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Opinions of Monday, 27 May 2013

Columnist: Yeboah, Kwame

The woes of a burger parliamentary candidate

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For the last five decades, particular when the military got themselves in coup d’etats and supervised the gradual destruction of the economy and, therefore, the social fabric of the country, Ghanaians left the country in droves to seek “greener pastures” in foreign lands. The first batch of these outward migrants landed in Hamburg in the Netherlands and earned the nickname “Burgers”. Now this term is used to refer to every Ghanaian in the diaspora.

In these “greener pastures” we did any work that will give us the means to survive. We worked as Night or Day watchmen, became painters overnight, mowed lawns, cleaned houses and nursed degenerate old men and women in nursing homes so we could live. We use all the lies and trickery in the world to woo women to help us gain legal status. Those who were not that fortunate paid large sums of money to these women or got themselves sexed out of their minds to get their “papers”. As the saying “travel and see” explains, many of us “burgers” have learnt a lot from our sojourns in these foreign countries. Some have ended up being more destitute than before we left Ghana and some have improved upon our lot with education and steady employment.
But in spite of all the diverse fortunes some of us have been forced to remain here because in these Western countries, if one is prepared to work hard and live by the rules there is a chance that one will make it, at least in a small way. Here, life is less fraught with wahala (troubles). If the electricity mysteriously shuts off, you can count on the problem being resolved within minutes and hours. If one has a heart attack or get in a car accident there will be an ambulance there in minutes to whisk you away to the nearest hospital where the doctors are not considered as Gods who must be obeyed or go on strike to kill you. One does not need to pay bribes to policemen just for using our road. We all apply and compete for jobs, admission to high schools and universities on equal footing and as long as one is qualified, one gets whatever one wants without “knowing somebody who knows you or a relative”, or paying with sex or money.
By living in the west, we have also come to know how democracies and developed economies work. Some of us have competed with the whiteman at the highest level and won. We have highly educated professionals from the humanities through technologies to the pharmaco-medical professions. It is believed that about a half of all high level Ghanaian professionals live outside.
For a long time now many of us only go back for Christmas, weddings and funerals, while we remit, fundraise, and remit some more the rest of the time, content with the fact that we're contributing something. In fact, we are contributing a lot. According to the World Bank, in 2012 Africa received almost $60 billion from its workers abroad. But more often than not, these remittances are used to fund patchwork solutions to deeper structural issues that can only be transformed through real policy and governance shifts. The remittance are not replacement for the institutional changes that are needed to create widespread political, social and economic stability
But the burgers are not only remitting. Some are also returning to launch enterprises and run businesses that stimulate local economies and create employment. Hardly a day goes by without a sermon from the president or some ambassador asking us to go home to contribute. In light of this, many first and second generation burgers are returning home to become politically engaged in shaping public policy to create an environment that facilitates positive change. Some of us have gone beyond getting the opportunity to vote from the capitals of western countries afforded by the biometric machines to representation in parliament.
This is where the problems begin. For those of us living in countries like the United States, participation in election means, we have to lose our citizenship of these countries. Dual-citizens participation has a long list of road block. For those more established in these countries than in Ghana, that means losing everything. Some sacrifice their meager savings and retirement funds to participate in elections and in a winner takes all system we have in Ghana, those who lose the elections become destitute in Ghana but are unable to return to their countries of residence.
The worst thing is that in the communities or constituencies, the elections become virtually the drain pipes to siphon money from the burger candidates. These “honorable” seeking men are seen as rich outsiders who have to pay their way into political power. They are not accepted by the party hierarchy as well as the “foot soldiers” even though some of them have been participating in the activities of the branches of Ghanaian political parties in their countries of residence. They are made to pay to introduce themselves to every level of the party apparatus and they also pay to become accepted. Services that come readily to ordinary home-resident candidates come at a heavy cost to burger candidates. A friend of mine was telling me of how his campaign posters were dumped just outside his house because he did not pay the foot soldiers on daily basis.
The electorates were not left out of the draining of money from the burger candidates. Monies were needed for “chop money” to school fees and hospital expenses. Attendees of every meeting were expecting food, transport money, beer and Akpeteshie. In other words, election periods with burgers participating has become the cocoa season for people who are supposed to benefit from the burger’s candidacy.
Unfortunately, in Ghana, candidates don’t have avenues to collect funds necessary to support their routine and campaign activities and for the burger without any property in Ghana, it is just impossible to solicit funds to meet their uniquely increased costs. In the United States and other places, the electorates fund the parties and candidates with contributions. I still contribute to President Obama’s political organizations more than a year after the elections. But in Ghana, the candidates fund the electorates. If you don’t have money to pay, you are out. The irony is that it is often the lack of financial resources which prevents some leaders and supporters of parties from achieving their dream of political participation through representation yet they expect the burger to have all the resources to be able to participate and get elected to go and protect their interests.
All effective parliamentary campaigns follow an organizational models and practices. All campaigns operate decentralized structures consisting of a constituency headquarters and some or local chapters based in towns. This structure comprises a combination of a paid permanent staff, which may be large or small, and fluctuating numbers of volunteer party workers. The backbone of each campaign is offices and meetings. The scale and frequency of these may differ widely but at least a few offices and a handful of staff have to be available and occasional meetings of party activists have to take place in order to initiate grass-roots involvement and political discussions to win votes. Any degree of organization will pose a considerable need for funds for the campaign. Paying for media time and poster space or printing leaflets and brochures add to the amount of money needed, and this is compounded for the burger by the special status he is placed in the community – as a source of free money.
Most burgers are naïve in assuming that under the democratic principle of equality (“one person, one vote”), the principle of free and fair elections, and the practice of secret balloting that has developed in Ghana, voters will decide their fate freely. No amount of money spent on propaganda, it is assumed, will have a serious impact on the rational choice of grown-up citizens. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Ghana, at least, as far as the burger is concerned. The reality is that many voters are influenced by emotion, the mass media, party campaigns and interest groups with tons of money.
This unfortunate situation has been created by parliamentarians who only use elections to seek power to enrich themselves at the expense of the electorates. The only time the electorates have a chance of holding them accountable is during campaigning for votes. This has affected every office seeking candidate including the completely innocent burgers.
Unfortunately, the idea that a candidate must pay his way to an election victory may lead to various undesired situations. Candidates may turn to special interest groups or undesirable sources for funding, which could lead to dependence or to a loss of legitimacy and inequality of resources available for competing parties. This can also translate into unequal terms for political competition and the democratic principle of a “level playing field”. Parties of the “haves” may raise more funds than parties of the “have-nots”. This means that the political process to select leaders gets corrupted from birth, a situation the burgers seek elections to change in the first place.
Why are we burgers treated differently from local candidates? Is it the perception of the locals staying and struggling back home or we are despised just because we live and struggle outside the country? The problem is, we would not have left if there were equal opportunities for all in the country. Some of us have been able to survive and made modest progress in our lives because of the opportunities we encountered in these foreign countries and we are paying heavily for this with persistent remittance. Some of us have become the sole bread winners and source of survival for large sections of the populations. Are we only needed for funding the funeral expenditures and development projects? For helping nephews and nieces and the extended family? Why can’t we participate in the political process without paying with our blood, hairs and teeth?
It is pathetic to see many formerly well-to-do burgers back in the United States and other countries broken and destitute with no money, and they are the lucky ones. More are locked back home without jobs and unable to come back because they gave up their citizenship and legal status to go and participate in elections in Ghana. Yes, to go and try to make a difference at home.
How can this happen in Ghana? Will our development and democracy be complete without the burger? Now because of the elections, burger “aye mre”. Is this good for Ghana?

Kwame Yeboah

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