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Opinions of Saturday, 6 February 2010

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

A decade of rise in thinking

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

“When events are coming they cast their shadow.” – Thucydides, Greek thinker

“Only a fool learns from his mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” – Otto von Bismarck, Prussian German statesman and aristocrat

“A generational thinker is one who is able to sew seeds for the future…” – Mensah Otabil, General Overseer of the International Central Gospel Church, Ghana

Either from the perspectives of Thucydides, Otabil or Bismarck, the decade that just ended saw remarkable rise in thinking by Ghanaian elites about their progress, more critically from within their cultural values up to the global prosperity ideals. The shadows of this state of mind is casting everywhere, from the remote northern town of Bongo to the once slumbering elites in top cities Accra and Kumasi, where generation of thinkers (backed by the mass media) are emerging and being encouraged, and the leaders learning from the mistakes of others.

Largely pro bono (because of the higher thoughts of the thinkers), the gradual but rapidly budding Ghanaian/African enlightenment movement got remarkable boost from leading opinion leaders across Ghana, Africa and the international community. In the spirit of a promising African Renaissance, the movement seeks to simultaneously revive African traditional values, as the basis for the real sustainable progress, by exposing its enabling parts for policy development and highlighting its inhibiting aspects for refinement.

Against this backdrop is the fact that the thinkers agree that though there have to be respect of cultures yet certain aspects of some of the cultures are more progress-resistant than others that bounce harmfully nation-wide, and this have to be refined through human rights, freedoms, democracy and the rule of law under the full glare of the Ghanaian/African experiences. The new thinkers could rest assured that the implications of the progress-resistant cultures are being addressed internationally, too, and this is bound to aid their mission. A new citizenship guide for potential immigrants to Canada completely declares that new Canadians cannot engage in “barbaric” cultural practices such as female genital mutilation and human sacrifices. “Multiculturalism doesn't mean that anything goes. Multiculturalism means that we celebrate what's best about our backgrounds, but we do so on the basis of common Canadian values and respect for our laws,” Jason Kenney, Canada’s Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister said authoritatively.

Thucydides would say that the shadows of the coming African enlightenment was graced in 2009 with George Ayittey (of “African solution for African problems” fame) was nominated by the US-based Foreign Policy Magazine as one of the world’s leading thinkers in 2009 who "are shaping the tenor of our time" and, in the African context, influencing the African rebirth. Still, as 2009 was about to end, Mensah Otabil, the prominent evangelist, encouraged and blessed the selfless thinkers by stating that “a generational thinker is one who is able to sew seeds for the future. A generational thinker is not somebody who is only committed to what he wants to enjoy today but somebody who says if ‘I run with this race, I must make sure the next generation does not run my race, the next generation must run its own race, I must empower the next generation.”

Otabil’s encouragement doesn’t mean Ghana or Africa hasn’t seen thinkers such as Kwame Nkrumah or Julius Nyerere. There had been, but if, as Otabil’s “sew seeds for the future” is anything to go by, then today’s new generation of thinkers, while standing on the shoulders of Nkrumah and associates, are at the same time reasoning that Nkrumah and associates’ thinking weren’t done deeply enough from within Africa’s culture as nation-building architecture and that they failed to play coherently with African traditional values in Africa’s development process, as the Southeast Asians have successfully done.

From Africa’s bureaucracy to development planning, whether macro-development, activities of international aid organizations or micro-projects, African cultural values/institutions have not featured prominently as similar ventures are, say, in South Korean communities. Ayittey’s Indigenous African Institutions (1991), Africa Betrayed (1992) and Africa in Chaos (1998) seek to fill this gap by arguing that African leaders should develop Africa from within African indigenous cultural values and institutions and the tenets of democracy. This doesn’t mean the wholesale blind appropriation of African values but using democracy, the rule of law and freedoms to enhance the enabling parts and refining the progress-resistant aspects of the culture. In Africa Betrayed, Ayittey argues that certain aspects of Africa’s indigenous political systems in no way have supported tyranny.

The thinkers’ key concern is the difficult issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle Africa’s progress. When George Benson, then Minister of Ghana’s Upper West Regional, noted that female genital mutilation, early marriages, widowhood rites, defilement, child trafficking and child labour continued to impede the development of children in the region and called on traditional rulers in the region to abolish all “obsolete cultures” that partly gave rise to these unconstructive practices, he was helping to open up the African culture for progress.

The thinkers do not say there haven’t been a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. They agree but argue that so have been other parts of the world and that Africa should move on by relocating its development thinking in Africa’s traditional values and from there working it out into the global prosperity ideals. In “What Works in Development?”, the case is made that there are no policy pedals that consistently correlate to increased growth and that there is nearly zero relationship between how a developing area such as Africa’s economy does one decade and how it does the next. The missing link is Africa’s cultural values and institutions as part of the policy pedals to correlate progress. As Botswana teaches Africa, the most fruitful correlation that would bring consistency in the development process should be tying policy levers as a growth factor into Africa’s cultural values and rolled them into the global prosperity ideals. That would let Africans control their growth from within their traditional values and lessen much of the inconsistencies that have increased poverty.

The little town of Bongo, in Ghana’s Upper East region, rolled a noteworthy enlightenment dice for its progress when its district chief executive, Clement Abugri Tia, charged that there is “no scientific evidence” to support the primordial belief in witchcraft as the cause of death, accidents and other misfortunes that has seen the accusers terrorized, harassed, threatened, killed, banished or physically assaulted. Tia said witchcraft accusations will be met with “arrest and prosecution.” A new thinking by a new generation of elites convinced of undoing the progress-resistant aspects of the African culture!!!

Bongo’s attempts to deal with its progress from within its culture are seen in Lawrence E. Harrison’s “The Central Liberal Truth,” where most of the world’s poorest nations undergo a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. In either Bongo or other parts of Ghana, there are the grave influences of progress-resistant cultural practices such as human sacrifices, Pull Him/Her Down (PHD), witchcraft, voodoo and certain strange beliefs that spreads the erroneous beliefs that life is unreliable and planning pointless. These have created high levels of social mistrust that have stifled progress, as America’s Francis Fukuyama indicates in The End of History and the Last Man (1992). And as Ghana’s Minister of Justice, Mrs. Betty-Mould Iddrissu, has argued, this has made responsibility often not internalized but put on external forces, mostly on witchcraft, demons or evil spirits.

The culturally induced social mistrust is made worse by the activities of growing prophets who peddle on the extremely entrenched superstition of Ghanaians fuelled by poverty and social distress. Worried by this negative atmosphere, Ghana’s Chief Justice, Mrs. Georgina Wood, boldly took on the so-called prophets when she enjoined churches to refashion their programmes to give its members enough time to labour to contribute to Ghana’s progress (most churches’ activities cover the working hours of the day) and also do away with “false miracles and false prophecies” in a society where people are prophetic crazy that emanates from their culture. “I find it strange when I see churches holding meetings, prayer camps and other church activities on working days,” Mrs. Wood said in a voice meant to open up the minds of superstitious Ghanaians for new thinking and stimulate progress.

In Mrs. Wood, the relationship between the Ghanaian’s spirituality and progress is profoundly puzzling that touches on Ghanaians propensity for doom-mongering, a cultural peccadillo that is impulsively rooted in the progress-resistant aspects of the Ghanaian culture. As Fukuyama tells us and as the German sociologist Max Weber explains in The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, while Europe’s progress cannot be discussed without its positive spiritual origin, in Ghana it is the opposite, with the churches openly stifling progress and creating perpetual anxiety by cleverly playing on Ghanaians’ traditional cosmology where evil spirits/demons battle the Supreme Being (God) (to cause misfortunes) that saturates the Ghanaians “social space of everyday life,” as the British sociologist Phil Hubbard would say.

How do Ghanaians tackle this fundamental progress challenges? Certain parts of the Ghanaian culture, in the face of poverty and anguish, where there haven’t been scientific explanation as to whether, really, say, witchcraft is responsible for deaths, vehicular accidents, diseases, poverty, and other misfortunes. Witchcraft speculation, a vital development obstacle, blocks the mind from reasoning and usually ends by deviously demeaning the human place in human advancement.

The eerie image of a one-month-old baby called Mercy accused of being a witch and afterwards abandoned to die in Ghana’s Upper East region reveals society’s inability to critically comprehend itself and evolve into the global prosperity ideals. In baby Mercy, the Ghanaian mind constricts, and they imagine themselves as entrapped in some sort of witchcraft solitary confinement, and being manipulated helplessly like puppets by alleged witches such as Mercy to cause crisis and poverty, to become an alcoholic, to murder, to get sick, to accuse one’s mother as a witch and kill her, or to cause crimes without the doers being responsible for their actions. The thinkers want responsibilities and the human agency heavily internalized as an embankment against demons or evil spirits being responsible for misfortunes, poverty, crimes and erroneous thinking.

It isn’t only the progress-resistant parts of the culture that have occupied the minds of the thinkers for the past decade; it is also how to appropriate the enabling aspects of the culture for progress via policy development as Botswana and other societies in Southeast Asia have effectively done. From Bongo to planning workshops in Kumasi, the thinking has been to weave the Ghanaian culture into development planning in such a way that it will be in harmony with Ghanaians’ psychic, confidence and the global prosperity reasoning. Due to long-running colonialism that created Ghana, the problems have been that its development planning has been done from the ex-colonial, Western development paradigms that have dominated Ghana’s progress, as Y.K. Amoako, the former chair of Economic Commission for Africa, observes. The advocacy by the thinkers is to retool and balance this situation as profoundly as possible without any propaganda.

It is against this background that the appointment of P.V. Obeng, touted as a de facto Prime Minister in the long-running Jerry Rawlings’ military regimes, as chair of the newly constituted National Development Planning Commission, raised the nature of thinking that has planned Ghana for the past 52 years. Despite all the opportunities at their disposal for almost 20 years, PV, Rawlings and associates couldn’t float a high level Ghanaian/African culturally driven development philosophies as the Southeast Asians have fruitfully done. The dilemma with PV and the need for ground-breaking development planning cooked in Ghanaian traditional values was made clear when he gave a post-appointment interview with the Accra-based Joy FM. PV said his commission will espouse a “participatory approach in planning and in development and ensuring that all political stakeholders in national development process.”

The thinkers quickly took PV to task for not openly mentioning the participation of Ghanaian cultural institutions and values such as the National House of Chiefs as part of his “participatory approach.” The concerns by the thinkers hinge on Ghanaians’ confidence, psychic, psychology and their core innate values as part of original nuances needed for planning their sustainable progress. To the thinkers, this reveals that PV hasn’t kept in line with Ghanaians’ current thinking, their history, their souls, and, as Otto von Bismarck says, “learn from the mistakes of others” about their development processes and the global prosperity ideals.

Whether described as the African Renaissance or African Enlightenment, it is a good epitaph for a decade where new generation of thinkers was “able to sew seeds for the future…” Now, through the thinkers, Ghana, and Africa for that matter, is having coherent view of itself in its development process in relations to the global prosperity ideals.