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Opinions of Thursday, 21 February 2008

Columnist: Ato Kwamena Dadzie/Daily Dispatch

THE OUTSIDER: Be proud, Mr. President

I’ve listened to President Kufuor’s state of the nation address at least three times. It wasn’t exactly music to my ears – there was very little in there I haven’t heard before. But each time I heard the speech over the last few days, I couldn’t help but admire his skilful vacillation between modesty and self-praise.

First, he told parliament there was no point in comparing his deeds with those of past administrations. “My attention was drawn to some speculations on the comparative performances between my government and previous regimes,” he said. “Such speculations, Mr. Speaker, are futile. To me it is useless to pretend to be the inventor of the wheel.”

As far as I’m concerned this administration started the “speculations on the comparative performances” by referring (at the least opportunity) to what Rawlings and his (P)NDC administration had done in the past. And such comparisons suited them just fine especially if it was in reference to the NDC’s numerous misdeeds. A few months ago, the president caused something of an uproar when, at the sod-cutting ceremony for the Bui Dam project, he referred to the relatively short time span it took him to negotiate a loan with the Chinese government and compared it with how long it took Kwame Nkrumah to secure the loan for the construction of the Akosombo Dam.

So it’s curious to me that the president now says such comparisons are futile, insisting though that under his administration, “pulse of the nation has been very vibrant.”

Since, this is his state of the nation address, the president did his best to capture as much as possible of what he’s been doing for the past seven years and he tried to answer the question: is Ghana better off now than it was in 2001 when Mr. Kufuor started his presidency. And this is where he praises himself. “Ghana has been doing progressively well under my watch,” he says. This is open to debate. But I’m not ashamed or afraid to say that I think the President is right. Things have not changed so dramatically but there have been some gains.

In so many ways, our country has seen some progress under the Kufuor administration. I think the economy is in better shape now than it was seven years ago. Inflation, for example, has been kept impressively under control. The exchange rate regime has also been very well-managed – the dollar had been exchanging at almost the same rate to the cedi for quite a while until when the currency was changed and now the “Kufuor dollar” (which is the new Ghana Cedi) is marginally stronger than the greenback. That the central bank was able to switch currencies with no incident is great testimony to the state of the economy. What we do with the economic gains is up to the powers that be and the entrepreneurs to decide. But let no one try to take it away from Kufuor and his guys. The president thinks we are ready for “industrialisation, which is looming”. He might be moving ahead of himself but he has every right to be optimistic about future prospects.

I also think that the president ought to be impressed with himself for all the things he’s done to expand the frontiers of freedom in this country. Ghanaians are not as scared as we used to be under Rawlings’ despotic regime. Even when Rawlings was doing his democratic best, a lot of us were living in fear. I sit on radio every morning and speak my mind. Many are those who think I should keep my thoughts to myself. But I have never felt physically threatened in any way. I’ve been threatened with court action a number of times but that’s about it. There have been a few instances when journalists have been manhandled and needlessly threatened with arrest under the Kufuor administration. It’s hard to say whether these were sanctioned by government but the point remains that the situation is much better than when journalists were thrown in jail or ‘shit-bombed’ and when a young man had his head shaven with broken bottles for being foolish enough to break up with the president’s daughter.

An improved economic performance and a record of respect for democratic rights and freedoms are some of the major achievements of the Kufuor administration. As his days in power come to an end, there will be a lot of talk about the president’s legacy and listening to the president’s speech last week, I felt very sorry for him that there is very little he can actually point to as what he’s actually achieved. The performance of the economy and respect for democratic freedoms are very important but they are intangibles that mean very little to the man on the street who can’t afford housing, has to queue for hours for a rickety ‘trotro’ to take him to work and could be killed by the most treatable of diseases because our health centres are in such a poor state.

Listen to the president and his speech is replete with words and phrases like “ongoing”, “being undertaken” and “receiving attention”. This means that much of his legacy lies in unfinished projects that should be completed by his successor. And this is something the president cannot be proud off. Just as he was able to point to the rehabilitation of the Flagstaff House to “to accommodate the next president in dignity”, the president would have been happier if he had more to boast about. Instead, all he could do was to speak about things that were being done or worked on.

For example, the president says he found the educational system “in a very parlous state”. Jerry Rawlings thought with his educational reforms, “the psychomotor skills shall flow.” John Kufuor has decided to reform Jerry’s reforms but that’s all he’s done. Even though school enrolment has increased recently and we have the much-touted school feeding programme, things are not looking as good as the administration might want us to believe. Just a few days ago the Catholic Bishop of Ho, Francis Lodonu, warned that the public educational system is in a state of near-collapse. So if Kufuor found the system in a “parlous state” and a few months before he leaves office, the nation is being warned that the system is almost collapsed it only means that under the current administration the situation has, at best, remained the same or grown from bad to worse.

The health system is in no better shape. The president says hospitals have been renovated but I wonder if he would gladly seek treatment in any of our hospitals without considering taking his case abroad. Until our politicians stop going abroad for treatment, I won’t believe anyone who tells me that things are improving in the health sector. During the recent African Cup of Nations some injured players had to be flown abroad for CT scans. Simply put, our hospitals are more specialised in guiding you to your grave and not in moving you away from the precipice.

Other social services the president promised to introduce seven years ago such as a mass transit system are yet to take off properly. Some of the buses are in alright, providing free transport to some school children and that’s good. But the rickety ‘trotros’ are still operating – poorly maintained with reckless drivers endangering the lives of many every day and killing a few every now and then.

So what’s the state of our nation? Well, we are freer but still poor and wretched. The only consolation is that we are on track. But we need to move faster.

Aware of the numerous unfulfilled promises and the catalogue of “things yet to be done” the president tells us that “humanity never finished its business – never, not in history.” This is where I beg to differ. There are men in history who set out to do particular jobs and completed them with distinction. Kwame Nkrumah swore to save our country from colonial bondage and he finished that business. After independence, he set out to build a hydro-electric dam, a motorway and an industrial city. He did it all within nine years (and in the cold war era). The things president Kufuor set out to do in 2001 were not as lofty as Kwame Nkrumah’s at independence. I think it should take less than eight years to reform a broken educational system. It’s possible.

Yet after almost eight years, we don’t have a fully-functional health insurance scheme, we don’t have a mass transit system, the educational system is in no better shape, the ID system is yet to take off and our judicial system is still in shambles. I think President Kufuor could have done better and he should stop telling himself that “humanity never finished its business.” Yet, we should be grateful for the little he achieved and he should be proud of what he describes “modestly” as his “solid achievements”. We will remember him as one of the best leaders we ever had.

I hope the next president does better than Mr. Kufuor did and whatever the case might be, we won’t stop comparing past and present governments. It’s not a futile endeavour at all.

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