Are elections more important than politics?

Ade Sawyerr makes a plea for a politics based on ideas, issues and competitive debate, not tribal loyalties … or cash for votes

Sane Eteshi – Matters Arising

Despite the novel coronavirus pandemic and the ever-present threat of another spike in the number of infections, the ongoing voter registration exercise has been successful and a boon to Ghana’s politics.

I hope that we will convert our computer systems to continuous updating of the voters’ register, especially as we now collect a lot of biometric information that can be stored and continuously updated in this digital age. The success, I hope, will translate into the enfranchisement of more people who will do their civic duty by casting their vote in the December elections.

I cannot say whether the teeming numbers of people who are registering is evidence of a resurgence of interest in politics in Ghana. I suspect that the prospect of the once-in-every-four-years sharing of goodies during the election campaign – especially if you can show that you are eligible to vote for either of the two major parties – may be what has motivated a good many people to register.

We all know that it is in the election campaign season that the people get rewards for participating in politics. A lot of money changes hands when the “hail from” politicians go back to their villages to make themselves relevant to their people.

Race to the bottom

I cannot register to vote in London because ROPAL – the Representation of the People (Amendment) Law), which President Kufuor promised us – will not be implemented this year. So I will forget about coming down to contest at Ayawaso Central this time round, though a good friend of mine tells me that I should wake up from that dream because my pension money will be gobbled up on the first day of the campaign by my constituency operatives, who will take their cut.

Without money, lots of money, I do not stand a chance of winning even if I make the most outlandish promises. A seat in Parliament to represent my people of Lagos Town is sadly beyond me.

My friend was humbled and humiliated in the 2005 by-election at Odododiodoo because he did not have money and people did not want to even listen to him. He tells me that the young boys sing for the NPP at their Korle Wokon office and are given tonnes of money and T-shirts; then they change into NDC gear and are given bucketfuls of “unaccounted money” at the NDC office, with extra goodies. They would get to his office on Bannerman Road, and sing and play CPP jama songs. But he had no money to give them, so they made a song about him not having any money to give and that is what they would sing whenever they got near his office. He lost and came back to London.

The whole concept and praxis of multiparty politics, which should include principles, philosophies, policies and programmes, has been replaced with pounds, and propaganda, and large dollops of insults aimed at personalities. The insults are spread on radio by serial callers, on television by agents provocateurs, at press conferences by apparatchiks, and on social media with fake news.

Our elections have become more important than politics. The debates are hollow. It is no longer about ideas for transforming the country: it is about “this party did this when in power so we can also do it”, even if what we are doing is below the standard for lifting up a developing country.

Toxic talk

No one bothers to read the manifestos. Voters chant meaningless slogans every four years and imbibe the empty promises the parties make, until the next time, four years later. This is the “cocoa season”, when the parties will come to shower the electorate with money. In the absence of well-rehearsed rhetoric, propaganda and promises fill the space and people do not care whether the decision they make is informed or not.

Our representatives in Parliament could do with better resourcing, with funding for rigorous research by competent political officers, consultants and advisors, so that our debates, especially on contentious matters, will become much richer. Parliament has been reduced to opposing because you are in opposition, or rubber-stamping because you belong to the majority party. Politicians on both sides should be intent on scrutiny of decisions by the executive.

While upskilling our parliamentarians, we should encourage discussion and debates on politics and policies at all levels of the polity. Most of the talk is about who will win the next election, not about their policies, and there is no offer of how they could serve the interests of the people they are representing better. With no party politics at the local level, the debates by the many honourable assemblymen and women remain hollow.

For a country that is so obsessed with elections, we relegate political discussions to funerals and only between people of the same party on their platforms. On family, year group and tribal WhatsApp groups, you read a lot of discussion about American, British, Chinese, Middle Eastern and the politics of other African countries, but when you mention politics in Ghana, the administrator clamps down on you.

Most drinking bars have notices against political discussion. This I can understand, because discussing politics when one is tired and emotional can be toxic and lead to unintended consequences.

Your critical friend

So, exactly where are we supposed to air our views about what is happening and how do we get our leaders to change tack?

I am sure that they have their own ways of testing opinion among their foot soldiers and the macho men and women who are scared of losing their source of money if they are seen to be saying what they think would be against their leadership.

We need to engage in more political discussion. We need to offer the leadership of our country more critical friendship from the mass of the people. Let us open the channels for discussing politics.

This is the freedom that multiparty democracy offers us. Maybe that way we will be getting closer to the deepening of our democracy that we so crave.

Mɔni gbaa gbe enaa esɛɛ!

July 2020, Croydon

Ade Sawyerr

Owula Ade Sawyerr is a writer, social activist and founder partner of Equinox Consulting, which works to develop inner-city and minority communities in Britain. He comments on economic, political and social affairs and is a past chairman of the UK branch of the Convention People’s Party.

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