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Opinions of Saturday, 7 March 2015

Columnist: Appiah, Papa

Democracy or Sheer Silliness

I am a catholic. I attended a catholic secondary school in Ghana. Roughly eighty per cent of the students in the school were catholic. On Sundays, we would all attend church service in the school’s Assembly Hall, the catholic student population having outgrown our small purpose-built church. But we found other uses for the church on Sundays. Our protestant student population would gather there to pray, often inviting protestant preachers from town to worship with them.

But the Sunday church service was often, also an opportunity for the headmaster to speak to the whole school. So, you would often see the Protestants walking calmly across the school campus to join us for the last few minutes of our service. We used to make fun of them. For these students often formed the core of the “Christian Fellowship”, the good boys in school, who minded their own business and concentrated on their books. You could see from their demeanour as they undertook that solemn walk across the school campus that they had only God and books on their minds. We found that boring. But it was all childish humour with no harm intended.

Our best athlete at the time was called Ahmed Sumaila. Ahmed Sumaila and a few other Muslims were under no circumstance coerced to come and pray with us. They met somewhere to say their prayers, and again came to join us for the last few minutes for the headmaster’s speech. Once a while, I have forgotten how often, they would undertake a supervised trip on a Friday afternoon to attend the mosque in town. Thus were the principles of religious tolerance imbued in all of us. Our only concern was how fast Ahmed Sumaila was going to run at Interco, and not what God he worshipped.

I owe a debt of gratitude to my teachers, the priests and Bishops who taught me, long before Pope Francis’ attempt to promote a liberal, welcoming church, to judge a man not by the God he happens to worship, but by the content of his character. These were the same people who taught me respect for authority and for the rules that govern society. That is why I am so appalled that the Catholic Bishop’s Conference, shortly after the president’s State of the Nation address, in which he condemned religious intolerance and called on school head teachers to abide by the spirit of the constitution, came out blazingly, to encourage the head teachers to challenge the president’s authority.

How simple-minded can we be? And in fact, who told the bishops they have any authority to dictate what happens in “catholic” schools anymore? These schools, the last I checked, are financed by the government with the taxes of Catholics, Muslims and everyone else. Government pays the salaries of the teachers and provides the books, infrastructure and everything else. No one has the authority to impose an admission policy based on religion or to force students to engage in any religious activity they do not believe in. And you would think our bishops would know better. Following their cue, others have jumped on the bandwagon. A nurse has been sent away from work for wearing a Muslim headgear. Where is it going to end? Are catholic sisters who work in schools and hospitals going to be stopped from wearing their headgears?

There seems to be a growing trend in Ghana where people increasingly find it difficult to thread the thin line between democracy and freedom of speech on one hand and sheer indiscipline and frankly, silliness on the other. When the president speaks, we can all express contrary opinions, and even suggest better ways of dealing with the problem. What we cannot do is to give an order in direct contradiction to what he has said. That is indiscipline.

We are becoming a society where little school children left by parents in the care of teachers they trust, are let out unto the streets to join in demonstrations against the government and hurl insults at the president. This could never happen in the countries whose democratic structures we are trying to copy. That head teacher would be out of work, not by a presidential order, but by a School Board decision influenced by angry parents. But in Ghana everything goes, in the name of democracy

We are becoming used in our country to the silliness of journalists who think freedom of speech means an ability to insult authority. We are becoming used to the silliness of intemperate language on our airwaves by people paid by opposing political parties to attack each other. We have even observed the silliness of Ghanaians converging in front of foreign cameras to call their president a thief. But when our revered catholic bishops begin to join the rot, then its time to re-examine ourselves.

Papa Appiah