However, I need to explain that the article was not an attack on religion or religious belief. Neither was it about any particular brand of religion. In fact, it is not about religion. The point I am making is that we paint a wrong picture of who we are when we confuse our private religious or spiritual aspirations with our public responsibilities as a people, especially when there is such a split between the two. I used the Graphic editorial merely as a peg for a general statement because the idea that we are God fearing was not invented by the Daily Graphic. In that particular case the newspaper was merely echoing a general sentiment.
Interestingly, and by coincidence, a young journalism student wrote an article in the MY TURN column in the Mirror last Saturday which also made very similar points. The title was Religious Rubbish, and after the general observation that Ghanaians are a religious people then asked why people with such supposedly salutary spiritual outlook would care so little for the environment, especially by throwing rubbish all around. The fact that the author is a visitor to our country makes the observation more poignant.
Yes, Ghanaians are very religious people and there is evidence of this all around us, including the number and sizes of places of worship up and down the country and the fact that religious entrepreneurs are among the richest people in this land. But this religiosity does not in itself constitute the fear of God although it is easy to confuse the two. Among the prime attributes of God-fearing are honesty and law-abiding. I don’t think even the most jingoistic Ghanaian would use either of those terms to describe this nation.
However, no one is arguing that Ghanaians are more dishonest than other people. The issue is that within the public space behavioral precepts like integrity, honesty and sincerity must be related to common standards which are understood by all and applicable to all. In other words, we cannot say that because people are EXPECTED to be God-fearing they will behave decently towards one another. We have seen that this is not the case. Therefore, the only means by which these common standards that we have to live by can be achieved is through the law, which is why whether people are God-fearing or not they must obey the law.
Unfortunately, and this is the crux of the matter, obeying the law has become an optional extra in Ghana; you obey the law if you wish, or you can select which part of the law to obey. For example, we are required by law to insure our vehicles and also drive on the right. Some people have decided that they will insure their vehicles but then drive on the left when it suits them. You can find them practicing their impunity on the Spintex Road to their hearts content because they know that they will get away with it. I make no apology for constantly harking back to Spintex traffic situations as examples because in my view a nation that cannot set and enforce simple traffic regulations is in a lot of trouble whether it is God-fearing or not.
Therefore, we have to acknowledge an interesting but disturbing conundrum at play here. When we believe that we are God-fearing but do things in a manner that contradicts this declaration, we are not necessarily being deceitful; rather there is a disconnection between what we profess in private and how we live our lives in public. Some people call this hypocrisy and they may be right, but I believe that if the laws of our country were transparent, fair and enforced most people would be able to connect their private beliefs to their public responsibilities.
Example: even with the best will in the world, the most conscientious driver in Accra will have to drive badly just to survive because that is how we drive in this town. Even pedestrians cannot walk safely because roads are built without pavements and the few pavements in towns and cities have been converted into mini markets by traders. Pedestrians cross streets at any point that suits them, and we can’t be blamed because drivers refuse to stop at the few zebra crossings that have been marked for people to use as road crossing points.
By the way, I read recently that cameras are going to be installed on our roads to help prevent accidents. It is not a bad idea but a laughable Ghanaian solution that is unlikely to have any effect. Most of the severest accidents occur at night or in the early hours of the morning on our highways. Cameras will capture images if the background is well lit. This means that a driver whizzing by above the speed limit will be captured at best as a grainy image in the gloom of our unlit highways. Meanwhile, the absence of street lights even in our cities, let alone on the highways is a contributory factor to the high frequency of road accidents.
Furthermore, vehicles captured by the cameras will be identified by their number plates, but there are vehicles plying on our roads without any number, or without any illumination above the number plates and amazingly they go past police stops on the way. I have seen these many times. Above all, these cameras will need to be checked and serviced, but in a country where no one appears to be responsible for changing street light bulbs what is the guarantee that these cameras will be paid any attention?
I know that the cameras will not be expected to achieve miracles on their own but good driving and observation of basic driving rules and each of us taking responsibility for our actions and the health and safety of our neighbours will achieve more than cameras and gadgets ever will for this country. People do not do the right thing because they are God fearing but because they have been taught what the right thing is and there are laws to reinforce that knowledge and penalties to pay when the law is broken. Above all, there must be continuous education on doing the right thing because people will always regress to their personal comfort zone even at the expense of the communal interest.
So here is my take: the assumption that we are a God-fearing nation implies that we know and will do what is good. But that is neither the case in fact, nor is it true as a proposition for achieving the public good. In this country, we are not asked as citizens to do anything for ourselves. Governments promise to do everything even though they cannot do what the promise without our contribution. Take taxation: we all know that only a small proportion of people in this country pay any direct taxes based on their income, and some of the non-payers are among the wealthiest people. Elsewhere, there are continuous campaigns to get people who must pay their taxes to do so, and vigorous measures are put in place to ensure that they do so.
We may or may not fear God, but we must all be held to a common account through the rule of law to achieve the development and decent lives that we crave. While the devil-may-care, free for all, rampant greed and dishonesty that have become the norm may be curbed by religious belief and instruction, as a nation we must insist that civil responsibility and education become the common standard.
This article was first published in the Diary column in the Daily Graphic