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STATESMAN OPINION: THE COMING SHIFT: TWO THINGS WILL SHAPE OUR DEMOCRACY

General News

On November 8 2018, a young student in her first year at senior high school was knocked down by a taxi on the Adenta highway and died. The incident sparked perhaps the most spontaneous demonstration in the history of Ghana.

On November 8 2018, a young student in her first year at senior high school was knocked down by a taxi on the Adenta highway and died. The incident sparked perhaps the most spontaneous demonstration in the history of Ghana.

 

Car tyres were burned and the highway was made impassable by thousands of young people expressing displeasure at the government’s failure to complete foot bridges over the road which had been abandoned for almost a decade. They blamed government inefficiency for the estimated 200 deaths on that small stretch of road in 2018 alone.

Before the day was over, the government announced that work would begin on the foot bridges in a week. It was the quickest response to “people power” in the 25 years of our Fourth Republic.

The coming challenge

What made the incident even more worthy of not was that, unlike with many previous demonstrations in Ghana, the protesters were overwhelmingly “bipartisan” ‒ they weren’t politically motivated, just a group of young people who expect better of their government.

Anyone who underestimates what happened at Adenta is oblivious to the forces that will shape our democracy in the next few decades: millions of young people (many of them poorly educated and poor); the power social media puts in their hands to organise; and a government that just “revealed” to them the most effective way to hold leaders accountable.

Ghana’s 30 million-strong population is very young (more than 57 per cent are below the age of 25) and growing rapidly. The UN estimates that by 2050 Africa’s population will double to 2.4 billion.

Without wishing to delve into the debate on population growth and economic development, there is no doubt that this expansion presents a daunting challenge.

History tells us that human beings, like other natural resources, can be a blessing or a curse to a nation depending on how they are used. We are on the verge of a massive social shift from this population explosion, which will present challenges we have never confronted.

After 25 years of democracy, Ghanaians are learning quickly that perhaps none of the political parties, left to itself, has the internal will and commitment to act in the interests of the people. And what happens in a democracy is that when people become frustrated with the internal mechanisms for promoting their welfare, they resort to “external pressure”.

Strategic moves

In the past, there were two big limitations to the application of this “external pressure”: restrictions on information flow and fewer frustrated people.

The first restriction has been largely eliminated by the power social media puts in the hands of people, allowing them to organise spontaneously and in real time. The second is projected to get worse as the youth population spirals out of control and opportunities become more limited, even for educated youngsters.

Nothing presents a greater threat to national security than the confluence of these forces, especially in a wider atmosphere of economic and social inequality. Today, anyone, no matter how “inconsequential”, can wake up in the morning and manage by evening to marshal an “army” of frustrated youth for a common purpose.

In the past, the greatest threat to politicians was the prospect of another party grabbing power. In the future it will be pressure from a “party” of young people, spanning the political divide, who want a better life for themselves and their families. Until the necessary foundation is built, their expectations will remain beyond the capacity of politicians.

On the horizon is the impending collision of two worlds, living side by side but distinctly different ‒ that of a minority, in a bubble shielded from the harsh realities of life, and the millions who are becoming increasingly desperate.

Given the close alignment of political and economic power in our part of the world, our politicians belong to the “bubble group”. This alienates them from those they represent, and creates grounds for resentment.

The new Ghanaians won’t be taken for granted: they sent a loud message at Adenta. With their quick response, our leaders unwittingly gave them incentives to exploit this “spontaneous external pressure” ‒ and an assurance that the strategy works.

Rural vs urban

The Adenta campaign will become a blueprint for many more to come, unless the right interventions are made.

A strong middle class is crucial to the survival of any capitalist state. A nation that denies the poor their happiness sets them up to deny the rich theirs. The slumber party is almost over, folks, and we have only a small window to turn it into either a sweet dream or a menacing nightmare. So, what can we do today to prepare for tomorrow?

First, we need to wake up to the new realisation and get to work on building a foundation of accountability which enhances development for all. We need to restructure our economy in a way that facilitates social mobility and ensures that opportunities are not restricted to the benefactors of any “accident of birth”.

Those who are willing to work hard (especially those who invest in education) must see positive returns. Such a comprehensive strategy should be delivered alongside incentives that control population growth.

Second, we ought to “think rural, not urban”. The temptation is to invest resources in urban development, yet it is important to stem the tide of unsustainable rural-urban migration by ensuring that opportunities open up in the hinterland.

Finally, our leaders need to live more modestly and let their lives closely reflect the reality of those they represent. Much of the fuel for public anger emanates from leaders’ ostentatious lives.

Politicians ought to demonstrate that the people’s interest is paramount. In this way, we can build a future we are all proud of.