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Opinions of Friday, 27 May 2016

Columnist: H. Kwasi Prempeh

Freedom of speech and the culture of silence

I did not have the opportunity of meeting Professor Adu Boahen in person.

I was, of course - of age and, in fact, happened to have been a student at Legon during his tenure as a professor of History at the University. But I did not have the privilege of studying History at the University—something, given the benefit of hindsight, I would most definitely correct if I had the chance to do it over again.

Curiously, I also never encountered Prof in any other capacity during my entire time at Legon.

The notoriously self-indulgent insularity of student life in Commonwealth Hall took care of that bit. I was, however, a very enthusiastic student of History at both the O’ and A’ Levels and, so, was fortunate to have come under the influence of Prof’s characteristically accessible and popular scholarship at a fairly early stage in my intellectual evolution.

I remember - especially his ‘Topics in West African History’, which became a bible of sorts for me and my fellow secondary school classmates as we prepared for our history finals.

In the decades since, as I have grown to appreciate the immense value of history - and particularly - of our often politically distorted national historiography, my private study and collection of Professor Adu Boahen’s rich and extensive scholarly output has grown in tandem.

My remarks today, however, grow more out of Professor Adu Boahen’s role as a public intellectual, rather than his role as an academic historian. Prof, of course, did not see the two roles as necessarily distinct or separate from one another.

To the contrary, as a man who had a trained appreciation of the political uses, abuses of history and was deeply committed to asserting our indigenous agency in the telling and interpretation of our history, Professor Adu Boahen saw the roles of public intellectual and academic historian as essentially different sides of the same coin. He was thus able to move effortlessly between those two roles.

To him, the public intellectual’s charge, namely to “speak truth to power,” was simply an extension of his calling as an academic. As he was quick to explain in his famous 1988 J.B. Danquah Memorial Lectures, it is “erroneous” to think that academics “are concerned only with what went wrong and not [with] what is going wrong.”

To remain silent when things were going wrong in one’s society or state - affronted Professor Adu Boahen’s sense of duty as both a citizen and an academic. Time and again, he demonstrated, as much - by action as by word - that he was not concerned merely with writing or interpreting history after the dust had settled; he was just as passionately interested in being an active part of the unfolding national story, of stirring his compatriots to join with him in civic action, of playing an influential part in framing and charting the course of contemporary events and, thus, of history.

Consequently, when he was invited to deliver the 1988 Danquah Memorial Lectures, he seized the occasion and saw it as his duty to challenge and break the then pervading “Culture of Silence”—that uneasy and nervous quiet; that self-preserving citizen disengagement from the public square; that passivity that had descended upon the nation, especially, upon its middle class and intellectuals, in reaction to the terror, the repression, the targeted persecution, and the general state of insecurity and despondency of the PNDC years.

Today, we remember the cloud of fear he boldly broke through in that memorably eloquent series of lectures.

Today, unlike then, freedom of speech, open expression of opinion and protest, multiple private and independent media, and freedom of association are things Ghanaians can, and do. And - in furtherance - can take for granted.

Government closure or muzzling of independent press houses and newspapers, a fate suffered repeatedly by papers like the Catholic Standard and Mr. Tommy Thompson's Free Press in the days of the Culture of Silence, is now a thing of the past. And, thanks to the legislative initiative of Professor Adu Boahen's party in abolishing the criminal libel law in 2001 when it was first elected to office. Our jails and police cells no longer play host to journalists and publishers whose public words are deemed offensive by a regime.

The culture of silence has indeed given way today - to what may be called a culture of loudness. Today, opinion is freely and very loudly expressed. In fact, even the contemporary Akan rendering of democracy in our popular media, ka bi ma menka bi aban, conflates the idea of democracy with the equal right of citizens to speak and comment freely about the affairs of state.

This opening of the public square; this liberalization of the public airwaves for the vigorous and free expression of diverse opinion is precisely what Professor Adu Boahen demanded.

He demanded an end to the culture of silence because he believed that without it; without an end to the culture of silence, development was not possible.

Let us hear him in his own words: “It is my firm belief that no appropriate and effective development of any country can take place, nor can any government be properly kept on its toes or made aware of what is really going on, until and unless there is free flow of information of all sorts, free and public discussion of national issues, and free and frank exchange of views at all levels of society; in other words, unless this culture of silence is broken.”

One hears in these words early, if partial, soundings of a thesis that Nobel Prize economist Amartya Sen would later develop independently and more comprehensively and articulate very forcefully in his monumentally influential idea of “Development as Freedom.”

The idea that the expansion of freedom is both the primary end and the principal means of development. In demanding an end to the culture of silence, Professor Adu Boahen of course stressed the “instrumental role” of political freedom; freedom of speech and discussion, in securing development.

But the scholar Adu Boahen must also recognize - as all scholars must - the “constitutive role” of free speech and discussion, at least to his own calling as an academic—in other words, of freedom as an end in itself. It is no coincidence that the political party he would later lead as presidential candidate as Ghana prepared to return to democratic government in 1992 would choose as its motto “Development in Freedom”.

The disappearance of the Culture of Silence is, therefore, a most welcome development. But while it is good that repressive silence has given way to expressive voice—and even to loud noise, the riddle that Professor Adu Boahen called the Ghanaian Sphinx in the “Lectures that broke the Culture of Silence,” namely, the paradox of a country richly endowed with material and human resources - yet entangled in an ever deepening crisis of underdevelopment, remains far from resolved.

In fact, the specific ailments or features of that riddle which Prof highlighted in his Danquah Memorial Lectures nearly three decades ago remain with us today: a huge deficit of probity and accountability manifested in rampant corruption; an absence of social justice and equity manifested in the shameful neglect of rural development and growing class inequality; a justice system that administers justice unfairly between the powerful and the ordinary citizen, rich and poor.

The promotion of sectional interests and agendas above the national, manifested in growing political tribalism, cronyism, and nepotism; and the ideological emptiness and visionlessness of our national politics and political discourse.

These concerns, familiar to us as descriptive of Ghana today, were the very same concerns that Prof laid bare in his famous lectures in 1988.

Why has the disappearance of the culture of silence and the liberalization and expansion of voice not pushed us any closer to resolving the riddle Professor Adu Boahen called the Ghanaian Sphinx? Why has the proliferation and amplification of voice not led to responsive and responsible action to address at least some of the ailments or features of the riddle? What explains our contemporary paradox of voice without good and accountable governance?

Let me proffer a few possible explanations.

First, what we are experiencing as voice, as freedom of speech in contemporary Ghana, is often fleeting, disorganized, unchannelled, and unled.

It is not voice that coalesces or is mobilized behind an agenda for change; it is a voice without any sustained collective action behind it. Indeed, in many respects - the ability to activate and express voice; the ability and access to vent on radio, social media - has substituted for active civic participation.

Thus voice has not translated into active civic activism. In short, what voice there is, is not voice that is felt by the responsible state actors. And the political class as focused, sustained, and mobilized pressure and as concerted demand for change. It is often a cacophonous voice that merely follows the daily news cycle and moves on just as speedily with it.

Second, an important social constituency whose influential voice is not as strongly felt on public affairs as its spending power is felt in the marketplace, and as it was felt, at least, episodically, in times past, comprises the so-called Ghanaian middle class.

The dominant strategy adopted by this segment of Ghanaian society and households is, in fact, more of “exit” than voice. With their better-than-average ability to find and finance their own private (household) solutions to various public problems, today’s middle class households have become relatively disengaged from the public square, preferring to use their superior influence and resourcefulness for self-preservation and the pursuit of personal projects than for civic purpose and public engagement.

Some of this is, of course, quite rational; household to household, as those we call middle class, though generally positioned a reasonable distance above the poverty line, face a great deal of economic uncertainty and income instability themselves and thus inhabit quite a fragile and vulnerable existence on the socio-economic ladder.

Many, too, have their livelihoods insecurely tied to the state or government in one form of another, making them vulnerable to cooptation or gagging and making open expression of critical opinion a risky proposition.

Those sufficiently independent to engage in public expression of voice frequently do so these days in limited social media communities, venting in cyberspace but still avoiding direct forms of collective action or civic activism to press for change. There are, of course, a few hopeful signs, as recently some new social media formations, notably OccupyGhana and the Citizen Ghana Movement have pursued more direct forms of civic engagement through organized public protests and court action.

On the whole, however, the Ghanaian middle class; a group roughly symbolized or represented, at least aspirational, by the once powerful Association of Professional Bodies and its constituent associations, has mainly outsourced the conventional middle-class role of primary agents and advocates of social change to their peers who make their livelihoods as leaders of formal civil society organizations; the IMANIs and IEAs and CDDs and IDEGs of our times.

And while these CSOs and their leadership have played an important and helpful role in enriching the policy content of public debate and driving some of the agenda-setting, their generally weak ability to reach into and mobilize society; their failure to build and sustain coalitions with various middle class communities of interest (e.g., professional associations), their tendency to go solo rather than coalesce with other CSOs around a common agenda or platform for change, and their dependence on spotty external donor-support to fund their operations and drive their advocacy have all conspired to weaken their social effectiveness and impact.

Despite the growth of formal civil society, or perhaps because of it, we have not witnessed in this generation the rise of public intellectuals of the kind Professor Adu Boahen represented in his time.

Third, there is matter of the media: There is no clearer evidence of the end of the Culture of Silence than the current proliferation and pluralism of both print and electronic media.

Why has this development not helped to transform the quality of politics and governance in Ghana? Why has the growth and amplification of voice, as represented in the expansion and diversity of media outlets, not led to greater accountability in the management of public affairs? My good friend, the political scientist Dr. Amos Anyimadu has observed, insightfully, that what we have in Ghana today is the “overdevelopment of media and the underdevelopment of journalism”.

That interesting observation and formulation, I think helps to answer this last paradox of why the tremendous and impressive growth of media in Ghana, a fact that has earned us the reputation as having one of the freest media in Africa and globally, has not earned us significant governance dividends. Why, despite our free media, are we so poorly governed as a nation?

Anyimadu’s insight, as I understand him to say, is that the media in and of itself - is a passive resource, a technology, so to speak; what matters, when it comes to the content, quality, and impact of voice, are the critical human resources that control and use that technology: the media owners, the journalists, the opinion commentariat that ply their trade in the media space.

And the implication of Anyimadu’s statement is that, the standards, orientation, ethos, intellectual capacity and caliber of our journalism and our journalistic class and commentariat have lagged substantially behind the vast opportunities presented by the growth of media.

It is hard to disagree with this view of things. The investigative, research, analytic and editorial capacities of our media houses are generally thin and grossly inadequate. Agenda setting and programming content are typically driven by the daily political news cycle.

This, combined with the general tendency to fall on politician-newsmakers and their rivals rather than independent in-house or expert investigation and research to fill in a reported story, has given rise to a binary, two-party framing, analysis, and discussion of most reported issues—a tendency made worse by the rather curious but growing ‘lawyerization’ of most media discussions.

The courtroom-like two-party staged debate, featuring rival partisans of the two main parties and a “neutral” journalist as moderator, has thus emerged as the standard format of our media-mediated public discourse; a situation that drives out various other legitimate perspectives, critical voices and fresh insights.

This inadvertently encourages partisan grandstanding and propagandizing, thereby frustrates the development of public consensus, and generally impoverishes the policy content and value of such discussions.

Rather than a resource for keeping the political class and state managers on their toes and pressing forth the people’s agenda, our media risks becoming a boon for the political class and political careerists who have become the biggest happy users of the public platforms our media houses provide.

The binary, partisan framing of our public discourse, with a media happy to provide a casually moderated but “neutral” platform for partisans but no serious independent investigation or analysis of issues, also means that rival voices tend to cancel each other out, with truth ultimately rendered relative and reduced to a matter of opinion and subjective belief.

Another rather curious fact is that, despite our ubiquitous media, there are still far too many stories and issues of public moment that circulate in the influential, journalist-accessible grapevine but that never get to see the light of publication.

A great deal of news about affairs of state, about the on-goings in the corridors of powers; news of the kind that a public is entitled to know in a democracy is thus kept away from it by the very people whose professional duty it is to inform the people.

There is, then, even in this era of the Culture of Voice, what is, at best, a residual self-censorship in the media and, at worst, a troubling betrayal of the journalistic ethos of journalists, or persons so called, who may have become agents and clients of the very persons and offices that ought to be the targets and subjects of their honest investigation and reporting.

For these various reasons and many others not discussed here, the arrival of the Culture of Voice Professor Adu Boahen fought for, has, regrettably, not produced the hoped-for effect and impact on the quality of governance or, for that matter, on advancing the search for a resolution of the riddle our good Prof called the Ghanaian Sphinx.

Professor Adu Boahen’s dream then is only half-won.

The Culture of Silence may be a thing of the past, but seizing the opportunity it creates to mobilize voice and collective action remains an unfinished business. Beyond that, the bigger challenge, namely the perennial crisis of mis-governance and underdevelopment about which Prof spoke with great eloquence and equal passion, also continues to stare us starkly in the face.

The best tribute we can pay to the memory and legacy of Professor Adu Boahen is to carry on where he left off, and that means to work assiduously and collectively to build a Ghana where there is Development in Freedom for all.

Remarks delivered at the launch of the Albert Adu Boahen Foundation in Accra on Tuesday, May 24, 2016

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