Tag Archives: politics

Obruni Chief

Rod McLaren, also known as Nana Akwasi Amoako Agyemen, is dressed in traditional regalia for a funeral. After moving from Canada to Ghana, he was given the esteemed title Nkosuohene. Picture supplied by Rod LcLaren.

Ghana is full of people who came to the country, fell in love with it and its people, and ended up staying.

Rod McLaren’s story is a little different. Like many others, his journey took him back and forth between Saskatchewan, Canada and Ghana, but he’s also received a distinctive accolade – Nkosuohene. He is now a chief in charge of the progress of roughly 200 villages.

After graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with an English degree in 1971, a 23 year-old McLaren went to Ghana on a two-year teaching contract with the then Canadian University Service Overseas, a Canadian development organization.

“When I was nearing the end of my degree I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and the idea of working overseas appealed to me. I had no idea where I wanted to go, so when the posting came up for Ghana I just took it,” he said.

He finished his contract and headed back to Canada, but returned to Ghana for a couple weeks in 1976 to pick up his future wife and take her back to Canada. They soon were married and had three children while McLaren worked for First Nation’s communities, farmed, and even opened a hardware store.

In 2001 they sold their business and moved back to Ghana to open the African Rainbow Resort in Busua, on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea in southern Ghana.

Three years later, an old friend and Asante chief approached McLaren to offer him the title of Nkosuohene. It is a relatively new position in the ancient tradition of the Akan Chieftaincy – the long-established power structure of the various Akan people that populate the area around Ghana and Ivory Coast.

The Chieftaincy is a pre-colonial institution of governance with judicial, legislative, and executive powers. “The chief of a village or a town was the leader, politically, spiritually, militarily, judicially. He spoke for his people, led them in battle, and heard the cases of his people,” explained McLaren.

Although the traditional chieftaincy is active only in history books in other countries, it exists alongside the presidential system as a parallel political structure in Ghana.

Its survival can be linked to the fact that while the neighboring countries were French colonies or protectorates, Ghana, then the Gold Coast, was British. Because of the British colonial system of “Indirect Rule,” they relied on chiefs and elders to help govern the Gold Coast and the chieftaincy survived.

When the Republic of Ghana was founded in 1957, because of the Chieftaincy’s historical and cultural significance, it was agreed that the chieftaincy system should be respected. Its relevance was again guaranteed in the 1992 constitution.

The chiefs work with sub-chiefs and elders to aid the development of their areas, making provisions for water, education, roads and other infrastructure. It is an especially important role in the more rural areas where the other government has less of a presence. Once a chief dies, the elders select a successor from the region’s old families. Although their role has somewhat diminished, chiefs remain hugely important and powerful people.

“The chief is assumed to be the embodiment of the ancestors. He embodies all his people and all the spirits of the people who have gone before,” explained McLaren.

The position of Nkosuohene was the brainchild of the Asantehene, the king of the Ghanaian Asante people, a sort of chief of chiefs. The Nkosuohene is a “sub-chief” responsible for the development of the region. The title was created to honour someone who does not have to be member of a royal family and is meant to bring in people from outside the area who have a different education and new ideas.

“He [the Asantehene] was trying to incorporate people who were not necessarily members of the royal but whose education and experience who could help the people develop,” said McLaren.

It is a lifetime appointment that comes with prestige but responsibility. Along with the title, McLaren was given the name “Nana Akwasi Amoako Agyemen.” He is charged with overseeing development in the Edubiase Traditional Area, an area comprised of about 200 villages in the Asante Region.

“There’s quite a difference in the expectations on the chiefs in the Asante Region opposed to others. The Asante take the position a lot more seriously and don’t give it out haphazardly,” he said.

The position has been challenging; there was a steep learning curve that he was responsible for overcoming on his own.

“I really thought I’d have a vigorous training and orientation, but I ended up doing almost everything myself,” he said.

He took an active role for the first five years after the appointment, appearing at various functions, attending funerals, meeting every 40 days, and applying for countless grants.

“I tried my best to find them funding, but the proposals have never really gone that far,” he said. “I don’t know if I deserved to get the position at all. Although I’ve worked hard at doing things, I’m not sure I can show any results that can justify the hope that people have had for me.”

However, there have been successes. He says the accomplishment he is most proud of was the successful establishment of a daycare.

Currently, he divides his time between Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and Busua, Ghana.

The politics of being gay

On my first day of work, I was asked how I felt about having a gay president.

The question was referring to President Obama’s announcement in support of gay marriage; my reaction was some combination of nervous laughter, discomfort, denial and correction. It was the first of many conversations about Ghanaians’ attitudes toward homosexuality, which would unequivocally be deemed homophobic in North America.

It is getting close to election time here. The 2008 election had a high voter turnout – 72.91%, compared to the United States’ 56.8%. Mills’ peaceful victory was considered a redeeming display of African constitutional democracy after the corrupt elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Does a high turnout and lack of military coup during elections translate to a fair democratic state? The Constitution claims to have a commitment to “the principle of universal adult suffrage” and “the protection and preservation of fundamental human rights and freedoms.”

There are various documented ramifications of being gay in Ghana. On May 21, Joy FM aired a documentary called “The Gay Next Door” which explores the gay community in Jamestown, Accra. After the recent discovery of a “lesbian party”, gay men and women were beaten, threatened and bullied. Police officers stood by, and when victims went to police headquarters seeking justice, they were refused.

“All these gay people who are making noise are doing so because there is no law that says that it is criminal. Parliament should look at that if possible,” one listener chimed in.

The broadcaster agreed. “If the majority of people feel that it is something that is wrong and it should be criminalized, you ask your lawmakers to amend the criminal code and add it to the sexual offenses act.”

Supporting gay rights in Ghana is political suicide. Official statements against homosexuality have been made by people at local and national levels of government. In 2011, the Western Regional Minister called for the arrest of gays, and President Mills has dismissed international pressures to legalize gay rights on multiple occasions.

“Ghanaian society frowns upon homosexuality and everybody has been telling us that democracy means governance for the people, by the people in the interest of the people,” President Mills commented.

On June 4, NPP Youth Organiser in the Ashanti Region, Collins Randy Amankwa, called for a harsher statement from Mills: “Ghanaians must open their eyes wide because our president may surprise us all just like Obama did to the Americans. He went there several times to seek for help before Obama made that declaration. What if he is given a huge assistance just so he will declare our support and recognition for homosexuality?”

Regardless of the religious and cultural contexts, publicly denouncing a faction of the constituency is a way to alienate certain citizens from the political process, and I wonder if this violates Ghana’s democratic principles.

In a background note published by the UN, Diana Ayton-Shenker addresses the potential conflict between human rights and cultural diversity. “The right to culture is limited at the point at which it infringes on another human right.”

Ghana will see a different political climate in fifty years – the same amount of time that made President Obama’s election possible. In Ghana’s relatively new democracy, I ask a question that few nations can answer affirmatively: is it possible for a publicly gay person to be elected to office?

My colleague – the staunch opponent of legalizing homosexuality who asked me the opening question – thinks it is possible.

“I’m sure, with time. The younger generation is more liberal than the previous one. In the next fifty years, we may not have a gay president, but we will have a community that generally accepts gay rights.”

 

How Malawi will remember late president Bingu Wa Mutharika

Bingu Mutharika passed away after suffering cardiac arrest on April 05, 2012

Bingu Wa Mutharika, former president of Malawi, died after suffering cardiac arrest on April 5, 2012. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos

The flag flies at half mast outside Malawi’s parliament building where thousands of civilians have braved long line-ups in smoldering hot sunshine to view the body of late president, Bingu Wa Mutharika, who died after suffering cardiac arrest on April 5, 2012.

To an outsider, this seems like a country truly mourning the loss of their beloved leader. Radio stations and newspapers are bombarded with messages of condolence, while government offices have shut down for the next 30 days.

And though some might argue that the sheer turnout to see Mutharika’s body is evidence of his vast popularity, there are others who say that nothing could be farther from the truth.

Precious Gondwe, 34, has been waiting in a queue to enter parliament for nearly two hours, and her determination to view Mutharika’s embalmed body is fuelled by a desire for closure rather than respect.

“I came here to see with my own eyes that our president is no longer with us,” says Gondwe, “It’s funny that we are lining up to see him when he is the reason we line up for essentials like petrol and sugar.”

Gondwe’s views are not uncommon.

According to Chijere Chirwa, a politics professor at Malawi’s Chancellor College, the lack of mourning among some Malawians can be characterized as “strange” but not unexpected considering the recent failures of Mutharika’s regime to uphold democratic ideals and improve the living conditions for the 74 per cent of the population who survive on less than a $1.25 per day.

“A lot of the critical minds would regard the current economic, social and political situation as developments closely connected with the president,” says Chirwa.

For the past two years, Mutharika, once hailed by the World Bank for his successful fertilizer subsidy program, steered Malawi’s economy into steep decline by telling foreign donors who contribute 40 per cent of the annual budget to “go to hell”.

His dismissal of aid catapulted the government into the adoption of a zero deficit budget which subsequently affirmed that the small landlocked country couldn’t self-sustain with limited resources.

More than 80 per cent of Malawians rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, and tobacco is the country’s main crop, as well as its primary generator of foreign currency. But since 2011, sales of the golden leaf have plummeted by a dismal 57 per cent resulting in reduced finances to purchase fuel from suppliers like Saudi Arabia. This scarcity coupled with a fixed exchange rate has increased consumer inflation to a staggering 10.9 per cent.

According to Voice Mhone, chairperson for the Malawian Civil Society Organizations, the months leading up to Mutharika’s death were overshadowed by rampant dissatisfaction.

“I think the political landscape, as well as the economic situation in Malawi kept on deteriorating,” says Mhone.

“Staying in a queue for fuel is now part of our daily life, and if you look at the price of sugar and other essential commodities they have all skyrocketed.”

On July 20, 2011, the anger and frustration surrounding the country’s economic crisis culminated in mass demonstrations calling for the president’s resignation. These peaceful protests soon turned into bloody riots when police opened fire on innocent crowds leaving 19 people dead and scores of others injured.

But Mutharika didn’t accept blame for the deaths, nor did he take the public criticism to heart; instead he began a vigorous campaign to clampdown on critics, media and opposition leaders.

Reverend Macdonald Sembereka, a civil and human rights activist who played an instrumental role in organizing the protests, had his home petrol bombed by suspected government youth cadets last September. But he says that while the nation has gone through a turbulent time, he has no hard feelings towards Mutharika.

“He did contribute what he could contribute. If he failed that would be part of human nature,” says Sembereka. “I’ll remember him as a person who stuck to his guns. When he wanted to do something, he would stick to it, even though the whole world would stand on the opposite side.”

At Mutharika’s funeral in the southern region of Thyolo, recently inaugurated president, Joyce Banda summed up his life with the sentiment of the nation, saying, “He was not an angel, he made mistakes”.

For Banda, Malawi’s first female president, the road ahead is littered with the legacy of those mistakes, and the latter has prompted her government to resume donor talks with the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.

Female tobacco workers on a tobacco farm in Salima, Malawi.  Photo by Kara Stevenson.

Exploitation of Malawi’s tobacco tenants

Children tobacco workers on a tobacco farm in Salima, Malawi. Photo by Kara Stevenson.

Eletina Mwale has worked on several tobacco estates since 1985. Currently, she works on a tobacco farm in Salima, Malawi.

“I have been in several farms from Kasungu to the northern region. We meet a lot of problems. The water is bad, our children do not go to school and we live very far from hospitals,” said Mwale.

The most difficult conditions lie amongst the women who work and live on the farms. Mwale said often women are forced to sleep with the estate owner’s for money, food, transport.

“What other choice do we have? We are poor. We have nothing,” she said.

Being exploited and abused, tobacco tenants in central Malawi are grossly underpaid, deprived of medical insurance, and have no choice but to work without contracts under dire working conditions.

With none or little education, money and especially with no other employment, tobacco tenants earn around 200 kwacha ($1.25 CDN) per day. Food and health care are sometimes subtracted from their wages.

In Malawi 200 kwacha can buy vegetables and low-grade fruits. The amount of food a tobacco farmer can afford can hardly sustain their families. Most live with extended families, usually in a small one-room hut made of mud and straw.

As they salvage whatever income they can find to support their families, these tenants suffer at the hands of the tobacco estate owners – some of whom sit before Malawi’s National Assembly, say activists.

Malawi’s Centre for Social Concern (CFSC) is a non-government organization that has taken part in advocating against the exploitation and abuse of tobacco tenants.

Female tobacco workers on a tobacco farm in Salima, Malawi. Photo by Kara Stevenson.

Father Bill Turnbull, the acting director of CFSC said they have been lobbying for the Tenancy Labor Bill, which was drafted in 1995 to regulate tenancy labour by clarifying the rights and obligations of estate owners and tenants – a solution to demolish the exploitation.

Turnbull said the bill would be beneficial for both tobacco tenants and estate owners.

“For tenants, he or she will have a written contract. Same goes for the estate owners; they will know exactly where they stood with what is going on,” said Turnbull.

It’s been 17 years since the proposal of the bill and it has yet to pass in parliament. The CFSC argues that the delay is most likely caused by the vested interests.

However, the Minister of Labour, Dr. Lucious Kanyumba, denies such interests.

“It was proposed during the United Democratic Front (UDF) regime. I cannot be in a position to answer why it is taking so long to pass the bill, but you have to appreciate that this Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government has fought for this Bill to be considered,” said Kanyumba.

Meanwhile, Goodall Gondwe, Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Environment is known to own a tobacco farm in Lilongwe, Malawi called, Nzanzi Estate. Gondwe claims that living conditions are seemingly better on his estate, and although he said a wage of 171 kwacha ($1.08 CDN) per day is not a sufficient income for a tobacco worker, the laborers on his tobacco estate are, in fact, paid 171 kwacha per day.

In addition, minimum wage in Malawi is 178 kwacha ($1.12 CDN) per day. Gondwe’s workers make under the minimum wage amount.

Many non-government organizations that advocate change remain optimistic that the bill will pass in parliament.

In Malawi when ‘Life’ gets tough, it gets banned

Saturday night in Blantyre and the drinks are flowing at Mustang Sally’s, a fluorescent bar with a swimming pool centerpiece frequented by ex-pats and a new generation of young Malawians who have money.  The laptop DJ plays LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” for the eighth time of the night.

No longer under the strict censuring control of one-party-state president Hastings Kamuza Banda, Malawian airwaves have opened up to music that in the 20th century remained an unknown.  In the years following the country’s first multi-party elections in 1994, the Malawian music industry has diversified, with Malawian artists more free to perform traditional, gospel and reggae-inspired sounds, and some images and styles even being scavenged from sexually provocative, explicitly violent and drug-saturated music on  stations such as  MTV.

Today Malawians can praise any God, they can even party rock, but if you ask Lucius Banda they still can’t protest.

Lucius Banda, the first Malawian musician to use his platform to protest government. Photo submitted.

The first musician to sing openly against political oppression in Malawi during the decades of one-party rule, Banda says growing up in absolute poverty and amid systemic social injustice inspired him to “make sure there’s an alternative voice from the government.”

“Coming from a broken family living in absolute poverty, life was difficult,” remembers Banda.  “We had to go to the Catholic mission houses to clean toilets to pay for school fees.  After we’d paid that, we’d go to school, and then if the president was visiting your area you had to raise money to give him as a gift.

“We couldn’t afford that and so we wouldn’t be allowed in class, maybe for two or three weeks.  It was like getting candy from a grandchild,” he says.  “I don’t forget that.”

In the 1980s Banda began his music career singing gospel songs as part of the Alleluya Band, but eventually branched out on his own to produce music that would “sensitize people to regain their conscience.”

“I didn’t like singing love songs,” he says.  “I talked about injustices, the suffering of the people, that was my main concern.”

In 1993 Banda released his first solo album titled “Makolo”.  The single “Mabala” which means “wounds” was critical of the ruling Kamuzu Banda regime, which he said afflicted pain on those already living in absolute poverty.

In 2001 when then-UDF chairman and President Bakili Muluzi attempted a third term, Banda released the song “How Long.”

“I did a lot of songs rebuking [Muluzi],” Banda says.  “Why should we have become a friend of Mugabe and others who were clinging to power?”

In 2005 he released the album “Enemy (of the State)” where he criticized current president Bingu wa Mutharika for quitting the UDF party that had ushered him into power to seek re-election as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate instead, and in 2006 and 2008 he released the albums “Survivor” and “Freedom” respectively with messages meant for Mutharika: “We’ll survive you” and “You will see when people realize the truth.”

But in 2011 his latest album of protest music and its title track “Life” attracted negative attention from the Malawi Censorship Board and a ban by the Malawi Broadcasting Company (MBC).  Now that his music is banned from Malawian radio stations, Banda says Section 35 of the Malawi Constitution has failed him and that without free expression the music industry is “harsh” in Malawi.

“You can’t criticize people who are in positions where you put them with your vote,” he says.  “They say, ‘Stay quiet as I’m sitting on your money’ at a time when we don’t have a strong opposition and [Malawians] are weaker than we were in terms of our reactiveness to dictatorship… The Malawians you meet today are not the Malawians of 1994.  In 1994 Malawians were aggressive.  We were patriotic.  The Malawians you meet today I’m sorry to say are desperate, everyone for himself, ‘as long as I get mine it’s OK.’  That’s why we cannot come together and fight one common enemy.”

Though he still believes Malawians who love their country should show that they’re not happy with what is happening, Banda says the MBC ban has hurt his medium.

“Because of the ban, slowly [my] music is dying, people don’t listen to it, youngsters don’t listen to it, so they [government] are succeeding,” he says.

“Today you have to censor yourself so much when an artist is supposed to be free.  If I were going into the industry now, in this environment, I wouldn’t go.”

This article was originally published on the Toronto Star website on March 8, 2012.

Listen to Banda’s song “Tikamalira” (Why We Cry) here.

Political Experts Debate Need for “African Spring”

A panel of experts on African politics squared off with students, teachers, civil servants, activists and politicians in a debate hosted by the BBC in Accra on Friday. The panel consisted of Ghanaian economist and author Dr. George Ayittey, Ugandan activist Anne Mugashi, South African political activist Kuseni Dlamini, and fellow Dr. Michael Whyte Kpessa from the University of Ghana. A year following the beginning of North Africa’s “Arab Spring” revolutions, the debate focused on the possibility of similar uprisings in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ghana is one of only six sub-Saharan African countries where elections are considered to be free and fair. However, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East are the only regions in the world where democracy improved in 2011.

Dr. George Ayittey argued that Sub-Saharan Africa has already had its version of an Arab Spring in the 1990s. “If anything it is the Arab Spring that has to learn something from [Sub-Saharan] Africa,” he said.

Anne Mugashi, who coordinated Uganda’s “walk to work” protests, pointed out that a key difference between the Arab Spring and Sub-Saharan Africa’s revolutions of the 1990s is that the latter were led by a small group of self-proclaimed revolutionaries. “My understanding of the Arab Spring over a Spring for Africa is [that] the people themselves are responsible for the change rather than a set of people calling themselves revolutionaries,” she said.

Audience polls at both the beginning and end of the debate showed a majority believed an African Spring is unnecessary, a view that remained unchanged throughout the debate.  This sentiment was echoed by the comments of lawyer and lecturer from the African University College of Communications Mr. Ogochukwu C. Nweke, who questioned if the goal of higher levels of democracy sought by such revolutions is even right for sub-Saharan Africa.

“At what point are we going to discuss if democracy is the way for us to go? We need to figure out what works for us,” Nweke said. “What is the problem with people leading for 30 years or 40 years?”

Ayittey argued that the traditional monarchy system of tribal chiefs is a form of democracy itself. “We have our own type of participatory democracy based on consensus in traditional Africa. You don’t have to vote to have a system of democracy,” he said.

However, Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government, and that this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

The number of elections in Sub-Saharan Africa has been on the rise since the 1990’s, but many of them are rigged and defeated incumbents often refuse to accept defeat. Dr. Michael Whyte Kpessa from the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana cautioned that democracy and nation building are not an event but a process. “You cannot begin and end these processes in a matter of two or three decades,” he said.

BBC host Alex Jakarta called Ghana “a country hailed as a model of democracy in Africa, a democracy that demonstrators across North Africa saw are sorely lacking in their own countries.” While Ghana’s elections may be considered free and fair, there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of their democracy, such as accountable governance and low levels of political participation. Because of these shortcomings Ghana is categorized as a “Flawed Democracy” by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and ranked 78th by their 2011 Democracy Index.

Earlier in the week, political demonstrations held by the Alliance for Accountable Government in Accra called for the resignation of President John Atta Mills. The current administration has been criticized for the recent increases in fuel prices, the falling value of the cedi, and the ongoing Woyome contract scandal.

Malawi’s Vice President speaks out about protests

Vice President, Joyce Banda. Photo by Katie Lin.

Seated on the porch of her state residence in Blantyre, Malawi’s first female Vice President, Joyce  Banda, wraps a thick, white shawl around her shoulders and clasps her hands together, indicating that she’s ready to be interviewed.

There is a calmness about Mudi State Residence, with its towering trees and extensive gardens. In such a setting, it is difficult to imagine the starkly different atmosphere that engulfed Malawi’s commercial capital just one month ago.

On July 20, nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations against economic and administrative mismanagement took place, but it wasn’t long before these organized marches disintegrated into chaos and the country erupted into two days of rioting, widespread looting, and violent clashes between police and civilians.

The use of lethal force by police resulted in 19 deaths, dozens of injuries, and more than 500 arrests.

“Where Malawi is at [right now] is as a result of two or three years of frustration and pain and trying to reason with government – and government refusing to listen” Banda says.

Long plagued by fuel, electricity, water, and foreign-exchange shortages, Malawians presented President Bingu wa Mutharika and his administration with a 20-point petition on the day of the demonstrations. A dialogue between civil society organizers and the government to discuss the petition is scheduled for Sept. 17.

While Banda hopes this dialogue will yield viable solutions, she explains that the root of these problems lies within the political agenda of the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP).

“The President wants his brother to take over from him,” Banda explains of the cause for tensions within the DPP.  “And that’s where [the problems] start from.”

In December 2010, the Vice President was expelled from the DPP for her stance against this unconstitutional succession process – and her strained relationship with Mutharika, her honourary “father” and mentor, only appears to be worsening.

Just two days after the protests, Mutharika threatened to arrest numerous political and civil society leaders – including Banda and leader of the opposition, John Tembo – accusing them of organizing the July 20 demonstrations to topple his administration.

Despite having been openly critical of the President’s constitutional breaches, Banda insists she did not organize or participate in the demonstrations.

“I called upon those that were going to exercise that right to march to march peacefully and not to destroy property. I asked the police to protect lives on the road. I also asked the leadership of this country to discuss matters that affect Malawians and resolve any problems peacefully.”

For Banda, Mutharika’s accusations are unwarranted.

“When I hear my name, top on the list of those who are wanted, to be persecuted or to be killed or to be smoked out … I’m surprised,” she explains, “because I don’t know what crime I have committed.”

“But if the crime is that I stood by Malawians when they suffered, when they protested, when they were not happy, then I am ready to be persecuted.”

Most recently, the People’s Party (PP), a political party formed by Banda and her supporters, officially registered and claims to have already gathered more than 1 million members, further strengthening speculation she is a strong presidential candidate for the 2014 national elections.

“Joyce Banda is a shrewd politician, both in terms of organizing and in terms of making an appeal when she speaks,” says political analyst Blessings Chisinga. “So when you look at the potential contenders for the 2014 elections, she is clearly a frontrunner.”

He explains that the emerging PP may offer a fresh and credible alternative for Malawians in the 2014 elections, as disillusionment towards the DPP grows and opposition parties enter a state of flux.

“Malawians are fed up and are very keen to welcome a new brand of politics.”

Footsoldiers erupt

Ghana's ruling NDC party is being blamed for not supporting "footsoldiers" who contributed to the party's 2009 election campaign

A couple of hours before my first day on the job at Tamale’s Diamond FM, a posse of political activists stormed the station.

They were footsoldiers from the National Democratic Congress (NDC), the governing party in Ghana.

While the term footsoldiers might sound a bit militant to western ears, here it refers to grassroots party volunteers who do the grunt work at election time.

Trouble has been brewing among their ranks in Tamale, the hub of Ghana’s northern region.

They feel cheated and abandoned by the party they helped win power in the last general election in 2008.

They say the party higher-ups aren’t spreading newfound opportunities down to their level, and they’ve begun to take things into their own hands.

In mid-January, they started stealing cars from senior NDC members—cars purchased by the party and then sold to executives through auctions.

On the day I showed up for work, a high-ranking member of NDC was criticizing the thefts on Diamond FM’s morning talk show.

It wasn’t long before the footsoldiers arrived on the scene. They claimed the NDC was lying, and the guest had to be locked in the studio until the police came.

Needless to say, fighting within the party could jeopardize people’s faith in the democratic process by promoting partisanship.

A reporter from Diamond FM and I decided to investigate the issue. We found two very different versions of the supposed “deal” between footsoldiers and the party during election time.

The trio of footsoldiers we interviewed said they were promised many things for their work, chief among them jobs.

But they readily admit they’re not educated and can only do unskilled labour. Any growth in the economy hasn’t come to them, and no programs for people without high school certificates have been put in place.

The regional secretary for the NDC, Alhaji Umar, says because footsoldiers are mostly unskilled labourers, they often can’t be hired by the government once in power.

It’s not clear who should be blamed for the impasse.

On its face, the party shouldn’t be hiring people it can’t help in the future.

Party executives deny their not helping out the footsoldiers or failing to communicate honestly about what to expect after an election.

But as the more educated branch of the party, they have some duty to make sure those who work under them are clear on the rules of engagement.

The party is trying to speak with footsoldiers and explain to them that the fighting hurts the party, said Mr. Umar, the NDC regional secretary.

That might be the best strategy—all the footsoldiers we spoke to said they were diehard NDC members and would never change parties.

And there’s some sign it might be working.

The party has been speaking with frustrated footsoldiers and some seized vehicles have been returned, said Mr. Umar.

But those claims were difficult to verify by the time we wanted to publish the story.

With five months to go here in Tamale, the reporters at Diamond FM and I will try to dig deeper into which side checks out.

Hooked on Politics

NPP Logo. http://theghanaianreactor.blogspot.com

This past week in Kumasi has been all about politics. The New Patriotic Party (NPP), the main opposition to Ghana’s current National Democratic Congress (NDC)-led government, held their primary elections on Saturday where Nana Akufo-Addo was reinstated as the party’s leader and presidential candidate for the 2012 elections. Akufo-Addo, the most politically-established candidate at 66-years-old, celebrated a huge win, claiming 78 percent of the delegate’s votes. His opponents were Alan Kyeremateng, former Minister of Trade and Industry;   Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, the CEO of the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra and the director of Ghana’s National Cardiothoracic Center; Isaac Osei, a Member of Parliament for Subin (Ashanti Region), Ghana High Commissioner of the United Kingdom, and CEO of the Ghana Cocoa Board; and Rev. John Kwame Koduah, a reverend and lawyer. These five men have basically dominated all aspects of the Ghanaian media- their names and pictures were plastered on the front page of almost every newspaper, they were talked about compulsively on most radio and television newscasts, their faces were plastered on billboards and posters, and their campaign vehicles blasted their platforms from loud speakers all over town. Although I recognize the significant role politics plays in society, I would never consider myself a politics enthusiast. I find most politicians showy, insincere and decorated, whose campaigns are built on empty rhetoric that rarely ends up benefiting the common person or reaching the grassroots. However, since we started working with Mufty on his daily show “Straight Talk” that deals primarily with political topics, there was no escaping the NPP hoopla. We spent three two-hour programs debating which candidate would make the best party leader and potentially the next president. Our guests included campaign representatives, political journalists and social commentators who focused more on the candidates’ brawn than brain, arguing their favorable physical and personality traits instead of their plans to improve the country, or who would best represent Ghanaian people.

The excessive media coverage of the NPP primaries overshadowed other pressing local issues that occurred this past week and need more public attention. For example, last Wednesday, the Anti-Trafficking Unit and Tema Regional Command rescued 284 children between the ages of 3-15 who were being taken to work illegally in Yenji’s fishing industry.  On the same day, The Ghana Union of Physically Disabled Workers (GUPDW) appealed to government, complaining that the majority of physically challenged workers haven’t received their Disability Allowance. Both stories deal with major human rights violations, but because of the politically-dominant stories occupying most major Ghanaian media houses, such crucial social issues are often cast aside as second-rate-news or page-fillers. Since human rights stories are not typically considered “hard news,” public awareness and concern are often not generated where they are needed most and for the people who could benefit greatly from media exposure. Dr. Charlotte Abeka, former United Nations (UN) chairperson, and serial guest on “Know Your Rights” expresses her discontent with the current state of Ghana’s media, describing it as having an “overemphasis on politics” that prevents human-focused stories from reaching the forefront. She blames media houses and other powerful institutions that have the ability to influence society on a larger scale and increase the coverage of human rights stories, but insists the average person is just as guilty for not demanding it themselves. In her opinion human rights issues “need to be preached loud and clear”- this should be the media’s priority at all times.

Dr. Charlotte Abeka