The Smell Of It: Crisis Of The Buffoon State – Yaw Nsarkoh

Just for the heck of it, let us say any country where more than one in twenty – five percent of the population, that is – is condemned to open defecation as a fact of daily and regular life, is a Buffoon state. For in that one single fact is bound to be a failure of Law, multiple failures of Infrastructure and a long term consequence of a weak public Education system. I call this the LIE principle – to ignore the need for this in a functioning democracy is to give a lie (pun intended) to the oft repeated chorus that the objects of governance ought to be the welfare of the citizenry. There was once, in much of Africa, a pulsating sense of greater glory – at Independence, the first liberation. And then there was the riveting expectation of the Second Liberation, the advent of constitutional democracy.

What has gone wrong? Has anything gone wrong? Why has democracy of the present day variety in many African countries morphed into something that resembles a mangled version of electoral capitalism, one that has ensured a few elites are mighty prosperous but the many remain in stark naked poverty; demoralized, disillusioned, discouraged and disgruntled? Is the model broken?

Sonallah Ibrahim wrote “The smell of it” and angered the ruling classes of his time. The celebrated management writer, Sumantra Ghoshal, was later to come up with the term the smell of the place, in reference to a non-quantitative yet reliable indicator of how well an organization is run. It is a view I subscribe to, with passion. Some things do not need metrics to be obvious – our democracy, the one for which many fought with clenched fists and endangered their lives, the democracy that was meant to deliver sustained prosperity to many, refuses to be what we wanted it to be. The smell of our condition in many parts of Africa today must lead us to reconsider. If the future is left to be just as the present; one of bickering, insensitive and greedy elites strangling an already emasculated and emaciated throbbing mass of the populace, then the future will consume us all – some day for sure.

Misguided notions of patriotism are hurled at those who insist that the benchmarks of excellence for any nation are universal. When that fails to deter enough, the more corrosive charge or so it seems, of being part of a Utopian and out of touch group of intellectuals is tried. For that reason let us shout it out: Africa has no excuse, none at all, to explain away contentment with mediocrity. Yet a tyranny of low expectations continues to dog us in every way. Africa must be part of the definition of the centre of excellence – that was Ngugi’s point in his work, “Moving the centre”. Our present condition may herald trends that point to a better tomorrow but let us face it, the present is definitely not good enough and that is simply the fact. HOPE, by itself and all alone, is a thoroughly incompetent strategy.

We have stubbornly refused to become a law-based society. The dangers of “might is right” in governance still lurk very close to the surface. With the least provocation, the volcano erupts and brutal signs of state power or money-power are marshaled to silence intellectual independence. Examples abound. Like Samson we tear down gates to show we are the powerful, damn the courts and the judicial process! Democracy must be founded on strong and independent institutions. And the democratic state must be led – in government and political opposition – by those who are nourished on the juice of, to use Montesquieu’s phrase, The Spirit of Laws. A major indicator of how fractured and desperate the condition of lawlessness has become can be found in the dysfunctional but heaving bosom of property rights. The unchecked, ungoverned and explosive emergence of private militia to act as extra-judicial enforcers – for better or for worse, is just one more dangerous example of society ignoring blinking lights. The fault-lines do not disappear merely because we ignore them. Why will a civilized and functioning state see its elites so taken by the use of land-guards? A dense and opaque funding structure for political parties means we do not know who lubricates the wheels of the engines of our electoral politics, in reality. As a result, we do not know who our elected leaders are beholden to when they are elected. And then we seem surprised that the oxygen flow of transparency is cut off by the putrid smells of crony capitalism? Judgment debts’ remain the scarred face of an unembarrassed and never satiated vampire elite. The arteries through which the governed can hold the governors accountable continue to be blocked by those who can. Until, someday, the whole edifice will come crumbling down and then the poor will have nothing to eat but the rich. Have we not learned from our own history – the populist sensations of the past? The Arab Spring? And so on? How much higher will the walls and the electric fences go, in order to separate the elected elite from the electing deprived, before the futility of this way is realized?

All elements of our infrastructural competitiveness lag the best in class in the world. Our ports, our roads, our energy supply and worse, our schools and hospitals. A world that gets increasingly connected, at the middle class at least, will race past those who misapply precious resources. Yet this is exactly what we do and with that, our capacity to compete turns to ashes. Global capital has no citizenship, it has no predetermined destination. It heads where it can make a return, among those with conscience, where it can make an ethical return. Ghana or no other nation has any birth right to capital just because we are, we must compete by making ourselves competitive and by building sustainable capabilities. Yet before our eyes, as other athletes in the global race for development prepare, we atrophy and fade our chances of success by this model of partisanship that snuffs out any chance of a meritocracy ever being established.

Education which used to be our saving grace – the sure vector of social mobility, the one delicious promise that the children of the peasant could become the leaders of advanced society on merit has now collapsed to the extent that we expect the children of peasants to accept the fate of being condemned to peasantry? Our public education system now so woefully lags the private education system that we, wittingly or unwittingly, consciously or unconsciously, are cementing a rabid class society. With all the attendant dangers. Left unchecked, this boiling cauldron will explode in social mayhem, some day for sure. Aside this danger, even among our best, our readiness to play lead roles and be part of the crème de la crème of the global talent pipeline remains suspect. The culture of excellence that used to come with education, the aspects of civilization that were supposed to accompany a good education seem to have been trampled on by shallow notions of success – at any cost. The values of a functioning society have been displaced by the anomy of a buffoon state, until, perhaps, the morning after. It is okay to live on a dunghill, so long as you can construct a palace on it and no matter how you acquired the funds. The place of art, culture and science are now viewed as the private conversation topics of unrealistic philosophers? Our condition of terribly mismanaged public sanitation, if I must single out a marker of the buffoon state, is the most egregious element of shame that the elite in Ghana must be damned by.

Who are we? This generation, who really are we? A delusional partisan lot? A nihilist collection? A construct incapable of any notion of values built on excellence? Or just a biological reality? Are we truly a generation that can reconsider the certain damning end that awaits this reckless abandon? Or is there no one in charge? No people, no society, no community of the modern era on earth has made progress without leadership. And in all spheres of our existence, that is what is lacking the most. There are many times when one encounters the shamelessness and incompetence of a system so far gone and wonders whether even daring to make a wake-up call is worth it. Should we simply succumb to the cocoon that builds around enclaves of conceit that any middle class can erect to insulate itself from societal dysfunction? Is this possible – or do we soon find out, that the walls of the enclave are never enough to maintain the anger and frustration of a marginalized many at bay forever? It was Soyinka, in prison, who inferred that to give up even against the stampeding boots of brutal incompetence is to die. So while we live, we must either act or wait, for, The Fire Next Time. We have no choice really but to act or die as a society. To all those, who in anyway, struggle for a better tomorrow, this was put down for you. Someone notices. For today remains full of pain. Maya was right I know why the caged bird sings. But, will the falcon hear the falconer before things fall apart and mere anarchy is loosed upon the earth? Time, the ultimate arbiter, will tell.