You are here: HomeWallOpinionsArticles2015 05 22Article 359137

Opinions of Friday, 22 May 2015

Columnist: Banienuba, Samwin J.

The ‘dead goat’ President and the crisis of civil society demonstrations

By Samwin J Banienuba

Public protest lends itself to a last resort vote of feet and placards when all else fails to prevail on powers that be in disputes or negotiations with underdog masses for improved conditions or a change of public policy direction. Spontaneous or organised, it has been the trump card of syndical movements across the world and provides a desirable vent for expression of anger and frustration for civil society organisations and the general public at large. In democratic societies the right to peaceful protest is a matter of course and its inter-linkage to the triple freedoms of assembly, opinion and expression is universally proclaimed and acclaimed. As a statutory right, the State is often under obligation to facilitate demonstrations and protect participants from potential harm or interference by those who may be opposed to what the protestors for.

The picturesque red and yellow shirts demonstrations in Thailand, the Arab spring in Tunisia and Egypt especially, or the more recent Burkinabe popular angst are but a few examples of how the power of ordinary people validates the quality and achievements public demonstrations can bring to bear on development and progress of a polity. Sustained public demonstrations and other forms of syndical expressions have indeed provided catalysts for change when properly managed, channelled and tailored to target a specific canker or the root of that canker. Some revolutions are said to have actually started with pockets of protests that quickly ballooned into avalanche of menacing crowds in streets and public squares demanding change. Even where successes have been a far cry from the sea change the demonstrators would have liked to see the case of the Arab spring and the Burkinabe examples have been exceptionally historical.
Ghana has had its own record demonstrations where change was achieved through purposeful protest. When the country was still a colonial Gold Coast, starkly named to underline why Europeans coveted homeland Ghana, the 1948 riots remain a milestone in the fortunes of the independence struggle of the time. Those riots began with a protest march of ex-servicemen seeking compensation for their contribution in the war effort of the colonial paymaster. A political suicide was then committed when the colonialists opened fire on the peaceful demonstrators and killed three of the veterans. The fallout and anger of it was just as spontaneous as the knack with which the independence movement seized the opportunity of the riots so generated to fuel the cause of freedom and justice. It worked and within a record nine years, Ghana became the first country south of the Sahara to retire colonialism from the African continent.
In post independent Ghana the failure of the military to bulldoze citizens into accepting a system of government that appeared conceptually innovative but politically bankrupt was again the result of sustained public protest. The Supreme Military Council that governed the country in the ‘70s had sought to eternalise their rule by tabling a Union Government, a kind of an all inclusive government that would have incorporated other parastatal institutions and civil society organisations. Upon scrutiny, however, Ghanaians read perpetuation in the proposal and resolutely refused to be duped by a palpable fraud. They became so enraged they channelled their fury into organised and sustained massive demonstrations. Notwithstanding the brutality of the security agencies deployed to deal drastically with dissent, public protests finally carried the day and thus consigned Union Government to the dustbins of our collective history mercifully.
For the most part though history suggests that public demonstrations have achieved very little of the demands for which protestors are usually willing to sacrifice comfort, time, energy, resources and in some cases lives. Otherwise the world would most certainly have been a much better place in the context of the staggering mass protests and demonstrations seen worldwide and carried daily on our screens and airwaves. Much as it is possible to argue that the world could possibly have been worse off but for these same demonstrations one reason for the record failures have been the role of vested interests who tag along public outcry for policy change in order to secure their own narrow objectives at the expense of a national or social good. Political parties in opposition for instance have often sought to take a free ride on the back of public sentiment by subverting protests to their partisan whims and caprices. Despicable as this may seem, ruling political parties have not hesitated either to even use state resources to fund party agents, and in some cases security agents, to intrude and manipulate protests or the aims and arguments of protests for their own whimsical ends.
Ghana has been no exception to failures of public protest to change policy or influence political direction. In recent times OccupyGhana, a somewhat comical name possibly intended to mimic the Occupy movement that ironically passed Ghana by in 2011, made headlines in local media and attracted attention sufficient enough to put the organisers in limelight but hardly to the issues of corruption they sought to redress. If OccupyGhana had any sense of history they would have hesitated on the poor choice of name for the fact that the movement they sought to emulate was already a well documented pile of failure that had collapsed long before being conceived in Ghana. Unlike the predecessor which failed for want of coordination of the masses of people out there from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok through Caracas and Moscow to New York, the activists of OccupyGhana were alleged affiliates of the same political party and possibly benefited from central coordination but still fizzled out, except in name of course, precisely for the perception that it was a partisan stooge skewed to advance a vested bidding.
This is exactly the point at which protests and demonstrations are arguably in crisis of legitimacy and relevance in Ghana. The public space being contested for by local civil society organisations in the country have been literally hijacked by partisan affiliates to the extent to which it has become sadly normative to hear of the NDC this and that or the NPP so and so. Tried as many of them have done to dust themselves off such partisan qualifiers, the character of their leadership and the positions they espouse often speak to the perception that already exist out there in the public domain that they are nothing but surrogates, fronts or appendages designed for the pursuit of a particular party agenda with hardly nothing national about them despite persuasive albeit misleading names such as the Alliance for Accountable Governance, Movement for Change, Committee for Joint Action, Progressive Democrats and what have you. Not even the so-called think tanks in today’s Ghana seem exempt of partisan persuasion or perception.
It is certainly not lost on avid observers that those voting with their feet today are mostly those who once preferred to look the other way barely seven years ago on concerns of similar national interests while those who took up the mantle then seem to have suddenly found good reason to chill off in deliberate hibernation. Given that the mantle of national leadership has changed from one party to the other between then and now it is not too difficult to notice that the palpable motives of most civil society demonstrations are ultimately aimed at causing public disaffection for the ruling party of the day rather than at those usually articulated for public consumption. Such wilful incapacity to decouple electoral campaigns from advocacy has damaged the very foundations and values of civil society organisations as critical actors in the advancement of universal values and it is needless pointing out that public protests and demonstrations organised by such groups become known knowns a la Rumsfeld long before they hit the streets of urban Ghana.
Being the case as it seems, and much as it was arguably untactful, the President of Ghana was being only factual to have reportedly declared that he is a dead goat who could not be bothered by fear of more protests and demonstrations come election year in 2016. The communications expert turned president must have known that the energy crisis aka ‘dumsor’ in local parlance alone provides a mine of fury and agitation that could be tapped to make the country ungovernable for him by opposition forces or other interest groups. He must also know that in today’s Facebook and Twitter world it has never been easier to organise protests and draw crowds on issues that outrage us all as proven experimentally by one Colding-Jørgensen at the University of Copenhagen. And reports suggest that some celebrities controversially took their turn in a well attended vigil to lament dumsor and call on government to take immediate remedial action.
What remains to be seen is whether the celebrities did ask themselves ‘what next?’ before and after taking to the streets or whether it is simply a kind celebrity gesture to show we are all in this together. Even as we wait for that next step of our celebrities the dead goat President must, at the same time, be at ease knowing as we all do that erratic urban vigils or protests in the name of dumsor cannot add any more impetus to the urgencies already captured and widely reported in the media of the harrowing personal and daily urban experience of Ghanaians and Ghanaian industry.
Yet the issue of dumsor and the continued inability of government to come to grasps with the situation make the crisis of civil society demonstrations seriously concerning. The role of energy in moving nations forward is indispensable and it is totally unacceptable in 21st century Ghana that the country should struggle to power itself despite the strong foundations laid by the Osagyefo of blessed memory. Clearly, successive governments have successively failed to build on those foundations and the nation is now paying dearly for years of investment neglect and poor or mis-management of the sector. But these are no times for finger pointing, these are times for the government of the day to own up and fix it with our depoliticised and non-partisan support. Unfortunately, with hardly an organisation left with a truly national appeal or integrity, the dead goat President and the crisis of civil society demonstrations may continue to remain bedfellows for a long time while dumsor festers. Alas!
The Writer is Freelance International Relations Analyst and Political Commentator