*This piece is taken with per mission from the venerable Isaac K. Neequaye. Enjoy:
It wasn’t quite light yet, but a couple of funny recollections were already chasing each other across the top of my mind in the rapidly fading dawn. Floating in and out of my consciousness they provoked a miscellany of responses so varied it wasn’t much longer until I could no longer deny that I was awake. But the chain of recollections continued unbroken, and after a while I couldn’t help wondering why. It wasn’t that the recollections were pretty remarkable in themselves, but rather the uncanny parallels they revealed as I compared and contrasted with current experiences in my own Ogyakrom hit a soft spot in my psyche. What exactly was it about Bella Naija in particular that stirred my sub consciousness? On which side of the bed did I sleep last night? Or did it rather have to do with something I ate? Or perhaps an echo from a long faded conversation I’d had? Some point I’d wanted to put across but been denied an opportunity?
Specifically, my recollections revolved around my very first visit to Naija, sweet reminiscences that got me tingling all over. That was early in the eighties, fresh after O-levels, and I was on holiday when I hit Africa’s Big Apple with the blind, brash, larger than life optimism that possesses all youth at one time or other. My ideal holiday destination would have been the UK or US and so let’s say with Naija I was on Cloud 3 or thereabouts on a scale of seven. Never mind, the country was mine to conquer. Needless to say I hit the earth faster than an astronaut who’d bailed out without a parachute, and the reality wasn’t pleasant. I’m sure almost anyone who’s lived in Naija and erm, let me clarify, whose dad was of more modest means like mine, can identify with my experiences. In my eyes Naija’s reality hasn’t changed that much but I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Naija was a strange, exotic, foreign land, full of lush, tropical mystique. To begin with everything was on a scale larger than existed in Ghana – buildings, roads, vehicles, population, noise, and the visible manifestations of wealth and well-being. Oil wealth, Naira power, call it what you will was in conspicuous evidence all around, but that wasn’t surprising, perhaps because it was what I expected to see, having had an earful of the pretensions flaunted by the few Naija people I’d met up to that time. Outwardly, Naija people were indistinguishable from us and so the country’s foreignness wasn’t so much the kind resulting from a sense of being a minority in a population of pale skinned people speaking a different language. Just that the way they formally addressed themselves, greeted one another— for the first time I witnessed what prostration was all about, — the way they dressed, spoke, and opined about the world around them were so completely different they could have descended from Mars for all I cared.
Cultural shock manifests in different ways for different people. Naija is a vast country and possesses a peculiar beauty in its rich diversity and I soaked up as much of it as I could within the limited constraints of my perspective. But no matter where I found myself in Bella Naija, there were certain experiences that were inescapable. Perhaps the most pointed of these was the clutches of the pervasive and almost omnipotent NEPA. NEPA was ubiquitous, its reach vast and penetrating, its effects so damning. And most painful was the fact that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. When your dad is a lowly university teacher trying to save money to return to Ogyakrom, then for sure you know that some things belong firmly to the realm of dreams.
Given that the majority of Ghanaians I came across in Naija and got acquainted with were from similar backgrounds, you could be sure none of our parents even had the remotest idea to invest in a genset. Gensets were trappings of the petty and not-so-petty bourgeoisie then. For us sons of commoners, it remained in the realm of fantasy. Thus we all suffered NEPA’s unrelenting onslaught without relief. Is it ever possible to get used to blackouts? NEPA was notorious not only for the blackouts in themselves, but for their frequency, duration, intensity, poor timing….argh! So much so that it was quite a delight to return to the relative stability of Ghana and Akosombo kanea, even with all the country’s privations at the time.
Naija’s National Electric Power Authority, or NEPA for short, clearly had very little authority over anything, let alone power in those days. More recent visitors and sojourners to Naija should let me know if things have improved. NEPA garnered so many alternate interpretations in those days, the most popular of which spread far and abroad and will not merit any repetition here. Aside the more popular interpretations one always came across new and innovative ones every now and then. It seemed that individuals, communities and families competed to coin the wittiest explanation for the acronym. And NEPA’s fame spread far and wide, way beyond Bella Naija’s borders to the extent that it transformed into a reliable conversation ice breaker even in Ghana, particularly when people knew that you had some connection with Naija. “How do you manage?” Or more appropriately, “How you dey manage am?” “How do you people cope? How do you iron your clothes? Do you ever have to go about looking like ragamuffins?” and many more were the sort of queries one had to respond to with polite guffaws. The cheesiest story I heard was that at one point Ghanaian kids even took to screaming “NEPA” when the lights went off in Accra.
Eventually, as we are wont to do, Ghanamen started coining their own interpretations for NEPA which they added to the mix. Our wittier compatriots coined their own jokes and released them at appropriate intervals, while we smirked in the background, and occasionally burst out in raucous laughter at the more creative ones, thanking God that in spite of our poverty we had something going for us. Fast forward thirty years into the 21st century. While the rest of the world has leaped forward, Ghana now appears to be groping for even the most basic of utilities. How many times haven’t we individually cursed ECG out loud and in our hearts? How many of us haven’t been forced to purchase, or at the very minimum seriously contemplate the purchase of that one time Naija luxury? Can anyone hazard a guess as to the percentage increase in genset ownership these last couple of years? How many of us haven’t been forced to seriously consider the loss of productivity engendered by ECG in the last couple of years, and wonder how, if at all, we’re going to recoup the losses. The factors that affected Naija which led to their challenges (this politically correct word) with electricity are all present in Ghana today — a rapid urban population growth, increasing industrialization, urban sprawl, hydrocarbon discoveries — factors which have been studied and pontificated upon ad nauseum in Ghana. I am ashamed to confront the fact that us Ghanaians were merely content to smirk behind Naija’s back and talk about their situation (aren’t we great talkers?), and NOT LEARN ANYTHING from their experiences. So did we come or go in these last three decades?
Beyond frustrations from NEPA I guess the most mind boggling experience in Naija had to do with delayed salaries. I think my first experience of this was reading about it in one of the Sunday newspapers — a group of nurses somewhere hadn’t been paid and had gone on ‘demo’. Please allow me to digress a minute, in those days the Sunday newspapers in Naija were a simply delightful experience, packed with human interest stories, anecdotes, historical accounts, investigative pieces, they could keep you ensconced at home the entire morning, as you thanked God for something worthwhile to do even as you couldn’t attend church because you didn’t have any suitable clothes ironed.
At the time delayed salaries was not only unheard of for me, but simply unimaginable. Whaaaat! Someone would work the whole month and not be paid at the end? How was he or she supposed to survive? How were they to feed their families…buy kerosene or cooking gas or even matches? I doubt that my efforts to imagine their situations were particularly successful. The real horror hit home as I considered a summary of my family’s monthly budget and wondered, would our family survive if my dad were not paid for even one month? And the demonstrating nurses had not been paid for something like six months. That I still remember this incident so vividly such a long while later should signal that it was an experience that pricked the rose-coloured balloon through which I viewed Bella Naija at the time and burst it. Some of Bella Naija’s sheen, which had hitherto coated most things I observed, rubbed off one time. As broke as we were such things didn’t happen in Ghana. Once again I wondered how a country as broke as mine could best the giant of Africa in something as basic as salaries. I mean Naija folks wouldn’t lose any opportunity to point out how wealthy their nation was. What didn’t they have in abundance? Didn’t they have the first, biggest, fastest, most advanced etc. etc. in all fields of endeavour? Fast forward thirty years and I look around at the demos about conditions of service and note that again nurses in my own backyard have not been paid for how long? Newly employed doctors almost invariably have to embark on work stoppages before they are paid. Which other professionals and workers haven’t suffered salary delays at one time or another in recent times? And as my thoughts drifted along in the early morning haze, I noted that us Ghanaians observed the situation in nearby Naija, postulated and theorized and lectured our graduates about how not to do things, then proceeded to do same ourselves and naturally descend into the same quagmire. What kind of people does that? Repeat their neighbour’s mistakes with their eyes wide open. “Eye tear,” we call it here, our eyes tear so much so that our bottoms close?
Honestly there were many customs, events and even personalities that my formative impressionable and youthful Ghanaian mind found baffling in those days, but I choose to focus briefly only on NEPA and two others in this piece. One day I might find the time to look at a couple more issues. And now to the final issue I want to touch upon. This is about theft. Not secondary school sneaking of fried plantain and beans, or goat stealing or break-ins and night time burglary, or even car snatching though that was rampant enough in Naija. My issue is with the stealing of public funds by people entrusted with the duty of stewarding these funds. Back in those days, the accounting calendar run from July to June and final audits and accounts were presented in June. It didn’t take me long to realize that conflagrations in accounts offices in Naija were almost a ritual. It was a routine occurrence in all manner of establishments for the accounts offices to burn at midyear, but government offices were particularly susceptible, with some burning regularly year on year. Young as I was even I couldn’t help asking, “Who is kidding who here?”
In those days when a gallon of fuel cost less than 1 Naira and 10 Naira was real good money I remember reading about an embezzlement case running about 86 million Naira at NTA or NNPC or something like that. To a Ghanaian kid coming from where I was this was simply too much money to comprehend. Talk of a mind boggling amount of money! I remember asking a family friend who’d been in Naija longer than us, “When these guys talk about millions of Naira, are they talking about the same millions we know back home? “Opepe pii pii? One thousand thousand?” The gentleman laughed until tears dropped down his cheeks. “Look,” he said, “over here people are not afraid of money, and they don’t do things by halves.” I was astounded. For the life of me, 1 Million Naira could buy a hundred standard vehicles at the time. Early sojourners in Naija will remember the standard vehicle, usually pronounced ‘standaaard.’
Us Ghanaians had to admit that we didn’t even have that kind of money back home for anyone to steal to begin with, and besides we had the systems, we had the top accountants, top auditors, and finance people to keep track of our money. Heck, weren’t some of our top accountants recruited to Naija to help them keep an eye on the moneys flowing in and out of their businesses? Sadly a couple of smart ones had to flee for their lives when they opposed the powers that be in Naija. The unlucky ones passed away mysteriously.
Here in Ghana, aside the records office at the Accra High Court premises, buildings don’t just burn. But records go missing. Files, papers, receipts, authorisations — the paper trail vanishes and many people have had cause to complain about the lousy manner in which we keep records in this country. In recent days however, having witnessed the GYEEDAs, SUBAHs, SADAs (and hasn’t that trio become a veritable cliché?) and other scams that made our jaws drop we’ve had to take a closer look at ourselves and ask, “Haven’t we come a really long way in stealing public funds in the last thirty years? And don’t we do it brazenly too?”
In fact it wasn’t too long ago, maybe in 2008, that I had an interesting conversation with a couple of Naija work colleagues. We were having lunch and some of them were asking about Ghana’s oil find when one of them interjected somewhat rudely, “You people have laughed at us for so long. Now it is your turn. We’ll see whether you’re truly honest people.”
“But they are better organised than us” another Naija colleague interjected. “Whatever the case no one can steal like us Naija people. Chai!”
“Hmmph! Better organised than who? It’s only because they’ve had nothing to steal that they appear honest.”
By now I was beginning to grow hot under the collar, being unwittingly cast as a patient cat waiting to pounce on unsuspecting funds. Well I am not an accountant or finance person and therefore don’t come too close to any money to begin with. And I dare say I am not inclined to theft of funds given the ‘opportunities’ that have come my way so far.
But I look at the recent scams and note the reluctance of government or indeed any other investigative body to go after the culprits and bow my head in dismay. The ongoing cross-fire over pension funds is nothing new in Africa but it is sad that Ghanaians have also descended this low. This used to happen only in other countries. Ghanaians will not be the first to have filched away their pension funds in thinly veiled scams, but unlike some others Ghana certainly does not have the resources to replace the funds if they are stolen, in spite of whatever government guarantees are in place. Who hasn’t heard of government guarantees not worth the paper on which they are printed? Isn’t our government behind schedule on every single statutory payment at this time? Aren’t we taxed like our finance minister is a kid who’s just discovered a candy jar?
Thirty years down the line it looks like we have learned from Naija the lessons dearest to our hearts. We now have in place the systems, the top accountants, top auditors, lawyers and finance people to help us steal. And I can’t help reflecting, “Is this how far our learning has brought us? How far our opening up to the rest of the world has brought us? Awakening the basest inclinations and motives we wouldn’t even believe we possessed thirty years ago? What happened to us?” Like Naija we have cultivated all manner of citizens, particularly politicians and those affiliated with them who have amassed simply inexplicable stashes of wealth and this in a nation without a pedigree of outstanding commerce or industry in any field. And boy, don’t some of them flaunt this new found wealth in our faces?
So how do we get out of this situation? Or perhaps the right question to ask is that how did we get here in the first place? Are we willing to glance into the mirror and look that person who stares back at us in the eye?
We have seen and heard of other countries completely mishandle the blessings God bestowed upon them. And likewise we have heard of others who have managed so well that they are shining stars in today’s firmament. The UAE and Norway come to mind immediately. As to the choices we have made, and continue to make with our eyes wide open, I shudder to think where we will end up at this rate. We observed Naija, and also young upstarts like Rwanda, and told ourselves that
“We are going
Heaven knows where we are going
We know we’re there
We will get there
Heaven knows how we will get there
We know we will”
I hope that isn’t our song at this time in our nation’s life, leaving everything to chance as in a lottery. But so far I wonder.