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Opinions of Saturday, 23 February 2013

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

The State of Nation Address: Matters Arising

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK

Last Thursday February 21, the President, His Excellency, Mr John Dramani Mahama presented the State of the Nation’s Address to the people of Ghana in Parliament as required under the constitution. He raised a number of disconcerting matters of interests to all Ghanaians that would be the subject of microscopic analyses by both his party and the opposition as well from experts, academics, social commentators, students and many others in Ghana and across the world. As part of this forensic examination of the State of Ghana as presented by the President, I want to add my analysis on just two of the matters the President mentioned in his address.

I listened to an audio recording of the address on Joy FM online website and the two issues that struck me most were the commendation heaped on the Electoral Commission by the President and the impact of the national wage bill on the economy and I will quote from the relevant sections.

“Mr Speaker, our recent Presidential and Parliamentary elections have been adjudged by both domestic and international observers as by far the most credible, transparent, free and fair since 1992. This shows that each step of our democratic journey has been marked by improvements. As Ghanaians, we must be proud of this achievement. Mr Speaker, the Electoral Commission must take much of the credit for this feat; since our return to constitutional rule in 1992 the EC has organized six successful elections. They have conferred victory where victory was due without fear or favour in the critical periods of 2000, 2008 and 2012. Our EC has earned, in the process, an enviable reputation as arguably one of the best electoral institutions on the African continent”.

I was shocked and disappointed to hear the President commending the Electoral Commission for a yeoman’s job done for a number of reasons, especially, when the President is only aware that the credibility of the 2012 Presidential Election is being challenged and a petition is still pending at the Supreme Court but also he is the first respondent in the petition. I will return to this later.

Irrespective of what the local and international observers have said about the organisation and or the outcome of the Presidential Election, the outcome is being contested by the opposition party, NPP. It was therefore out of order and a monumental error of judgement on the part of the President to have said what was obviously not the true state of affairs as at February 21 as far as the 2012 Presidential Election is concerned. I believe the Presidential Election was free because I have not heard of any Ghanaian voter/s who were prevented from voting, were forced to vote, compelled or coerced to vote for a particular candidate against their will during the two days of voting. However, I cannot say the same for certain that the Presidential Election was credible, transparent and fair, let alone the most since 1992, as claimed by the President.

As at now Ghanaians do not know whether the 2012 Presidential Election was credible, transparent and fair and we will not know until the details of the alleged malpractices committed by the Electoral Commission and possibly, by President Mahama and his party are presented by the petitioners, cross examined at the Supreme Court hearing and for a final decision from the Justices. Until that day, no matter what the local and international observers have said as well as what the President, his party and others believe, the credibility, transparency and fairness of the election will continue to be in doubt. That ultimately also has implications on how free or otherwise the election was.

Third, the President’s statement that the election was “adjudged as by far the most credible, transparent, free and fair since 1992”, is tantamount to indirect interference in the work of the Judiciary or putting pressure on the Justices by drawing attention to the judgement of the local and international observers. That to me, that is a violation of the Constitution that the President has sworn to respect and uphold at all times. This was even dangerous because of the presence of the Chief Justice and some Justices in the August House. No doubt, the legal team of the petitioners have raised the red flag over the statement by President and they are right to do so. The President’s statement is suggestive of him seeking favours and undue advantage in a case before the Supreme Court. That was wrong and a threat to the independence of the judiciary since his action could be an attempt to influence the Justices.

Four, how did the President come to the conclusion that the 2012 general elections were by far the most “whatever”, since 1992? Is his yardstick, the fact that biometric registration and verification were not used in the other elections? Or the disappointing reality that there were very serious administrative challenges in 2012 that were not present during the other elections? Or was it because though the losing party complained of fraud and rigging in elections since 1992 but it’s only in 2012 that a petition has been lodged at the Supreme Court? I really do not get the basis of the President’s conclusion because no one has subjected the previous and the 2012 elections to any forensic and comparative analysis to able to draw such a definite conclusion. At best, this conclusion is too early and at worst, a fallacy.

The commendation on the EC was most unfortunate, which could come back to haunt the President should the Supreme Court declare the election as anything but “credible, transparent, free and fair”. This is something that the President should have avoided at all cost because the President is being accused of having connived with the EC to have rigged the election in his favour. In the words of the NPP MPs, the President and the EC are “stealers”, so by commending the EC’s work, the President runs the risk of justifying (rightly or wrongly) the accusation that he was in bed with the EC. They were partners in crime or birds of the same feathers.

The EC is an independent constitutional body and for that reason to hear the head of the Executive arm of government praising the work and impartiality of the very institution that are being disputed is an anomaly. When did the President become the spokesperson of the EC? Is such commendation also not too early?

For me, considering the organisation of the 2012 general elections and the logistical and administrative problems that the EC faced that led to the extension of voting into a second day, it could be misleading, if not laughable, for the President to claim that, “our EC has earned an enviable reputation as arguably one of the best electoral institutions on the African continent”. I am sure Obasanjo will disagree with the President, when he had to save the EC from embarrassment by stepping in to end the state of confusion and voter apprehension and tell Ghanaians that voting would be extended into a second day. Where was the EC at that time? Is this one of Africa’s best? Again, which other ECs in Africa was the President comparing Ghana’s EC with? There are other African ECs that have organised credible, transparent, free and fair elections on a number of occasions such as in Senegal. What happened in Ghana on December 7 and 8, 2012 was second best and Ghana is better than second best.

Please do not get me wrong, I am a patriot and proud of the achievements of Ghanaians and Ghanaian institutions. I am not under estimating the achievements of the EC in the last two decades. I also believe in the “Okonko” proverb in Things Fall Apart that, if no one praised the lizard that climbed the tallest tree in the forest, it will nod its head to acknowledge its great feat. In fact, I subscribe to the view that there is nothing wrong with Ghanaians ‘blowing their horns’ for their achievements in Africa and on the global stage. However, this accolade on the EC is too early and the President should wait till the final outcome of the petition at the Supreme Court.

I do not know whether I was surprised or at a loss when I heard the President say this, “Mr Speaker, the rate of growth of the wage bill has reached a point where they are squeezing out critical investments in the budgetary allocation of goods and services and capital expenditures. Unless we tackle this issue decisively, we may soon reach a point where not much will be left to provide the much-needed roads, bridges, ports, schools, clinics and water infrastructure we need to develop our economy. This issue is even more significant because as we struggle to settle the wage bill, thousands of public workers continue to make demands for wage increases and threaten work stoppage if we do not meet these demands. Mr Speaker, the meat is now down to the bones, and it is time for serious rethinking about the level of wages in relation to our national competiveness and the related productivity issues. It is said “to whom much is given, much is expected.”

I said I do not know how to respond to the above statement because for a considerable period of the Mills Mahama administration and especially, during the election campaign, all the President and his party were telling Ghanaians was how they have increased the salaries of public sector workers by implementing the Single Spine Salary Structure and that was being propagated as one of their enviable achievements. So, did they not know that that was the meat they were eating, especially when nothing was done to increase public productivity in commensurate to the public wage increment? When did the President and his party realise that “the meat is now down to the bones”? Did the Economic Advisers not tell the President that Single Spine without corresponding increase in productivity will at best least to inflation or the booty will disappear?

I often commented on Ghanaweb when NDC politicians bragged about Single Spine implementation and the high wages of workers as one of NDC’s achievement that they were being naive because very few governments boast of higher public wages as an achievement. Instead, governments with a record of prudent micro and macro as well as fiscal and monetary policies boast of higher productivity and higher living standards and not higher public sector wage. When I read or heard such empty rhetoric I suspected that some of these NDC politicians did not have a clue what they were saying and what was in store for the economy and the national cake. They wanted to eat their cake and still have it or cut their noses to spite their faces because it showed that they either lacked understanding of prudent economic management or simply ignored them by burying their heads in the sand as ostriches.

Mr President, in fact, Ghana and your government are lucky that the true consequences of higher public wage bill and low productivity have been cushioned by revenue from the oil. The situation could have been dire and Ghana would have been bankrupt but for the oil revenue. The low productivity is not only in the public sector but across sectors (the public, private and voluntary sectors). This is because of the continuous energy and water shortages in Ghana. How can the private sector make up the shortfall in public sector productivity without regular supply of energy and water?

Very soon if urgent action is not taken to increase productivity in the public and other sectors, reduce the public wage bill and at the same ensure secure and continuous supply of energy and water in Ghana, the meat will not only be down to the bones but the bones will also be eaten. When that happens, Ghana will have to go begging with empty bowls in hands with “kwashiorkor” stomachs for scraps and the leftover of others, if she is not already doing that in China in exchanged for expired chemicals to treat water for public consumption.

Mr President, is this an admission of the failure of the economic policies for the last four years? Whatever it is, you must take immediate and urgent steps to ameliorate the bleak economic situation you painted in your address. I am aware Ghana may not be alone because of the global recession but Ghana’s predicament could be self inflicting (through lack of investments in public infrastructure development such as energy and water). I am also mindful of the fact that, your options regarding the Single Spine implementation are limited but you can demand increased productivity from public sector workers. What you have control over are the remuneration and emoluments of your ministers, staff, appointees and MPs and the urgency to improve energy and water supplies as wells as the effective and efficient management of the economy. Put your mouth where your money is. The situation demands action and not words by way of promises.

This begs the question as to how your government will finance all the initiatives you announced in your address if the national coffers are almost empty? Is that not part of the problem in Ghana? Politicians making promises upon promises without any indication of costs, how they would be paid for and where the money will come from. I accept that your address was not the budget but I doubt if the soon to be presented budget by your Finance Minister would capture all the programmes and initiatives announced in your address. We will be watching this space.

On a minor note, one could not do justice to matters arising from the State of the Nation Address without making an observation on the absence of the minority in the House. The minority has every right to boycott any parliamentary business, including mandatory constitutional matters. However, I am of the view that NPP and its Parliamentarians ought to be circumspect in how they respond and react to the President whilst their petition is pending at the Supreme Court.

First, I am of the view that the minority also made an error of judgement by creating the erroneous impression that they would be in attendance and then disappeared from the House at the eleventh hour. Such public deception could harm the party in the future.

Second, the party as a whole but especially, Nana Akufo Addo should bear in mind that, in the unlikely event of their petition being upheld by the Supreme Court, his government will need or require the majority to govern because he will lead a minority government. Should the majority decide to pay back the minority in their own coin by not boycotting parliament but vote against bills, Nana Akufo Addo’s government will collapse and that would trigger fresh elections to be held. This is because the majority voting against legislation from the Executive in the House will make it impossible for the government to function. All NDC MPs will need to do to disrupt government business is not to boycott the House but use their majority to kill any bill presented by the government. In the event of the collapse of an Akufo Addo government and his Presidency because it cannot get bills passed by the Legislature, the electorate could punish NPP for disrespecting President Mahama.

Their behaviour though within their rights, in my opinion, is against the spirit of the Constitution that they relied on to petition the Supreme Court. In fact, their behaviour is disrespect to the Judiciary and show of contempt for their constituents. It will be their own interest to end the boycotts and the earlier the better. A word to the wise is enough.

Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK