Dr Edmund Abaka talks about media and accountability in African politics
One of the major weaknesses of the African political landscape is the lack of transparency and accountability in government. In African politics, excessive concentration of power often lead to very little accountability. In this way, the people who gave X or Y the mandate to rule are often shortchanged. Very little information, and more often, partisan information at that, is sometimes available on crucial aspects of state affairs.
The African respect for elders is sometimes carried to a level where it is impolitic and downright disrespectful to call leaders to account in some countries. Opposition leaders are sometimes harassed and hounded into exile. The opposition is never seen as a partner in government, but as an adversary who should be pulled down. Is the opposition a partner even in the west? Consequently, no quarter is given and no quarter accepted by both opposition and government - too many examples abound in many African countries in the post-independence period.
The opposition in Africa also deserves part of the blame for the state of political affairs on the continent. First, boycotting parliament has never worked and will never work in Africa, given the existing political climate. It is only when the people are mobilized that ruling parties will listen. Governments, using their majorities in parliaments, often continue with the businesses of the various countries with or without the opposition. Members of the ruling government almost always vote for government policies. The whole concept of crossing the carpet or party members voting against government policies that are faulty and inimical to the interest of the people is not a significant part of the African political practice.
Political parties, especially the opposition, often channel all their energies into discrediting personalities. Politicians should definitely be held to a high moral standard, there is no doubt about that. But what options are available when the energies of the opposition are focused on personalities rather than issues. More often, very few alternatives to government policies and plans are tabled in parliament. There is no gainsaying the fact that such policies and proposals may not be accepted by the government for political reasons. Yet, they have to be made in the first place, and must be on record as having been made. We need to create a political culture whereby they will be made as a matter of course, and hope that when these plans are well thought out and meaningful, governments will rise above partisan politics and adopt some of these plans.
When all is said and done, the African political system needs to be tightened up. Watchful citizens and voters should demand accountability from their governments. We should inculcate in the citizenry a desire and a principle to say no to corrupt, incompetent and self-serving politicians. But how do we do this? The interests of nations should be paramount, not those of individual and groups that have arrogated to themselves the bona-fide right to rule.
To make governments even more transparent, we need a weekly or bi-weekly "meet the press." This will not be press conferences called by the governments. Rather, government officials will be quizzed by a select group of journalists and political commentators as part of the political system. In the process, government officials will have the chance to explain government policies, explain laws and actions taken, and clarify issues that are of importance to the people.
In the end, both the government and the people will be well served as each gets the opportunity either to expatiate on statements made, explain laws passed or policies undertaken, and respond to criticism. This type of transparency will enable to trust the government and put an end to the "akee akee" that is the hallmark of the African political discourse.
But more important, the press and the judiciary should be strengthened as independent watchdogs. The glowing report on the 2004 elections in Ghana can be attributed in large measure to the free press that has been acting as a strong force in politics. The radio - numerous FM stations - and a low and affordable technological tool at that is at the cornerstone of mass participation in Ghana. There are problems with the media - no doubt about it - but the lively debated are akin to what is happening on this forum. The NDC government deserved some credit for permitting the developing of the free press in Ghana even if it acquiesced unwillingly to its growth. But at the end of the day, the people demanded a space for the press in national development. They fought for it and they got it and we should salute that effort. We need to strengthen the press in African countries. How do we do that? I have no idea. Similarly, we need Human Rights organizations and offices across the continent as pressure groups on governments. These should be watchdogs for the people against leaders who live above the law.