Sins Of The “National” Cathedral

By Prof. Ato Sekyi-Otu
Article Sins Of The National Cathedral
JAN 27, 2023 LISTEN

Public things must be public things.

–Frantz Fanon, The Damned of the Earth

In the labyrinth of misery,
Despair has erected a cathedral
Where the prayers of the poor
Smolder on the ground.

–Patrick Sylvaine, “And So…”

Ever since Kwame Nkrumah came and wrecked their genteel party with uppity impertinence, the founders and successors of the Danquah-Busia tradition in Ghana have been telling us this: They are the club of men and women of substance, endowed with superior intellect and wisdom, and, thanks to those qualities, the natural rulers of this country. Listening to today's representatives of the tradition, a visitor from Mars may be forgiven for sneering and thinking that either this claim was always bogus or that the present generation are a rather sorry breed of the caste.

I will set aside their reaction to a recent demonstrations against the unbearable rise in the cost of living: the mixture of contempt and manufactured fear of terrorism with which they greeted the phenomenon of the youth of comatose Ghana, at long last, doing what young people around the globe, from Chile to Lebanon to South Africa to Nigeria to Panama to Sri Lanka have been doing in very recent years and days: saying no to social misery and scandalous inequalities, daylight robbery of our national treasure, police violence administered at the behest of the government.

And I will also leave for another day a fuller comment on the extraordinary poverty of spirit that leads the NPP's vainglorious think-tanker-in-chief, Gabby Otchere-Darko, to dismiss the substance of the demonstrators' cause, reduce it to a numbers game, and dwell on how many people showed up for this or that demonstration: such is the moral obtuseness of sated bellies and stunted minds. For now I will invite you to just listen to the arguments – and that is a very generous characterization – regarding the so-called “national” cathedral, the sickening brew of insufferable arrogance and crass illogicality these spokespersons display on morning talk shows. Perhaps we cannot hope to correct the arrogance, so stubbornly ingrained in their members' DNA. That overweening arrogance breeds wilful ignorance and indolence, the unwillingness and inability to submit a programme or proposal to the labour of rational justification and the risk of refutation. But we must not let their perverse reasoning and the illogicality of their utterances go unanswered.

The “national” cathedral project bristles with multiple wrongs. I call them “sins” in a half-facetious compliance with the idiom of its promoters. I will highlight three of them. The first has to do with principle; the second considers what is a priority in the scheme of national necessities; and the third concerns procedure. I will dwell in these brief comments largely on the question of principle, because I suspect that from that original sin – the transgression of principle – the other wrongs almost inexorably flow.

On 23 November 2019, defending the planned building of a “national” cathedral and its exorbitant cost in this time of desperate need, Finance Minister Ken Ofori-Atta declared in the most fatuous reasoning and garbled language to match:

From 1957 to where God has brought us and the blessings He has given us and now a small land we are giving to God should rather be given to real estate agents? I get afraid. Because we are a Christian country, even if we don't do it, the stones themselves will get up and do it. It is a beautiful thing and it is a memorial to God. This huge country God has given us, we are taking a small 3 acres for God and we are crying. The things of God make me afraid. God will build his thing but we have to do our part. It is certainly about 100m dollars.

My immediate reaction to that utterance was the following: Eject this character from the ministry and send him to some monastery. That, however, would be to dishonour the good priests and impugn their intelligence. Quite seriously, Ofori-Atta would subsequently ask that every Ghanaian contribute 100 cedis monthly to the project. He would make this demand in his mid-year budget review statement of July 2021. In a budget statement! Now, according to the American civil rights leader Rashad Robinson: “Budgets are moral documents.”

I don't think he meant to include soliciting funds towards expenditures on an edifice serving one faith community in the political morality of budgets and the tasks it enjoins, or what the 1992 Constitution calls “The Directive Principles of State Policy.” Nowhere in the 1992 Constitution is it written that Ghana is a Christian country. And it is a good thing too. For that would have enshrined in the constitution – the constitution of a civic republic – not only the supremacy of one religion but also the tyranny of the majority, something distasteful to avowed adherents of liberal democracy.

Nor is it written that the citizenry should commit millions of cedis to an enterprise that the mighty divinity will command into being anyway, with or without our pitiful, merely human, contribution. I will pass over that incoherent theosophy. We should be infinitely more alarmed by the more fundamental matter of principle, namely, the proposition that the state in a modern constitutional republic has any business in the religious life of the citizens any more than in what they do in their bedrooms. We should take strong exception to the very idea of “the religious activities of the state” in which Akufo-Addo places the construction of the cathedral. “What touches all must be approved by all,” goes an old adage. Unless and until our country becomes a theocracy – a fate too horrible to contemplate – an edifice honouring one religion and the religious life of one fraction of our people is not among the public things that touches all of us and so demands our collective approval.

It is even less legitimate to ask all of us, whether we are Christian or non-Christian, religious or non-religious, to bear the costs of realizing a personal commitment Akufo-Addo made to his god. The point appears to escape a particularly witless and belligerent spokesperson of the governing party who sees no difference whatsoever between Akufo-Addo's promise to his divinity and his pledge to implement the Free Senior Secondary School programme if he came to power, since they are both, according this discerning spokesperson, personal pledges. But it is, as they say, elementary.

One is an oath enacted in the silence of your conscience or prayer – inaudible, unverifiable, an entirely private affair beyond the political requirements of accountability. We cannot even tell whether it is the shared commitment of a faith community born of their considered judgement or the product of a solitary individual's fevered hallucination.

The other, be it praiseworthy or ill-conceived, is an electoral promise, a civic act made to the citizenry in the full glare of the public realm – verifiable, knowable, subject to the scrutiny of public reason, and one for which the successful candidate can rightly be held accountable. I should have thought that these avatars of democracy know that an enterprise is not “national” just because you call it so by fiat. Strange is the democratic culture in which declarative edict usurps the work of deliberative judgment. But such, it would seem, is the understanding of democracy and democratic consent entertained by our party of the best and the brightest. I have heard it said by more than one NPP spokesperson: “As for the national cathedral it will be built no matter what”. Prophecy or commandment? Voices of reasoned dissent and disagreement are of no consequence. Certainly, dissenting voices marshalling secular arguments need not apply.

Even the brilliant and tireless Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa of the opposition National Democratic Congress, choosing to fight with the adversaries' weapons, finds it necessary to bring a humongous bible to a morning talk show and cite scriptural passages in support of his objection to the cathedral. Are there no earthly human grounds for opposing this project? Here is an old philosophical question: Is the “national” cathedral a bad idea because god, if he exists, would disapprove of it, or would he disapprove of it because it is a terrible idea? We can, you and I as equal citizens of a democratic polity, marshal the resources of public reason to debate the second option. The first option is available only to those among us privy to divine wisdom.

Even if the latter group make up seventy percent of the populace, as Ofori-Atta and Akufo-Addo keep harping on, their verdict is essentially neither verifiable nor falsifiable. But it is profoundly anti-democratic, if by democracy we mean not rule by caprice but the government of public reason where those who govern implement ends to which we consent. With perverse consistency, Ofori-Atta would respond to criticism of his performance as finance minister and calls for his resignation with the declaration that only Jesus can judge. That stance is not only anti-democratic; it is profoundly anti-political, a view of human affairs according to which you and I, sentient human beings and voting citizens, have no agency. On that path lies the totalitarian dictatorship of faith. But the ironic upshot of Akufo-Addo's stance is that this is a private obsession transformed by his absolute-monarchist hubris – l'état c'est moi – into a public matter. We are therefore entitled to subject it to scrutiny and lay bare the wrongs it embodies.

On Monday 11 July 2022, I watched with aching sorrow in my guts a report on Metro TV showing children in a “school” located in a “defunct cemetery”. A defunct cemetery! The symbolism alone, dear reader, should make you weep. In the place where the life of the mind is to be nurtured, that is to say, seedlings of our future planted, the young live in intimate communion with decay, detritus and death. Only a society that has forgotten to remember the future, that pays no heed to the injunction kae dabi, will condemn our children's faculties to certain atrophy at the very time and place of gestation.

Only an insensate chieftain presiding over such a moribund society will declare in his Solomonic wisdom that the building of a “national” cathedral is the “priority of priorities,” commit himself to erecting a majestic edifice in praise of the heavens while our people have no decent toilets in which to relieve themselves of their earthly burdens. When I heard Akufo-Addo's solemn invocation of “priority of priorities,” I thought of John McEnroe's iconic exclamation: “You cannot be serious.” But that cruel inversion of priorities is of a piece with the penchant for luxurious jets and roaming around the skies of the universe for entirely inconsequential “international” undertakings while students of our famed secondary schools face shortage of food supplies, their elementary earthly needs uncared for. Deputy Finance Minister John Kumah's assertion of an analogy between building the cathedral and building of schools would be half credible if in fact building schools with decent facilities were the norm.

Giving pride of place to providing a “sacred space” for the care of the soul in the midst of a crisis of affordable accommodation to house sentient human bodies; “bread of heaven” and soup devoid of meat; the ultramodern shrine and the prehistoric shithole: such are the competing emblems that have conspired to define our chieftains' idea of priorities and the choices they have elected to foist upon us. They don't find it necessary to justify these rational choices to us mere mortal citizens.

But they may have to do so as they go to meet their Makers, the masters of the world's so-called “national” economies coming to our shores from afar and bringing with them instructions our rulers cannot refuse. Our rulers may have to explain to the lords of the earth their idea of equal opportunity: on the one hand, demolishing the homes of potentates and securing rented residences for them with public funds in order to make room for the cathedral; on the other hand, blissfully ignoring the desperate cry of ordinary citizens for basic housing. And if the lords of these international institutions have the minutest care for the people's urgent needs rather than our chieftains' puffery, they will have to ask our president precisely what makes building the cathedral so urgent that, of all the things awaiting completion, he has pledged to see it completed before he leaves office in 2024, a shining legacy among the monumental achievements he wants posterity to remember him by!

They go on and on about the rule of law and their unequalled fidelity to its dictates and attention to the minutiae of rule-based transactions pertaining to implementation of public policies. You can't tell that from the way in which they have gone about the business of the cathedral. From the beginning the project was not even submitted to parliament for debate and approval. That contempt for democratic deliberation evidently flowed from the foundational lie that the whole thing would be built with funds contributed by private individuals and faith communities, principally Christian churches, and those opulent pastors preoccupied with saving the souls of their flock while their bodies writhe with pain and anxiety and insomniac nights. Having dispensed with democratic procedure in the very decision to build the shrine, the selection of architects, contractors and builders, and the disposition of requisite monies followed the same autocratic path.

The very land on which the cathedral is to sit comes from the confiscation of properties, in some cases without prompt compensation, the case of Waterstone Property being one of them. This, from the party of “property-owning democracy” evidently turned into the party of property-seizing autocracy, perhaps an unintended disclosure that “private” property is, for better or for worse, a public artefact, a state-sponsored right. The business of the cathedral – and it is business for all the sanctimonious shroud of piety – has been marked by the familiar fake freedom of the “free market” and the phony rituals of arranged competition, in truth a system resting on the toxic triad of caste prerogative, dynastic ethno-nepotism and party cronyism.

Non-competitive procurement, single-source dispensation of contracts, flagrant infractions of requirements of transparency, inconsistencies in the estimates and reports of costs, inscrutable details regarding how much the state is providing and how much comes from private resources: such are the rules-thrashing proceedings which have characterized the whole sordid business. I used to think that our political culture or rather the political discourse of our elites is much too obsessed with questions of procedure and disputes concerning procedural rules to to the detriment of substantive matters of public goods and social justice. So much is this the case, I thought, that I was led to describe the political culture preferred by our elites as a meta-procedural republic, a political practice fixated upon procedures about procedures regarding procedures.

Now I would qualify that characterization and say that while the concern of our elites with substantive matters of public goods is indeed desultory, their vaunted attachment to procedure and rule-based transactions is rather selective, entirely dispensable when it suites their interests.

In sum, the “national” cathedral is riddled with flagrant disregard for procedure, utterly indefensible in the scheme of pressing national necessities, and dead wrong in principle. The entire project is beyond redemption.

I began this brief with two epigraphs, the first of which is taken from the work of Frantz Fanon. I can think of no better closing argument than his prophetic admonition delivered in the first days of our post(?)colonial life:

The national government, before preoccupying itself with international prestige, ought first to give back their dignity to all citizens, fill the brains and feast their eyes with human things, and create a prospect that is human because conscious and sovereign persons dwell therein.

Ato Sekyi-Otu
Emeritus Professor of
Social and Political Thought
York University