreshing to know that there are a few unbroken windows we can count on.

The western media usually adopts a ‘see evil’ approach when dealing with Africa, but this Dow Jones reporter had a different style: she sounded more affectionate than inquisitorial. Of course, she knew about our worst evil – corruption – and how it has plagued the continent. We had too many examples to discuss: shocking revelations of mismanagement in oil-rich Sao Tome, where the president acknowledges that it is quite ‘tempting’ to steal when there are billions of dollars staring you in the face; terrible cases of malfeasance in Gabon, where a finance minister could not readily account for the money in a fund set up for the benefit of future generations. We also had a thing or two to say about Nigeria, where some 76 people had been cited in public records as having mismanaged government funds, but only three of them had been dealt with. In Venezuela, the Dow Jones journalist lamented how the country could have prospered her people with her abundant oil resources, but has remained poor because the proceeds from the oil are not used well. The people of that country spend more on plastic surgery that they would on other important things. Generally, we worried that Africans are gradually getting used to the rather awful reality that they always have to deal with corrupt politicians, and indeed how national development seems to be so dependent on political management, instead of on a self sustaining social and economic system. I needed to impress on her that Africa is seriously trying to come out of the corruption curse. I cited examples of how former public office holders in Ghana have been made to account for decisions they took that caused the state financial loss, and that those who were found guilty are serving time in jail. I was quick to add that the current NPP administration is committed to a zero tolerance for corruption policy and that the government has been adjudged the second least corrupt in Africa by the US based Millennium Challenge Corporation. Of course, it was only a face-saving measure.

At a point, I decided to sound erudite and philosophical, to impress the Japanese journalist, lest she goes away thinking that my brains are as numb and drab as my appearance. Besides, who knows what could become of a venture like that? I had met a Jamaican actress months earlier in a similar ‘journalistic capacity’, and we had successfully converted that very formal project into a great friendship. But this lady appeared too serious and businesslike for anything extraneous; she had come for a discussion on oil in Ghana, and she would expect everything we say to be oily, I would surmise. So I found myself quoting from 18th Century great philosophers like Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to explain the African corruption curse. After a sip of the coffee she had bought, I moved that there is corruption everywhere in the world, citing a recent example in Japan, where an English teacher was murdered in her flat by a Japanese boy. I was a bit of a Rousseau when I submitted that the advent of civilisation has in many ways corrupted the natural goodness of man. Civilisation- present day democracy -has given birth to competition, jealousy and aggression; these elements, according to Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality, have made society ripe for inequality and moved us towards vice. I couldn’t agree more with myself that I sounded scholastic, as if self-aggrandisement is suddenly a virtue.

But that was only how far philosophy and scholarship could go. There are too many broken windows in Africa that would take time to fix. Look around everywhere, and you would see them: in churches, politics, public service, universities and the private sector. If we expect politicians to be accountable, then we should ensure that our university students are accountable. At the University of Ghana where I spent some five years as a student, there was never a year that the SRC administration was not thought corrupt. Chancellor Oppong Kyekyeku Kohl, a contender for the SRC presidency in 1993/4, had made news when he waged a vendetta against Elvis Afriyie Ankrah, present NDC deputy general secretary, that the latter had embezzled university funds. Subsequent presidents suffered similar protests, including one who was alleged to have bolted to the USA with student contributions and is yet to return to Ghana. In other universities, there were numerous corruption charges. We often forget that most of the people at the helm in politics today were nurtured through this system. If they could afford to leave their windows broken then, they would only end up breaking the lot they couldn’t break.

The Dow Jones reporter recommended Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Tipping Point’ as a compulsory read for anybody who cares about corruption in Africa. I am still reading it. As we parted, the buffoon in me told me that it was not good manners to dine with a posh lady and leave her to pay the bill. I had insisted on paying but she wouldn’t budge; she had called the meeting. It would have been a different story if she had been an Akosua.

The author is a freelance journalist and a teacher of English. He lives in London /

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.