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Corruption eats a country alive

Mar 20 2016 11:37
Mandi Smallhorne

DO NOT Urinate On The Wall, says the sign, followed by: By Order of The Military. Well, that would put me off completely. The military is a serious presence, at least in this part of Accra, dotted with camps and training schools and headquarters, and punctuated by the occasional billboard declaring the military to be “Civilian-friendly”.

As we roll past endless billboards advertising American and Ghanaian preachers, my driver complains of the poverty (glitzy preachers and poverty are a bit like love and marriage/horse and carriage, it seems to me) and tells me it’s because the politicians are in it to enrich themselves.

In many ways, on the surface, the country would appear to be doing quite well: 95% of children are enrolled in school (the government funds primary school and junior high, and heavily subsidises senior high school); most high schools have apparently got computer labs (new technology is a focus for Ghana); it’s got a higher life expectancy than us (66 for men and 67 for women) and falling infant mortality – in part, this is because of what Bill Gates has described as the best universal health care system in Africa.

Twelve million Ghanaians (out of a population of over 25 million) are covered by National Health Insurance, and all Ghanaians have the right to primary health care – obviously access is better in major urban areas. A Ghanaian doctor tells me that this benefit is not just an illusion on paper: “Our facilities may not be up to northern hemisphere standards, but the care you get is good.”

And – having just met with a group of young Ghanaians who want to improve the standard of health reporting in the country – I can attest to the drive, enthusiasm and public spirit in this country.

Nevertheless, there’s an undercurrent of dissatisfaction that my driver represents: “Despite the daily corruption, thievery, sleaze and raiding of the public purse by the looting brigades often referred to as government officials, and invariably, of the NDC and NPP stock, virtually no one has been held to account in the almost 23 years under the fourth Republican constitutional democracy. […]

“It is estimated that Ghana, since the return to constitutional rule some 23 years ago, may have lost trillions of cedis [Ghana's currency is the cedi], monies that could otherwise have been used to improve the living standards of the people...”

'No one has been held to account'

Oh dear. It sounds so familiar, doesn’t it? There’s that key phrase that’s chillingly resonant: “no one has been held to account…”

At least we’re happier than the Ghanaians – in the recently released ranking of 156 countries on the World Happiness Index 2016 we’re 116th, Ghana’s 124th.

Jon Clifton, managing partner at Gallup which does the yearly poll, identified six major factors to ‘happiness’: “…the single biggest is actually GDP per capita or income.  The other five are trust, life expectancy, social support, freedom, and generosity.”

In 30 out of 34 African countries polled “…50 percent or more people said they believe corruption was widespread through the government”.

Corruption eats a country alive. It eats any gains a country has made. It eats up and destroys existing infrastructure. Left unchallenged, it will consume even the strongest economies. It eats talent and commitment and drive and turns out exhausted cynics. It drains youth of hope or spits them out, sending them to other countries in their search for a chance.

It’s a spoiler that fouls positive emotions. Can you trust Fifa ever again? I can’t. Would you give your fan’s heart to Maria Sharapova? Not likely. From what I’m hearing on the street, and what you’ll find in this Groundup article, people are beginning to feel that way about members of our government – recently a man my age, a card-carrying, militant ex-activist, spat venom at me about Zuma and co, and then said ‘his’ ANC was dead to him.

Corruption consumes beloved institutions like this, destroying decades of investment, paid by so many, in things far more precious than paper and coin: blood, pain, separation from home and friends, the hurt of missing out on your children’s lives, fear, anguish…

Is this massive destruction worth it? I suppose if all you care about is your well-greased ride through life, it is. But for the rest of us… I hope and pray that recent developments mean that it’s possible for some public figures to grow a spine, to put wider interests before personal gain.

I don’t feel too much like valourising those who’ve broken ranks on the captured state – is this really just damage control? As long as we don’t have any form of constituency politics, which has a built-in accountability mechanism, I don’t have much faith in politicians opting to be accountable. People in power everywhere in the world avoid accountability at all costs.

No, we the people will have to do it. In politics or business worldwide, where there are functional accountability mechanisms in place, it’s because of long, hard campaigns by ordinary citizens – not just protest, but canny strategising and decades of time-consuming activism.

The one thing we all share is this: we are being betrayed and cheated by people we pay – yes, they are our servants, and they earn the high numbers and the perks and the jet planes courtesy of our taxes.

We can unite over this; let’s put our talent for social support to work in practical terms to demand a comprehensive reckoning now, a sort of corruption TRC – and then enforce the implementation of ongoing effective accountability mechanisms in future.

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

mandi smallhorne  |  opinion
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