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Friday, June 28, 2013

Our Culture vs. the Law: Ups and Downs

This article is prompted by the Supreme Court’s handling of the thorny issue of contempt outside of court, technically referred to as “ex facie curie,” in the ongoing presidential petition. I begin on the simple premise that what enhances our progress as a nation in one sphere stifles our progress in other spheres.
Specifically, our unique cultural virtue of forgiveness and tolerance make us a peaceful people…but at what cost? “Could there possibly be a down side to a good virtue that is exercised with the best of intentions?” you might ask almost absent-mindedly. My answer is yes. I will explain, but first, let me mention that I will use President Mahama and Mr. Awuku to represent different power hierarchies in the Ghanaian political system. I do not intend to invoke partisan sentiments to please or displease any particular faction. 
The Supreme Court, led by Judge William Atuguba, issued three unambiguous warnings to the public on three separate occasions against making contemptuous remarks.  According to the court, contemptuous statements, by their deceitful nature, tend to mislead and inflame passions of unsuspecting members of society, and could ultimately lead to chaos and conflict. Needless to say, these warnings came from the highest court of the Republic of Ghana adjudicating over a uniquely sensitive case with no precedent of its nature and importance. Ordinarily, you would expect political leaders to hold their followers in check against making unguarded comments while the case is still being decided in court. However, the situation on ground has proven to be the polar opposite, leaving respectable members of society baffled. The troubling situation is that it is not only the “young and inexperienced” NPP Deputy Communication’s Director, Samuel Awuku, who is guilty of breaching the court orders; the President himself, John Dramani Mahama, may as well be guilty.
At the 20th anniversary ceremony of a gathering in the Eastern Region, the President made a controversially contemptuous public statement to the effect that his presidency is God-ordained. This is coming at the time that his legitimacy as the president of Ghana is being decidedly challenged in court. His message may sound harmless on the surface, but it carries grave implications for a) national peace and security and b) the integrity of the Supreme Court. His message provides a moral justification for his over-zealous supporters to cause a “Jihad” sort of mayhem in the event that the court ruling does not go in favor of his administration. This is a classic indirect ex facie curie, but the Supreme Court did not consider it contemptuous enough or chose to ignore it, despite issuing a number of warnings just weeks ago.
Constitutionally, we know the president cannot be cited for contempt by any court. Ace Ankomah, the legal pundit, commenting on this post on my Facebook timeline, stated, “Citing the President for contempt will unleash a major constitutional crisis. He cannot be the subject of any civil, criminal or quasi-criminal proceedings whilst in office.” But he was quick to add, “…his continued breach of the law could be a ground for impeachment.”
Finally, the Supreme Court found a perfect scapegoat—a young and ambitious Samuel Awuku—who allegedly described one of the court's punitive measures as “hypocritical and selective.” The Atuguba-led judges appear to have had enough; the rod of justice must strike. However, what unfolded next may surprise the rest of the world, but not Ghanaians. It will effectively launch us into the primary import of this article.
The judges took more than one hour out of court proceedings to deliberate and decide on what to do with this individual. Yes, one hour of Supreme Court’s time! Psychologists have long noted that certain kinds of punishment actually reinforce undesirable behaviors, instead of curbing them. In this case, giving the culprit an unprecedented attention on national television is a powerful negative reinforcer, especially if the punishment is not deterrent enough. Eventually, the court decided to temper justice with mercy, as the respondents and petitioners both pleaded on his behalf, in line with the Ghanaian culture of forgiveness and tolerance. He later issued an apology. In Justice Atuguba’s ruling on the case, he stated,
“We have considered the candid admission of Mr. Sammy Awuku’s utterances…in reaction to the final warning of the Court with regard to improper reportage and the previous warnings of this court concerning contemptuous comments, utterance and attitudes towards this apex court of Ghana, issued just on the 24th day of June 2013. He has apologised and withdrawn the same before this Court and has further undertaken to repeat the retraction by 6pm today.”
Mr. Awuku’s only punishment for willingly flouting the rules of the court was exclusion from court proceedings for the duration of the case. The judges exercised a prime Ghanaian cultural virtue of forgiveness and tolerance. Is this not a good and humane gesture? I do not necessarily think so.
The tendency to forgive, even after three warnings by the highest court of the land, is partly what makes Ghana a uniquely peaceful country in Africa—but also notoriously lawless. Principles do not run deep enough, and laws are not applied consistently across board. This same reason explains why corruption is deeply entrenched in society—one can break the law with impunity, but find ways and means to evade punishment, especially if they are a “somebody”…but what happens to the “nobodies”?
If the Supreme Court needed only an apology, after three forewarnings on-camera, in order to allow the sword of justice to strike on a willful contemnor, I do not see how that sends a good signal to ordinary Ghanaians to uphold the law off-camera. In my view, if the President himself had been reprimanded publicly by the Court for his problematic declaration in the first place, Mr. Awuku would have been reasonably deterred. By applying what seems to be selective justice, the court was somehow obliged to pardon Mr. Awuku in order to avoid a possible public backlash from the opposition faction.
Our culture of forgiveness is great and has caused our peace as a nation to be abundant, but the opportunity cost is that our principles are shallow, our application of justice is selective, and this creates the right conditions for corruption to thrive. What enhances our progress in one sphere stifles our progress in other spheres, but how do we deal with this apparent paradox? Perhaps it is time our well-placed intellectuals paid scholarly attention to some of our subtle little devils.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Problem of Superstition in Ghana

Our country has more than its fair share of active believers. What it lacks are active thinkers and problem solvers.
A dangerous trend is beginning to take root in Ghana. It is the practice of doom prophecy, targeting the elites and the powerful. Where it came from? Same place where Internet fraud aka Sakawa and Okada originated: Nigeria.  The practice survives in very superstitious societies where people would rather believe anything than think one thing.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves; let’s take a U-turn and situate the issue in context. 
The year was 2007, and Akosombo dam, Ghana’s main source of electric power, was receding past the minimum threshold, but the government didn’t have a backup plan to the rescue. The president assured staff of Volta River Authority (VRA) that “God will not allow the dam to hang”, implicitly implying that the power problem was indeed spiritual. Not surprisingly, the message was well received by Ghanaians. Many pastors and their followers took to Akosombo, prayed and shed tears for several days. Apparently, the tears were not enough to fill the dam—perhaps the entire nation was needed to pull off the trick. Today, the power situation is worse but we didn’t pause to ask what became of those productive hours spent praying for some miracle rain. 
Then again, the Kotoka International Airport was suffering from years of mismanagement and corruption. Shutdown was imminent. The management of the airport thought the best way to use taxpayers’ money was to fly a certain man of God from abroad to pray for the company.  It was hoped that a miracle would follow. It didn’t. The problem persisted. 
To many Ghanaians anything that is inexplicable must be spiritual. Our locus of control is dangerously external. “What do you mean Akua’s headache hasn’t gone since yesterday? Have you called the doc doct…I mean the pastor?” Thinking and problem solving can’t help spiritual matters, can they? Forget the school and focus on the church. Any wonder that our places of worship are ultra modern while our schools are ultra jungle? Or that our chapels outnumber our educational units and hospitals?
The media, the local movie industry and most churches try to make us believe that problems of underdevelopment and poverty are all machinations of some devil and his earthly agents. Witches and wizards are the easy targets. However, do most Ghanaians actually know that other countries escaped poverty and other problems associated with developing countries NOT by spiritually binding their own witches and wizards, but through thinking and problem solving? Isn’t it true that it was breakthrough in science and technology—agriculture and industrial revolutions—that actually freed the European witches and wizards from their camps? 

This pattern of thought is deeply entrenched in the Ghanaian psyche and has survived because it has evaded questioning and critical analysis. We’re feeding children with this absurd dose of superstition, and without the benefit of travel, which often challenges such a worldview by confronting it with alternative ones, our nation is fast becoming a haven for miracle-seeking zombie-like people.
Now back to the main story. This year, God has chosen to reveal to Rev. Dr. Owusu Bempah, founder of Glorious Word Power Ministries International, that the sitting president is going to die. According to him, intercessional prayers are required to reverse this calamity. Many religious leaders, including Bempah’s trainer, Archbishop Duncan-Williams, have expressed divided opinion on the prophecy. Many have brushed it aside as an attention-seeking stunt, while others, including the Rev Eastwood Anaba, have braced themselves up for prayers. 
Pause briefly to examine the nature of the prophecy. It’s such that it’s impossible to be proven wrong. What can’t be proven wrong is always right. What is always right is practically useless. Why? Because it adds nothing to our body of knowledge. Thus, if by coincidence the president dies this year, just like 100s of Ghanaians would, the prophet is vindicated. If he doesn’t die, it was so because God listened to the prayers. Again, Bempah is vindicated. 
Remember the former President, Attah Mills? The reverend apparently foretold his death, and again, laid down intercessionary prayer as conditionality for his survival. Really? First, the former president was already down with cancer, which only a few survive anyway. He died. Had he survived past 2012, he’d have done so only because God heard the prayers and decided to intervene. Sensed the absurdity?
I posit that Bempah’s prophecy itself is a lifeless pronouncement unless the president and Ghanaians decide to animate it by believing in it. This is how it works. Once we collectively believe it, we succumb our will to it, endowing it with the power to shape our reality. If our faith in it becomes complete, it overgrows our reality, saps away its life, and eventually becomes indistinguishable from it. What becomes of the president ultimately then, is nothing more than the sum of our individual and collective realities, which in this case is the product of our misplaced belief. Essentially, we’d have succeeded in creating our own reality to mirror Bempah’s prophecy. It is analogous to a dream, which is but a vivid projection of our own subconscious thoughts and aspirations, although it is an entirely false reality. 
Here’s a scenario to underscore the point. The president complains of a minor headache weeks after Bempah’s pronouncement. Before the prophecy, he would’ve have brushed it off or taken an over-the-counter pain killer. The following day, he’s back to work at the Jubilee house fit and sound. With this prophecy however, things are going to be different. Family members and friends will start to panic. He’d receive numerous calls asking about his health. He becomes overly conscious of the headache and gives it extra attention than it deserves. He starts to think the headache may have something to do with the prophecy. He begins to succumb to fear, his blood pressure rises, and he becomes sleepless and agitated. Sleeplessness weakens his immune system, giving way to other diseases. He’s rushed to the hospital, but the doctor finds nothing wrong with him organically. This makes him and his family even more nervous. “Bempah must be right”, they whisper to each other.  Next, the president is rushed to spiritual healers for prayers and rituals. 
Well, if he regains his health in the process by placebo effect, the prophecy has come to pass. If he dies, the prophecy has been fulfilled. In both cases, the reverend’s power and influence would have soared, reaffirming superstitious beliefs. The next Sunday, Ghanaians flood his chapel for prayers and miracles. He makes plenty money and becomes rich and powerful overnight.  “God blesses his obedient servants with riches and wealth”, he tells his congregation. In fact, his life becomes very “tasty” like “aluguntugui.” Funny, huh?
Belief works like a parasitic organism. It has no material substance, form nor shape, but it is potent with incredible capabilities. Its power lies in its ability to sap life from the living brain, neutralize its critical thinking ability, and then subsume it. Once the process is complete, the brain becomes an empty shell that houses and protects its new host. Younger brains are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. Ever wondered why the Taliban prefers young boys and girls for its suicide missions? 
A society like ours that feeds on what I term “unproductive beliefs” such as unfounded superstition regresses while societies that feed on productive beliefs progress. Productive belief is a refined and evolved one that has survived “thinking” in the form of questioning and doubting. Believing in the power of the human intellect, for instance, is an example of a productive belief because it leads to discoveries and inventions that improve life. Unproductive beliefs are unrefined: they are pampered and “saved” from thinking. “Just believe…you’re asking too much questions. Where is your faith”, they say. In fact, critical thinking poisons and kills unproductive beliefs in the same way that freedom kills communism. They survive in the minds of people who would rather believe anything told them than think one thing for themselves.
The human specie has evolved greatly over the millennia through an ongoing series of complex adaptions. Each successive adaption was a victory for our survival. Perhaps superstition had a survival value for our ancestors in pre-modern societies. Today, however, progress in science has rendered its value useless. Many people no longer think of drought or epidemics as punishments from some loving deity. Child prodigies aren’t witches or wizards with some “spiritual” capabilities. Rain doesn’t stop to fall into the Akosombo dam because a deity has spiritually withheld it. 
Isn’t it time we applied thinking and problem solving to our numerous challenges using the latent power of our incredible brains? Manna no longer falls from the heavens, it is cultivated right here on earth using available human and material resources.
Mr. President, I entreat you to undertake an impossible task: Neither die nor survive 2013 to vindicate Reverend Bempah. Just vanish, melt or something…just anything apart from dying or living.