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Opinions of Saturday, 4 October 2008

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

Baah-Wiredu, Death and Development

The sudden death of Ghana’s Finance and Economic Planning Minister, Kwadwo Baah-Wiredu, 56, in a South African hospital, has not only transformed political Ghana, seeing almost all the political divide aggregating in shock, but also highlighted the relationship between death and development.

In development terms, in a world fast advancing in science, technology, mass communication, reasoning and general human development, Baah-Wiredu and his fellow Ghanaians are expected to live a much more comfortable and good life, living much longer than Baah-Wiredu’s relatively young 56 years. But Ghanaians’ wellbeing indicators, if Baah-Wiredu’s 56 years are anything to go by, is poor. Despite his high station in life as Finance Minister, Baah-Wiredu’s 56-year-old life fell below Ghanaians life expectancy ranked among other nations computed by the United Nations Human Development Index – 59.1.

But in Baah-Wiredu there is complicated dance between development, death and African cosmology. The emotional sympathies rendered to Baah-Wiredu, though is African, also reflect the general consensus from all the political divide of his attempts to better Ghana. Baah-Wiredu was a fine product of Ghana’s 16-year-old democratic dispensation against the backdrop of good figures like him buried in the rough and suffocating long-running military juntas and frightening one-party systems. Democracy unearthed Baah-Wiredu and democracy has brought to light why Baah-Wiredu should die so relatively young.

In African metaphysics, there is nothing like Baah-Wiredu’s sudden death or any mal-development such as poor sanitation being responsible for his death at his relatively young age. The explanation would be that Baah-Wiredu, by African cosmological pre-destination belief, was to be born to die at 56 years, having fulfilled his earthly mission from birth till his September 24 death in South Africa.

In this African cosmological timeline, Baah-Wiredu’s struggles were pre-programmed before he was born into Ghana. As Baah-Wiredu’s life explains, this makes death not a misfortune, in African cosmological belief, but meaningful, valuable, and beneficial. Death is not bad but good, says African metaphysics. Barring African metaphysical speculations aside, in all logical and material measure, Baah-Wiredu should have lived longer and helped push Ghana’s progress.

Component of this African cosmological notion is that part of Baah-Wiredu’s pre-destination was that in the final analysis he has to be the point-man for Ghana’s development as Finance and Economic Minister – rolling policies around, traveling the globe for trade negotiations, for foreign aids, for investments, playing with arcane statistics, and selling Ghana internationally for progress against the universal fact that Ghana is ranked among the last 35 poorest countries in the world. But Baah-Wiredu died relatively young and moral issues such as abortion, suicide or euthanasia aside, African concepts of death places limits to the philosophical speculation of death in Western sense and put at bay any academic debates about death. John Martin Fischer and associates explain in The Metaphysics of Death that death is either caused by permanent cessation of the heart and lungs or the brain, or in the case of Baah-Wiredu, any of these caused by pneumonia. In the context of African cosmology, the causation of death by either cessation of brain or heart or lungs as a result of myriad of diseases is held at bay. In this sense, Baah-Wiredu’s death, caused by pneumonia, is downplayed and pre-destination African belief concept heightened – here pneumonia or no pneumonia, Baah-Wiredu was destined to die at 56.

This creates a catch-22 and complications for African developmentalists as Africa, more its culture, increasingly meets modern development ideals. One aspect is modern prosperity ideals clashing with traditional Africa concept of death and progress. How does one resolve it? This creates a material, moral, philosophical and metaphysical dilemma: how to convince traditional Africa that Baah-Wiredu wasn’t destined to die at 56 but much longer, if all prosperity indicators are better.

A family of questions would crop up: is death bad? Should we die relatively younger? Is short or long life pre-destined in African cosmology? In terms of living a prosperous life should African cosmology be considered more in metaphysical sense than the practical necessitates of life? The economist Nii Moi Thompson, echoing the feelings of most Ghanaians, asks agonizingly, “Could we have saved Baah-Wiredu?” Gabriel Ayisi writes from New York, USA, where health services are better, that “Mr. Kwadwo Baah-Wiredu Didn't Have to Die.”

Balancing traditional Ghanaian cosmology with practical prosperity indicators such as good healthcare, Thompson writes, “But rather than mourn his passing as just another death of a popular public official, we should consider it an opportunity for critical, if uncomfortable, reflection over the issue of access, equity and efficacy in the delivery of health services in Ghana. The question inevitably arises: Could Baah-Wiredu be alive today if we had in this country the kind of high-quality medical services that he was seeking in far away South Africa? Possibly. Possibly not.”

Despite its controversial nature, the need for longevity through better development indicators is the central mission of all nation-states. In developed countries where wellbeing indicators are better people live longer because of mproved medical capability and better sanitation practices that have made dying become manageable. In Ghana and other developing nations, poor sanitary conditions and lack of access to better modern medical technology makes death from infectious diseases such as pneumonia more common than in developed countries.

As Baah-Wiredu exemplified, life expectancy is shorter in places like Ghana than developed places like Canada not because of some cosmological dice that foretold when one will die but because of inferior sanitation practices and other appalling development indicators. Baah-Wiredu’s death should therefore push Ghanaians to struggle to live like those in the developed countries – comfortable, longer, better life. For in the final analysis, it doesn’t matter whether you are Finance Minister, “Big Man” or “Big Women,” all Ghanaians are mired in the same pitiable development pointers that make us live uncomfortable life and die earlier in some sort of Hobbesian anarchy.

kakos064@uottawa.ca