Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Melcom tragedy and Ghana's democracy facade

Yesterday, Wednesday November 7, 2012, the world woke up to another victory for Barack Obama to remain President of the United States for another four years. Ghanaians were caught up in the euphoria too.

The US Embassy in Accra organised an Election Breakfast that started at 5:00am local time to mark the elections.

The previous night, the Institute of Economic Affairs, (IEA) organised a debate for the Vice-Presidential candidates competing in Ghana's December elections. I didn't watch it. I knew it would be boring from the first few pictures I saw on local TV stations, so I switched off and watched something more useful elsewhere.

But as the country vacillated between the euphoria of an Obama victory in far away America and cynicism and sycophancy over the hard to swallow vice-presidential debate at home, tragedy struck in the morning hours of the day. News began filtering in about the collapse of Melcom. Initially, some people thought the chain of department store business itself had folded up. But as pictures began to be posted on social media networks and radio and TV stations began to carry the news, reality hit in. The building itself, a six-story building had collapsed with an estimated 52 people already inside - both employees and shoppers.

The President, John Dramani  Mahama, on a campaign tour in the north of the country expressed sympathy for the victims on Twitter - he eventually cut short his campaign tour to visit the accident site. Opposition figures, determined not to be beaten by the President, also trooped to the accident scene.

This grim reality was bound to happen. Because it is no secret that we take so much for granted in this country. We are susceptible to bending rules at the slightest hint to satisfy our whims, for financial gain or merely for political reasons. If you can afford to pay, you can get anything done in this country, forget the laws and regulations!

I remember that in the early days of John Kufuor as president, he changed a 1974 Law to allow the importation of right-hand drive vehicles into this country. The law as it turned out, was repealed just to satisfy one person and to make the Kufuor government look like it was fulfilling its campaign promise to improve public transport.

At that time, one man had imported right-hand drive double-decker buses into the country, but couldn't use them because of the law prohibiting the use of such vehicles. When the law was repealed the buses already in poor condition flooded our streets offering some 'relief' in our beleaguered and chaotic public transport system. As it turned out, the buses couldn't stand the wear and tear of the public transport system and were all parked after a short while and we returned to square one - where we were with public transport before the buses. A clear example of how short sighted, self aggrandizing decisions are taken to score political points.

Despite the repeal of the law, right-hand vehicles have not become popular with Ghanaians.

Martin Amidu, the former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice has been fighting the system to get the government to prosecute some individuals and companies and retrieve huge amounts of public money that have been paid in questionable judgement debts under suspicious circumstances. The state always claims there is no money to provide services for citizens, but finds the money to pay questionable judgement debts and very high salaries for the Executive and Legislature.

Have we taken our democracy too far? Ghana is reputed all over the world for organising peaceful elections and for having orderly transitions of power. But it appears the democratic credentials are not translating into strong systems that work for the good of all. Our society is becoming ever chaotic and self-destructive. Our democracy is a facade, I am beginning to believe.

In the name of free speech, citizens, including people in positions of trust defame and libel others. State institutions in trying to present themselves as 'humane' fail to enforce bye laws and regulations. So many people want benefits they do not earn. Most people demanding to exercise rights without responsibility is becoming a norm!

Particularly, land and building issues have been a thorn in the flesh of Ghanaians for a long time now. Buildings rise up everyday in the country without permits. It is easier to do whatever pleases one, if the person is an active member of a ruling party or is well connected - the only thing one cannot do in Ghana is to turn a man into a woman. 'Prominent' members of political parties can get whatever they want including breaking clearly set rules and regulations. News abound of ruling party members attacking and physically assaulting members or suspected members of opposition parties. These suspects go free because, they believe they were acting in the interest of the party and it appears the party would not touch its own.

Our parliamentarians have become literally ineffective whenever it matters most, except in matters that directly benefit them. They are quick to pass into law bills that would favour the party in power, while bills such as the Right to Information bill is still lingering in a form that actually endangers right to information decades after the constitution which calls for its enactment into law has been in existence.

Indeed, it appears the practice of democracy in Ghana means lawlessness. The state has been rendered helpless and dysfunctional because governments in power are afraid to enforce laws. They fear to lose elections. For those in power therefore, wielding power for their own sake is more important than running the country for the good of all.

The collapse of the Melcom building and the unnecessary deaths and injuries would only shock our collective consciences momentarily - after the dead are buried and the injured are healed, unfortunately, some might end up with some forms of permanent physical disabilities, we will return to business as usual. No one would be punished, probably, the family of the dead (may their souls rest in peace) and injured might not get compensation, and we shall return to business as usual.

We are more democratic than the Greeks and so we won't enforce our laws and regulations. The political class wants to please everyone else so they will be voted back into power, where they can continue to pay themselves hefty salaries and enjoy privileges ordinary mortals do not deserve.

We can't survive for a long time as a country, if we continue to ignore the role of discipline and law enforcement in building a progressive society - we shall atrophy.

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