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02.05.2005 Feature Article

Wanted: Beautiful Minds and Big Ideas

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Military dictatorship, yamutu! Parliamentary democracy, yamutu! Parlia-military dictatorship, yamutu! Mili-parliamentary dictatorship, yamutu! SMC I &II, yamutu! Yamutu! PNDC, yamutu! Yamutu! NDC, yamutu! Yamutu! NPP, yamutu! We've tried them all, but still yamutu! This is not a stanza from a political hymn.

Yet I can imagine such musings swallowing up football conversations on London Bridge in Cape Coast, pocket-book conversations in the straits of the famous marche aux puces of Makola and Kejetia, social conversations in Internet Cafes, pito conversations under a baobab tree somewhere in the north, or the irrelevant conversations in “Alabama” rendezvous in my village in rural Ghana. There is a strong temptation for all of us to be cynical and skeptical about our political systems. Cynicism and skepticism are not bad in themselves. In fact a dose of healthy cynicism and skepticism is good for the development of a society. And for Africa in particular, cynicism about political regimes is never misplaced. After all, what has been the difference to the ordinary person on the street between the various political systems our country has experimented with in its history? What is the difference between a military regime and a democratic regime in Ghana? Historical antecedents show that at the margin, there is not much difference between them. On many levels, they're both the same inwardly with different stripes outwardly. They have both shown to be the purveyors of inertia and mediocrity. They're both enforcers of the culture of silence - a military regime does this openly through intimidation by “gun power”, and a democratic regime subtly through elitist intolerance or intolerant elitism by “pen power”. In effect democracy in Africa is a military regime with a pen. Yet, I am no fool, apologies to the iconoclastic Mr. T. I know there is a significant difference between a military regime and a democratic one, even in Ghana, and I'll always choose democracy over dictatorship. I know that it takes time to nurture democracy. For that I am willing to be patient and be hopeful. However, I want to find concrete reasons to be hopeful. I've been craning my neck like a giraffe, but I find virtually no new bold ideas on the horizon to make me that hopeful.

But the question of why our political systems have not been able to deliver the public good is a question about ideas and the institutions to manufacture and process ideas into final useful products for society's consumption and improvement.

Why then have we failed so far to develop new bold ideas and the institutions to nurture them? To address this loaded question, one has to look at the minds that direct the political dictates of our country and the “adaptive capability” of our existing institutions.

At most levels of governance and social interactions, some of our existing institutions have become anachronistic and dysfunctional. Some of our institutions lack adaptive capability – in other words, their evolution has lagged behind the changing times of our local and global needs. In some cases, we are using static institutions to deal with dynamic local and global circumstances, be it in the arena of politics, economics or other forms of social interactions. Classic example one: our school system, especially the universities. When was the last time these institutions underwent any major changes in their curricula to reflect the needs of contemporary Ghana? Classic example two: our society still relies on moral indignation as an anti-cheating or anti-corruption technology. Moral indignation works efficiently in small societies where everyone knows all members of that society, such that grumblings by the non-cheating members makes it very hard for chronic cheating to thrive. But a society assumes more complexity, so that social interactions and exchanges involve both familiar and unfamiliar people, moral indignation as an anti-cheating/corruption technology loses its potency. Yet that's essentially what we still rely on in Ghana. New anti-cheating/corruption technologies are required in a complexly evolved society.

Societies with static institutions live in the past, making arithmetic progress at best; those with dynamic institutions live for the future, making geometric progress. If you live in a static world, you perceive economic, political and social interactions in terms of a zero-sum game. In other words, you believe and think that for you to win (politically, economically and socially) someone else must lose. However, for those who see and think of human interactions as a web of dynamic interactions, economic, political and social relations are a non-zero game – a win-win situation where all players can be winners. That doesn't mean that all players in this game will have equal payoffs or outcomes. In fact your payoffs depend on how strategically you play the game. This means that as a social interaction moves from intra-family to inter-family, relationships become complex and there are dynamic positive gains to be won by each participant of this non-zero game. However, in order to realize these positive gains, the institutions and the attendant rules that direct the game should be dynamic too.

To develop dynamic institutions require beautiful minds and political leadership that aspires to greatness. Let me briefly explain what I mean by “beautiful minds”.

Beautiful minds see things in dynamic terms; not so-beautiful minds see things in static terms.

Beautiful minds acquire intellectual capital as an end in itself, and for the fact that well-honed intellectual capital can be the light to help see through the fog of human problems. Not so-beautiful minds acquire intellectual capital as a means to an end – more of often than not, as a derivative of social status. Beautiful minds aspire to greatness; not so-beautiful minds aspire to success. There is a sea of difference between success and greatness. There is a uni-directional relationship between the two. Greatness leads to success all the time, but success doesn't necessarily lead to greatness. Success is often defined in terms of tangibles and materialism, but greatness finds meaning in intangibles and spiritualism. As is observed in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, great minds are those who see that spiritual is greater than the material world. This is echoed by Plato's The Apology ---“ wealth does not bring goodness, but goodness bring wealth and every other blessing, both to the individual and the state.”

There is a vacuum of ideas on our political horizon. This is because the objectives of political parties may not necessarily be the same as the society's objectives. Political parties are primarily in the business of winning elections and power. In this light, the main objective of political parties is to maximize tactics over an election cycle. But tactics are not strategies; they are certainly not ideas. However, what a society needs to thrive are ideas that have permanent resonance over and beyond election cycles. This does not mean that political parties are incapable of generating ideas that would define the destiny of the country. In fact, they are inherently supposed to exactly that.

But which political party will provide strategic leadership in the search for big ideas? Who will be our rainmakers of April so that we can have flowers in May? Where are the beautiful minds? Is “domestification” Ghana's big idea? It's probably fair to say that “domestification” has been reduced to comical shreds, but at least it represented something in the world of nothingness. It got people to talk. The CPP, PNC etc are so hypnotized by Nkrumanism that they're apparently still waiting for the ghost of Nkrumah to resurrect to change the country by the strength of his charisma. Ditto the NDC. Its biggest idea is Rawlingsism. The NDC is apparently waiting for a Rawlings incarnate to emerge to change the country by the strength and style of his charismatic personality. What about the NPP? They seem to live in a sheltered Panglossian world, full of an exaggerated parody of overly optimistic “enlightened philosophers” and Dr. Do Nothings, as if the projection of optimism is an idea in itself. They are so hypnotized by Busiaism that they're apparently still waiting for the ghost of Busia to resurrect to change the country by the strength of his intellect.

So in the market of ideas, we're stuck with an oligarchy of Mr. Domestification and Mr. Dead People.

Ayi Kwei Armah once romanticized that “the beautiful ones are not yet born”; the analog in contemporary Ghana is that the beautiful minds are not yet born. Ghana sorely needs her beautiful minds to rise to the occasion and provide new big and bold ideas to save her from collapse. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Maxwell Oteng
Maxwell Oteng, © 2005

The author has 28 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: MaxwellOteng

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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