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Opinions of Sunday, 10 November 2013

Columnist: Ansah, Kofi

A look from Down Under: the story behind the electric fence

By Dr Kofi Ansah

News about an Australian being ripped off by a Ghanaian in an elaborate cross-continental scam involving tens of thousands of dollars was so rare it used to make me squirm. Not anymore. They are now part of the weekly news menu. Those idle hands that the devil is said to find work for are growing in numbers-and in length-in Ghana. Even far-away Australia is not beyond their reach.

But those Australian victims of scam are lucky compared with the increasing number of victims of violent robbery and home break-ins in Ghana, partly as a result of the growing unemployment and a rising population of unskilled youth. That's my theory, anyway. It's heartbreaking to see many young unemployed Ghanaians loiter in the streets of Accra. The ongoing hue and cry over heightened political corruption is of little comfort to those struggling to make ends meet and people who have lost loved ones because they couldn't afford the hospital bill or medication.

Elsewhere in the world, governments are scrambling to find solutions to the ageing of their nations' population. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has just reported that death rates have again fallen in Australia. People in Australia are living longer, more than any other place on earth, except Japan and Hong Kong. This is on the back of reports of lower seasonal deaths this year. Fewer people are getting sick. Fewer people are dying. That is really good news, some might say. No, it's bad. For the funeral industry in Australia, it is the sounding of the death knell for business.

A month or two ago, Australian undertakers were agonising over a nationwide business downturn. Not enough people were dying. A mild winter meant a lower incidence of seasonal illnesses such as the flu, often fatal when they strike high-risk groups like the elderly. The story caught my attention a few weeks into my return to Australia after attending my dear mum's funeral in Ghana. Naturally, I couldn't help thinking about "what if?" Yeah, what if Ghanaians stopped dying in their current numbers!

Not that I have a morbid fascination with death. Put simply, funeral business is big business in Ghana. I don't have to tell you that. Life expectancy in Ghana is nothing to be proud of. Curious about all the positive things I had said about my country of birth, a colleague of mine once went ahead to do his own research. He said to me later that he was disappointed life expectancy was so low in Ghana.

So, what will be the fate of the hundreds of businesses and entrepreneurs that depend on bereavement in the event of a drastic reduction in mortality rates? I guess the collapse of a huge portion of Ghana's economic activity. Funeral home operators, coffin makers, pallbearers, shroud makers, food and alcohol dealers, hoteliers, bands and DJs, professional criers, and photographers will all be affected. Oh ... and "brochure" (program) producers; I nearly forgot that one-the architects of the one thing that can cause a stampede at a Ghanaian funeral.

The reality is that many professions and businesses depend on the misfortune and pain of others: doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, bankers, crime scene investigators, and so on. The majority will go out of business in the absence of disease, litigation, debt, homicide and so on; but you and I know this won't happen in our lifetime.

There are, however, three business types that I'm sure most Ghanaians, except those benefitting from them financially, would rather not see them thrive in the country if that means an end to their suffering. I am talking about private security operators, as well as those businesses delivering alternative utility services. In Ghana, frequent power outages, erratic running water and home break-ins, including armed robberies, are either spawning whole new industries or giving a boost to previously subdued ones.

The nascent private security industry is a gold mine. In addition to the increasing presence of uniformed private security personnel around Accra, commercial outlets advertising electric fence products are among the most visible in the city. I was told home break-ins were so common that those who could afford an electric fence were going for it. This ranges from a rolling loop of electrified barbed wire that sits on top of a wall enclosing the home, to a whole security system incorporating walls, gates and living areas.

My brother's next-door neighbour had an electric fence, apparently installed just a day after intruders broke into the house. Depending on how you look at it, this is either a sign of affluence or people becoming prisoner in their own home. The sad reality is that break-ins are now very common, with so many unemployed youth hanging about the neighbourhoods. During my last visit to Ghana, everyone seemed to know someone else who had been a victim of a home burglary or armed robbery. Little wonder the electric fence business is booming.

Now to power cuts-they are nothing new in Ghana. The recent uproar over electricity price hikes overshadows an already broken power supply system that has progressively failed to meet the needs of electricity users for decades. Even if the government backed down on the recent tariff increases, there would be no end in sight to the "dumso dumso" (on-and-off) power malaise. But if frequent power cuts are the bane of electricity users in Ghana, they are a blessing to dealers in portable power generators and repairers.

You may have noticed the new types of mechanical orchestra being played in Accra as you walk through neighbourhoods during "light offs"; the monotone sound of power generators sometimes competing with church noise in a cacophonous display. What will happen to the many portable generator dealers springing up everywhere should the Electricity Company of Ghana get its act together and deliver uninterrupted power supply? I'm sure that would be the least of electricity users' concerns. Until that time is reached, those who can afford power generators have a much-needed backup. But what about the poor?

It is a similar situation with running water. Taps running dry is a fact of life in Ghana. The result in recent years is a proliferation of bore holes across the country. Everywhere in Ghana the earth is being dug up for water. Dealers in water tanks (the so-called poly tanks) and water tanker operators are also doing brisk business. It is not in their interests that Ghana Water Company does its job well. Do private water suppliers go to bed praying to God that the taps run the next morning? You might as well ask what people in the funeral industry pray to God about.

Ghanaians with a reasonable amount of discretionary income, mostly the growing middle class, are fortifying their homes, buying up portable power generators and storing up water, in addition to their plasma TVs, smart phones and Wi-Fi homes. They are inoculating themselves against the discomforts and risks arising from the inefficiency and failure of public institutions to protect them and meet their basic water and power needs. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I'd do the same if I were living in Ghana and had the means.

My concern, however, is whether this is contributing indirectly to the widespread inefficiency and ineptness of the utility services. You would expect the middle class to have a better understanding of and be more vocal about the basic problems confronting Ghanaians. They should also have what it takes to put pressure on government and public institutions (of which many in the middle class themselves are a part) to put their thinking caps on to find solutions to the power, water and security problems the country is saddled with. The question is, if the middle class is comfortable and can afford alternative sources of meeting these needs, is there any strong urge on its part to fight for change? If not, who will fight for the poor and the deprived-those with little voice?

In recent years, there has been talk about a growing middle class in Ghana, couched in terms not too dissimilar to the trend in emerging nations like China, India and Brazil. The extent of this growth is not clear, but a good number of people I know in Ghana seem to have crossed the hand-to-mouth living threshold to command some good amount of discretionary income. By being comfortable, are they forgetting the plight of the struggling majority they were once part of?

American political economist Francis Fukuyama and others have expressed concern over the impact on democracy of a declining middle class in much of Europe and the US in particular, including middle class disengagement from politics. The reverse may be true for Ghana if you believe there's a growing middle class in that country. My impression is that while democratic participation by the Ghanaian middle class may be growing, their focus of action seems to be on party politics and not other issues; definitely not that aspect of democracy dealing with bread and butter issues-issues that occupy the attention of the underprivileged. That is something they have put behind them and don't want to remember.

In an online forum debate on why corruption in government is so difficult to address in Ghana, my friend and former colleague Dr Yaw Osei-Amo argued Ghanaians were not exerting enough political pressure. I suggested that many of those who understood what was going on and could make their voices heard were mostly middle class Ghanaians involved in corruption themselves, so there was no incentive for them to make noise. Dr Osei-Amo's response gave me food for thought. He wrote:

"The middle class in Ghana is at its formative stage. They are yet to mature into the classical middle class, the confident group that champions development. They still carry the insecurities they had before they reached that stage, so they are prone to all sorts of issues that are generally not associated with a middle class."

Meaning a day in some distant future will come when the middle class in Ghana will come into its own to be agents of development. But I believe it is in the interests of the Ghanaian middle class now to pay more attention to and support the urgent need to create opportunities for the unemployed and the underprivileged through projects and programs that create jobs and help provide skills. There are lessons to be learnt from around the world at the failure to do this.

South Africa is a good example. Many South Africans with good jobs and income are leaving the country because living in fortified homes doesn't guarantee their personal safety. Last month I met a couple from Johannesburg who had migrated to Australia. The man was less sanguine about his future in Australia, having left a lucrative job back home for a less-paying one. But he was thankful for the payoff: being able to leave his doors unlocked, walk freely with his family in the streets any time of day without looking over their shoulders, and stop in traffic without worrying about being car-jacked.

The current uproar over political corruption in Ghana is welcome, but I fear it is just a bubble that will soon burst. It is a bit like the gun debate in the United States. Whenever there's a mass shooting, Americans will jump up and down calling for reform of the gun laws. After a while, the noise will die down until the next mass shooting. Those who can make change happen are legislators benefiting in one way or the other from maintaining the status quo, so why should they be bothered about reform.

In Ghana, the Woyome-type debacle will come and go. It is not in the interests of those who can make real change happen to turn things around. And the devil will continue to find work for the many idle hands roaming around the country, even though the politicians are happy for other people to blame the Nigerians for the soaring crime rates.

It needs to be understood that unemployed graduates, school leavers and other young people simply need a job to stay out of mischief, otherwise the haves will always be a target of the have nots. Your power generator may not be able to offer you the back-up power supply you need as it will be ripped out of your backyard. Barricading yourself behind electric fence may be of little use; you may be cornered elsewhere. Even with an electric fence, immunity from burglary is not guaranteed. My sister Isabella tells me armed robbers were able to gain entry into an electric fence-fortified home adjacent to my late mum's place at new Aplaku (Accra), resulting in a heavy exchange of gunfire in the dead of night.

The less violent intruders are more creative in the way they operate. Apparently the burglary of choice for many thieves these days, they position themselves outside your bedroom window wielding a long stick with a sticky substance at the tip. They then cut open the mosquito mesh to let in the stick, attach the sticky tip to your mobile phones and other valuables and stealthily whisk them out with clinical precision as you snore through the night. Isn't that amazing!

For now, the outlook appears bleak for the poor and underprivileged. Business in electric barbed wire, poly tanks and portable generators is booming, while services by the police and utility companies are continuing to decline. Corruption will keep thriving at the expense of the weak and underprivileged. Women and children from poor families will continue to die from malnutrition and preventable disease, but so will the noveau riche from increased exposure to lifestyle risk factors, even though the witches will be blamed for that. The mortality drought Australia is experiencing seems to be a distant prospect for Ghana. Ultimately, the winner is the Ghanaian funeral industry.

The Ghanaian media (most) is busy reporting on which priest has prophesied what. The pastors and churches are preoccupied with making money. University students are ... I'm not really sure what they do these days; surely they are also struggling. And the new middle class? They are busy enjoying their new-found wealth and privileges. Who is going to fight for the struggling underclass?

By Dr Kofi Ansah

Australian Capital Territory

Email: kbaansah@gmail.com

November 2013