Feature Article of Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Columnist: Quaye, Nii Otu

Reflections On Agyepong: A Modest Plea For Cool Heads And Harmony

One reassuring perception on Ghanaians is that we are kind, lively, and hospitable. At least neighborhood friends, schoolmates, and professional colleagues often resonate these sentiments about Ghanaians. While some of these praises might be too sweeping, or even unsubstantiatable, they nonetheless are priceless compliments to feel good about, thinking that, given everything equal, people would like to choose Ghana as a haven or, at least, a contender in their vacation and investment plans. Our behaviors, especially in our political expressions on the web, vilifying one another and propagating hatred, do not square up to the glowing picture on us. The Agyepong matter has worsen the situation, prompting this writing to analyze it relative the contours of the implicated guarantees to free speech and freedom from unlawful governmental restraints; how, consciously or unconsciously, we have let our ethno-partisan affiliations to compromise and usher us onto potentially dangerous paths; and plead for harmony in dealing with one another.

It is true, as some have sternly contended, that the Agyepong incident did not erupt from an otherwise clear sky, citing, among other incidents, the lingering Woyome controversy and the unfortunate incident at Odododiodoo. Woyome, certainly is a political red meat and, while it clearly can be exploited for political pluses, as seems to be happening, it has absolutely no merit for serving as the catalyst for the war mongering that Agyepong engendered. Correspondingly, although Odododiodoo is unquestionably disheartening in so far as it has sharply divided some Ghanaians on ethnic and partisan lines, occasioning the plausible feeling that some Ghanaians are not allowed to politick competitively on level playing fields, it is unfathomable how a member of Parliament, a leader supposed to unite for harmony and progress, could have gone so low as to turn the admittedly controversial incident into a war mongering slogan. Indeed, inasmuch as it is axiomatic that two wrongs do not make a right, the open and unanswerable puzzle is how a national dignitary, a parliamentarian, could have unleashed such an unthinkable idea.

Specifically, no matter what situation one is put into, calling on countrymen to wage war on fellow countrymen is a no no. It is much worse where the call is from a person whose sheer status as an M.P. is highly likely to cull support from many, including those who voted him into Parliament and of those hailing from his party and ethnicity.

Frankly and ironically, what the Honorable Agyepong uttered is dishonorable, disingenuous, and dangerous, meriting renunciation in no uncertain terms. However, the renunciation should not provide an unfettered slate for arbitrary sanctions. Instead, it should be circumspect and measured to fit the offense and deter anyone prone to propagating hatred and violence from doing so. Regrettably, many Ghanaians have likened the utterance to treason and terrorism, calling for up to the death penalty, even though the facts thus far disclosed to us hardly match those crimes. Taking "treason," for instance, the term refers to acts that betray a country to another country or call for the overthrow of a government by unlawful means, which clearly is not what Agyepong did.

Aside of the flaws in equating the utterance to treason, etc., some columnists, again on partisan and ethnic lines, have passionately criticized President Mills for failing to act swiftly to control the situation. While, swift intervention to restore stability in volatile situations is, indeed, virtuous and priceless, it is not always the best antidote, as an uncautious step can easily backfire and trigger worse consequences. As we have been taught time and again, eschewing erratic reactions by using cooler heads often trump otherwise dangerous moments by defusing tension, keeping them under control, and tactfully killing them. Mindful of this wise admonition, it is suggested that President Mills’ apparent initial inaction, questionable though it may seem to some, should be looked at positively and credited with the benefits of the doubt. After all, not only has his government taken the necessary steps to indict Agyepong, but his calm stance, and arguably that of his formidable opponent, Nana Akuffo Addo, have been replicated by the Ghanaian community, helping the tension to die down slowly but steadily.

I am sure some readers may disagree with this assessment, which I fully understand, as everyone is entitled to his or her own beliefs. However, the point to keep in mind is that beliefs are nontoxic only for as long as they are held within the individuals who harbor them. When emitted into the public domain, as Mr. Agyepong did here, provocative beliefs pose different challenges, altogether.

The starkly opposing partisan and ethnocentric actions and reactions that erupted in the aftermath of the utterance tell it all. Specifically, while many people of Mr. Agyepong's ethnicity and party affiliation seem to attenuate the reprehensibility of the utterance and, instead, focus on their perceived failings of the Government, people from the targeted groups implacably clamor for Agyepong to be punished for treason although the facts do not seem to warrant that. Further exposition of the divide on ethno-partisan lines is evident from the prompt reactionary remark of the Honorable Justice Kpegah. Like anyone targeted by Agyepong's onslaught, Justice Kpegah was justified in feeling offended, angry, and pushed by the highly inflammatory public utterance. However, his impassionate public response, telling the entire world that the beleaguered groups are ready to fight Agyepong's group is, to say the least, unnecessary and dangerous. President Kufuor did well by suggesting to President Mills to act with caution, using the analogy of killing a fly by a sledge hammer to point out the impropriety of the contemplated punishment for Agyepong's offense. However, he likewise went a little too far in using additional metaphors and innuendos to liken Agyepong's arrest to pouring oil on fire, thereby suggesting that the arrest was wrong.

To the extent readers may take issues with the arrest, I respectfully submit that the arrest was appropriate. In legal terms, an arrest, based on one’s public utterance implicates a brief look at the right to speak and assemble and that to be free from unlawful restraint.

Under our Constitution, everyone is guaranteed the right not only to assemble and speak freely but also to be free from unlawful governmental restraints. However, while these guarantees are fundamental, none is absolute. Instead, they are subject to proper exercise of the government's police powers to protect and preserve the public welfare of the state.
The free speech guarantee affords us the liberty to assemble freely and share ideas or debate issues. Specifically, we have the right to say what we want: agree, disagree, oppose one another, or even dislike one another. However, the limits are solid: freedom of speech and to assemble is not protected if one calls for the overthrow of the government by unconstitutional means., if the speech meets the definition of obscenity and defamation, or constitutes fighting words or clear and present danger.

Correspondingly, the individual's protection against unlawful governmental restraint prohibits the government from, among other things, arresting anybody unless it has a good reason to do so. The good reason exists where the government has “probable cause ” to believe that the arrestee has committed, is committing, or about to commit a crime. “Probable cause" in this context is exactly what the term implies, probabilities. It does not require a precise determination or belief beyond a reasonable doubt. Nor does
it require an inevitable disaster to happen before warranting the State's intervention.
Instead, it contemplates how a reasonable law enforcement officer would assess the totality of a given situation. What Mr. Agyepong did clearly could have caused some misguided Ghanaians, no matter how few, to attack the targeted Ghanaians, who likewise could misguidedly have responded and thereby escalated the situation beyond what anyone can reasonably tell. Where the inflammatory utterance sought to and was likely to incite some Ghanaians to kill other Ghanaians, the state is entitled to effect the arrest as it did here, especially where the arrest did not evince any unwarranted police brutality, let alone any brutality, and where Mr. Agyepong was granted bail soon thereafter.

The arrest is rationalizable even outside of the legal context. It suffices to note that, in addition to the possibility that the arrest arguably deterred others from acting, offensively or defensively, to escalate the volatile situation, there was the likelihood that any member of the beleaguered ethnic groups would have attacked or attempted to attack Mr. Agyepong if he had not been arrested, a possibility which could also have aggravated the situation immeasurably. In addition, the arrest arguably constituted a specific deterrence, where it precluded Mr. Agyepong from making anymore inflammatory statements and also caused him to take a remorseful stance explaining to members of the beleaguered tribes that he has them at heart and did not intend to harm any of them.

At this juncture, let us reflect on a few closing remarks:

Luckily, due to some positive historical experiences and programs instituted by our first President to bridge the ethnic gaps, inter-ethnic marriages have got us to a point where we have no pure Akan-Ghanaians, Hausa-Ghanaians, Ga-Ghanaians, Ewe-Ghanaians, etc. Thus, to contemplate calling on a group of Ghanaians to kill members of other groups is foolhardy as it only amounts to asking people to kills their spouses, children, and in-laws, etc. Agyepong's remorse reflecting his solid Ewe and other sanguinal connections should give us some consolation on this score. If we should lure ourselves to fight one another in an election year, it appears most plausibly that the blame might hinge on our gullibility and susceptibility to political manipulation, rather than on our ethnicity. To fully defuse any lingering tension, we should concentrate on politicking objectively, professionally, and cordially.

We should be reminded of one further enduring reality: whether we call ourselves Ashantis, Fantes, Ewes, or Gas; NPPians, NDCians, CPPians or whatever, we are all Ghanaians and, as such, our destiny lies in none others but us. While some of our human peculiarities, ethnicities and political affiliations naturally differentiate us in many ways, triggering competition, biases, and disagreement on issues, these incidents are not necessarily unhealthy. Nor are they mutually exclusive relative to our peaceful co-existence. Instead, if used prudently and constructively, as we should, they will afford us immeasurable strengths and advantages to foster stability and progress that would enable us compete adequately in the ever-growing challenging world.

Thus, while we can lend ourselves to political manipulations, etc., and tow the path of destruction, as we seem to be doing, we must, instead, wisely make our diversities and differences a rallying point for working harmoniously for the common good.

Finally, let us be mindful that Mr. Agyepong, though on bail awaiting trial, is presumed innocent until tried and adjudged otherwise. His trial, like any other trial, must be fair and free of extraneous influences. What this means in practice is that he must be tried by a free and independent judiciary to a free-minded jury. To do so meaningfully in tandem with our Constitution, the principles of natural justice and due process, we should avoid making prejudicial statements that can create the perception that he is denied a fair trial overbearing unwarranted influences even if the statements did not actually impact the case.

Long Live Ghana!

By Dr. Nii Otu Quaye