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Opinions of Monday, 5 January 2004

Columnist: Asumadu, Kwame Dr.

Public Life Is Not A Part Time Responsibility

Introduction

The Ghana Home Page of 10th December 2003 reported a statement attributed to General Emmanuel Alexander Erskine, a member of the National Reconciliation Commission (NRC), regarding politics not being a professional career. According to the Ghana Home Page, General Erskine is reported to have said at a public hearing of the NRC on Wednesday, 10th December that “Politics is not a professional career, so that you have to depend on it at the neglect of other things. While in politics, we have to find other legitimate things to do to live.” The General is further reported to have advised politicians and political activists to do other legitimate business for a living. I note that the comments attributed to the General are addressed to “politicians” and “political activists”.

My comments in this article relate to the possible ramifications for Ghanaian people in politics and public life of the reported statements by the General. These comments do not extend to political activists because, although their “lobbying” activities could impact on the direction of public policy, the individuals may be professional lobbyists working either for themselves, a private company or a non-governmental organization (NGO), and as such are not considered to be pursuing a career in politics or public life.

What is a Politician?

The Collins English Dictionary defines a politician as “a person engaged in politics, especially a full time professional member of a deliberative assembly” i.e. parliament. Politics is therefore about forming, directing and administrating states and other political units i.e. parties. It usually involves managing the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society, as well as the exercise of authority or power.

Public Service

The same dictionary defines public service as “government employment”. Public service usually involves the management and administration of the affairs of a state or a political unit.

Implications of General Erskine’s Statement

General Erskine’s statement could be interpreted in different ways. However, one interpretation is a tacit advice to Ghanaian politicians that they should view their careers as only part-time and focus on other economic activities. This is inconsistent with the broad understanding of a career in politics or public service, which is full-time and requires the undivided attention of the individual.

In relation to Ghana, if the statements reportedly attributed to General Erskine were in fact made by him, it is very unfortunate for several reasons. Firstly, General Erskine is a public figure of influence in Ghana. Secondly, he occupies a very important position as a member of a government agency charged with the responsibility of bringing reconciliation in the country, to provide the basis for harmony and future socio-economic development. Thirdly, it portrays to Ghanaians that politics and public service is a profession which may be considered as ‘second job’ rather than a legitimate occupation.

Fourthly, it erroneously informs people currently serving in politics and public life in Ghana, and those considering such a career, that it is acceptable to approach politics and public life in a half hearted manner. Finally, it could reinforce the view held by many people that sub-Saharan African countries are incapable of providing good government for their people, and serve to perpetuate the tendency for some people to dismiss sub-Saharan African countries, their people and governments as dysfunctional and insignificant.

Career in Public Life

Opinion polls in Australia consistently report that politicians are not regarded as highly as other professionals. However, in Australia, a career in public life is considered to involve personal sacrifice. In many cases, professionals who enter politics and public life in Australia could earn far more by pursuing their careers in the private sector than as politicians. A career in public life requires leadership, dedication, selflessness and a desire to influence change that will improve the socio-economic circumstances of a nation’s people. To achieve this, it cannot be approached with divided attention and loyalty. It is in this context that General Erskine’s comments are very unfortunate and should be clarified.

Approaching a career in politics or public life on a part-time and half-hearted manner will continue to foster the mediocre government and poor socio-economic outcomes which Ghana has experienced under some military and civilian governments since independence.

Conflict of Interest

Being in public life as well as pursuing another business and/or career activities does not facilitate good governance because of the potential for conflict of interest circumstances (either real or perceived) to arise. It is crucial to public confidence that the actions and decisions of politicians and public servants are not driven solely by self interests. Such behaviour brings into question the credibility and reputation of the individual concerned as well as the institutions they represent.

In Australia, a Ministerial Code of Conduct and a Public Service Code of Conduct and Ethics regulate the behaviour of politicians and public service employees. Ministers found in breach of the Ministerial Code of Conduct, or whose private businesses create conflicts of interest, must either relinquish their portfolio or remove themselves from the day-to-day management and control of their businesses. Similarly, public servants found to have breached the Public Service Code of Conduct and Ethics face disciplinary processes, which could result in dismissal.

Legitimate business of public officials

It is legitimate for someone to devote their full attention to a career in politics or public life as well as own a business, as long as an independent person is given responsibility for running the business on a day to day basis. What is important is for the public to have confidence that the individual’s behaviour and decisions are based on the best interests of the public at large, rather than for the purpose of obtaining personal gain or wealth at the public’s expense.

Australian politicians are required to declare all material pecuniary and business interests to ensure that real or perceived conflicts of interest do not occur. Where businesses are involved, ministers in particular are required to put them in “Blind Trusts” to be managed by an independent person(s). This is particularly the case where a minister’s portfolio decisions may be perceived to provide direct or indirect benefits to their family or business. If General Erskine’s reported statements are given credence by the Ghanaian public, it would result in their acceptance of real or potential conflicts of interest in public life in Ghana. This would be very unfortunate, as it would serve to reinforce the stereotypes regarding the apparent inability of sub-Saharan African countries to implement good governance.

Given the public position currently occupied by General Erskine, it may be useful for him to clarify his statement and explain the context in which it was made. This is important for the General’s own credibility. It is important to the Government of Ghana’s credibility (both domestically and internationally) for an official statement to be made from the Office of the President repudiating General Erskine’s statements. It is also important that Ghanaians have confidence that people in politics and public life are there for the greater good of the country and its citizens, rather than for what they can gain for themselves and their families. This is consistent with the concepts, principles and practices of good governance and effective public sector management.

Finally, it is imperative that the Government respond to General Erskine’s statement to allay concerns raised in the media about Ghana’s Parliament either being canceled or proceedings postponed due to the lack of a quorum. This is not consistent with accepted parliamentary conduct within a modern democracy. It is likely that the repeated lack of a quorum is due to politicians using official time, for which they are duly remunerated, to pursue private business rather than exercising their responsibility to make appropriate laws and regulations for the effective governance of Ghana.

Dr Kwame Asumadu MAICD Director
Asumadu & Associates

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.