Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Shaking Hands and Issues Arising

The Guinness Book of Records should establish a record for the person with the most shaken hand and the first winner by a mile must be the current (sitting) President of Ghana, His Excellency John Dramani Mahama. In the course of the past three weeks, and counting, the President must have shaken more than 10,000 hands. By the time you read this article The Funeral is almost over and the number of hands he would have shaken would get him Olympic gold for the hand shaking category.

President Mills was famous for shaking the hand of every employee at the Castle at the beginning of every year; in Ghana we use the handshake as a mark of friendship. However, it is even more de rigueur in funeral situations. For President Mahama, the handshaking started from the moment the late President died because in all our funeral customs failing to shake the hand of the Chief Mourner raises serious questions about relationships with the dead and social and cultural continuities among the living. Shaking every proffered hand was a symbol of friendship towards all and recognition of everyone’s contribution.

Ghana has matured in the past three weeks in ways that more than 50 years of statehood had not prepared us for; as we all know, when a person loses a parent that person has to learn to behave like an adult because of the loss of parental protection. Ghana has learnt so stand up and be counted as a fast maturing democracy in the eyes of the world. US President Barak Obama has led the chorus of praise for Ghana’s growing democracy describing it as a model for Africa and an article in the latest issue of The Economist magazine makes the point: “On two occasions in the past 20 years, power has peacefully changed hands. Elections have been run by a genuinely independent commission and deemed free and fair. The army is out of politics. Judges often rule against the government. The handling of the first death of a leader in office has confirmed the stability of Ghana’s institutions”.

The smooth handling of the death of President Mills and the subsequent transfer of power to President Mahama and Vice President Amissah Arthur are unprecedented in Africa. While not wanting to thump our chest too hard, we can point to transition crisis in at least ten African countries in recent years where a leader’s death or the aftermath of presidential elections has led to deaths and suffering. Malawi’s case is similar to Ghana but handled in a completely different way. When the former President of Malawi Bingu wa Mutharika died of a heart attack in April this year his body was apparently taken from his country to South Africa so that his closest allies could buy time. This shenanigan was undertaken in order to subvert the national constitution because the Vice President Joyce Banda had fallen out with the late President whose allies wanted to install his brother, Professor Mutharika, the Foreign Minister, as the new leader. Fortunately for Malawians, some ministers in the Cabinet and the military brass refused to go along with the plot and Joyce Banda was allowed to ascend to the top job.

The morale of the Malawian and Ghanaian “case studies” is that Africa will become stable if we allow our institutions to work. Every instance of instability and strife in the continent has come about through an attempt to subvert the constitution in some way. This was the case in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, and most recently in Mali, just to cite a few cases. It is a lesson that Ghana must learn and take to heart and assume as a national credo. We will only progress if we allow our institutions to work, and change things that do not work to make them work. That is the only way.

This is a lesson that we can learn even from the recent sad but heroic events. It is obvious that this being an unprecedented situation a lot of improvisation was done, usually based on a combination of constitutional guidance and traditional practices. However, there were new situations that neither the Constitution nor tradition alone could provide answers or even guidelines. For example, according to most Ghanaian cultural traditions the burial of a dead body is the sole business of the “family”. Here family has several meanings, but generally speaking, it refers to the deceased’s paternal antecedents. In a situation where a person is so obviously a national figure, decision making would have to go beyond the family, but balance and proportion are important sensitivities in this respect.

What the government and nation have gone through should be systemised into a loose protocol template that can be used in similar situations. The public and even much of the media have not been privy to the behind-the-scenes negotiations and discussions about the funeral but snippets of unconfirmed information lead to the conclusion that there were muddled moments regarding the burial, especially the eventual destination of the body. Perhaps, some amount of wrangling would be a feature of any such funeral but it can be minimized if there is broad public understanding of what is happening or expected to happen. Take the funeral of any traditional ruler: mostly the process is unwritten but moves with clockwork precision because everyone knows the functions and offices of the process, and information is provided to all stakeholders.

The formation of a Planning Committee to plan and oversee the funeral has become part of the Ghanaian way of doing things but are there not state institutions that have the mandate to do these things? The worry that leads to this question stems from the lack of institutional accountability with the formation of ad hoc committees for such huge and national undertakings, and this is without questioning the competence or commitment of the members of the committee. One of the lessons learnt from the Ghana at 50 celebrations must be that a more institutionalised pattern of representation would have saved the nation some of the embarrassment that has turned memories of the golden jubilee so sour for many people. At the risk of sounding like a broken gramophone, one has to repeat: We must allow the institutions of state to work.

Money, especially public money, is an important issue in every such undertaking and it is even more so in our specific circumstances when it is such short supply. Ideally, the budget must anticipate such unforeseen events and make provision for them so that such expenses are covered even before they are spent. This would also ensure that they are being spent by appropriately mandated authority and institutions. Perhaps, this was the case in this situation otherwise the right things must be done so that the memory of our President’s funeral does not become one of a political row over money.

In the same vein, we must honour the memory of President Mills in a lasting and fitting manner, but the naming of streets and roundabouts and suchlike must be done more systematically and institutionally. We all feel very embarrassed that we hardly use location addresses in this country, preferring instead to locate places by using trees and kiosks as markers. So, there is the need to sort this mess properly. More importantly, it is important to create a heritage system that includes naming streets, buildings and other monuments in memory of important personalities and events, but this has to be done properly, if we want the names to endure. People of a certain age would recall that in the wake of two sudden and violent deaths, the Accra International Airport and a roundabout in Accra were named after General Emmanuel Kotoka in 1967 and Captain Thomas Sankara 20 years later. While Kotoka remains the name of the Airport (with serious contentions from some quarters), Sankara has disappeared as a name from the map of Accra. President Kufuor named a street in Accra after the Nigerian leader Olusegun Obasanjo although I don’t know of anyone who calls it by that name. It is ok to show emotions but things done in emotional moments do not always endure.

Taking all for all, this nation has conducted itself with maturity, unity and purposefulness. In church, it is at this point that the pastor tells the congregation: shake the hand of the person standing to your left and right and say a blessing. Ghana should do this to itself. (Note the new email ad)

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