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Opinions of Tuesday, 30 November 1999

Columnist: Maxwell Oteng

POCKET-BOOK ISSUES AND THE "F" WORD: TIME FOR A NATIONAL DEBATE


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It may sound ironic that I should begin a political topic with familial exchanges. But let me crave your indulgence for this intellectual conceit, of a sort. Whenever I start to get blasi about Ghana's political and economic conditions I ruffle through my box of old letters from relatives and friends in Ghana and elsewhere to satisfy my nostalgic appetite for pocket-book politics - who has befriended/married whom, who and what is new in town, how the town is becoming a ghost town because of the flight of the youth to the cities for enhanced opportunities, the old men and women being victimized as energumens who need exorcism, and of course the ever-elongating list of obituaries, etc. I do not know about you but I love those local tidbits and pocket-book issues because they make me feel connected telepathically to my hometown, and give me a sense of completeness.

A few weeks ago letters from one of my senior brothers - who for his love for public service goes by the moniker "Abannipa" and who in my judgement is an exemplary embodiment of a "man of integrity", (not in the whitewashed sense of meaning, but in the true sense of the phrase) - set me thinking aloud. In one of his letters, my brother said, ex-cathedra, that he had no doubt in his mind the NDC would win the upcoming elections in December, but nonetheless wanted to know what Ghanaians resident abroad thought about the elections, knowing that when it comes to national politics, the two of us belong to different sides of the political divide - he staunchly supports the ruling NDC but I do not have any affiliations with any particular political party even though I cannot bring myself to supporting the NDC. But my brother's unflinching support made me wonder why good and thoughtful people like him continue to follow the NDC. There must be something such people know about the ruling party that may be concealed from some of us. The last time I was home, I remember asking my brother and the rest of my family that were in his "camp" why they did support the NDC. Not surprisingly, their answer was not different from the knee-jerk answers I got from other folks in my town and average Ghanaians elsewhere with similar political leanings: "obiara baa saa", meaning, things would not change no matter who came to power. Then I realized how difficult it would be for any opposition party to convince such folks with entrenched positions. I know some of us find it difficult to understand people who think that way. But can we really fault them? These people without access to "full" information that some of us may be predisposed to, make their decisions based largely on adaptive expectations - hindsight is their guiding principle, and from hindsight there is very little to separate one previous government from the other in the eyes' minds of the rural folk. So it dawned on me that If politics were local where people intimately relate to the participants and could hold them accountable for their decisions and behaviors, and had full information about their local political environments, voting decisions might not necessarily follow adaptive expectations but rather rational expectations or a combination of the two expectations. Thus the "obiara baa saa" behavior of such people (the rural folks) shows that most rural folks are indifferent to national politics - for a vast majority, their concerned are about local or pocket-book and prudential issues of how to put food on the family table, who teaches their kids, etc.

Yet in another letter, my brother could not hide his frustration about being tossed around from one district to another all because he sometimes does not see eye to eye with some government-appointed boss, even though the local people like him and would prefer him stay locally to offer his political services. While I obviously sympathized with my brother, I wondered why local people normally do not or have little say (if any) in who should take decisions affecting their locale?

The stories told above just describe the nature of our system of government since the attainment of nationhood some four-and-half scores ago. Needless to say, our system of government is an extension of the same exploitative system put in place by the colonizers to cream out as much exploitation as possible from our country and its resources - both human and material. You would think that with independence, we would be able to extricate ourselves from the shackles of the colonial political establishment, but unfortunately, like many of our post-independence endeavors, we have not been able to untie our cord from the colonial embryo.

Anyway you look at it, our post-independence systems of government have alienated the vast majority of the populace from the decision-making processes. Thus instead of participatory democracy which gives people the opportunity of taking their own decisions on issues that affect their localities, ours have, over the years, been coalitions of patronage-driven political elite - a political pendulum oscillating between the "educated" few and the military and sometimes, an odd marriage between the military and the "educated" few as shown in the last two decades or so. We have a pyramidal top-down governmental structure in which power is inversely related to the structure - a concentration of power at the apex, the central government in Accra, and especially in the hands of the president. There is little doubt that this centralized system of government (sitting in Accra and shouting out directives to people and communities) has failed to be responsive to the needs of our country economically and politically and in most cases has been responsible for the spate of corruption that is so pervasive in government because the existing system does not make elected and appointed officials unaccountable to the people. However, elected officials and the political elite are the last to agree with the little boy crying out that the emperor wears no clothes - in this case our centralized system of government has been a failure.

The study of Political Economy intimates that the objective of politicians is to have power through the maximization of the size of government. So left unrestricted and unchecked, government's actions are likely to lead to bloated bureaucracy - the kind of bureaucracy we have in our country with too many ministries and appointments most of which are sinecure and we can do without. Nowadays we all talk about corruption as if we just received a sudden heavenly rude awakening about the ills in our political system, to such an extent that some people are willing to attribute our economic woes mainly to corruption. What we fail to realize is that it is our system of government that breeds all the corruption in official circles and gives the culprits exit routes to easily circumvent the laws of the land.

Human nature is such that we gravitate towards power and given the fact that we are naturally self-interested beings, putting so much power in the hands of a few could lead to corruption and abuses of power in many instances. As former US President Madison beautifully spelled out in the Federalist Papers number 51, But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Madison's quote is vintage 18th century but its relevance for contemporary politics is legendary especially in fledging democracies such as ours. It is easy for a government to control the governed. All that it takes to control the governed is machines (armed forces). But to ask a government to control itself is like throwing sand on rocks - it just will not stick. That is the reason why a country needs strong and effective institutions and checks and balances to enable the government to control itself.

One way to limit the power of the central government is to practice bottom-up system of government through the devolution of power from the center to the peripheries (or from the apex to the base - which in our case, is to devolve power from Accra to the regions and the district and down to the local councils.

Given that the old system of centralized administration has failed in its trail to effectively and efficiently respond to the economic and political needs of the nation, and has also alienated so many people from the spectrum of political decision-making process, it is about time we looked out for something different and responsively all-inclusive.

In my judgement, it is time we talked seriously about devolving or federalizing or decentralizing our political administration - so that political power and politico-economic decision-making would be transferred from Accra to the Regional Capitals and beyond to the districts and the local councils. The political elite, with so much to lose personally, has been paying lip service to the idea of decentralization since "nineteen-Kojo-hoohoo" (as my mother used to say).

Unfortunately, however, some Ghanaians become either so queasy about or would never like to talk about the "F" word. Federalism has been so demonized in the Ghanaian political vocabulary that it has often come to symbolize and sometimes be equated with secessionism. Some people tend to be suspicious of any person who holds the view that federalism may be good for our national development. Especially so if the person initiating discussion on federalism happens to bear an Asante name! But to look at federalism from the prism of secessionism is the worst form of , and most philistine mischaracterization! We have to let common sense gain the edge on the demagoguery and pandering that a debate on federalism usually incites.

It is not very difficult to see why some people are really averse to the idea of federalism. Firstly some people view federalism with a lot of negativity partly due to the "notoriety" of the National Liberation Movement (NLM). and also because of the fact that Ghana's first president and arguably most popular leader was a virulent anti-federalist. Secondly for related and other historical antecedents, some particular ethnic group or groups, especially the Asantes, are wrongly perceived by others as having ulterior motives that bother on secession and thus any push for Federalism would be tantamount to giving such a group (or gorups) the visa to eventually secede. Sometimes such perceptions seem to degenerately turn into a kind of "ethnic misanthropy". Finally, some people are antagonistic to the idea of federalism because of the uneven distribution of resource endowments of the regions. Thus it is not uncommon to hear arguments that some regions are advantageously better endowed with natural resources that it may make certain ethnic groups too powerful economically and probably secede eventually or take over the rest. In virtue of these "fears", federalism is never discussed on its own merits. But are there any justifications for these "fears"? I think not! While history helps us to understand the past and put things in perspective in the present and future, we cannot always understand present and future circumstances based on historical extrapolations - we live in a set of conditions that are totally different from what happened say 30 years ago. In other words, human beings and their cultures are dynamic. In addition, the argument about uneven distribution of natural resources, while factual, does not hold water any more intellectually. As a country like Japan and in fact our own development failures have shown, economic development is not how much gold, bauxite, manganese, timber, etc a country has or how much raw material a country can produce that is important. If it were, Ghana would be a developed country and Japan a developing one. The greatest of all natural resources is HUMAN RESOURCE and I do not think any region in Ghana has a shortage of that. Within the camp of the supporters of federalism there appear to be two schools of thought: one that favors federalism based on the pre-colonial paramountcies (purely ethic-based) and the other school that favors federalism based on the existing geographical demarcations, that is, the ten Regions.

It is true that the ethnic differences in Ghana may not be as blunt as in other societies, and that whatever tensions existing between different groups have been enveloping because of the supreme ability of the different groups to co-exist without much acrimony. Yet the role of ethnicity in national politics cannot be understated.

But while nobody can realistically deny the importance and potential dangers of ethnicity and the opportunistic manipulation of it by politicians for political expediency in national politics, a federal system that is purely based on the pre-colonial paramountcies (as being advocated by some people) has the potential to unleash a lot of chaos. , The reason is not too far-fetched. While the present regions in Ghana were more or less drawn along ethnic lines, the synergies of ethnicities comprising the regions have undergone tremendous changes such that now you probably have more Akans in Greater Accra region than Gas. So what do we do in such a situation? Do we ask all the Akans in Greater Accra to move away from that region, and Gas in other regions to move in? And Greater Accra is not alone in this ethnic bind. Eastern Region has the same potential problem. So do other regions like the Volta - the Volta Region may be divided into Ewe and non-Ewe "regions". Look at the Brong-Ahafo Region and so on. Thus the ethnic compositions of our regions go far beyond Asantes in Ashanti Region, or Greater Accra Region belongs to the Gas or Ewes in Volta Region. All this goes to tell us how dynamic human societies are. One way we can federalize based on ethnicity or on the pre-colonial paramountcies would be to create a system of supra-ethnic groupings with a substructure of the micro-ethnic groups. In other words create some kind of Animal Farm of Ethnic Groups. But the big question is why should the "minor" paramountcies be submerged under the "major" ones (by implication)? That would not only be Orwellian but also supremacist and discriminatory. What angular assurance do we have that the auxesis of those ethnic-based political administrations can be maintained without creating a wave of anomie - a kind of domino effect? How do we make sure that the rights of the minority ethnic groups within the nation space of the larger ethnic groups (for e.g. Ewes in Asante or Asantes in Eweland) wouldn't be trampled upon? These are some of the nagging questions that any system of federalism based purely on pre-colonial paramountcies must attempt to address.

I do not see any overriding benefits from the return to a system of blue-blooded aristocratic royalties, and feudal lordship on one hand, and red-blooded serfdom on the other. I love our traditional institutions such as the Chieftancy, but I would rather the chiefs, the kings and the queens play their limited traditional roles, however ceremonially it may be, than giving them additional administrative responsibilities economically and politically. I would like to maintain my Enlightenment faith that, sparked by the 1789 French Revolution, seeks to move society towards fairer and more egalitarian forms of social organization

The objective of federalism is to reconcile unity and diversity and as the US (the birthplace of modern federal government in Philadelphia some 200 years ago) has shown, we do not have to federalize along linguistic or ethnic lines.

In this connection, my personal opinion is that we maintain our current regional and district administrations (add more if need be) but we allow for the election of Regional Ministers, District Chief Executives, city and town mayors as well as almost all members of the Regional, District and Local Assemblies except say 5% (with special expertise that may be of help to the assemblies or areas) to be nominated by the elected members in consultation with traditional leaders etc in particular areas.

Political/administrative positions should not be the province of any particular ethnic group (the dominant one) but be opened to anyone who has lived in the region/district/town/village for a specific number of years (to be determined by the people of the area) without regard to ethnicity.

Most of the roles (especially economic plans, revenues and expenditures budgets etc) played by the present centralized government should be played by the regions, but we reserve specific roles such as national army, monetary policy, foreign policy, income distribution, etc, for the state.

I do not intend to discuss the nuances of the nature and functions of the various "Federalized Regions". Those should be the basis of national debate and each region should be given as much flexibility as possible to decide how best it wants to develop itself within the parameters of the greater welfare of the state.

When it comes to political and economic decision-making, I believe in keeping things small and local. For example, while the people of Ashanti Region obviously liked Kojo Yankah as their Regional Minister and from all indications would have preferred him stayed on, they had no say in the decision to move him out of the region. Why should that be the case? In similar vein, why should somebody in Accra "force" Kwasi Agyemang on the residents of Kumasi?

Paradoxically, and contrary to what some people may think, giving our Regions political and economic autonomy has a greater potential to thaw the icy ethnic tensions in national politics that emanates from the perception (wrongly or rightly) that important national positions and appointments have the tendency to be dominated by particular ethnic group(s) from from which a President happens to come.

Furthermore, I think that decentralization/devolution (or federalism for that matter) has the potential to reduce the spate of corruption and waste in our country, because the governed would be intimately identified with their elected officials and people would no longer see projects, buildings and institutions etc, as government's but rather see them as theirs and part of them, and thus would be more willing to protect them. Besides, our political system would benefit from what I call "Political Ecosophy" - political decisions based on local knowledge and wisdom - because we know our immediate environment better than someone who has not lived there before.

I believe in federalism because I think it can bring about a true democratic and pluralist political system that provides opportunities for access and participation by citizens at both the national (regional/district) and state levels. In addition, federalism can be a away to protect against central tyranny, increase citizen participation, encourage innovation and encourage community identity and values,

However, I must acknowledge that I do not regard federalism as the ultimate alexipharmic or the Elixir of Life for the economic and political problems that ravage our country. After all how many countries in the world are federalized? As far as I can recall only a handful - Australia, Canada, Brazil, Germany, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Switzerland and the US.

As I have said on several occasions, institutions are very important in political administrations and so whatever system of government(s) we choose to follow must be backed by appropriate and well-functioning.

One thing is clear though: our current system is arrestingly dysfunctional in its power distribution - concentrating power at the top and putting too much of it in the hands of the president; it is also unresponsive to our economic and political exigencies. It is about time we changed it. So let the NATIONAL DEBATE begin!

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