Originally published, December 10, 2011
“Too many people still believe Margaret Thatcher’s TINA, There Is No Alternative, whereas we should say TATA, There Are Thousands of Alternatives”. Susan George.
The all too often fractious competition between political parties in Ghana is largely responsible for the frightening and extreme polarization confronting our nation today. To deny this amounts to living in self-denial. Our public political conversation by politicians, social and political communicators, radio, television, and newspaper analysts, to the average masses on the streets is too polarized, highly inflamed, vociferous and too inimical for our national development.
Reports of physical assaults, maiming, killings and throwing of tear gas serving as a prelude to the general elections are red flags to alert the nation on the dangers of allowing politics to divide us. Political polarization constitutes a threat to our national aspirations to the extent that it creates alignment along multiple lines of potential conflict and also organises tribes and groups of likeminded people around exclusive identities eventually preparing the nation into opposing factions.
But how did we get to this destination of corrosive political environment, and what accounts for the biting partisanship and the dilemma of extreme polarization facing us instead of enjoying the bliss that democratic governance promises? The divisive environment we find ourselves in today isn’t at all an unchartered terrain. The history of our political culture from the time we fought the colonialist for independence through our first attempt to encourage democratic governance to-day shows that we are operating our politics of divisiveness in a very familiar field.
The disaffection that characterised the aftermath of the 1951 election organised under the Coussey constitution which resulted in the formation of regional, tribal and religious parties in most parts of the country like the National Liberation Movement (NLM) in Ashanti region, the Northern Peoples Party, the Muslim Association Party, Anlo Youth Organization, Togoland Congress, and the Ga Shifimokpee plunged the country into political violence characterised by bomb-throwing, politically motivated killings, burning of houses and mob lynching.
The Preventive Detention Act of 1958 which outlawed political parties formed on tribal, religious and regional grounds was also abused by some functionaries of the then ruling Convention Peoples Party (CPP) to settle personal scores. These were political errors that polarized us at the early chapters of our democracy and fifty years after independence we are experiencing the residual effects of these political errors. Let us ask the question, how much have we lost our way from the original ideals that motivated the pioneers of our political struggle for freedom? Are we as a nation making any headway, or marking time and idolising the multiple economic growth of our classmates in the League of Nations, like South Korea, and Singapore which had equal challenges before and after independence?
Instead of seeking governance alternatives that will move our nation forward, our political behaviour still divides us, fills us with hate and anger and fuels the ethnic fault lines already in existence due to the colonialist interpretation of our cultural values, delineation of our borders, distribution of national development resources based on their economic interest together with the shameful Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the numerous chieftaincy disputes. Consider the stress on our budget and our men and women in uniform as we try to manage the recurrent if not systemic conflicts all over the country? As if it is not enough for this country to extricate ourselves from this crippling arthritis, a dangerous development is steadily creeping up in our political parties.
Processes at party primaries to elect candidates to contest national elections have also polarized the parties because most party members feel disenfranchised at the primaries thinking their choice was not respected thus causing disaffection among party members. If these occurrences are due to hijacking strategies by top party extremists to impose their favourite candidates to increase their overall political advantage or an orchestrated interference with party structures by constituency party activists and community leaders like chiefs, such actions do not help to build a strong democracy from the grassroots, a needed ingredient that helps to build a formidable governance structure at the national level. Looking at the trend of our primaries, are we not heading towards that reality of destroying our politics from the grassroots? Political parties and civil society must invest in political education to protect our democracy.
We need to come up with authentic political alternatives, perhaps dedicate ourselves to a national comity which will seriously address our peculiar aspirations that will transform our economy and reconstruct our society towards national cohesion. Let us not only confront our fears, but also confront our prejudices, hypocrisies and our biases. Are we not all guilty of sowing fresh seeds of polarization in the country? When we openly and without any sense of remorse describe and identify our political parties as, i.e (Asantefo party, Akyemfo Party, Ayigbefo (Ewe) Party, Esaremfo Party Fantifo Party) that is, regional and tribal parties to inform our voting pattern, we are not moving our democracy forward, because we are not encouraging the birthing of true national parties. We have heard political office seekers extolling the higher virtues of their tribal and ethnic roots (I am 100% that tribe, or I am a quarter Ga, quarter Ewe, quarter Northerner, the rest Akan) to woo voters. These are worrying developments in our political landscape.
When politicians stress strongly on their parties to select people with a particular religious persuasion or choose a person from a region or tribe just for the sake of influencing voter behaviour you wonder which interest they are serving. After that what next? A better reason than just influencing voter behaviour will serve a better cause. Without prejudice to any religious group or tribe, when we encourage such political discussions, are we not gradually encouraging religious extremists with messianic tendencies to capitalise on such actions to try and Christianize or Islamize our national politics in the future?
Yet we have seen politicians in recent years not only making strong demands for such actions which turn to support religious and tribal based politics, but some have organised grassroots voters to demonstrate publicly and on some occasions embarking on violent demonstrations to promote this divisive agenda for the sake of present political expediency. The wisdom of our constitutional framers that political parties should not be ethnically based should guide us to build true internal democracy, having political parties that reflect true national identity. By our actions, speech and practice let us promote democratic governance that protects every ethnic group large or small against social and economic injustices, irrespective of the size of the region’s resources. No ethnic group in Ghana should fear for its existence because other ethnic groups with greater population, education and wealth appear to dominate political supremacy.
This will create ethnic nationalism. We should consciously discourage any diabolical attempt by any political party whose aim is to acquire political autonomy to protect group ethnic identity. When institutions like the media, chiefs, the clergy, judges, industrialists and the academia who are the conscience of state are divided on party lines or are perceived to be embedded in the womb of political parties, especially in a small fledging economy like Ghana, such actions must be weighed carefully since we may be endangering the political and economic stability of our dear country.
EFFECTS OF POLARIZATION
The pages of history are replete with the fact that it takes a longer time to harmonise nations that fell victim to civil wars due to ethnic, religious and political polarization than nations which slipped into civil wars because of economic mismanagement. Whereas blown up bridges and buildings could be reconstructed in no time, it takes more than financial aid to mend broken hearts and heal distrust, anger and suspicion. Let us never use politics to create national anxiety. For anxiety creates fear, fear instigated by politics leads to anger, anger breeds violence, violence which comes as a result of political, religious or ethnic polarization is a deadly reality.
PRESENT ASPIRATIONS AND SOCIAL NEEDS
Let me ask a few questions, and let us do well to factor them into our political science enquiries. Considering our peculiar social setup and our present political milieu, what actually explains the causes of political polarization to the extent that it divides our nation – granted that political polarization is real in our context? What at all makes our existing political parties distinct from each other that voters do not know to warrant first, the polarization of voters, taking into consideration the cogent aspirations of the nation? What cultural issues are the political parties addressing differently: abortion, gay marriages, euthanasia?
What social issues are the existing political parties handling differently: education, water security, energy security, crime, modernization of the economy, science and technology, corruption, the environment, the fight against ignorance through vibrant, sustainable educational policies, agriculture, improving the competence of public institutions and the overhaul of defective social structures? We need to fight ignorance, poverty and illiteracy by investing in human resource development via education to address the observation by the Ghana statistical service (2000 population and housing census) on the poor literacy level of our country. We need to overturn the human resource deficit in our medical and educational institutions, manage public expenditure in a more prudent manner by eliminating waste and corruption in the civil service.
We need to increase revenue to strengthen central government’s capacity by improving the business environment through lowering of taxes and tariffs, as well as extending credit and support for the business community and work towards the creation of a sustainable fiscal policy that will eventually extricate our economy from over reliance on donor support. This calls for VISIONARY LEADERSHIP and not mere managers of the economy. We need to emphasise much on local Government administration to speed up community development and manage municipal waste in a more profitable and enduring way. This calls for getting qualified people with innovative ideas to manage our communities. We are living in a global community and therefore need to have global attitude and global thinking.
Do the action and manifestos of existing political parties reflect the aspirations enshrined in this article which encapsulate the real concerns and will of the people of this country? Who among the presidential candidates personifies these aspirations of the nation? If the political parties provide favourable answers to these questions, it will create better incentives for them to win knowledgeable voters. Engagement in politics should not be the sole benefit of the politician who seeks our votes. Politics is about developing the society and not mortgaging society to austerity and destruction.
If we are to enhance our democracy and the human dignity of our people, let us deliberately control our public political conversations and behaviour, before we get to the crescendo of ethnic and tribal tensions which could be used as justifications for acts of terror. We all possess fateful powers to deal with fateful issues. We can make right or wrong decisions with or without regard for the future and pay the price later. We can, for the sake of our present political expediency, overlook unresolved fateful issues confronting our nation; push our selfish individual and party agenda to the fore to the wilful neglect of the next generation who will rise up later to desecrate our graves.
The stakes have never been higher and the choice is ours to do the right thing. We need to think differently now if we are to move our democracy forward, and enrol in the community of developed nations. We are capable of rising above history to secure a better future. When our ability to change is slower than the pace of change, we are already losers from the starting line.