I first heard about Yaw Nsarkoh in 2012 when I chanced upon an article he wrote on the blog of author, Nana Awere Damoah, that article was titled; “The Power of Education”. It was from that day in September 2012 that I became a student of this great mind.
In a recent conversation with my friend Maxwell, he described Mr. Nsarkoh as a contrarian and I think he is not wrong. A Ghanaian national, Yaw Nsarkoh has worked with Unilever for about three decades.
When I sat down on a Saturday afternoon to have this interview with Yaw Nsarkoh, I knew I was going to be treated to a very high level of intellectual analysis and I must say I wasn’t disappointed. Yaw Nsarkoh has an uncanny way of inviting his audience to ponder the deep existential questions that confront our society. I hope you enjoy my interview with him
I am going to start by asking you to give us a brief introduction of yourself.
Yeah, [that] is always a difficult thing to do… my name is Yaw Nsarkoh as you well know. I am Ghanaian. I like to describe myself as a guy who tries to love his neighbour as himself. And I’d say perhaps one of my central philosophies in life is that I may hate the sin but never the sinner. Beyond that, I have a family. I am married to Liz; I have two sons in university and these days I live and work in London. Frankly, I think that is who I am.
Who did you look up to when you were growing up? Your role models
Like everybody else, your parents play a very important part in your life. My mother was a very disciplined, nurturing, socially aware person so she served as a mentor to me in that regard. I learnt a lot from her about society. She was an intellectual and a scholar and all of that, but she was first my mother. My father on the other hand, I have grown to regard as a quintessential scholar and philosopher. A very intellectual man. And that was his impact on us as well. He liked to debate things with us. From fairly early in my life, he would come and give us his lectures that he was going to give in places and expect us to read and give comments and so on. And he was a man who was organised very strictly around the principles for which he stood. He never was swayed by popular opinion or what society wanted. He lived his life as he wanted it and I think to some extent he impacted me. So, the main influences on my life were my parents.
But like everybody else through your life journey, you meet other people who influence you. At the place of work, one man that very deeply influenced me was my first, he was actually my second, the first was there for a month and this man came, called Kwame Addae, who was my technical director. His ethos, his execution focus, his ability to hold people accountable influenced me deeply in my career. But there are others; Martin Esson-Benjamin, Kwasi Okoh, Robert Adu-Mante, these were all directors at the time. There was a Nigerian man called Festus Odimegwu, who influenced me deeply. When Festus left, a guy called Roy Williamson, who was the first Marketing Director I worked with when I moved to marketing. Roy had a big impact on me. I worked with many great partners in the advertising agencies. People like Barbara Davies, Mrs. Norkor Duah, and the late Jake Obetsebi-Lamptey. There is always a risk that you leave out some very important people. But I grew up in an academic community and so I was also very largely influenced by the professoriate, their debates, their inter-faculty lectures and so on. If I start mentioning their names, we would be here forever, so I am not going to bother about that but the values of the academic community; they are not very materialistic people, they place a lot of value on knowledge and originality, ability to analyse society and come to an independent point of view, those too influenced me. And then when I started my international career, I’d say Harish Manwani, who became the Chief Operating Officer of Unilever, had a deep, deep influence on me. Paul Polman, retired Chief Executive Officer, same, has a deep influence on me as well and the current Chief Executive Officer of Unilever, Alan Jope. All for different kinds of reasons, but they all had big influences on me. But you asked about mentors, those are the names that come but I have also had some great peers and friends who have all influenced me in different ways. This is a question that can last forever but I think you have a flavour and I’d leave it at that.
Staying on your parents, you said both were academics, I’m wondering why you also didn’t go into the academia...
Well, my parents always encouraged us to beat our own paths. They never forced us to do anything. I ended up as an engineer and logically from there into industry and then I beat a career in marketing and so on and so forth. It is also true that my generation of people who came from the campuses, most of us did not return to the university campuses. When I look around my peer group, many of us moved out and did other things. The sociologists may one day explain it. I don’t have a clear explanation for that. But I know that my parents never insisted on anything. They gave us freedom to choose what we wanted to do, and they supported us. And I knew that whatever it [was] that I wanted to do, I would always have their support. That said, I have always been attracted to the life of the academic community, even now. I keep close kinship with the academic community because they are people who value learning and I value learning and when you keep their company, you learn a lot. So, I like to be with them because they rub off good values.
When you were in university, did you really envisage that your career was going to take the trajectory it has done in the last two decades?
No! I had no idea what my career was going to be like. I just at the time realised that whatever my path took me towards I was going to have to work very hard because you were in a global community, everybody was competing at the time. But to say that I knew that I’d one day become a marketer, a general manager, a coach and so on, I had absolutely no clue. Perhaps the only thing I could say is that even in university I liked to write a lot, I was the editor-in-chief of Katanga Hall and that has stayed with me. I have always liked to read, and I have always liked to write. I think you always have your long-term goals in your career, but you also have to be adaptable and take the opportunities and learn from the challenges.
How would you compare the university graduate in 1992 when you left University of Science and Technology (as it was known then) to the current crop of students coming out of our universities? Have the standards fallen, gotten better or the same?
I do not like to make such comparisons, because to do them, you have to have some sort of objective measures. And I would leave that to the experts who can do those sorts of comparisons and bring out conclusions. My sense is that every generation feels that the generation that comes after them is worse. In the 1960s, by the way, Edward Akufo-Addo, the father of the current President gave a lecture in the University of Ghana where he was complaining about the quality of students. Today, the people who graduated in the sixties hold themselves up as the gold standard. These are published lectures so if you go to the University of Ghana, you may find the lecture there.
But I remember that someone else also, because it created a storm in the academic community, who felt that Edward Akufo-Addo was not positioned to be able to evaluate them and there was a heated debate as a result. So, there is that kind of tendency. But what exactly do we mean? When we were coming out of the university, we were not internet savvy. We didn’t know how to use smartphones. So, the people of today also have capabilities we didn’t have.
They are more globally aware than we were, for example. Maybe there were some things in our favour as well, but I don’t want to be flippant about this at all and give a cursory answer. Based on what should be your question and I won’t be able to answer it. So, for me, there were students in my time and there are students now, and we should focus on how we can develop the country.
Despite your hesitancy to compare earlier, I am still going to invite you to compare two eras. How do you compare the reading culture among the youth in Ghana today and your generation? I ask this because there is a prevailing view that the standard of public discourse in Ghana has deteriorated considerably over the years especially under this fourth republic.
Yeah, but why then do we blame the youths? The youths are not the only constituent parts of the public. The public is the public, which is inter-generational. So, if the quality of discourse has gone down, I do not understand why the youths become [scapegoats] simply because they are easy targets.
The quality of discourse has gone down even in the main political parties. There, I’d argue that even the quality of leadership. I do not believe that if I look at the New Patriotic Party today, they have as firm a foot forward as when the Peter Ala Adjeteys, and the BJ Da Rochas were at the helm of affairs. Nor do I believe that the NDC is where it was when Kofi Awoonor, and P.A.Twumasi and the others were in charge. And you can tell…
I have often referred to a debate I once listened to on JoyFm moderated by Kwaku Sakyi-Addo between J. H. Mensah and Kofi Awoonor, and it was an outstanding interview. Two people who did not agree, arguing from different vantage points, all very refined gentlemen, all very scholarly. Today you don’t hear those sorts of debates. So, it is not a problem of young people. It is a problem of society. And we need to step back and say what has happened? Why does there seem to be a collapse in standards?
As to whether we are reading more or not, again, I’d like people who have done clear analysis on that to point that out and use data. I don’t want to again give flippant answers on something like this. But my sense is that we have become such a distracted people, some of it by the political noise in the society, some of it by the economic difficulties so that people don’t even have time, they are not able to make time to replenish and improve themselves. Because when they wake up in the morning there are so many difficulties of basic existence that they have to deal with, that the time does not exist.
So, I describe it as that more and more, we have become a boorish and philistine people who are no longer making time for the finer aspects of civilisation that we would probably describe as a high culture.
In a lecture that you gave during the AchimotaSpeaks series, which was part of the programme marking the 90th anniversary of Achimota School, in 2017, you said “Our society and civilisation require the artistic and analytical abilities of the novelist, the poet, the artist just as much as it does other fields. Those who argue that our development endeavour should focus only on vocational and technical knowledge, miss the point that we set out to build a civilization not just an efficient construction machine. The sciences and the arts, the plumber and the painter all find useful contributions to make in a civilization – a holistic civilization.”
How do you juxtapose this with the school of thought from many educationalists now that we need to focus more on the ‘practical subjects’ that makes one readily employable?
Well, we have to have a conversation. It is not just up to the teacher and school. We ought to have a conversation about what sort of society we want to create. I do not believe that the disciplines stand alone in the way they are presented. Some of the best engineers in the world are engineers also because they appreciate philosophy and arts. Some of the best innovators, take Steve Jobs, if you see the central philosophy of Apple design, you can tell that this is not just about science, he had a big appreciation of the place of aesthetics and so on and so forth. So, the sense that one discipline exists on its own in a vacuum I think is misplaced and is the wrong way to look at it.
We as a people have to have a conversation, that is about the sort of society we want to live in. I know what sort of society I want to live in. I want to live in a society where even those on the bottom rung of the socioeconomic pyramid are able to live in dignity; dignity being that they are able to eat well, they live in a clean environment, and they are free from misery. And their dignity is intact, and they are free to pursue their potential to its fullest. For me, that is the kind of society that I would like to live in and in that society, it is more than just functional existence. There is a place for the arts, there is a place for the aesthetics.
I would like to see Ghana be much greener and more sustainable, for example, and clean. And to do that, you need all the fields coming together. So, it is not about putting one field down or the other down. It is about thinking how we can work together to give a wholesome society meaning in the physical space that we occupy as a Ghanaian people, that is what it is about.
What would you say are the top 10 books that mostly influenced your thinking as a person?
It is an impossible question to answer when you’ve had as long a reading life as I have had. But I can say that I have been very heavily influenced by Amartya Sen, no doubt about it. His ideas of justice and capability and society are ideas that I identify with very strongly. I could also say that Peter Senge in the original Fifth discipline and the learning organisation, talking about suspending all assumptions, thinking through things with systems thinking and so on, really appeals to me.
The man I call the immortal Samir Amin and his development analysis. Samir Amin was an extremely productive scholar, so he wrote many books. And he collaborated with other people. Immanuel Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi, Andre Gunder Frank – they too influenced me tremendously in my thinking. Paul Polman’s Net Positive also influenced me a lot. And obviously they would be many others that I have read and been inspired by. But on the day when you asked me the question, this comes up.
I also study African fiction quite a bit. So, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Ousmane Sembène, Ayei Kwei Armah – all of them – they’ve all had an impact on me. So, it is difficult for me to sit down and say these are the ten books. Chimamanda Adichie, I should mention – some of the more contemporary ones – Lola Shoneyin and so on – all of them have influenced me. You can see that I’m resisting saying these are the ten books, but I can say that I have been impacted by a wide body of writers.
Throughout your sojourn in Africa as a corporate executive and observing the continent as an African, what would you say in your assessment is the primary cause of Africa’s underdevelopment?
Of course, it is a big question. Achebe answered it for Nigeria in “The Trouble with Nigeria” by saying leadership and I think he is onto something. My sense is that postcolonial Africa has not necessarily generated the right kind of leadership. And that is partly because we have not found the political system that is able to generate independent and original leaders, at the same time as keeping stability.
It is one thing to be independent and original and you get booted out and kicked out. But how you get the two, say, a Lee Kuan Yew style, a Deng Xiaoping style, a General Pak in South Korea etc. They were able to bring the two together. They were original, hardworking but they knew also how to keep stability in their places. And I think in modern times, Paul Kagame in Rwanda, probably represents that. So that is one, thinking originally about what systems work for us. How do we fashion something that works for us in Africa – respect our freedoms, our liberties, our dignity as human beings but also delivers the development dividend that should come from these.
And it is increasingly clear to me that that is not this neoliberal democracy that we are practising. This is totally corroded by over-monetisation. The parties have been taken over completely and hijacked by money bags. The cost of electing a President or a Member of Parliament is so high, that inbuilt in the neoliberal democratic project are forces of corruption that cause institutions to decay.
Yes, it is a step forward, compared to where we were with military dictatorships. But we have arrived at a point where we have to have much more open conversations about what is the next phase of evolution. How are we going to ensure that illicit funds don’t take over our politics. That, our politics represents much more of a meritocracy than what we have today. So that is the analysis of postcolonial Africa.
Before that, of course, you need to reckon with the modern economic system – the dominant world system – that we are a part of, which actually began when there was European contact with Africa for the first time in the 15th century, was shaped to give different parts of the world different roles. So, we, in Africa fell into what some writers describe as the periphery, and then there was the centre, the core, the metropole, whatever you want to call it. And the role of the periphery, without a doubt, was to build economic structures so that they could transfer sustenance to the core, the centre, the metropole – sustenance as in raw materials like gold, diamond, iron – all unprocessed.
But also, cocoa, coffee, tea, – all of them also unprocessed. These were the commodities we were transferring and in addition, at one point in time, during the Atlantic slave trade and the transatlantic slave trade, actually also human beings.
So, to escape from the assigned role of the periphery, you have to think very originally and carefully like the Asians have done. China disrupted the global order in order to be able to emerge the way it has emerged. But we seem, in many parts of Africa, to think that by mastering a dominant system that assigned us a role that would keep us down, we would somehow develop. No people on earth, throughout history have done that, I do not see why the African people would be able to do that.
That is a brilliant answer. Staying on the question of leadership, I want to draw your attention to something Prof. Kwame Anthony Appiah said in 2016 in an interview with Nick Opoku of JoyNews. He said this in relation to the question of leadership and development. I quote him, “I don’t think we’ve had especially bad leaders in Ghana by world standards, so I don’t think I would want to put the blame there.”
What would you say in response to that? And I’d go further and ask you pointedly, does the African culture impede development?
I haven’t studied Kwame Appiah’s argument on this specific matter so I would not pretend to be responding to him. I would like to understand specifically what he said before I respond. I don’t always agree with him, but I respect him as a scholar.
I think there are two things that set us apart, say, if you compare us to the great Asian leaders, it wasn’t all of them that make the cut, but the ones that stand out. They were self-confident people who were able to think originally about their problems and craft original solutions and not seek, simplistically to mimic what other people told them.
So, if you go to Singapore or many parts of China, they are very unapologetic that they built their society around Confucian values. And they have developed systems that work for them. They have not tried to mimic Westminster or Washington. They have built systems that work for them. The Chinese will say to you; our system has delivered seven hundred million people out of poverty; you can have your view about it, but our goal is that we want to build a harmonious and prosperous society and we have a system that is delivering it.
Almost without exception, Africa was aping and mimicking other people’s systems. We got divided into the cold war polarities. People following stuff.
You go to Singapore, and places like Thailand, and South Korea, even China; for example, they’ve dealt with the original question of land. From Kwame Nkrumah to Nana Akufo-Addo, Ghana has not had really any meaningful, if you use Ghana as an example, but that is also true of Nigeria, Kenya etc, we’ve not meaningful dealt with the issue of land reform because it is difficult, it is tough, there are vested interests.
But if you do not sort out the social relations around the means of production in your country, you never take off. It is as simple as that. So that is one dimension. The courage to take on clear institutional reforms.
Then the second bit was to also know, because we live in a world, whether we like it or not, however naïve we want to pretend to be, we are living in a world where there is an ongoing contest and battle for world hegemony and domination and therefore if you are naïve about how you operate in the world, you get cut out. So many people were killed. The Chinese knew how to develop very quietly, by the time the rest of the world found out, they were where they were, it was too late, their development and the rise of Asia had become irreversible. I think in that regard, we were not sufficiently savvy.
We allowed ourselves to be cut down by a world system because we didn’t know when to stand up and shout and when to be quiet and get on with our stuff. And we didn’t centre enough the wellbeing and prosperity of our people as our goal. For me, these are some of the differences that I see, the Asian people are very self-confident. The Singaporeans are very unapologetic about their system, regardless of what other people say or think. They’d tell you if your system works for you, go ahead and do it.
So, Africa long ago should have come to the conclusion that, Professor Samir Amin described when he said; “a differentiated polycentric approach; one planet, many systems.” was the right way to go.
So, you figure out on an endogenous basis what works for you, also ensure that you have a mechanism that protects you so that when you start to go down that route, you are not going to be thrown out of government or even assassinated by international forces.
In my view, that’s what we’ve not been able to do well. And in current times, we have aped democratic forms without actually ensuring true, deep, popular participation. I don’t know how involved you feel you are as a citizen and how far your views go, but we have a parliament, and we have all these other things but is it really a people’s democracy in the classical sense of the word? I think that is where I’d fault neoliberal democracy, that we have built the framework so you can see them but in substance, they are not there. Money and other things have taken it over.
Do you think the youths in Africa are innovative enough when compared to their counterparts in Asia and other places?
Innovation is not an island; we think about these things sometimes from the wrong end of the stick. Innovation depends on ecosystems. Silicon Valley didn’t just spring up one day. The American state, the American government was involved in pulling people together, building Silicon Valley in a place so it was close to Stanford University, Palo Alto University, University of San Francisco; bringing all sorts of dependences into one place. And then making sure that in places like Palo Alto etc, they provided excellent residential facilities. These things don’t just happen.
So, again, I am going to say, the youths are a very easy target. What is the youth supposed to do when they are operating in the context of an incompetent state? An incompetent state that cannot even transport food from the interior of the country to the coastal areas so that people can get food to eat. What are the youths supposed to do? Why are they the ones who are being blamed? The straightforward answer is that, inherently, the youths of Africa, in my view, lack nothing compared to their peers. But the ecosystem of other people supports them more and therefore gives them more capabilities.
That is part of the reason why you find so many Africans, they leave the home continent, and they go elsewhere, and they excel because the supportive system there makes them able to excel. I think I’m beginning to form a pattern that I do not accept the youths being victimised for the development challenges of Africa. It is not their fault. They are not the people who are making policy. They are not the people who are running countries. It is those who make those decisions who should be held accountable. Why is it that when we must now confront why we have difficulties, we turn to young people who are not the people in office.
Few days ago, when you were recounting the radio eye story, you made mention of Tommy Thomson and John Kugblenu. These are two names I first read about in Mike Adjei’s book, “Death and Pain in Rawlings’ Ghana”. I also read about Capt.Effah Dartey, Akata Pore, Dr.Chris Atim etc in that book. The impression I got was that the key actors at the time were relatively very young people. Indeed, if you looked at the composition of the PNDC at that early stage, it was dominated by young people. Yet if you look at our current parliament, only 42 out of the 275 members are below the age of 40 despite 74% of the population being below 35 years old. What are we doing wrong as young people now?
Your questions always start from what the youths are doing wrong. Again, I don’t see what the youths have done wrong. First, the example that you gave, I thought that you’d probably use the first republic or the second republic where you had people like Uncle Sam Okudzeto etc as very young MPs at the time. But to use coup makers, I am not sure that is necessarily the right example. Are we then saying that the youth cohorts of today should also go and stage a coup? They could! Twenty-something year olds could stage a coup and succeed and also be in power. So, I am not sure that is the relevant example.
But to your more substantive question about why young people are not as prominent as they were, say, in the first republic and the second republic, because they were very young… I think Sam Okudzeto was in his twenties when he was in parliament, J.A.Kufour, when he was deputy foreign [affairs] minister was twenty-nine, he was Mayor of Kumasi at twenty-eight etc.
My hypothesis is that the various military interruptions blocked the natural flow of the chain. So if you think about a J.A.Kufour, who was a deputy minister in 1969, if we had allowed the system to work and run, I suspect he would have arrived at the presidency much earlier than in 2000. But in between 1969 and 2000, there were several coups, several disruptions so you had a blocked pipeline and therefore when the line was unblocked, it was now, as they say in Ghana, the turn of the Kufours etc, who in other systems would have longed gone past and then unblocked the system for the young people also to emerge. I mean Nana Akufo-Addo was an actor on the scene during I.K.Acheampong’s time in the early seventies. He was already the General Secretary of the PMFJ (People’s Movement for Freedom and Justice) and yet today, in 2023, he is now President.
You can see that something is not working well on the transmission belt. So, it is not just the fault of the young people. We have to deal with our history, the interruptions that it has thrown up and within that, sketch possibilities that are realistic for young people. In spite of all those impediments, some young people have managed to emerge, but not in the numbers one would have hoped for. I think the reason lies very squarely with history and the fact that we have also over-monetised our politics.
If you need so much money in order to win a seat, then, of course, it discriminates against young people, who generally if they have done things ethically and honestly, they are at an earlier stage in their careers and therefore don’t have those sorts of monies. It is perhaps just in a formulation of your question to make it interesting but if it is also your point of view then I can say that I don’t see things in an identical way at all. And again, I do not believe that it is young people that are to blame. This is a problem for society to have a conversation about and say how can we ensure that these vicious cycles don’t repeat themselves.
Who is a good political leader to you, and would you say a good leader in the corporate world or academia would automatically be a good political leader?
If the operative word is automatically, the answer is no. The nature of the stakeholder networks in larger society is much more complicated. If you are in academia, you are dealing with people, for example, with 100% literacy, most of them with more than one degree. The constituency and the quality of people that you are dealing with in terms of formal education is very different from a guy who has to govern an entire society. There are all sorts of tensions that come from the different demographic variables, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, which is much more complex. So, automatically, no!
Are there some transferable skills? Yes, there will be some transferable skills because leadership is leadership. There will be some transferable skills, but it is not automatic that you’d become [a good political leader]
And then your fundamental question is, if I put it simply, who is a good leader?
My view of a good leader is someone who is able to articulate a vision in consultation and in communication with the people that he is supposed to lead. Then mobilise those people around a common pathway, after, again, consultation and conversation. And deliver what they set out to do and also create the space, while that is being done, to learn to grow, to have fun and to be able to review and take stock of what worked well and what did not work well and plow those learnings back into the cycle. I think if you have that, you’re a good leader.
In one of your recent write-ups on your Facebook wall, you wrote, “… both the NPP and the NDC are finished as serious capillaries of change beyond senile neoliberal capitalism.” You then envisaged a political outcome that was going to produce someone like Lee of Singapore as President and Kagame of Rwanda as Vice President of Ghana. Do you think such an outcome can ever be achieved within our democratic framework?
Well, first of all, Rwanda, I probably have to study much more closely but I believe that Singapore is a democracy. Who is to say that Singapore is not a democracy and why not? And who is judging it as not being a democracy? I believe passionately that Singapore is a democracy, but they have organised it to make Singapore work for themselves. They are not sitting there trying to tick somebody’s boxes and impress someone and then their country falls apart like we say we have a great democracy and inflation is 54% and we’ve declared sovereign default. Who are we fooling?
There is a clear difference there in my view. Therefore, my answer to your question is that democracy in Singapore produced Lee Kuan Yew and his team. By the way, it wasn’t just Lee Kuan Yew, it was Lee Kuan Yew and his team. Lee Kuan Yew made sure that the system was meritocratic and the people who were produced were no ordinary people. When you meet the top talents from Singapore, you know that you have met top talents. There is no doubt, the system produces it. These are the things we need to reflect on
So, do you think Lee Kuan Yew was a democrat?
Yeah! Why not? Who is saying he is not a democrat? You tell me… why is he not a democrat? He contested elections and won. He was accountable to his people
Was Nkrumah a democrat?
Nkrumah, in my view, was not because he at one point declared a one-party state. Lee Kuan Yew was never guilty of that.
Nkrumah’s argument would be that, the one-party state was also a law passed by parliament, parliament voted for by the people…
That was his argument, I don’t agree with it. The fact that it was his argument doesn’t mean I have to buy that. I don’t accept one-party state as forms of democracy, unless it is the people that have the conversation. What I do not accept is that you come into power through a multiparty route, get state power into your hands and then you use it to dismantle the institutions of democracy.
If we have a referendum today and we say to ourselves as a people of Ghana, the elections are fair and transparent, and we agree among ourselves that it is one-party [system] we want to go, I accept it. That is what the people want. But, if after you win power [through a multiparty system], you get there and dismantle it, that I find very difficult to deal with…
I think Nkrumah started as a democrat, some of the factors were against him. I am sympathetic to that. If you have an opposition that is throwing bombs at you etc, you tend to harden as a President because you have to survive. So, there was also reckless opposition that moved Nkrumah into the space of becoming very authoritarian. But, by 1966, I find it difficult to say Nkrumah was a democratic President. He was not. I do not back 1966 coup because I don’t ever back coup d’états. But there had been a significant decay in the constitutional freedoms and basic space in the social fabric in the country. And I think that has to be accepted.
Then we move to Singapore, and I say whose standards are you using to judge Lee Kuan Yew? The Singaporeans?
No… democracy as we understand it…
But who is ‘we’? When you say, “we understand it”, who is “we” here?
The global standards of democracy…
Who defines that?
From what we know of the western concept of democracy…
Yes, so now you are saying Western but why must the West be the people who have a monopoly? Why can’t Singapore be part of that conversation? Why can’t South Korea be part of that conversation?
Is it democracy when in Germany somebody stays for sixteen years? But it suddenly becomes dictatorship if that happens in Ghana or Rwanda? Angela Merkel was in power for sixteen years. How long was Margaret Thatcher in power for? Eleven years!
But that did not breach their democratic framework and therefore I have no problem with it. Every people must have a right to have a conversation about what works for them. If it is delivering for their people and it is bringing their people into dignity, then who are we to sit down and say that there is a certain western or global standard, and everybody must adhere to it?
What is it that makes us feel that what is happening in America is better than what is happening everywhere else in the world? For me, these are the conversations that we need to have.
Do you think the Rwandan model is sustainable?
I don’t know whether it is sustainable. But I do know that it was said that Lee Kuan Yew will go and then Singapore will collapse, and Singapore has not collapsed. So, there is something to learn from that.
I don’t want to speculate about whether the model is sustainable or not. What I do know is that Kagame has delivered for his people in a very big way. And I am willing to applaud it. A country that was in genocide that has sprung out of the ashes to come to where Rwanda is, needs to be applauded. And therefore, there are some things that Kagame has got right.
Is he perfect? No, he is not. But there are some things he has got right. Are we willing to learn from those things? That, for me, is the more relevant question.
What should be the right balance between intellectualising and execution in the quest for political reforms as an activist?
I am not going to assign arbitrary numbers, but I have to say that we must define the purpose of government as seeking the welfare of the people and then take on whatever assignation of execution versus intellectual analysis that delivers that. I think, to start talking about the issue and say 70-30 or 50-50 etc is to get into a false debate. We must do what it takes to deliver dignity and prosperity to all our people. I underline ALL OUR PEOPLE.
From your earlier answer you gave, I am going to take you back to the vexed issue of land reforms in Ghana. What do you think is the way forward for reforms on the question of land ownership in Ghana?
Well, we are not going to avoid… It will be very difficult because we have delayed it for so long, ownership has moved from family to family. You saw what happened with Achimota forest recently…very embarrassing situation that this can happen. But this is a major faultline of Ghanaian society, this issue of land.
The sooner we face it and start to sit down and have conversations about what exactly are we going to do – are we going to be able to just leave this haphazard arrangement, where private armies, we call them land guards, but they are private armies. Private armies are everywhere, people’s properties are being destroyed on a wanton basis. We just cannot continue like this.
But because the political will does not exist within this neoliberal democracy, because, if you go and say you are taking a chief’s land then all the town’s people will not vote for you. So, none of our political leaders want to deal with it. Everybody comes and behaves as if they do not see that as a problem, until one day the whole thing will explode and take all of us down with it.
Does chieftaincy have a place in a modern republic?
It does have a place in a modern republic. But, in my view, its role should be primarily as, I don’t even want to say custodian, because culture is a very broad concept. A lot of the time when we talk about culture in Ghana, we think about drumming and dancing. But there is a culture of science, a culture of technology, culture of discipline, there is a culture of ethics, so it is a very broad concept, and you cannot say the chiefs alone.
I believe that they are, to some extent, repositories of some dimensions of our traditional culture and that should be encouraged. But the situation we have now is that sometimes the chiefs appear to be a parallel state and that cannot continue. A modern republic must be clear of what the hierarchy of governance is. We have an executive President; he is in charge of the country. So, when one chief sits somewhere and declares a curfew without proper recourse to the executive structure, that begins to worry me. Again, this is not for one side sitting down and throwing stones at the other. We have to have adult conversations and say how do we evolve; how do we allow institutions to mature? What are the things that we used to do in the past that no longer can accompany us to the future and then we must make the reforms.
But I think we are not having the conversations enough because it takes courage on both sides to be able to sit down and make these changes and we have preferred to let things go by gravity. But if we leave it that way we would pay a heavy price for it, unfortunately.
On the question of money in politics, we have laws on our books which the electoral commission appears incapable of enforcing. What do you think is the way forward?
Well, we have to sit down and have the conversation. Why do we make laws and can’t enforce them?
Are we going to keep having conversations on everything?
But democracy is about a conversation with other people. So, we have to have the conversation
But we have had the conversation and the law already exist, but we are simply refusing to enforce it?
But who is refusing to enforce it? Just give me an example
The electoral commission…?
The people we have elected and put in power…? The electoral commissioner is not the only agency of enforcement. You are talking about a system that is broader than the electoral commission. They are aware, so why are they not enforcing it? That is what we ought to have a conversation about… if we have fashioned laws that we all believe work for us and we can’t enforce them, then that is where we must have the conversation.
My definition of an incompetent state is a state that makes laws that it cannot enforce. And we have to have a conversation about why it cannot be enforced. What else are we going to do? Why are we not able to stop galamsey, for example?
You should tell me…
If you ask me what should we do, what do you want me to say? We have to have a conversation about it. Why are we not able to stop it? We have the Ghana Armed Forces, we know where the people are at the level of communities, we know. Why are we not able to stop it? You and I know the answers. There are powerful, vested interests involved and they are the people who are acting against stopping [it].
Are we just going to live with this ecological damage? We cannot pretend that we do not know these issues. We know! So, let have the conversation. What are we going to do? What needs to give? What needs to change? And do these things with intensity because the country is not where it is supposed to be.
Let me pick your thoughts on the public school system. In your view, what is the issue with the public school system especially at the basic level? Why are the middle class increasingly resorting to private schools at that level? I am sure you were a product of the public school system…?
Well, I went to University Primary School, which was a public school. I was in Achimota school, which was a public school as well, and then I went to UST, which was also a public university. So, all my life, I was in the public system, and I believe it served me well.
We don’t need to stretch this far to understand why people [are opting for private schools]. The market makes decisions for people. The quality that they see there [public system], they are not happy with, that is why they are willing to pay more to send their children to other systems. So, again that is a conversation, we have too many side discussions, talking around things when we know what the central issue is, and that is what should be tackled, and we should focus on it.
When my mother took me to Achimota school, I say my mother because she was an Achimotan, my father was an Mfantsipim guy, so there was always a little bit of a contest in our house. My mother won the debate, and we ended up in Achimota. But when she was taking me to Achimota, she had absolutely no doubt in her mind that whatever system would be made available to me at the time would shape me to be able to compete at a global level. If the public schools are able to say that today, then we can say there is no reason why people should be paying more in the private schools, but it is a big if. Can we say that? That is where the issue is…
On the lighter side, the burden of Achimota, can we say that Achimota School is partly responsible for the state of Ghana? Considering you have produced about four heads of state in Ghana?
I find those as useful conversations for a sense of humour. I mean people who are looking for someone to blame will always find someone to blame. You could also blame the army as an institution or go back and say most of our leaders have been Presbyterians, so you blame the Presbyterian church or the Anglican church. Or most of our leaders were Kotoko supporters or Hearts supporters so you blame them? I find these an entertaining conversation. It is useful for us, sometimes, when we get together, to be light-hearted about these matters. But when we come to having a serious development discussion, I park such considerations
This is going to be my last question for you. What will be your advice for the youths of this country?
Be the best that you can be. Take the opportunities. The internet age enables you to know exactly what is going on everywhere else in the world. Benchmark yourself to certain standards. Be the best you can be. And do not despair even through the difficulties, keep going…
To the youths of Ghana, I wish them the very best.
Thank you very much. That is a powerful advice. I am very much appreciative of your time.
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