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Opinions of Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Columnist: Acheampong, Osman

Ghana Has Many Strong Institutions

In the first part of what may be many more discussions on how to build strong institutions in Ghana and Africa at large, I will like to quote President Barrack Obama in his speech to the parliament of Ghana on July 11, 2009. He said: “Africa does not need strongmen, it needs strong institutions” This fact has being known to many Africans for a long time and sometimes it feels somewhat insulting for a foreigner to remind us of such things. Nonetheless, I think it is about time that the issue of building strong state and non-state institutions becomes a major part of the national debate. Local media has to pay more attention to that statement in a way that would allow them to probe what it means to build strong institutions and to begin to access the performance of the government and public officials based on whether they are building lasting institutions for future generations or whether they are building what will help them win the next election.

Let us start by looking at some of the institutions successive governments in Ghana have built over the years. First, the institution of corruption has being natured and perfected in the country to the extent that it has become a common act in every aspect of our national fabric. Name anything and somebody will tell you a story that amounts to corruption, from our police and military forces, to our hospitals, to our schools at all levels, our churches and mosques, sporting activities to all sorts of recreational activities. Even within our own homes there are flashes of corrupt behavior here and there, everyday amongst brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, aunts etc. There is no single institution, public or private that has not been affected by the canker of corruption. There is an ongoing debate about government and public sector corruption which is healthy for the nation, but until we realize that corruption has been institutionalized in this country and that it affects every aspect of our individual as well as national lives we will not go anywhere with the current debate. Every person in the country is contributing to corruption one way or the other and it’s about time we see it as such and tackle it head-on.

The institution of mediocrity is also one that the nation continues to prides itself of. Any mediocre thing done by a government, an individual or a group of people is touted as a huge achievement which is explored for political gains and social status. There are so many examples of Ghanaians simply satisfied with any shoddy work, action or performance. A good example is how satisfied we were when our national team qualified to the world cup in South Africa and seem soo satisfied after the team lost or drew all their games after that. The senior national team is infested with gross acts of indiscipline and yet due to our acceptance of mediocrity we don’t see it. That is why people fight and kill over the running of public toilets when they should be fighting their public officials for real jobs and lasting opportunities. And of course we have seen our share of one man human institutions which have come to be known as ‘strongmen’. Men, who rise to power from nowhere and plunder state resources as if it were their family property, they cling onto power and turn themselves into the law of the land. Men who acquire wealth by exploiting the poor but fail to build any strong business or institutions for posterity. Very often when a successful businessman dies in Ghana, they die with their business because they failed to build the business strong enough to survive in their absence. Look at the roads that are being built, look at the public transportation which a government prides itself of having championed, and look at the new schools that are being built. There is no foresight whatsoever, it is a matter of just get something done so you can win the next election. As a country we need to shun mediocrity and strive to build long and lasting institutions that will not only benefit future generations, but inspire future generations to do more for the generations after them.

The dictionary definition of an institution is “any public or private structure or mechanism of social order and corporation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human collectivity. Institutions are identified with a social purpose and permanence, transcending individual human lives and intentions, and with the making and enforcing of rules governing cooperative human behavior” So a strong institution is one that ensures that the social purpose for which it is defined is achievable and continues to provide direction for future generations of individuals.

There is no doubt that the failure of leadership over a long period of time is the number one problem our country faces. Leadership in government consisting of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary has being lacking for almost 50 year of our existence as a nation. Leadership at all other public sector institutions have also failed us as a consequence of bad government leadership. Leadership at the private sector is not anything to write home about either. Most often leadership in the private sector is ignored yet we hear of the private sector being the engine of growth in our economy all the time. So why do we ignore them? If a private enterprise is performing well it has a far reaching effect on our economy and society, just as if a private school provides good education it helps maintain the population of highly educated in society if only a few. Therefore the national discussion of leadership should be broadened to include leadership in the private sector as well as public sector. If a private institution is failing, its leadership should be questioned the same way we will question our MPs, Ministers and the President. In order for our country to lift itself from poverty, we need bold and visionary leadership in charge of both our private and public institutions. Leaders who would put their feet down to make the most difficult choices that the country needs to make in order to move forward. We need leaders who will tell people the truth about what they need to hear and not what they want to hear. Leaders who are selfless and think only in terms of what is good for Ghana and not what is good for their party or what will make their party win the next election.

At the root of most of our problems is the issue of our constitution and its viability. I am not an expect on the constitution and must not claim to know everything in it, but I have seen governments run and actions taken in the last 16 years in the name of the constitution to know that there is something fundamentally wrong with some aspects of the constitution. Many expects believe the constitution is a good starting document for a progressive society, but it needs some major overhaul to make it work for the people. Many Ghanaians may not even consider the flaws in the constitution as a problem because to them it does not provide food on the table for them and that is absolutely understandable. But if we need to talk about building strong institutions, then where do we better start than the very constitution that provide us the legal basis for whatever we do as a nation?

Unfortunately, our parliament is one of the most irrelevant institutions we have in the country today (No disrespect to the MPS). This is not because the MPs there are not doing their jobs but because ordinary people cannot relate to what they do there in their everyday lives. The parliament is weak and the representatives of the people have no real authority to effect the change that they were elected to go there to effect. It is worth mentioning that some of the MPs themselves don’t know what they were elected to go and do there judging by their own actions. It has just become a job that the most popular person with money in the constituency will get so that he/she can make more money when they get there. The issue is not necessarily with the MPs themselves but with the constitution that allowed them to be brought there. The constitution has to be amended to give representatives of the people real authority over almost every aspect of our government.

Along with the strengthening of parliament should be curtailing the powers of the president. If I have my way I will propose a pure parliamentary system for Ghana because such a system will allow some of the brightest minds in the country with ambition to be heads of state one day, to try and first go to parliament to serve their people and learn about our institutions of state. As it stands now party loyalty and money alone is enough for some one to consider becoming president. The smartest people don’t have to go to parliament by seeking the vote of their people, they can work their way up within the party with whatever influence they have. If this trend continues, parliament will continue to be weaker and irrelevant because the people who have the brains to effect real change cannot do it in parliament and therefore will not be attracted to try to go to parliament. They will all be hanging out outside parliament marking time for the day they become president to implement their ideas because that is where the real power sits. If parliament is granted real authority, all other state institutions will be answerable to them and the representatives of the people will be actual representatives of the people and not stogies of whomever the president is. I know that some MPs will always be stooges of whomever the head of state is, that is just natural, but imagine if the chief of police, the head of immigration and customers, heads of ministries, DCEs, all the heads of public corporations and even the president are answerable to parliament at anytime by law, we the people can trust our MPs to bring them to book when they are not serving the people properly. For now, it appears like the only person all these people feel answerable to is the president. They may respect their MPs but may not feel answerable to them. After all it is only the office of the president that can hire or fire these people without any recourse of parliament whatsoever. There are so many examples in the last six months of the current administration which shows just how weak our parliament is and how real power is concentrated with the office of the president. Why then are we spending millions on these MPs every year?

It is well know that our parliament is not well equipped to perform some of its basic functions, but if the idea is to build a strong parliamentary institution that is populated by the direct representatives of the people and performs the work of the people, then devoting the necessary resources in this direction will be part of the strengthening process. The parliament, the office of the president and the judiciary are co-equal branches of government and it is about time we review our constitution to ensure that this sacred creed is preserved for future generations.

In my next discussion, I will continue to point out some of the vital institutions that we need to build or strengthen if we want to not only build a prosperous nation, but a nation that can survive this ever changing world.

By: Osman Acheampong