Who is in charge of light bulbs? (March 7 2013)
The government has presented its budget proposals for the fiscal year and as with all budgets, in the unlikely event of a huge parliamentary rebellion on the Majority side, these proposals will be passed by Parliament and form the basis of our national administration in the current financial cycle. The government sets great store by this budget which is the first after the most unpredictable election in Ghana’s recent history with the outcome of the presidential ballot still in the laps of Supreme Court judges.
The budget blends high expectations with sensible and cautious spending in a mix that will hopefully impress voters while moving the country on to greater things. But my question is: who is in charge of light bulbs in this country? This question may sound inane in the context of a debate on a national budget but unless we fully appreciate the importance of that very issue all our budget rhetoric will lead to little impact.
As you travel up and down this country at night you come upon large areas of darkness broken by short illuminated stretches in places that nominally have working street lights. A case in point: a few years ago the new highway that climbs from Ayi Mensah at the foot of the Akuapem hills was lit all the way to Mamfe at the apex of the mountain range. The lights were installed as part of the new road for a good reason – to prevent accidents and save lives. Today, the lighting has become a patchwork of alternating light and dark with those sharp curves really plunged into deep gloom at night.
It is the same for the recently constructed George Walker Bush Highway which some wags have re-christened Killer Road. In the short time since its construction most parts of the road have gone dark at night. This has made that road even more dangerous for pedestrians because they cannot be seen clearly by drivers and they are in turn blinded by headlamps switched on “high” by drivers. This situation persists all over the country and is not a recent situation too. I wrote about this same situation when President Kufuor was in office and pointed out that even the street lights at the Tetteh Quarshie Interchange and those leading to his own house had not worked for months. Miraculously, the lights were all working a few days after the article appeared in this same newspaper.
Does it matter that street lights do not work because of dead light bulbs? Yes, and for the following reasons. If we cannot replace a light bulb to make a street light work what can we guarantee to achieve? A street light is something we all see every day as we go about our lives. We see them when they work and we also know when they do not work but how many of us complain. Yes, this is a representation of our attitudes to our nation: country broke or no broke – we dey in! Furthermore, we go to huge expense to put up light poles but drive and walk in darkness for lack of light bulbs. Does it make sense? Like the poor light bulb, the “little things” in our lives that eventually amount to a lot, have no owners. Who looks after light bulbs in Ghana?
Perhaps the simple light bulb is a metaphor for our country and represents the malaise and dysfunction that is holding us back despite the efforts that many people think they are making.
So who is in charge of light bulbs in this republic? In other countries, especially the countries we admire so much, no street lamppost will go without a bulb for more than 24 hours. I have personally seen the people in charge of light bulbs elsewhere going round in a van to change the expired ones; here, it simply does not happen and no one is sanctioned for not doing it. Now, substitute a light bulb for an office computer or life-saving equipment in a hospital or a broken window in a school, or a little pothole in a road… and you get the picture; little things without owners which grow to become budget items that haunt the President in his nightmares and gives him sleepless nights. Somewhere, tucked hidden a book in some ministry or department of state are names of people who should be responsible for light bulbs but have themselves forgotten their responsibilities long ago. They get paid every month.
One reason we are not developing as fast as we all think we are entitled to is because of our attitudes to public service. Perhaps only a small percentage of people are working in police, immigration, tax, or any other kind of public office for the love of it or even because that is what they set out to do. Most people working in the public service see it as the gateway to personal private gain and consequently hate the work they do, apart from the salary and other benefits, including bribes. Therefore, as the higher they go up the professional ladder the more they are disinclined to go out and see things for themselves. Without any supervision the people responsible for changing light bulbs gradually “forget” because there is no side benefit to be had in fixing light bulbs.
By pure coincidence, as I was writing this piece I watched part of a programme called Undercover Boss USA on television. It is about how business and civic bosses disguise themselves to work in their own institutions without being recognised by their own workers. The episode I saw was about how the Mayor of Cincinnati in the USA who went underground and toured all the departments under his watch. It was touching when he went to the motor vehicle repair department and the person responsible for repairing police motorbikes told him to be careful; “one has to be very careful because this is about somebody’s life…” Can you hear that in Ghana? Somehow, I can’t.
In the budget the Minister of Finance and Economic Planning referred a few times to Ghana’s “middle income” status, and as usual I felt nauseated at the mention of that farce. I do not suppose the honourable gentleman has been to Porpornya, Dakurpe and Juaboso lately… He could not have travelled on the Tumu to Jefisi Road in the Upper West Region or even driven around the gold-blighted streets of urban Prestea; how come parts of the same country are middle income when others are “no income”?
The reason for this huge disparity between the rich and the poor in our country is that the people who are responsible for lifting up the poor have rather exploited them to further their own nests. In that sense, no one appears to checks what goes on in this country – from light bulbs to mega-cedi judgment debts. That is the scandal. The President told his ministers at their swearing in to go out and see things for themselves but unless he has a foolproof method to check them and their officials he would have spoken in vain.
Soon after the 2012 elections a close confidante of President Mahama emailed me the optimistic message that J.M. is serious about making change. I loved it, and I believe that JM sincerely wants to change things but things won’t get changed by the rhetoric of the State of the Nation address or the provisions of the ballot unless and until the President ensures that the persons in charge of light bulbs do their job.
This was a good week to read a bit more about Kwame Nkrumah so I reached for NKRUMAH the Man written by Genoveva Kanu and published by Delta. This is one of the most intimate pen portraits of Nkrumah written by a person who was very close to him. Although published about 40 years ago it is still fresh and accessible because it dispenses with ideological posturing and cuts to the core of the first President as a human being. It is available in most bookshops in Ghana.