I am deeply grateful for a sequence of what seemed like accidents, that I now narrate as my way of saying thank you. Kojo Addae-Mensah, my childhood friend from way back in Little Legon, when Professor Mills (the former President) was our football coach, gave me invaluable help in reaching the current Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ghana. I thank him.

Eventually when we did connect, I found Professor Nana Aba Amfo to be such a delightful and pleasant person. Why so many were unwilling to carry my messages to her, says something about our dysfunctional attitudes to people in high office and nothing at all about her. Indeed so helpful, dynamic, organised and proactive did I find her, that I have adopted her as my friend – no, sister – with or without her consent! And I immediately nicknamed her, “My Funky VC.”

She gave me tremendous help on some projects I am involved with, about which, more on another day. One of these kind acts was to introduce me to Professor Atsu Ayee. I am immeasurably thankful to her as well for this.

What a step-changing and stimulating experience it has been to reconnect with Atsu Ayee. There is no way he could remember me, for when I first met him, he was my father’s post-graduate student, and I was a noisy boy looking for mangoes in Legon. With people like Kojo Addae-Mensah, an even noisier boy then.

A combination of circumstances has led me into many conversations with retired academics from Legon in recent times. To my surprise and amusement, they are always tremendously amazed at the details and minutiae of Legon life I retained and remember with ease. Wondering, somewhat, how such a youngster observed that much all those many years ago.

My memory of Professor Atsu Ayee coming to see my late father may therefore amuse you. I remember that he was slim, even slender; wore large spectacles and was in a blue political suit. He was soft spoken and looked very quiet. Perhaps, I paid much attention to him because my father clearly admired him. From the comments he would pass about his work ethic, I knew this.

It was not easy to earn J.K. Nsarkoh’s praise in academic matters. I tend therefore to remember people he spoke about glowingly. He used to say about Adu Boahen, his secondary school mate, that he was so talented he should have been a scientist and taken Ghanaians to space. There were similar comments about Alexander Kwapong.

Professor Ebenezer Laing had been acting vice-chancellor when Agyei-Barimah, a student of Commonwealth Hall was gunned down and killed by The Ghanaian Gestapo, during Kutu Acheampong’s era. My late father had been the Senior Tutor of Commonwealth Hall at the time and he never stopped praising the leadership of Laing, plus his scholarship.

When he talked about courageous academics, it was always John Hyde and P.A.V. Ansah. How many times, I heard: “This is Legon it has high standards! Try any funny business and John Hyde will shut down the university to defend the rules.” Then the story that would always follow: “Here people do not hide to say what they want, Paul Ansah will drive to your house and tell you off, sit in his car and drive home.”

So when I did meet Atsu Ayee, and he gave me a copy of his autobiography duly autographed, I was immediately expectant. He added: “your father is mentioned on page 23,” and I thought to myself that is a man of detail and precision, he gives sharp guidance. In our ninety minute very highly productive meeting, Professor Atsu Ayee – I do not think he realised this himself – complimented me four times for being punctual. I had arrived for the meeting thirty-five minutes ahead of time. That too said something to me about what the man values.

My meeting and many emails and WhatsApp posts prior had already left me with the impression of a super-organised man, with deep attention to detail and a world class work ethic. The man acknowledges every single message sent to him. I know of no other person in the world that acknowledges every single WhatsApp post – the Telcos must love him.

Reading the book
And what a book it has turned out to be. It is an autobiography with a lesson for everyone. For, Atsu Ayee is a man with humble beginnings, who by dint of hard work, determination and grit, has made it to the very top of his profession as an incontrovertibly world class scholar, researcher and administrator. A true master of his craft. He would say I should have put “God’s grace” first on the list.

The book is bold and unapologetic. He is an honest man, sometimes searingly so. In how many autobiographies does a master of his craft publish weaknesses a 360 degrees feedback evaluation identified? In detailing some events that occurred between him and extended family, I cringed in parts; the raw detail is put out, unvarnished. He takes on the judiciary with ungloved fists, uncovers uncomplimentary politics even in the church, and pulls-no-punches where he discusses governance failures in the private universities system in Ghana.

When he discusses his experiences in South Africa in the University of KwaZulu Natal, he is honest and balanced but does not side-step the difficulties. Having lived in Durban at roughly the same time, I am able to identify with what he says about inter-racial conflict, xenophobia and a needlessly litigious labour environment.

That said, Atsu Ayee is overwhelmingly generous. He acknowledges everyone that has helped and assisted him along the way. He goes into detail in listing the impact others had on him, especially his Professors. This makes the book partly a celebration of others as well.

As a person who grew up in Legon, this book brought so many memories to me of the living and the dead. So many names from childhood. I had forgotten about Professor Sinandurai for example, the South Asian dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, when I was in primary school. Suddenly, this book jolted my memory and there he stands in my minds eye; always in jeans, his turban and his Peugeot!

Many things to think about
I am going to avoid the trap of leaving nothing to the imagination. Buy many copies of the book and give them out to others. Above all, read it, for it is a relatively easy and accessible read. My generation of “Legon kids” must absolutely get it both for their knowledge and as an act of gratitude to our parents.

Atsu Ayee reveals the inner workings of the meritocracy our parents’ generation created at Legon. But he also gives our now adult eyes a few glimpses of the sometimes complex politics of an equally complex human institution like a university.

It seems to me that the University of Ghana comes out well, not so some of the private universities and the accreditation system that allows them to be. Though forthright, bold, decisive, not squeamish, and courageous in making his points and recollections, he is a relatively mellow man, Atsu Ayee.

For, if some of what went wrong in his experiences with a private university in Ghana happened to me, the Founder would have had to kill me, or I will blow the roof off. You make me Rector and then try to by-pass me on important decisions because you are Founder, I will not allow it. Simple. Heaven knows. Those who know know.

In such situations, Atsu Ayee is a turn-the-other-cheek Christian and I am an overturn-the-tables-and-pull-out-the-whip Christian. But by using this illustration he points to some of the reasons why we remain a Robinson Crusoe Society and will remain so unless we radically change mindsets and our culture.

Read him on pages 153 and 154 of the book: “Unfortunately, the values of diligence and integrity are mostly missing from the conduct of government business and individual transactions. People who try to exhibit these sterling values are ostracized and called names. Meanwhile, the values of diligence are key to building professionalism and excellence in the public sector. Even though transparency and accountability are equally important values, they cannot stand alone by themselves without diligence and integrity. The inclination of indolence and lack of integrity must give way to developing a culture of diligence and integrity.”

He gets it. This is the principal reason we have become who we are, a Robinson Crusoe Society. It is the outcome of an Incompetent State, one that gives refuge to too much dead-wood that should not be in the positions they hold in the first place. I have encountered public sector board chairmen that make me ashamed to be a Ghanaian due to their lack of understanding of corporate governance. Yet political expediency places them there.

Atsu Ayee has more fire to spit out: “Diligence and integrity have been sacrificed by the politicization of state institutions through patronage appointments such as Special Advisors and Special Assistants. This has significant adverse implications for the capacity of the public sector, as the due process for recruitment is not followed.”

Then he thunders: “Lack of diligence and integrity has also affected service delivery, the core function of any state. …Recruitment must be based on meritocracy.”

The place of leadership and my concluding remarks
It is fashionable in this era, for Ghanaian politicians to say we over-focus on political leadership when we discuss development. I am sorry, we will continue to first address political leadership. I am not going to go to the security man or the labourer at the Parks and Gardens Department of the government to point out that we are headed down a bogus and dangerous neoliberal road that delivers only mass misery.

There is a reason why when we are all headed to work, ordinary citizens like me must pull to the side of the road because top government officials are blurring sirens and speeding to their offices. Then they get there and want to say we are all equally responsible? Please stop this joke!

I am therefore glad that Professor Atsu Ayee makes this very strong and uncompromising point on page 67 of the book: “…leaders as individuals can make or unmake organisations and states. Accordingly, the failure of most organisations and states is largely attributed to leadership failure.”

He has done a tremendous job in publishing this autobiography. When we finally escape the Robinson Crusoe Society, which if we do not take radical steps now, I will have to revert to calling what well-meaning friends say I should not – a Buffoon State! – it will be great to add one major law to our constitution.

That law should require everyone that becomes a Professor to publish an autobiography. The world loses too much when they do not. Atsu Ayee has set a great example, others must emulate it. Soon.

I end with a prayer. When Deng Xiaoping’s reforms took off in earnest in China in 1980, he was seventy-six. Atsu Ayee is still a young man. Pablo Picasso and Lee Kwan Yew worked till ninety-one years of age. Deng even more. May Atsu live and be allowed to meaningfully contribute to rebuilding society till he is centenarian. God knows, knowledge is the primary productive force and he has lots of it.

Before all that though, buy and read the book and then buy a copy for a friend. That is our way of celebrating merit.

By: Yaw Nsarkoh,
7 November 2023.

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DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.