Sunday, 9 June 2013

On Selecting Which Laws to Obey… (15-05-13)

On Selecting Which Laws to Obey… (15-05-13)

This should have been the exception but sadly it has almost become the rule. The lights at the Regimanuel Junction, aka Cylinder Junction, turned green for those entering from the Estate Road into the Spintex Road but those on the main road disregarded their “red” signal regardless until one of them chose to stop under pressure from the aggrieved drivers from the side road. The last driver to go through the red light was a policeman driving a police vehicle. On the same day, on the same journey a collection of motorcycle riders rode past me at the Accra Mall end of the Spintex Road and not a single one of the riders wore a helmet. Standing by and chatting among themselves was a group of young policemen but not one of them paid the least attention to the motorcyclists who were so obviously breaking the law.

These scenes are replicated around this country every minute of every day without any apparent concern from those who must enforce the law. Indeed, the STATE of Ghana – in the form of the security forces can arrest or even brutalise you and me at any time and under any pretext but cannot enforce its own laws even when such laws are being broken in broad daylight. It begs the fundamental question: what is the purpose of government? This is a basic question that every person must to ask several times in order to understand the existential conditions to which we are subjected as human beings and citizens of a particular state. 

Every second of the day we are breaking the country’s laws with impunity and it is not just young men on motorcycles who are breaking the law; the rule of thumb appears to be that the higher a person’s social standing the greater their ability to break the law. Another example taken from everyday street-level observation is the tint on car windows. This is said to be against the law but you would be pardoned for thinking that the practice is rather compulsory for those with expensive cars in this country, especially the cars that were bought for the “owners” with our public money.

The question we have to ask is this: why do we go to the expense of installing traffic lights when we have no intention to obey its command? Indeed, why do we keep laws that cannot or will not be enforced? Still staying with traffic examples I have cited, there are good reasons why motorcyclists are required to wear helmets. Years of research have shown that in an accident a person wearing a helmet on a motorbike is less likely to die from head injuries than one without. This is incontrovertible, and so after years of ignoring this important fact the government of Ghana imported this practice into the country. However, the conditions under which the law can be enforced are simply not here. Let us ask ourselves what those young policemen could have done to the helmetless motor bikers at Tetteh Quarshie? Apart from shouting at them, which the offenders would not have heard there is nothing they could have done. I doubt that our policemen and women routinely carry writing equipment to write down numbers of vehicles whose drivers offend against the rules. It would surely be too much to expect them to carry communication equipment to report such infractions to headquarters, as we see in done in the movies.

Similarly, there is a good reason why it is a bad idea to tint car windows especially in a country where traffic rules are routinely ignored. I once saw a driver knock down a pedestrian without stopping. The car’s windows were as dark as sin so we had no way of telling whether the runaway driver was a man or woman, white, black, yellow or brown as the car sped away and passers-by had to attend to the victim lying on the ground. Without the tint we would have had a better chance to identify the driver. This law is also good for the occupants of a car if they need help in an accident or a crisis. There have been many recorded cases in which distressed children left in cars have been rescued by people by people who casually peeped into such cars. Usually, people who drive cars with tinted glasses are criminals such as drug dealers who have good reasons to want to hide from the law. In Ghana, it is the rich and the powerful and their wannabe pretenders who imitate this mafia practice.

Indeed, the most important traffic rule, the one that says we should drive on the right is also selectively obeyed. We all know that it is important for public safety and order for all of us to agree to a set of traffic rules which must be obeyed at all times except in exceptional circumstances. Those circumstances must be known and accepted by all. In Ghana this simple and straightforward rule which says we must drive on the right and the only times that rule can be disobeyed must be in highly exceptional circumstances. In this country even this fundamental rule is routinely disobeyed, especially by people in uniform or those with influence through power and money.

It appears that in Ghana everyone can do just what he or she wants to do regardless of what the law says or what the effect would be on other people. This apparent lawlessness has gone beyond perception and become a daily reality of our lives. This brings me back to that most elemental of questions: what is the purpose of government. The answer is that in a society individuals give up some of their freedoms in return for guarantees of safety and happiness. In practice, this means that the government, however it is defined and understood at all levels, should use its laws to protect those individuals who are part of this contract. They are called citizens, and include others who may be residents or visitors in the jurisdiction.

This is why the agents of the state can arrest us if we do something wrong. In return the state must use its laws to make sure that we can live in safety. What happens when people select which laws to obey? The answer is a journey into anarchy, “a state of nature” in which everyone follows his or her desires. In that kind of state those who have power, money or influence do whatever they want at the expense of the poor and the vulnerable.

On the face of it, it may look as if there was a million mile gulf between everyday law breaking such as we find on the road and the mega-corruption which the World Bank says is the curse of lot as a developing nation. However, there is a direct link between the situation in which young men refuse to obey a simple rule to wear helmets and go unpunished when the don’t to the other situation in which powerful people misuse money meant for our general good and also go unpunished.  What happens when we are allowed to select the laws we want to obey is that people take advantage of the lawlessness at the level at which they operate. Therefore the generalised state of lawlessness has got consequences, which is why we must do away with laws that we do not or cannot enforce so that we know the true state of our capacity to protect this nation.



The Bloody Ingrate by Sylvanus Bedzrah is now in revised edition and approved by the Ghana Education Service as a supplementary reader for schools. This fiction takes you into the world of a promising Senior High School teenage student whose dreams and aspirations het thwarted because of some wrong choices she made at school…

Sylvanus is a talented young writer whose first book was published when he was just 14. The Bloody Ingrate is published by Mini-Star Series Publications and available in all good bookshops.

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