by Femi Akomolafe
(Swans - November 16, 2009) During the first week of October 2009 in Ghana the news waves were saturated with reports that some ministers of government had decided to have a taste of what hoi polloi go through every day in the transportation department.
The ministers abandoned their brand new air-conditioned, four-wheel-drive jeeps -- bought, fueled and maintained at the taxpayers' expense -- and hopped into the contraptions we called Trotro around here, which is the only mode of transport available to the majority of Ghanaians. To those not in the know, Trotro are giant metal cages on wheels, and they are a common sight on many an African road. They are simply utility vehicles meant to transport you from point A to point B, period. Looking for comfort, then forget the Trotro. You should simply count yourself lucky if you emerge from a Trotro without your fabric torn by metal that protrudes from every part of the contraption that forms the major part of African transport system.
Some of the ministers later came on air mouthing such baloney like that they were doing it in solidarity with the common man/woman. Some of them said that it would enable them to get a feel of what the ordinary masses go through every day.
Whatever the reason, the sight was so unbecoming that journalists left their normal beats and rushed to capture it for entranced citizens. The news so captured the imagination of the people that analysts browbeat it to death.
It shows serious disconnect between the governors and the governed when news of governors sharing public transport becomes a big-time news item. In other normal societies, it is normal -- very normal -- for rulers to share in the anguish of their people. But in our part of the world where the rulers continue to behave like colonial overlords, the spectacle of them partaking in what their people go through every day is considered newsworthy.
Several times in these pages, I have provided instances of Dutch politicians, including the prime ministers, riding their own cars or taking public transport. It is considered so normal in the Netherlands that it is not newsworthy when an MP takes a train. High Dutch officials, the Queen included, joyfully ride bicycles. So enamored are the Dutch with their bicycles that they have special lanes for them.
A few years ago, it was reported that the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair had been fined for riding in a train without a ticket. Her excuse that she was in a hurry to get to her office was not bought by the (gasp!) black train conductor who slapped her with the fine.
In our part of the world, the wife of a District chief executive (equivalent of the head of a County) would not be caught dead in any of our public transport. And god helped the "stupid" policeman foolish enough to harass the wife of an African minister.
Also in my columns, I have railed against the inability (or is it unwillingness?) of the African political class to share in the burden of anguish they imposed on their citizens. It is this capacity of African leaders to set themselves far above their people that, I believe is responsible for much of the worrisome poverty that keeps defacing the face of this beautiful continent. It is this inability of African rulers to have solidarity with their own that informed their exchanging their folks for gin, trinkets, guns, and the other goodies that the slavers used to dazzle them. We see the same pattern today where African leaders accept bribes from Western multinationals and allow the imperialists to loot our resources.
As soon as they get into position of authority, African leaders, whatever their political coloration, easily eased themselves into the Orwellian land of all animals are simply not equal. All over Africa, we have big, opulent presidential palaces constructed in sharp contrast to gigantic slums.
Kenya is a classical case of where the so-called opposition has joined the so-called "government" in high living. Members of the Kenyan parliament, no matter to which political party they belong, eagerly and very enthusiastically voted for pay rises and car allowances. Kenyan ministers of every political persuasion are reluctant, very reluctant to trade their big Mercedes Benzes for smaller cars to save money for the Kenyan treasury. Nigeria's otiose political elites are a class unto themselves; they have transformed the business of looting public treasury into a fine art. So totally shameless are Nigerian politicians that stories of high corruption no longer bother them.
Of course, the imperialists continue to do their damage, but we simply cannot escape from the fact that the callous lack of empathy by African leaders to feel for their people is largely responsible for the heart-wrenching poverty we see all around us. African leaders continue to see their countries like conquered lands whose wealth must be looted with haste.
It is this lack of compassion that makes African leaders continue to sell their country/continent short to foreigners. A case in point is the situation where Ghana's former President Kufuor allegedly single-handedly sold the country's flagship communication outfit, Ghana Telecom (GT), for a song. Mr. Kufuor also reportedly accepted a lower bid for Ghana Telecom and threw in Ghana's Fiber Optic Backbone and the GT University as a freebie into the deal.
I have said countless times that the gods cannot be blamed for Africa's woes. By resourcing us with vast minerals wealth, the gods have certainly done their best for us. That Africa remains the world's basket case and non-achiever is largely due to the inability of our leaders to think beyond their selfish interests.
Let us take Guinea. This country of ten million people performs abysmally low in all developmental indices, yet in the words of Encarta 2009: "The mineral wealth of Guinea makes the economy of this country potentially one of the strongest in Africa. About one-third of the known world reserves of high-grade bauxite ore is found in Guinea. Sizable deposits of iron ore exist; other known mineral resources include diamonds, gold, petroleum, uranium, cobalt, nickel, and platinum. Guinea also has great potential for hydroelectric power."
The vast scale of minerals available in this West African nation has made some people aptly call Guinea a "geological scandal."
I think that the same can be said about much of Africa.
Sadly, African elites continue to be incapable of thinking outside the box. Take this as another example: With much fanfare the government of former Ghanaian President Kufuor bamboozled the populace and promoted the building of a presidential palace as a national emergency.
There is nothing wrong, per se, in building a presidential palace, but it must take a very daft reasoning to do so with borrowed money. I wrote a piece for The Dispatch, a Ghanaian daily, begging for a rethinking of the decision to borrow money from the Indians (or anyone else for that matter) to build a palace for our chief of state. Of course, Mr. Kufuor's Atlantic-size ego demanded nothing but the best that money (even if borrowed) could buy. I offered some suggestions on what we could do with the borrowed money and one of these was to use it to connect my favorite city, Kasoa, with the capital, Accra, with a rail link. The rail would generate enough revenue within a short time to enable us to blow it on a presidential palace or any other projects that might attract our prodigal political class.
Of course, no one takes any serious note of a suggestion by a humble columnist and the rest, they say, is history. The shenanigans surrounding the palace are still unfolding, but the new Mills government has not helped itself by suggesting that about fifty million cedis would be needed for landscaping the edifice. The palace's original budget of about fifty million dollars has ballooned to close to one hundred million and now they have the temerity to tell us that we need about forty million dollars more to complete it.
It is sometimes difficult not to want to shed serious tears for this country and continent when one listens to those governing us.
In a country where many folks go through life without tasting potable water, where many children still study under trees and transport themselves to school in rickety boats, where our people are still clothing themselves in second-hand garments from Europe, one must be totally lacking in feeling not to look scandalized by the lavish lifestyles of our governors.
The argument here is not that ministers of government should not enjoy the good life -- no! We are talking about some measure of egalitarianism. How do our leaders, in good conscience, justify the huge sums we are expending on them when, year in and year out, they are serving us the same useless platitudes? No one would have a quarrel if we saw our leaders solving some of the problems ailing us. With constant rituality, our governments announced budgets and made solemn vows to banish hunger and want from the face of our nation. Yet, we are still bedeviled by the same perennial problems.
Take another example, electricity: We know that developed nations are powered by electricity. All form of modern life depends of the efficient production and transmission of electricity. This simple truth could not have escaped our leaders. The question then arises: Why has none of them successfully tackled it?
But for the foresight of our founding father, Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana today would be in total darkness. None of our leaders have thought about building another dam big enough to supplement the Akosombo Dan.
We are not asking for the moon; we are not even asking for a space suit. All that we ask for are the basics of life that people in other regions are taking for granted: food, water, housing, and light. How on earth do our leaders expect us to be productive, innovative, and creative when we still engage our energies in pursuing elusive water, inconstant light, inadequate food, and insufficient housing?
I will have no problem with Ghana's political elites chauffeuring themselves in the biggest and baddest jeeps money can buy when I see them doing their best to ensure that we start producing something in the country. The argument that the Mills government is less than a year old does not hold any water. As I told a panel recently, citizens can feel the impact of a serious government a few weeks after its assumption of power. If the Mills team had come into office with serious plans, we would have felt their impact by now.
Here is yet another example, agriculture: If Team Mills had a serious agriculture policy, food would be plentiful in our markets by now. Although rice is now making serious inroads, our staple foods remain maize and cassava. Modern methods have ensured that both crops can now be grown and harvested inside of four months. Our ministers of agriculture owe us an explanation as to why they haven't formulated and implemented the policies and programmes to take some of our army of unemployed youth and turn them into successful farmers.
The problems we face in this blessed continent of ours are not necessarily due to lack of finance as we like to bemoan. We are suffering from a poverty of ideas. And I say that it is time we citizens start to name and shame those in positions of power who refuse to see the irony (and the obscenity) of their opulence in comparison to the grinding poverty the vast majority of our people is experiencing.
Do they have no shame at all? Do they think that the visitors to our land with whom they are constantly parlaying will be impressed with their big Pajeros and Toyota Land Cruisers when they see the rat- and mosquitoe-infested, gigantic ghettos in which our people still live in this time and age?
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