Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng, a member of this forum, writes on political cynicism in Ghana's body politic. Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng is a veteran African journalist and writer. In the 1980s, he was the editor of a major newspaper in Ghana, from where he went on to edit the well-known West Africa Magazine in London.  He has reported on developments throughout Africa.  He is currently a communications consultant, specializing in civil society communications and works with Third World Network - Africa.

Thursday Diary

Political cynicism - Na who cause am ? - Part I

Two days ago, President Agyekum Kufuor delivered his State of the Nation
address to Parliament, the first time a president has fulfilled this
constitutional requirement. Naturally, he dwelt on the good things his
government had done in the last four years, but early in his speech, he
referred to the political cynicism in our body politic, which he attributed
to the doomsayers in our midst. I hoped the President would go on a bit
longer; even devote the whole speech to this point because without working
to dispel this cynicism nothing his or any government would do will succeed
in lifting Ghana from poverty, dependency and despondency. If the President
and his government succeeded in reversing this dangerous mood, they would
have succeeded where every government since 1960 has failed.

What is this cynicism and where does it come from? The Chambers Paperback
dictionary defines cynic or cynical as "disinclined to recognise or believe
in goodness or selflessness". Translated into our current situation,
cynicism is the general belief that people are in whatever they do for their
own private gain. This means people believe that politicians, civil
servants, company bosses, journalists, police officers, military people,
even religious leaders are in it for the cash or the material comforts they
can glean for themselves. The President is right; the nation is the grips of
cynicism fever and he and us don't need an opinion poll to confirm this

A few weeks before the elections, I went to the Kantamanto area in Accra
Central to talk to some of the many young men and women who are engaged in a
hardscrabble struggle for existence selling anything that is not bolted down
around the streets there. When I asked them which party they thought would
satisfy their aspirations their answers always ran on the lines of "they are
all the same, they are all in it for their pockets..." The irony was that
they had previously said they would vote for one party or another.
Therefore, I asked them why they were going to vote for their party if they
felt so hopeless about its ability to deliver what they needed. The burden
of their answers was that they supported their party without holding out any
hope for themselves. I came away with the feeling that these young people
saw the elections as a Hearts-Kotoko kind of situation - they were in it for
the momentary thrill of the win; they will return to their hard struggle the
following day.

Let me give you another example: I was in cab travelling on a new road that
connects the Achimota-Legon road to Dome. This road has cut travelling time
between West Legon and Achimota or Legon by at least one hour, and would cut
it by a lot more if it wasn't so degraded in many parts. There is a
particular part of this new road that looks like the moon surface. Drivers
actually have to select which pothole would do the least damage to their
cars. I remarked to the driver that the government ought to collect its
money back from the contractor who did this obvious sub-standard work. The
driver looked at me with both incredulity and contempt and spat out his
response: "Chief, where have you been? That contractor is conspiring with
the government. They share the money. They don't care about us". I was
warming up to the theme by this time so I asked whether the media could not
shame the contractor by putting the spotlight on him. Again, the answer was
pure cynicism: "Ho, those journalists take money from the big contractors.
We have been talking about this kind of bad road construction for decades
but the journalists are not interested: A number of our executives went to
the newspapers but we heard that the journalists went to see the big men and
they killed the story". Despite my protestations, the driver insisted that
even though he had no direct evidence, he knew that he was right about all
these contractors, government officials and journalists being on the take. I
explained that I knew many upright people in both the previous and current
government but the driver cut me short with the suggestion that if I were
going to be so contrary he would rather drop me where we were without taking
his fare. I kept quiet. I could cite example after example but I am sure you
get the picture.

The President is right; cynicism is like a festering wound on an internal
organ feeding on itself; in a short time, it will kill the whole body.
However, it is important that we find the source of this canker. Ghanaians
were not born this way; we acquired the habit through the accumulation of
negatives through life's journey. Indeed, I think we can make the case that
to the extent that we can typecast a whole nation, we can describe Ghanaians
as compliant and mostly trustful of authority. Imagine the many times in the
past when the whole population has gone to sleep at six o'clock in the
evening on the say-so of a single individual addressing us via radio. The
amazing thing, which reveals our character, is that even in remote villages
where there is no police let alone military presence people still observe
the curfew stringently.

At independence, Ghana was a place of very hopeful people. Next time you see
a clip of the famous declaration of independence at midnight on 5th March
1957 take a close look at the faces of the people in the crowd. With the
moonlight and the spotlights shining on their faces upturned towards the
podium on which the leaders, you can't misread their emotional acceptance of
the leaders picture of the future. Beyond emotion, they had the evidence to
back their optimism. Between 1951 when Nkrumah became Leader of Government
Business and 1957, the economy had expanded considerably making it possible
for more people to find jobs and educational opportunities. The Mass
Education programme enabled many illiterate adults to acquire literacy
within a short period; the swollen shoot disease that has caused havoc with
the cocoa crop a decade or so earlier had been conquered and the rural areas
were experiencing prosperity they had never had before. People believed
Nkrumah when he said he could see "cities of Ghana becoming metropolises of
science, arts, scientific agriculture and philosophy..."

The optimism of the early post-independence years began to ebb with the
realisation that many of the leaders in whom the public had invested so much
trust were engaging in dubious activities. Even where corruption could not
be proved the behaviour of these leaders were inconsistent with the
pronouncements and professed ideology of the party and its leader. For
example, one of Nkrumah's closest allies in the government, Krobo Edusei
bought a gold-plated bed at three thousands pounds sterling, much to the
amazement of the public while other ministers bought expensive and exotic
cars imported from all over the world. What was worse, Nkrumah seemed
unwilling or unable to do anything about this while he continued to call on
the ordinary people to tighten their belts for a better future. When a
combination of different circumstances brought shortages of consumer goods
the people responded with cynical ploys by which each person wanted to
survive at the expense of society as a whole. This was one of the reasons
why the CPP, at one time Africa's best organised political party was
overthrown without any public resistance.

If the seeds of cynicism were sown in the latter Nkrumah years, they were
watered copiously by the military regimes that followed one another with
only brief civilian interregnums beginning in 1966. Immediately after the
1966 coup, the main architects rewarded themselves with rapid promotions and
other perks. In less than one year in office the public had discerned that
the new leaders were not the disinterested saints they claimed to be. Their
jostling for wealth and political power, in some cases by proxy, is
well-documented but what is less so is that the civil servants who were
courted and promoted by the junta soon became very rich people and the thing
caught like a contagion. The Acheampong/Akuffo and the different Rawlings
phases all produced their millionaires from almost nothing. It became clear
that political power was synonymous with private wealth creation.