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Opinions of Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Columnist: Ato Kwamena Dadzie

THE OUTSIDER: Grand order of vultures and rats

I’m still recovering from the shock that our dear president’s latest set of ‘blings’ cost as a good 33,000 pounds each (and he bought five of them). You do the maths. Add up all what was spent on honouring so many people –more than half of whom we all consider to be completely undeserving of such high national recognition – and you’ll realise that these shambolic awards cost us a fortune.

I suppose that now the president feels very good about himself. He’s now joined the ranks of MC Hammer, P. Diddy, Snoop Doggy Dog, 50 Cent and all those icons of international pop culture who like to weigh their necks down with tonnes of ‘bling-bling’.

Ever since I heard the news about how much the president’s medals cost, I’ve been having serious nightmares. Usually, I see JAK chasing me – with his precious medals around his neck. The medals are weighing him down and I should be running faster than him. But somehow, he’s catching up with me and that scares the hell out of me. I don’t know why JAK will be chasing me. Perhaps, he’s now realised that I deserve one – for doing nothing. Or he just wants to smack my head with medals so that I will experience how it feels to come into contact with a 33,000-pound piece of ‘bling’.

I hope the nightmare ends soon. But I pray God to bless the heart of the person who leaked that document which showed us how frivolous our government has been in buying very expensive jewellery to ‘bling’ up the president and all those award “winners”.

I’m very glad that quite a number Ghanaians are coming down very hard on the administration for indulging in such wastefulness. If we had spoken out against all those millions of dollars they spent on Ghana@50 (where in heaven’s name are the “public toilets”?) they wouldn’t have dared gone for a second bite of the cherry. But we didn’t and that gave them the confidence that they could spend our money anyhow and nobody would bat an eye. They were wrong. I hope that the incessant criticism that has been heaped on the administration since the leaked document detailing the cost of the medals was published is the first sign that we are gradually gaining the confidence to demand that our government spends our money wisely and on things that benefit us.

Seven hundred thousand pounds might not sound like a lot of money to government officials who keep millions in their car trunks. But it’s a lot of money for millions of Ghanaians who cannot afford to feed on anything more nutritious than ‘gari’ and ‘Keta school boys’. It’s a lot of money for all those service personnel whose allowances have not been paid for months because “we don’t have money.” When our school children are studying under baobab trees and our pregnant women are sleeping on the bare floor at Korle Bu, we have every right to be angry that our president will spend so much money on a set of jewellery.

When our president tells us to tighten our belts, we expect him to be careful what he hangs around his neck. We will be surprised if he hangs a noose around his neck and we will be shocked if he spends 165,000 pounds on jewellery to adorn his neckline.

It’s also very galling that even though our government claims not to have money to pay those recruited under the national youth employment programme (an excuse which has delayed the payment of allowances for months and which has led government to go around with cup in hand for loans) they can spend all this money just on medals. 700,000 pounds could have paid the NYEP recruits for three months.

Unfortunately (and very sadly) our government officials do not get it. They do not understand why we should be crying foul after they had misspent money, of which, we are repeatedly told we don’t have a lot. But you should understand why they do not understand us.

First, they either do not know or they have forgotten what it means to be poor. Being in government has made a lot of them rich beyond their wildest dreams and they think that 700000 pounds (or 1.4 million dollars) is nothing. Since they do not go to Korle Bu for treatment (a slight headache and they are on the plane to South Africa) they do not know that this money could help a great deal in renovating and re-equipping the medical block at that hospital. That block has been in disrepair for almost 10 years!

Secondly, I think, these guys have next to no idea about why they are in government. From where I stand the essence of government is to make life better for the governed. Achieving this entails spending scarce resources wisely on projects that benefit the people. Buying a chain for the president is definitely not one of such projects. That’s why their explanation that the medals will be worn by future presidents at all official functions strikes me as silly.

President Kufour has been president for almost eight years without an expensive chain. The absence of a gold chain didn’t make him less of a president. We already have symbols of state which are used at presidential inaugurations. There is that beautiful, handcrafted sword – made of solid gold – that was used to induct him into office. Why do we need 18-carrat medals? Why now? Without the medals will the person who occupies the highest office in the land be less of a president in our eyes? What next are they going to ask us for? A presidential chamber-pot? A presidential ‘twakoto’?

Make no mistake about it – nobody is against a national honours scheme that truly rewards excellent achievement and extra-ordinary public service. What we don’t want is for the most senior public servant of all to shamelessly confer an honour himself, when the jury is still out on his achievements and legacy. We are also against the president honouring people who don’t deserve such honours. Agya Koo deserves the recognition he got. Andy Awuni doesn’t. Being the president’s spin-doctor, doesn’t automatically entitle you to a national honour. That military officer who stands behind the president doesn’t deserve an award either. What has he been doing? Carrying the president’s file with just two or three A-4 sheets and standing behind him doesn’t exactly pass as body-guarding, does it? And the president’s driver also got one? What the heck! Damn, I should get one – just for waking up today!

The president cannot use such an important national institution to show personal gratitude to people like his driver and press secretary and the journalists who constantly sing his praises.

Most important of all, we don’t want our scarce resources to be wasted on buying so many expensive medals every year to be used in decorating people like the president’s driver. That’s why it’s even more prudent that very few people are honoured with such national honours. The excuse that there is a backlog which ought to be cleared doesn’t wash. Nobody has complained or gone on demonstration to demand a national medal. If the president wants to clear backlogs, he should first think about the thousands who are qualified but cannot enter the university because there are no spaces for them.

Having said all that, I’m thinking of creating a special award category for a few deserving individuals. It’s going to be called the Grand Order of Vultures and Rats of Ghana. You should have a fair idea who the first inductees should be. And trust me, they are not getting any medals.