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Opinions of Saturday, 17 August 2013

Columnist: Amuna, Paul

Politics, Politicians and Untruths

Politics, Politicians and Untruths: PART OF THE BUSINESS OF POLITICS?

Paul Amuna

It is said that TRUTH is a VIRTUE and the value of telling the truth at all times even at the point of the threat of death should never be underestimated. From a biblical historical perspective, Christ was famously ‘given the opportunity to deny’ what his enemies had accused him of by Pontius Pilate. He is known to have chosen not to “lie” for his “freedom”. The rest as they say is history. Somewhere it is also said that “ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free”.

If indeed the truth saves and causes people to prosper, one wonders why in politics, individuals and parties seek to ‘profit’ by peddling ‘falsehoods’ or “exaggerating” in order to win the support of the public? For the purpose of this opinion piece, I would define “falsehood” as ‘providing information, giving an opinion or spreading a message which the person knows full well is plainly untrue, partially true or sugar-coated (exaggerated) for purposes including self-defence and to seek undue personal or group advantage’.
In my reflections on this topic, my attention has been drawn to two recent events which though separate and distant, are nonetheless connected: One in the United States and the other in Ghana. In the US, Jesse Jackson Jnr., an intelligent, eloquent “rising star” in US politics and the Democratic Party with 17 years of Congressional experience was sentenced on 14th August 2013 to 30 months in jail for “misusing his campaign funds” (freely given by his own supporters) and LYING about it. In Ghana, on Friday 16th August 2013, Maxwell Jumah, former Member of Parliament for Asokwa in the Asante Region was reported as claiming that “exaggerating or lying” by politicians is "part of the techniques of the trade" and the latter seems to be ‘getting away with it’.
In summing up her ruling in the case of Jesse Jackson Jnr, the judge, Justice Jackson (no relation) said that “this is a sad day that such an intelligent and charismatic leader had let everyone down”. Jesse Jackson himself said: “I have failed everyone and wish to apologise ....” In the gallery were his teeming supporters including his own father, The famous Civil Rights Leader, Rev. Jesse Jackson. Why in the first place would a politician with so much promise and loved by so many “misuse” contributions well-wishers have made to support his quest for office and thereby ‘betray’ the trust of the people who supported him in the first place? Having erred, why is it that historically, politicians’ first instinct is to either seek to justify their actions or DENY that they ever did such a ‘terrible thing’ when this is clearly tantamount to ‘digging their own political grave’?
Many politicians (whether on the campaign trail or otherwise, including when they are in trouble) have often been known or found to be "economical with the truth" but can this, and should it be justified in any way? In the 1990s, another rising star and ‘supposed prime ministerial material’, Jonathan Aitken in the UK famously invoked “the sword of truth” to exonerate him in court, only to admit in that very court (in the face of overwhelming evidence), LYING “between his teeth” (according to the prosecution) about ‘moral failings’ on his part which as we all know are not necessarily tantamount to the end of one’s political fortunes and career.
To make mistakes or peddle falsehoods and try to deny them is bad enough, however to seek to justify such lies and falsehoods as part and parcel of the "business" of politics as Kofi Jumah is seeking to do in Ghana is not only unfortunate, but at the heart of our problems and part of the reasons the public ‘mistrust’ our politicians and say they are “corrupt and thieves” according to a recent Ghana Integrity Initiative (GII, part of Transparency International) poll. To me, this is part of the so-called “galamsay politics” justice Atuguba famously referred to in the SC’s recent ruling in the case of The SC vs. Owusu-Afriyie and Adoryeh (14th August, 2013).

In countries such as Japan and South Korea, politicians, even prime ministers have been known to RESIGN for ‘not telling the truth’, and in cases of corruption. Such actions are recognised universally as the “honourable thing to do” but it seems to me this concept of “honour” in the face of wrong-doing is alien to Ghanaian (and African) politics, politicians and public servants.
Classical cases include the resignations of Fukushima Executives and the last Japanese Prime Minister, Ana. It seems to me also that our politicians do not understand the principle that such ‘acts of honour even in disgrace, can eventually work in their own favour. Classical examples include Shinto Abe, the current Japanese prime minister who after contrition and his previous resignation, has bounced back and led his party to a significant poll victory in the recent Japanese parliamentary elections; and former US president Bill Clinton who gained a lot of sympathy from people in the US and across the world after he ‘finally’ admitted his "sins" during the Lewinsky Affair and today, is among the most respected and effective global statesmen.

The silly notion that "we politicians have to tell lies" to gain (in my view an unfair) advantage against our opponents or to WIN AT ALL COSTS is unjustifiable and simply untenable in my view. I would argue that a serious test of the maturity of any democracy (including ours) should be gauged among other things by the level of transparency, TRUTHFULNESS and the preparedness of our politicians (and their appointees and surrogates) to take full responsibility (including resignation) for their actions, omissions, commissions and other failings associated with their stewardship.
The key issue is ACCOUNTABILITY. Peddling falsehoods in politics and public life to my mind is tantamount to ‘failing to be accountable’ to “We the People”. Must we accept that just because politics is said to be “dirty” and politicians will ‘always’ tell lies to ‘sell’ their ideas and ‘win elections’, therefore it is OK? If our politicians openly and blatantly tell us that their lies, exaggerations and other falsehoods are “part of their business”, should we allow such people to run OUR BUSINESS of government?
It is about time Ghanaian civil society started to demand of ALL our politicians (political aspirants, their surrogates, functionaries and groups) that AT ALL TIMES they must TELL US THE TRUTH however much it hurts or is unpleasant; and that we will hold them to account for their utterances, actions and inactions in serious matters of state and at constituency levels irrespective of party?
The writer, Dr Paul Amuna is a leader in the Global Health Community and an advocate for harmonisation of professional training and leadership in the Nutrition and Health sector in Africa. He is a pedagogist and works to promote capacity building and strengthening of professional training and research in African HE institutions, influence health policy and political leadership, integrity and good governance with a ONE-NATION focus. He is also a political commentator and development advocate.