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02.05.2003 Feature Article

Riddles Of The Past, Present And Future

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Opus 1 - The Riddle Of The Past The late Geoffrey Bing, Englishman and one time Attorney General in the Osagyefo's government writes in his book, 'Reaping The Whirlwind', that, for Ghanaians, "the truth must lie somewhere if one could read the riddle of the past. Somewhere must be the secret of the future" Now I don't care much for Mr. Bing, him being the man hired by the colonial government to write Ghanaian law based on English common law, statutes and mercantile laws of the 1874 England, a situation that still plagues our justice and commercial systems 'with the debris of seven hundred years of irrational legislative history'. However there is a candor to Mr. Bing's book. It is the candor of a patriotic and loyal Englishman who seems to have gone through an epiphany, a sudden realization that he has been used by his country in a broad plan to frustrate the development efforts of a young country led by a gifted but rather naïve and overly trusting nationalist leader.

In making his statement above, which speaks to the heart of his epiphany, little did Mr. Bing know that his was more than a revelation. He had stumbled on Truth itself.

When we talk about a return to the past or to our 'roots' many interpret this to mean a physical movement into some ethno-cultural space. And our roots not being particularly glorious, the suggestion conveys images of retrogression and a return to a backward, primitive existence. On this forum it has become a sin punishable by virulent invective to say Sankofa.

But the great men who coined the expression 'Sankofa' were well aware of the fact that there can be no physical return to the roots. They had something totally different in mind. They knew how sordid the past was. Many of them had experienced the past in its immediate colonial stages. They charged us, not to return to the past, but to solve the 'riddle' of the past. They always spoke in parables and what better way that a riddle to direct us to the biggest riddle of all - that of our past.

Democracy, apart from guaranteeing individual freedoms, must reflect a people's culture, history and aspirations. In other words democracy is a universal concept but its practice can be particular in different cultures. It does not mean there are different 'kinds' of democracy as Mr. Ellison wrongly accused Mr. Ayittey of saying. For example, among federal systems, the Swiss federation even though it borrowed a lot from the USA model, differs in the preponderance of strong cantons in relation to the central government. Because the independence of the cantons have been built and maintained over centuries, it has become a feature of the Swiss federation, unlike in the States where the Central government seems stronger than the State governments.

But if we have no past, no history or no culture upon which to build our democracy, our only recourse is to blindly imitate what we think are the best of the best practices of others. Yet since what we seek to imitate is based on the collective experiences of others, all of which we have not lived, we are in fact imposing someone else's essence over our substance. The result of this imposition has been the mockery of democracy that plagues Ghana and a large part of Africa today. What we call democracy in Ghana is only a shell of the real thing. We perform a few of the rituals of democracy like periodic elections, and political alternation and we bandy about the slogans of democracy like the rule of law and press freedom, but these acts are performed like ghoulish skits on a stage of poverty, foreign domination of the economy and rising ethnic tensions. Certainly not a democracy to write home about!

Whether we like it or not we do have a past. It may be a gruesome past. It may be a past filled with four centuries of hunting each other down to sell as slaves to the white man. It may be a past that had the white man colonize us for half a century after that. It may be a past that had our own people mismanage the country for half a century after the white man had gone. It may be a past that has never advanced much past mere subsistence and a slavery mode of production.

But it is a past no less and somehow our indomitable human spirits have survived till today when we can be debating the issue in cyber space. Since we have not obliterated ourselves in the process, there needs must exist an essence in this past that is worth recapturing. To deny this is to accept the previously widely held Eurocentric view that Africa has no history prior to the European incursions onto the continent.

Our founding fathers have bequeathed an intellectual tradition to Ghanaians. It is a tradition which precludes any understanding of the essence of the past. As a result of thi bequeast, it has become fashionable among educated Ghanaians and the political elite to glorify certain aspects or traditions of mere rituals of the past, to wear the kente cloth or agbada every now and then, and to refer to the chiefs and people of Ghana in every speech. For them this is as far as the past goes, the rest is all too frightening a world to entangle.

Many countries have solved the riddle of their past and have built viable societies to ensure a bright and prosperous future for their citizens. In Ghana the past sits in front of our very eyes whilst we debate if and whether it exists. The traditional system, based on subsistence and slavery, and the present crises in the system like the chieftaincy, land and ethnic disputes, are not hidden from public view. Slavery and slave trading of children has become a feature of the inland fishing economy, and in the households of the wealthy and middle classes. Chieftaincy has lost its responsibility and abused the trust of the lands vested in the institution; trade patterns are similar to the times of slavery and colonization; agriculture in the main, is similar to what existed 500 years ago. And despite all this we sit and debate whether or not to go to our root! s.

Let us make no mistake! We still live in the past! Our past has become our present and hangs on our necks like the dead carcass of a bush rat. And we shall carry this stinking past into the future if we do not solve the riddle of its stench.

The past, the present, and the future constitute a trinity, an ascending continuum of a kaleidoscope of experiences that impinge on each other. We improve on the past to get the present and build a good future in a never-ending spiral. Unfortunately many Ghanaian educated minds are constrained by linear thinking about time. For them only the present and the future exist, and if and when they feel magnanimous, they may include a few accoutrements of the past. Ghanaians today, in all walks of life, thanks to information technology, but especially in the Diaspora have seen the present and the shape of things to come - a glimpse of the future. Ghanaians have proved they can perform at the highest levels of any present and future. Now can we apply that to our past, which still remains unresolved in the homeland?

It is our duty - nay historical task - to change this sordid past, to bring our people into the future. But to change the past we must understand it, extract its essence and erect a more sustainable ethos on this essence. And all this done with the best, of the best, of the best practices available to us from the whole world! Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Kwesi Yeboah
Kwesi Yeboah, © 2003

The author has 34 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KwesiYeboah

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

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