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Opinions of Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Columnist: Cameron Duodu

Beware the public mood o, ye rulers!

Yes, the “public mood” is almost a mystical term: in the sense that although it can be gauged scientifically through opinion polls, a poll is only as good as the integrity – and even more important, the competence – of those who conduct it.

That’s why many an aspirant to political office who has relied too much on polls, often ends up with a stack of “positive” questionnaire findings -- but no votes – on election night.

Ghanaians with long memories will remember how, in 1968-69, a slick fellow from Nigeria called Francis Arthur Nzeribe, set up an opinion poll here called Jeafan, whose sole purpose was to use an incredibly pliant Sunday Mirror as the vehicle for conveying the manufactured “information” (through a weekly poll) that Ghanaians were dying to endorse a "greatly popular"General Joseph Ankrah as their next civilian ruler.

Was Ankrah popular? No -- he was a crude military dictator, who sacked the editors of the publicly-owned newspapers for disagreeing with the Government over the handing-over of the state-owned Ghana Pharmaceutical Industries company to an American enterprise called Abbott Laboratories. When challenged, Ankrah's retort (which has become part of Ghana's litany of politically nonsensical sayings) was that "he who pays the piper calls the tune!" Reduced ad absurdum, this meant that Ghana's public funds belonged to Ankrah!

Eventually, Nzeribe was unmasked as the agent of a specific political faction and deported from Ghana. Ankrah, meanwhile, was booted out of office by his fellow members of the National Liberation Council (NLC), for accepting funds provided by Jeafan for "covert political campaigning", at a time when party politics had been banned.

Unfortunately, some of our current journalists have not bothered to acquire knowledge of, or if they have do possess such information, have not learnt any lessons from, the Nzeribe debacle. That’s why some dare to venture into the slippery slopes of political forecasting. Their efforts usually end up in chagrin for their paymasters. But come election time, and they bounce back as if their earlier fiascos didn’t happen.

In fact, the best way to gauge the public mood is to assiduously study ISSUES on which members of the public are free with their opinions, and to extrapolate from that, the likelihood that public distaste for certain happenings will spread over to other ISSUES of a similar character. In other words, events can infect each other to create a mood that is out of proportion to the import of the individual events themselves.

A succession of issues against which the public expresses disapproval can introduce into the public conversation, perceptions (not necessarily based on factual information) that solidify into a fog of general mistrust that colours contingent issues.This is inevitably detrimental to the overall popularity of the party or parties whose members constitute the principal actors in the “dramas” that form the subject matter of public discourse.

Take the “Ameri” power provision contract(s), for example. Is it in doubt that every member of the dramatis personae in that scenario suffered a diminution of stature, as far as public esteem was concerned?

Or take the “cheques-for-seats” affair; or the sanitation contracts. Investigations were followed by declarations of innocence. But who would say that everyone involved was cleared of all suspicion, or anyone emerged from them smelling of roses? At the very least, such happenings cut quite a few public figures down to size and effectively undermine their credibility. Which means their importance as political actors is distinctly diminished.

The lesson from such debacles is that in order to retain the public’s trust, NOTHING SUSPICIOUS should emerge from the actions of the political actor, because if he/she is tainted with suspicion in the first instance, it can never be completely dispelled. "He's lucky we have a fair-minded President and so he got out of that scandal unscathed", the public says. Yes -- the public is never as fair as the man at the top (who is privy to more information) and is also capable of being moved by confessions of guilty or of incompetence.

However, if questions are continually raised regarding the probity of an administration, there is a danger that the public mood will be constrained to see members of that administration in terms of them and us.

Right now, them and us exists in many spheres of our political life. Have you not heard people asking: Why have no bankers been prosecuted, although banking laws appear to have been broken in many instances recently? Why has it been left to outraged private citizens to try and bring the allegedly thievish bankers to book? Is the Bank of Ghana a regulatory authority without teeth with which to prosecute those who flout its legislated rules?

ANSWER (HEARD TOO OFTEN FOR COMFORT): What do you expect THEM I.E. THE AUTHORITIES] to do? Do THEY not move in the same business circles as the corrupt bankers? Are churches not involved? Aren't some Christians publicly proclaiming that they "stand with" the recalcitrant banker-churchmen? Do you expect anyone to prosecute the leaders of a church in which he/she worships?

An administration that faces a THEM AND US situation may take solace from the fact that the public memory tends to be fickle. But they shouldn't rely on it. For the politician who places trust in “damage limitation” often comes up against reality, namely, that "a week is a long time in politics!" Harold Wilson, Harold Macmillan, Margaret Thatcher -- these British politicians learnt that drip-drip-drip is the way public trust evaporates. And when it does, recapturing it may never happen. One may sit pretty and “tough it out”. But the "temporary blip” may become a permanent stain -- mas Tony Blair found when his misadventures in Iraq turned him from a popular prime minister into a quisling and a war-criminal.

Whenever this issue of public trust comes up, I remember a conversation I once had with my friend, Kwaku, who is responsible for my hesitation in accepting the notion that the public memory is fickle and easily forgets administrative trespasses.

You see, Kwaku is a friend from long ago, and I take him seriously because he “moves around quite a bit.” Let’s say you wanted to know where, in Accra's markets, grass-cutter meat is affordable at the moment. Within 24 hours, Kwaku would be able to tell you whether to go to Adabraka Market, Malata or Medina!

You want to know which “wayside” car repairers are good at mending suspensions and not charge the earth? Electricians, both good for motor vehicles and/or the home? Who can handle sophisticated BMW engines? Toyotas? Ask Kwaku.

His greatest asset is that whilst unearthing crucial information about such specific matters, Kwaku would keep his ears to the ground and seek other information – quite casually -- about things that would particularly interest journalists, such as myself. And since he speaks both Ewe and Twi – two of the languages in which politics is most passionately debated on the "street" (the third is Hausa!) – he’s usually a one-man opinion poll!

This is how he enlightened me about the inability of the administrative class to penetrate the thinking processes of the man-in-the-street:

“What you learned guys don't realise” he said, “is that you won't ever get to know the true intentions of the average Ghanaian voter! Listen -- first of all, he doesn't even have accessto you! If he wants to come and tell you something, he will have to get past your gatekeepers, who will assume that like all the others, he is coming to worry you for money. They may not be wrong, of course – I mean the money has now come into the hands of politicians! -- but the fact remains that unless he sees you, he can't tell you anything.

“The worst thing is that he can't phone you, either, even if you give him your number! Why? Because you can tell who it is that's calling and decide whether to receive the call or not. After two or three attempts, he will stop calling and you would have helped him to keep his opinions to himself! Yet you would dearly love to hear how he will vote!

“Secondly, since the place where he deposits his thumbprint on the ballot paper is a secretknown only to himself, he can – in the unlikely event that he manages to talk to you – tell you something but only what he thinks you want to hear!”

(Here, Kwaku would brandish his thumb defiantly]. “That thumbprint, Mr Duodu, is the best means of reaping revenge on a politician who arrogantly denies one access!”

I swear, the sheer aplomb with which he brandished that thumbprint to demonstrate its power made me feel glad I was not a politician.

But how many politicians remind themselves regularly of this voter power?

The atrocious roads are killing voters who engage in travelling. Endless radio/TV discussions take place... But until there’s a riot, nothing is done to create safe highway footbridges. Or to light up the street-lights that stand dead by the side of the roads. The gutters remain open, clogged-up and smelly.

Every day, the welfare of thousands of Ghanaians equipped with “thumb-prints” is ignored and ignored and ignored by officialdom. Yet their taxes are supposed to pay these officials to work under the supervision of politicians who are supposedly “in touch” with the people. How is it possible for politicians to be so unaware of the public mood?

The answer is that: it is all too easy to see the world with tinted glasses. Until someone knocks the glasses off, at which point your eyes become “red”, and try hard to adjust to the unusual brightness of the sunshine. Hmm! Unless a few people sit up, the shock that's coming to them could be earth-shattering.