COMMENTARY: Limitations In Imitation: Challenges For New Ghanaian/African Democracy
BY: James Obrenyah
It is common knowledge that when some one designs something they are able to and freely change the shape of the thing as they choose because they own the original design and the original idea. If they encounter problems along the way they can change course easily. But if another person copies it, then it becomes difficult for them to change it dramatically, particularly when problems arise.
At best it can only look a bit like the original but can never be the original. That is the situation in which Ghana and African countries who are striving to practise democratic governments find themselves in.
Many African countries including Ghana have been trying hard to practise democracy since independence. They have written constitutions, conducted elections, held debates to exchange ideas, created parliaments, judicial systems etc.
Most of their constitutions are shaped alongside that of their former colonial masters and in some cases with variations.
The Ghana constitution for example has an executive president (American model), Ministers chosen from among members of parliament (British model), Chieftaincy (Ghana model). This means that those aspects of the constitutions that have been structured alongside those of the colonial masters would present some difficulties when they are being operated.
All constitutions are structured with the values and traditions of the people in mind so the governance will reflect the people’s beliefs, culture and traditions. But in Africa our culture and beliefs appear to run parallel to our governance systems.
I have heard some people say Africans should evolve an African version of democracy. I do not subscribe to that idea because we are already neck-deep with the western style democracy. What we need to do is twist and turn these models to suit our circumstances. And that is where the problems begin. Imitations definitely have limitations. How do we successfully operate a constitution that has been modelled alongside a culture that is considerably different from ours? This explains why many African countries have failed to live up to the democratic ideal.
In fairness some countries including Ghana, Tanzania, Botswana and a few others have had a fair share of success and all is not doom and gloom. But the question to be asked is this; are Africans practising democracy European style or African style? Are we imitating properly or we are faced with limitations?
Democracy, western style is a good thing. Why? Because it comes with many freedoms which everyone loves to have: freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of association, the right to life, to own property and many others.
But the original designers of this democracy did not and have not included insults and abuses. What they have done and continue to do is the responsible use of the freedoms that come with democracy. A few weeks ago, a journalist and some commentators were punished in Ghana for contempt of court because they were deemed to have acted in contempt of the court for ‘improperly’ making comments in a case which is pending before the Supreme Court.
Suddenly our learned lawyers, professors, journalists and commentators have forgotten the meaning and spirit of contempt of court. Some are asking the Supreme Court to draw the parameters for them so they would know their boundaries, while others have called the contempt law archaic and obsolete.
I am afraid the Supreme Court is not a workshop nor is it an extension of the law school. Let’s be honest! Before this case everybody was using the term ‘contempt of court’ freely, including our learned friends.
But we all know that there are many laws in the criminal code Act 29, 1960 that are old and should be amended to suit the present social and economic environment. Many of these laws were modelled alongside the British legal system but our learned friends have not done anything about them. Is it a case of limitation in imitation?
Not long ago, many people including lawyers were debating the issue of unnatural carnal knowledge when the gay issue became a hot topic.
Questions were asked whether or not being gay is a criminal offence in Ghana. Then there was the issue of causing fear and panic, causing financial loss to the state and many more. Now that the issues have died down everyone is quiet.
This reminds me of what I was taught in my college days many years ago that the law is not the source of human behaviour but it is the behaviour of man that brings about law. We are waiting for someone to get into trouble with the law before we realise that a particular law is archaic or it is not right.
Why must it take the incarceration of a few people before our legal luminaries find their pens? All of a sudden think-tanks, professors, lawyers and commentators have found their voices to say what is wrong with our criminal justice system and our laws.
My understanding of the work of think-tanks and researchers is that they research past, present and even future issues of national interest and educate those who are unable to do so with their findings.
In Ghana we had the privilege of setting up a constitutional review committee to review aspects of the 1992 constitution and come out with areas that we think are not fit for our purpose or are dysfunctional, after only twenty one years (compare that with the America, British or French constitutions).
I am yet to find out whether some of these people and institutions have made submissions to the committee. And also whether or not there have been suggestions regarding our ‘archaic laws’.
In the western democracies which Africans love to quote ever so often, journalists and commentators are very circumspect when they are commenting on cases before the courts. One would often hear statements like ‘for legal reasons I am not going to comment on this or that case’. I have lost count of the number of times politicians and journalists in the west have made this statement.
The reasons for this is that they are simply avoiding being contemptuous of the law, you do not have to go to law school to know this! Journalists, commentators and politicians in the west only do full commentary on cases after the case is done and dusted. Even in high profile cases which are normally called trial by the media the media houses know their boundaries and keep sensitive information that might prove prejudicial or damaging to the case under wraps until the case is finished.
Insults and abuses are not part of our traditional social and political set up. Despite our practise of western style democracy for some time now with the enjoyment of all the freedoms, it is unthinkable that any Ghanaian will have the guts to insult the Asantehene, the Okyehene, the Yagbonwura, the Ya-na among others in their face or in the media without paying a heavy price.
But we have openly insulted President Kufuor, President Rawlings, Late President Mills and now President Mahama, all in the name of freedom of speech, one of the key tenets of democracy. We just have to get real. We are ridiculing our selves when we arrogate to ourselves licences to insult and to do things the west whose democracy we are imitating do not do.
About two years ago Professor Kwame Kakari of the Media Foundation for West Africa, while criticizing the radio stations style of programming in Ghana, said that some radio stations did not have any programming at all and that some of the media personnel did not even brush their teeth before setting off to the radio stations,(www.myjoyonline.com, 04/02/2011).
I thought I would see a robust reaction from the stations but there was none, some two years on.
I have been following discussions on our media outlets for some time and have come to the conclusion that many people who pass as commentators and analysts are struggling to see the difference between the original and the non original if you like the imitation.
In order that we do not become bad imitators, let us be responsible in our discussions. As for removing portions from our criminal code we will do it when we get there. When we have been able to see the difference between best democratic practice and bad democratic practice and then settled for what we think is useful, suitable and functional for our present circumstances.
Any attempt to take the uncooked food from the pot in an effort to fry it will only give us something with an unsavoury flavour which we would like to spit out even before it gets to the throat.