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18.11.2013 Feature Article

In Defence Of The Ghanaian Middle Class

In Defence Of The Ghanaian Middle Class
LISTEN NOV 18, 2013

The failure of Ghana's political leadership to properly manage the economy and tackle head-on the worsening issue of graft has now become a topical issue in Ghanaian public discourse. For the most part, as expected, the discussion has taken on the usual partisan fray, with politicians on different sides of the Ghanaian political divide — notably members of the ruling NDC and opposition NPP — trading the usual blame game over who is responsible for the country's current undesirable state of affairs.

Increasingly, however, the middle class is being brought into the conversation. They have come under sustained scrutiny and some level of attacks by some elements of the Ghanaian public for being partly responsible for the present mess in society. Their crime: being self-centred, indifferent and failing to demand greater accountability from the political class. That is to say, minding their own business, barricading themselves from the harsh realities of the suffering masses, and watching unconcerned, while our leaders continue to take the rest of the populace for a ride.

Mr. Kofi Bentil, vice president of policy think tank IMANI-Ghana — a personally-respected public intellectual and middle class professional by Ghanaian standards — sums up the attitude of his colleague middle class Ghanaians, while speaking on Joy Fm's Super Morning Show last Thursday, as follows:

“What they have done is, [they've] gotten themselves jobs that pay well, so they don't feel exactly the way everybody feels in the market; they've got themselves polytanks so they are able to get water all the time; they've gotten themselves gent sets so when the lights go off they switch them on; they've gotten themselves private hospitals, they can call their friends who are doctors to come and give them treatment at home. So somehow we live in this country but some people don't feel [the problems and the pain others go through]”, emphasis added.

The policy analyst then advised his colleagues to start demanding answers from our political leadership, adding that this will inure to their own, long-term benefit, not just that of society. This is because — to him — the current attitude of “checking out and providing personal solutions”, while leaving the rest of the populace to fend for themselves is unsustainable in the long-term, for the simple reason that should current conditions persist or deteriorate, the marginalized in society will one day get fed-up and take up arms against the well-to-do, to demand their fair share of the national booty. And in so doing, they will not (be able or willing to) make a distinction between the honest Ghanaian, whose education and hard work has paid off; and the greedy politician or politically well-connected, who obtained their wealth through dishonesty, but rather see both as partners in the creation of an injustice system.

For co-panelist Dr. Tony Aidoo, head of Policy Monitoring and Evaluation at the Presidency, however, Ghana cannot simply rely on the middle class to engender transformational leadership that is responsive to citizen needs. His reason is that:

“You have a middle class that has become individualistic than nationalistic and because [the status of a middle class] puts you in an exalted position, you shut your mind to the wider social problems; whenever there is a crisis, you retreat into your small domain and continue to enjoy life. Are you going to put your fate in such a middle class to deliver the country”? he asks.

Contrary to Mr. Bentil's recommendation, Dr. Tony Aidoo's suggestion is for us to “…go back and build our society on the basis of strong ideological foundations”.

It is quite interesting to note that many — or perhaps more accurately some — Ghanaians, including some politicians and even some members of the middle class, feel that the country's middle class population is not playing a meaningful or active role in national development, particularly in the area of leadership and political governance, which is key to accelerated development and shared prosperity.

This is a sentiment I personally share and believe that Ghana's middle class could assume a more proactive and assertive posture in Ghana's body politic and development process. This assertion is borne out of the now well-known truth that the problem of underdevelopment in Ghana (and by extension the entire continent of Africa) is more to do with poor or incompetent leadership rather than the paucity of resources, human and natural — something which I'm convinced the middle class can help rectify.

In addition, both history and experience elsewhere teach us that, where the middle class is given the right cooperation and support they need, they have played a positive, influential role in national development. In fact, since their inception in Medieval Europe, the middle class have played a lead role in transforming and advancing the course of humanity, socially, economically and politically. Right from the 19th century industrial revolution, which is both a product and cause of middle class expansion, the middle class have been instrumental in spurring technological innovation, promoting democracy and free enterprise, as well as pushing for institutional reforms that imbibe the ideals of meritocracy, equality and the rule of law against the established order that thrived before and during their growth — systems which in a large part preserved the rule and privileges of a minority.

The French, the Bolshevik and the 1948 “Spring of Nations” revolutions that galvanized the entire European continent were all products of discontented middle classes, even though their cause has had to be taken over by the poor, workers and peasants before it succeeded or lasted. In the United States, the middle class was at the forefront in the fight against the winner takes-all-politics and patronage system that dominated the 19th century — something they achieved by spearheading civil-service reforms which de-politicized many hitherto 'political' public sector positions. They have also been the proponent of many legalisations that limit the discretionary powers of politicians and hold them accountable to their electorates.

Compared to their western counterparts, however, the Ghanaian and African middle class have played a less decisive or forceful role in curtailing the excesses of politicians as well as demanding better performance and accountability from state institutions and public office holders, despite the fact that they continue to play some useful roles, which I will shortly explain.

But rather than simply chastise the middle class for their 'perceived' silence or accuse them of not doing enough to right the myriad wrongs in the Ghanaian society, we could perhaps do ourselves more good by going beyond the criticisms to ask the right question, which is to ascertain or find out why the middle class in Ghana have not been able to do the kind of things their counterparts elsewhere have succeeded in doing, politically or even economically.

Several factors account for this situation, in my view. But if I'm to narrow down all the different reasons for the perceived apathetic disposition of the Ghanaian middle class in national development to one overarching factor, I would pinpoint what has unfortunately become the bane of our current democratic dispensation: excessive or divisive partisan politics. Ours is a society that politicizes almost every — and any — thing. We read politics into all actions and utterances. We have politicised many public sector roles, right from the centre at the presidency, to the heads of local government at the periphery. And we readily identify and support ourselves based on our political affinity and, off course, the much older form of identity we had before the advent of modern politics: ethnic background — an equally dangerous card we play with.

But the effects of unwarranted partisan politics in Ghana are devastating. Our politicians cannot simply tolerate constructive criticisms from others without interpreting them from a purely political lens. They cannot welcome ideas from perceived political opponents or work with those who have the technical know-how or skills to get things done, unless they're clad in the right political suit. If someone criticizes the government from outside, the usual reaction from government officials or supporters is to accuse them of being sympathizers of their opponents, without doing any serious interrogation of the issue(s) being raised by them; and if they're not lucky enough, they're rewarded with insults and character slaying. If the attack is from someone within, they're branded as “enemies within”.

As a consequence, our political parties lack the internal democracy they need in order to promote healthy competition or exchange of ideas — the bedrock of any progressive democratic society. If issues — not people — ever get discussed, they must take the form of the usual blame game or equalization politics or toe the ideological line, devoid of any objective analysis. It's almost a taboo for any Ghanaian politician or political party to concede a past failure or wrongdoing of their government or publicly condemn the negative utterances of their fellow party officials. In fact, the rule of thumb is that anything emerging from the camp of a political party must be defended by their members at all cost, even if it's in a bad taste.

When a new government assumes power, a whole army of workers will have to vacate their posts for another batch to take over, irrespective of their competency and accomplishments. Recruitment into our security agencies, including the police, army and prison services, and to an extent teacher training and nursing colleges, is increasingly assuming a partisan look. This is the reason why we continue to deprive ourselves of the best brains that can steer our nation forward. Yet, when the middle class decide to create or find secure employment in the private sector or even abroad, we accuse them of being selfish and unpatriotic.

Not only does a change in government culminate in a massive change in the face of public sector institutions and state-owned companies, but a whole gamut of uncompleted government projects would have to be abandoned, only for new ones to commence, unfortunately at the expense of the innocent tax payer, majority of whom, if I'm not mistaken, are middle class Ghanaians. The reason? Because they were started by a different government. If they're continued, old contracts would have to be abrogated and new ones signed to, as it were, do away with enemies and bring on board regime friends. And if projects ever get completed, depending on the nature, they must be rewarded to party loyalists.

Somewhat linked to the above is the seeming disconnect between our knowledge creators — academic institutions, students, professors, policy think tanks, etc — and the ultimate consumer of such knowledge: government. Year after year, tons of research projects are undertaken by Ghanaian students, academics and researchers — element of the middle class — only for them to gather dust. We commission body after body, set up committee after committee to inquire into important issues, only to do away with their recommendations, often because their suggestions are not politically feasible. We have enacted, and continue to enact, legislations upon legislations to fight corruption, but hardly do we apply them in our day-to-day running of government business. If people in the middle class stand up to demand better performance from elected officials and public service providers, they're branded as “too known” or being “someway”.

This is what I call unresponsive governance — a system that does not seek to incorporate the views and concerns of the very people it claims to be serving. Yet, when the middle class find ways to overcome their own problems as Mr. Bentil has noted, we say they're unconcerned.

Countless examples can be given to illustrate the point being made here, that over politicization of issues and the general unresponsive nature of our governance system is what has contributed to silencing the Ghanaian middle class. They have, in effect, become a deterrent for some of our finest, independent-minded men and women to take active part in national discourse, let alone participate in partisan politics. Perhaps, for majority of these, keeping quiet or choosing to “dzi wo fie asem”, as we say in Ghana, is a far better and dignifying option than enduring reproach from taking part in partisan politics or demanding answers from our leaders.

Off course, this is not an endorsement of the current posture of the middle class to the political situation in the country, but an explanation of the raison d'être behind their seeming lackadaisical attitude to the status quo.

But, as a matter of fact, some are already contributing their quota to ensure that the right things are done. They include the likes of such media professionals as Joy FM's Super Morning Show host Kwadwo Oppong Nkrumah, who is critically engaging our politicians and other public office holders to ascertain how effective they're fulfilling their mandate and election promises, while opening the platform for ordinary Ghanaians to direct their questions and concerns to them. They also include journalists like Manasseh Azure, who is using his training to uncover the rots in our public sector institutions; and policy analysts like Mr. Bentil, whose policy think tank IMANI-Ghana is providing alternative policy solutions to Ghana's development challenges.

Apart from these, there are countless middle class individuals and organizations undertaking research and advocacy work to shape public policies, deepen democracy and improve upon governance in the country. So the perception that the middle class isn't doing anything is itself untrue.

But the other important question we need to ask is to what extent is the work of the Ghanaian middle class actually impacting on governance and the quality of public service? Your guess is as good as mine! So here we're again, back to square one. In those countries where the middle class is making a significant impact on national development, it is because their governments are willing to listen to their voices and apply some of the ideas being put forward by their middle class. They don't ignore them or treat their opinions as 'political' attacks coming from their detractors. In fact, they even go to the extent of appointing members from their opposition parties into influential positions in government and society, because, unlike their African counterparts, their national interest trumps parochial, partisan interest. For instance, US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, both members of the Republican Party, are occupying such key positions in Obama's government, because, to him, competence matters more than party colour.

This is where the popular maxim “leadership is cause; everything else is effect” becomes necessary. If our leaders in government provided a more listening ear to constructive criticisms and acted on those ideas that can move Ghana forward, regardless of where they emanate from, rather than insisting on ideology, political affinity and personal ties, then the middle class would be more forthcoming with their views and thoughts for nation building. But if our politicians shut their ears to them and antagonize them, then I'm afraid they'll keep 'checking out' and 'minding their own business', which does not inure to the well-being of Ghana.

Unfortunately, too much ideological talk in the past has not taken us anywhere, nor will additional ideological deepening or reconstruction take us any further in this 21st century — an epoch in which even the most capitalist societies such as the US are pursuing redistributive policies to tame the excesses of capitalism, while socialist states like China have vowed to give more power to market forces. In other words, what we need is workable, pragmatic, best-fit solutions to the structural problems facing our dear country.

This is what the Ghanaian middle class stand for, I believe. After all, I qualify as one, even though I do not think myself to be so. Let me sign off by quoting from the opening statement of paragraph 9 of this write-up:

“..both history and experience elsewhere teach us that, where the middle class is given the right cooperation and support they need, they have played a positive, influential role in national development..” .

Ours to think about!
Author Information
Name: Komiete Tetteh
Email: [email protected]

Komiete Tetteh
Komiete Tetteh, © 2013

The author has 4 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: KomieteTetteh

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