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Opinions of Sunday, 1 January 2006

Columnist: Bannerman, Nii Lantey Okunka

Violence: A Creeping And Widening Menace To Devt

That, violence is endemic in our society is an understatement. Well, violence is everywhere in the world you might argue! Sure it is, but there is a strong urge to bring some level of attention to the spiraling violence that we continue to tolerate and nurse nonchalantly in Ghana. For some reason, we?ve sequestered our indignation to widespread violence that happens in high and low places in our Ghanaian community. Did the NRC not bloody our conscience enough? Why should we worry about violence in our society? Well, from a humanitarian, economic, social and developmental point of view, violence is a problem. We have a responsibility to treat each other humanely. We need all the peace and harmony we can get while we put our ducks in a row. A society that is peaceful and harmonious is one that is more prone to success. Frankly, one does not need to justify the need to eschew violence given it?s lose/lose impact on society.

A couple of weeks ago, a news item brought to light the unintended and parlous consequences of violence in our society. The report had it that a woman called Josephine suspected that someone was messing around with her husband. She therefore decided to confront and forfend the advances of the culprit on her philandering husband. A fight ensued, leading to the untimely death of the other woman. You see, Josephine, though not a pugilist by profession, slapped the woman silly. One power packed slap inadvertently knocked the woman?s head into the wall. The resulting blunt force trauma is suspected to have killed her victim. Josephine was sentenced to five years in jail for manslaughter. A peer of mine on a cyber forum called Okyeame, argued that Josephine deserves more time than she got for instigating the fight that led to the death of the other party. I forcefully made the case that, this is not premeditated murder and that in Ghana, such catfights were/are an accepted way of solving conflicts on a permanent basis. In Ghana, with a crowd trundling, it is not unusual to see two people trading blow or slaps publicly as a way of solving their differences. Often times, clothes are retired, bruises inflicted, welts registered, bumps plastered and compelling forensic evidence left insitu.

A careful look at options confronting these combatants at the micro level, reveals a rather intriguing and interesting picture. Here are some of the more realistic and viable options. When faced with conflict in Ghana, you can call the police, take matters into your hands, forgive and forget, demand a face to face meeting, ask an elder to step in, sue the other party, and of course hire thugs to pound some sense into the thick skull of the offending character. But in a country where law enforcement is a joke and conflict resolutions skills are rarely taught, what do you expect to be the default option when one is angry with the other and demand some sort of instant and favorable solution? Compound the situation with anger, which some have described as a short madness, and you have an untenable situation. Of course you have the ?knowing and doing gap? to contend with so, the odds get taller as soft belly opportunities begin to dissipate precipitously. Never mind the mental wattage that the parties carry. That people often choose violence in the name of instant justice serves as an indictment of law enforcement and the justice system. Can you imagine the wife of Kwaku Atta reporting to police inspector Kojo Armah, probably a polygamist and philanderer of the highest level that Yaa Yaa is flirting with her husband? In a country where polygamy is legal, how do we expect the average Esi Atta to deal with another woman who is seeking to be the second or third wife legally and morally? Have we ever taken these domestic conflicts seriously?

Now fast forward to the just ended congresses of the two notorious leading political parties in Ghana. The NPP and NDC just rounded up their congresses to elect party officials for the 2008 political contest. Both congresses were capped and marred by violence. People were threatened with beatings if they don?t follow a certain line of thinking or assaulted mercilessly and compromised for joining a particular camp. Violence in national politics is nothing new to Ghanaians. Before colonialism, what prevailed mostly was inter-tribal warfare aimed at superiority, economic advantage and territorial gains. Post independence saw terrorism rear its ugly head. The NLM aka Matemeho bandits tried to unseat Nkrumah?s government through a series of violent acts capped by bombings and eventually, a CIA sponsored coup. This level of national violence continued with the NLC in power. Then came the Acheampong coup that removed Busia from power. Later on, through a palace coup, Akuffo removed Acheampong. Violence in national politics took a northward turn when the AFRC bulldozed its way into power with the lofty idea of sanitizing the runaway military and restoring responsible governance.

Perhaps and more plausibly, it can be argued that the most violent political regime was the PNDC. Ghanaians are known to pack a good chin but the venom that the PNDC unleashed was beyond the pale. That the PNDC was wrapped around one of the most violent malcontents in our national history is not news. Our mothers and sisters were pepper bombed in their private parts, media houses were shit bombed, women were sadistically sodomized with oversized batons, cigarette butts extinguished in gaping ear holes, human flesh carved out of living and breathing human beings and splicing of one?s penis found its way into the Ghanaian book on torture. This is not counting those who were shot callously by these cowards and children of the churlish breed. Permanently, and as a Ghanaian, I am ashamed of this sordid past and do firmly pray that we never again allow this level of brute and animal violence to envelop our country. That we sat and watched all these barbaric escapades open out in front of us is unbelievable.

Our very beings have been seared, and collective psyche mangled by these macabre acts. A wound to the mind has no scars and lingers on intractably. Unfortunately, healing is not coming fast enough for some of us. It is for this reason that we must engage and demand good governance as a way of nursing and savoring the nascent democracy that we currently enjoy. Speaking up now, kills, to a greater extent, any reasons that some might hijack, to upset the order and discipline we seek to create. To those that crave that we collectively bear the price tag for our affected brothers and sisters, I say, let us collectively condemn the culture of violence and seek to put in place mechanisms and a mindset that abhors violence. It is not good enough to just pay off the victims. We must change radically the culture that bore these fruits as well.

A common observation as regards both political congresses of the NPP and NDC is this, presidents were in attendance when these violent acts were committed. The silence from these so called leaders that greeted these violent acts was shocking to say the least. Rawlings in particular is personally notorious for resorting to violence. He is on record to have physically manhandled his vice president, assaulted a bystander who is alleged to have made alien signs and encouraged the riff raff of depressed neighborhoods in Accra to obtain guns and fight like macho men. Now, I know some have referred to Rawlings as a statesmen and his sequacious yet querulous elite backers would argue that he is, but I find it hard to extend my respect, if it really matters at all, to a violence prone former head of state with manners so uncouth that it makes you ashamed to admit that he ever ruled a country you so dearly love. It is alleged, if not rumored, that, Frances Essiam, the erstwhile NDC stalwart, who carried water for Rawlings as he went about destroying his political opponents, was mercilessly grated by paid hoodlums who form a critical core of the ex-dictator?s entourage at the just ended NDC congress in Koforidua. Since Frances blew the cover of the ex-dictator, she became an NDC pariah and has since resigned after the intense drubbing she withstood from alleged minions of Rawlings.

Kufour too deserves some scolding here. He seems to have a knack for disappearing when given a chance to promote the values that bind us all together. Why could he not get on his soap box and condemn the violence that occurred at the NPP congress? Because he missed that opportunity, he lost the moral authority to speak up on that of the NDC as well. Of course he was a part of the PNDC cabal that visited mayhem on the people of Ghana. Even when the scum of the earth senselessly and maliciously murdered the 3 judges, Kufour still stayed on with the PNDC for a bit while before having enough sense to resign his lofty perch. Also, the Kufour government has failed to adequately deal with Rawlings when it comes to violence. They?ve allowed him to issue threats, engage in dispensing coarse language and physically assaulting innocent citizens without any consequences whatsoever. Now, instead of proving to the world that we are serious about the rule of law, we?ve left would be investors with the debilitating impression that we are a lawless country, which is actually the true state of affairs, and this is why Kufour?s travels are not yielding the results that he desires. So here again, one is able to observe the clear and direct link that De Soto makes between lawlessness and development. We can?t cover the basics yet we want to go pro? Must we not crawl before we trudge?

We are so inured with violence that we accept it as a way of life. Little innocent kids are ruthlessly beaten for simple stuff like breaking a single drinking glass or plate. Often, physical violence is backed by mental violence. Remember when you were beaten to a pulp and also removed from the gaunt ration list at home? I mean for the most innocuous ?crime?? The sad part is that, even if there is a lesson to be taught, it tends to evaporate in the flurry of anger inspired beatings that only go to satisfy the whims of these adults. Is it therefore not a surprise to see these same adults solving their problems in the open with bare knuckle blows and other body altering fight aids? I don?t know what the statistics are on domestic violence but I can bet my worn out pen that it will be staggering. Why do we continue to grow and nourish violence in all areas of life when more research is being done about how to effectively solve problems at the interpersonal as well as national level? BTW, what institutions do we have in Ghana to help spread and teach the word about dealing with conflict effectively? These default responses, as evident in the case of Josephine, are learnt behaviors pillared by ignorance. They can be unlearned just as they were learned.

I will never forget the kind of instance justice that we used to witness as kids in Accra. I mean the kind that visited death on alleged pick pockets or thieves. If I had any fear as a kid, it was and still is being mistaken for a criminal in some dark grubby corner in Accra and stoned to death. What made me cringe in those days was the mob frenzy that consumed the crowd once their victim was on tap. My mind always juggled the idea of innocent till proven guilty during such unregulated public lynching. What if this individual was innocent? Of course we all remember stories about those that took six inch nails in their skulls for stealing frivolous items like fermented corn dough or some relatively worthless food item. Now, one can conveniently make the case that there is a need to send a virulent message to would be thieves or criminals. However, we must be crazy to assume that stealing will ever stop no matter how brutal and graphic the punishment. Why do people seek to kill others just for stealing petty stuff? Is it unrelenting poverty or a streak of violence hardwired into our genes? I still believe that ineffective law enforcement, revenge, pure adrenalin and rampant corruption may be strong reasons for finishing off alleged thieves instead of orderly handing them over to the police.

Of course the police have their own brand of physical violence. Dirty slaps often serve as appetizers at crime scenes. This is then followed by hoisted pants around the back side of the waist line by strong armed policemen, toes barely touching the ground, as a steady diet of intermittent slaps begin, well angled to light up the stars in the aggressively blinking eyes of these alleged criminals. Our police are known to beat confessions out of alleged criminals all the time. In fact, most complainants expect police officials to dish out a few slaps to their opponents and do pay bribes to make sure it happens. Frankly, our police are for sale to the highest bidder and this contributes to violence and hampers development anyway you look at it.

So violence permeates all facets of our community. The issue for me is our penchant to default to violence as a first resort, when in fact, there are other viable ways of handling these non-life threatening situations. I agree that it is not easy but I do not accept that violence should be our first stop. When I hear people say, ?well, he or she deserves it because they asked for it?, I can?t help but to say, what a poor excuse for our inability to control self and others when faced with a challenge. If the ex-dictator?s men were not yes folks, could they not have restrained him from some of these useless fights? Has he tried getting help with anger management and other strategies to deal with violence? How can we help the Josephines of the world who know no better? Even when we know better are we always successful in resolving conflicts responsibly? How about those who know no better then? These are the challenges that we face.

We must at all cost eschew violence and seek to solve problems amicably. I understand that self-preservation is a natural act. So I expect people to fight back when attacked. However, a lot of these fights at the interpersonal level can be avoided. People solve conflicts the way they know how. So, it follows that if taught to do it amicably to start with, that is what they will do. These actors at the national level are the same ones who once operated locally. The conflict resolution skills they learn as toddlers and young adults, are the same ones they use when entrusted with power and responsibility at the national level. This is why we have to strive to infuse our folks with the right skills at a young age. There is a desperate need to put in place now, more than ever, viable and trusted institutions to quickly attend to these conflicts. My bias for Mediation as a third party conflict resolution tool is well documented. However, mediation is not a cure all. We need to build capacity in other areas of conflict resolutions as well. Most of these tools do not require a court or slick lawyers to play around with aggravating technicalities. If you don?t have the skills, get help. Even if you have the skills, anger can make a fool of you. The good news is that even anger can be managed to a greater extent. As a country, Ghana must endeavor to prepare its people in dealing with conflict at the micro, and macro levels.

Sometimes, I feel like giving up on our constipated and troubled judiciary. Incompetence and corruption seem to have a stranglehold on our judiciary. Is this the same judiciary my father worked for all his life? I remember growing up and wanting to be a noble lawyer. Now, the long military occupation and partisan appointments has compromised our judiciary. The independence of the judiciary in Ghana is just another empty phrase. The malfunctioning judiciary is retarding Ghana?s development seriously. Cases requiring immediate attention are jailed indefinitely in the judicial system. Foreign investors are not prone to invest in places where the courts don?t work. When the judiciary fails, we give a firm thumbs up to violence and irresponsible behavior. If we come to appreciate and respect the role that the rule of law plays in the reduction of violence and therefore development, we will know why it is a matter of national urgency to restore and shore up our justice system. When people lose faith in a torturous and ineffective court system, the tendency is to take matters into their own hands, which then lead to violence and lawlessness. We need peace and harmony to move on and up and this will be the case when we get the skills we need and institutions we demand to help us deal with conflict effectively and timely. This is another mindset shift that must happen now.

Nii Lantey Okunka Bannerman
( MSc, BA Bus Admin. Dip Public Admin, Grad Cert Ins. Design, Cert Conflict Resolution Processes)

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.