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Opinions of Sunday, 23 August 2009

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

Tackling Africa’s superstition and progress

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

The long held had been that Africans cannot think. Alright, those who held this view should quietly come to Ghana and view what is happening in the stimulating development scene. The picture isn't anxiety about Ghana's new found oil or its rebound as number one cocoa producer in the world or its post-Barack Obama mindset where Ghanaians think “Yes, we can.”

The prospect is Ghanaian elites, like other African elites, for long seen as wobbly and their inability to think from within their traditional values and institutions in relation to the global prosperity ideals for progress shaking off such stigmatization.

From Tain to Bongo, from George Ayittey to Courage Quashigah, Ghanaian small towns and elites are increasingly thinking out loud through their traditional values and institutions. In a holistic manner unseen years ago, the positive and negative aspects of their culture are under immense scrutiny in the larger progress scheme. The build up towards this level of thinking isn’t at all an accident, since 1957 events have been casting their shadow. The Ghanaian thinker George Ayittey coined the term “African solution for Africa's problems” as a way of looking at “internal factors” such as unfreedoms that have stifled Africa’s progress as counterbalance to “external factors” such as colonialism. The theologian and president Kwame Nkrumah shouted the motivational mantra “African Personality” to drum home Africans’ self-esteem after decades of being messed-up by colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

It was the Ghanaian, Y.K. Amoako, who observed, as then chair of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, that Africa is the only region in the world where its development paradigms are dominated by foreign development paradigms. The implications are that Ghanaians and Africans aren't thinking, in all philosophical and practical terms, from within their traditional institutions and values as counterbalance to the global prosperity ideals, for their progress. Such views have confirmed the old colonial notion that Africans, more their elites, cannot think well or the late Senegalese President Leopold Senghor's argument that Africans are good at expressing their emotions rather than thinking. But in places like Ghana such racist views are being overturned. While Botswana is universally known to have tied its traditional values and institutions to the global prosperity ideals, it is yet to move further to tackle the inhibitions within its culture that stifles progress.

In philosophical terms, racist or not, the inability of African elites to project any thing thinking tackling the suppression of African values in Africa’s progress has made Ghana, as the “Black Star of Africa,” seen as no more or less than propaganda and emotional “Star,” without any logical and material substance, and not any place in Africa where deep and grand African-orientated thinking and philosophies should emanate from. But moving away from years of one-party systems and military juntas that beclouded Ghana's thinking, philosophizing, human rights, the rule of law, freedoms and democracy, Ghanaians, more their elites, are fast emerging as having the ability to think, rationalize, and philosophize from within their traditional institutions and values in relation to the global prosperity ideals for progress.

In 2008, the small, remote town of Tain revealed Ghana's democratic potency by effectively resolving the democratic impasse when it helped elect President John Attar Mills – Mills worn the elections by mere but significant 40,000 votes. (It was a democratic record in the world and charged the newly elected US President Barack Obama to come to Ghana as his first sub-Sahara African visit to tout Ghana's democracy as progress fertilizer for Africa). Tain laid bare any fear and superstition that “something will happen.” The enlightened Vice President John Mahama, then a Member of Parliament, had told Tain citizens “nothing will happen” and that they should vote rationally.

In 2009, Bongo, another humble small town, in relation to the current thinking, banned witchcraft accusations that have been responsible for stifling progress for long time including deaths and other human rights violations, saying it has no “scientific bases.” Bongo is increasingly being replicated Ghana- and Africa-wide. In-between all these, the culture and progress discussions have been upward, with the mass media, academics, ex-Presidents Jerry Rawlings and John Kufour, traditional rulers, political heavy weights, women's organizations, religious bodies and civil society organizations taking on the culture in Ghana's development process.

In a remarkable feat as the culture-progress gets exciting, Mrs. Betty Mould Iddrisu, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice and formerly the head of Legal and Constitutional Affairs of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, UK stirred the culture-progress thinking uphill when she enjoined “religious organizations and civil society groups to partner government to eradicate superstitious beliefs” in Ghana's development process, reports the Ghana News Agency. “…the effects of superstition on society were worrying and that it was endangering efforts to build a healthy society based on hard work, goodwill and honesty among other social virtues.” In further attempts in tackling the complicated arithmetic of progress muddled by certain aspects of the Ghanaian culture, Betty Mould additionally charged that “the government was committed to the eradication of superstitious beliefs and would apply the laws to punish people who abused the rights of others.” This is in contrast to earlier years when governments stayed clear of dealing openly with inhibitions such as witchcraft within the culture as part of Ghana’s progress.

Who said democracy, the rule of law, freedoms and human rights aren't good for durable progress for Africa and Ghana, more so considering Ghana's and Africa's political histories and cultures? By taking on the culture as part of the deep progress issue, Accra is sending the signal that there is no clash of African development philosophies in relation to the global prosperity ideals. In fact, the global prosperity ideals such as freedoms and human rights are being appropriated to refine the inhibitions within the culture for progress. Ghanaians have seen all these big talks before – from Kwame Nkrumah to Julius Nyerere to Kamuzu Banda to Sekou Toure to Gamal Abdul Nasser – but they were short of taking on grandly any of the inhibitions within the culture that have muffled progress.

How do Ghanaians confront deadly superstitions that have made them less progressive or autistic in their development process over the years? Betty Mould gives some solutions: “personal responsibility” and not some demons accountable for accidents or misfortunes or deaths. “Personal responsibility in the determination of one's fate” and not some evil spirits manipulating one’s fate. No “blind reliance on some spiritual processes to automatically change one's fortunes from poverty to riches overnight” that normally comes in the form of human sacrifices, witchcraft, or fearsome traditional juju-marabou rituals. “Civil society must not shy away from openly discussing the effects of superstition on the social and spiritual lives of the people,” as an enlightenment and civic duty.

What Betty Mould didn't add are the Ghanaian journalists who have been painstakingly and radically taking on the inhibiting parts of their culture, in a remarkable atmosphere of press freedom, as an enlightenment mission. Among this is the current public knowledge that in some parts of the Volta region teenage girls are enslaved to shrines for sins committed by their parents; that albinos are ritualistically killed for success; that a two-month old baby is left to die for allegedly being a witch; that the pull him/her down syndrome destroys progress; that the Big Man syndrome perpetuates authoritarianism; that excessive belief in witchcraft undermines reasoning and the intellectualization of the development process, etc, etc.

In Betty Mould, “The Black Star of Africa” is flowering as an enlightened corporate entity, as a thinker, and it is expected to radiate African-wide in the continent's