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26.02.2007 Feature Article

The Interest Of The Nation Versus The Interest Of The Individual

One fine afternoon a few years back, I happened to be at the 'Central Business District' of Sunyani when I was attracted by some noise which appeared to be coming from an excited crowd. Judging from the beating of drums, 'ton-ton-san-san' and war-like songs my initial suspicion was that perhaps one of the two football clubs in the municipality – B.A. United and Tano Bofoakwa – was celebrating some victory. When I ventured out onto the street however, what I saw was more like Birnam wood moving to Dunsinane than a victory procession of a football club.

Apart from those holding placards or drumming almost all others were holding tree branches. In addition to the 'war chants' of “yebetwa, yebetwa!” (we shall cut, we shall cut) the writings on the placards left nobody in doubt as to the message the demonstrators wanted to put across. Yes, their simple and clear message was that they will continue to cut the trees! And in case you may still be wondering who the demonstrators were, it was a group of people who described themselves as “Association of Chain-Saw Operators”. And apparently the demonstration was in response to what they considered was harassment from Forestry Department officials who were making it difficult for them to fell trees indiscriminately. After all, as was quite clear from the message on some of the placards they were questioning why they should be deprived of their livelihood. Indeed, we all agree that 'man must live'. But I'm wondering what type of world would be left for man to live in if everybody armed with a chain-saw should be allowed to fell trees anywhere and any time?

Tro-tro Drivers Versus Omnibus Drivers

I recall that somewhere in the 1970s there was a bold attempt by the government to improve public transport with the introduction of a fleet of Willowbrook buses assembled in Ghana. Mind you, those were the days when most of the “tro-tros” on the streets of Accra were wooden trucks and it was quite common to see seven passengers struggling to pack themselves in taxis which would have been more suitable for FOUR. But at the end of the day the immediate consequence of government's attempt to improve public transportation was the creation of friction between private transport operators (taxi and “tro-tro” drivers) and the Omnibus Service Authority (OSA) drivers. In addition to direct physical intimidation, the taxi and “tro-tro” drivers taunted their colleagues in public service as “kpee tse” (alcoholics or more specifically “akpteshie” consumers). And the source of all this enmity of course, was because the private transport drivers felt that their OSA counterparts were depriving them of their source of income. And indeed, but not surprisingly, rather than accept the recent introduction of Metro buses as a challenge and improve their services some public transport operators have chosen to see the whole exercise as a threat to their existence. In fact there have been several reported instances of people throwing stones at these buses.

Clearing of Street Hawkers From City Centres

In recent times few exercises have created more controversy than attempts by authorities of cities and towns, notably Accra and Kumasi, to clear inner-city areas of hawkers. Of course hawkers, like all other traders, are there not for themselves but for the public. So we need them just as they also need us. But why on earth should any group of people arrogate to themselves the right to create inconvenience for me in the practice of their occupation? In other words why should anyone think that his/her right to freely engage in business supersedes my own right to free and unimpeded movement especially in an area specifically demarcated for the purpose? Unfortunately, people have chosen to see this whole exercise as nothing but an attempt to deprive them of their livelihood. You may be tempted to ask such people whether they believe that in countries where there are no unauthorised hawkers on roads and pavements people don't eat. Meanwhile can we imagine how the central districts of Accra and Kumasi would look like if we would wake up one day to find carpenters, shoe-makers, black-smiths and coffin makers busily setting up workshops on the streets and pavements?

At the end of the day it all comes down to how readily prepared we are to ignore the interest of the society at large for the benefit or our own selfish interests. But even more disappointing is the reluctance or inability of people in authority to enforce laws which are specifically enacted to protect the interest of the general public.

In the public debate resulting from the recent nation-wide strike action of teachers I heard a comment from a teacher that really shocked me. In his contribution to a radio discussion a teacher had the guts to question the wisdom in the government's capitation grant policy if as they (the government) claimed there was not enough money in state coffers to meet the salary demands of teachers. The capitation grant, as we all know, is aimed at enabling every Ghanaian child of school-going age to go to school. While I have never been insensitive to genuine demands of the average Ghanaian worker for better salaries I think it is unfortunate that a teacher could be so selfish to the extent of questioning why funds being made available to enable children of poor families who might otherwise never attend school should not be added to his salary. Obviously this particular teacher would rather prefer that he is paid the salary he thinks he deserves even if in the process 50% of Ghanaian children cannot go to school!

Ban on Smoking in Public Places

Only a few years ago air travellers had to choose between smoking or non-smoking seats. Nowadays, of course, in the paramount interest of the general public almost all airlines are flying non-smoking, damn any inconvenience this may cause chain smokers who would normally never go more than an hour without a cigarette. In fact smoking is gradually being banned in public places like airports and railway stations in many European countries and the U.S. As a matter of fact, in Italy smoking has been banned even in discotheques and restaurants and France is expected to follow soon. Talk about this in Ghana and the first response you are likely to hear is that such action would adversely affect the tobacco industry. The second is quite likely to come from some disco or restaurant owner questioning whether it was the government that opened his restaurant for him. Meanwhile, I wonder if there is any country with a bigger tobacco industry than the United States.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, Ghana, like all other countries, is not inhabited by saints or angels who we could expect to be more concerned about their neighbours than they do for themselves. As a matter of fact we have a lot of attitudinal problems which are very difficult to understand. Just imagine, for example, the practice whereby people are prepared to destroy nature by setting fire to a sizeable parcel of land with the intention of trapping a few grass-cutters and antelopes for meat. And what about putting poison in a source of drinking water for the purpose of collecting dead fish?
At the same time, however, there is no country in the world whose citizens are so law-abiding and disciplined that without the services of law enforcement agencies everything would be smooth-sailing. To a large extent, therefore, the attitude of citizens of a country can be said to be a reflection of the performance of its law-enforcement agencies. Ghanaians have for too long, lived with the idea that you can do anything and get away with it, and until they see a clear sign that they will not be allowed to put their personal interests over and above national interests this is not going to change. And the only way for them to see this is for those in authority to go about their duty without fear or favour of anyone.

Kwame Twumasi

Kwame Twumasi-Fofie
Kwame Twumasi-Fofie, © 2007

This author has authored 45 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: KwameTwumasiFofie

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