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An old solution to a forever problem

BY: Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

An idea proposed by a World Bank-funded coalition sounds like a new solution to an  intractable problem. In reality, however, it is a reinvention of an ancient wheel.

At a recent forum of the West Africa Contract Monitoring Network in Accra, the group, which brings together anti-corruption organisations in the sub-region, urged that citizens and the media must be involved in monitoring projects in order to improve governance. 

According to media reports, the forum addressed the role of communities and the media in contract monitoring, information-gathering and feedback in contract monitoring, policy implications of contract monitoring and the role of the West Africa Contract Monitoring Network in using citizens’ engagement to improve governance. This makes so much sense because the issue is not that it should be done but rather why it is not happening now.

Look at it this way: When the government pays a contractor to construct a road, the expectation of the users of the road is that it will last. In most cases, however, the road falls apart after one or two rainy seasons. 

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Meanwhile, the contractor would have collected his money for the bad road and vanished. Usually, as the road is under construction, people see clearly that the road would not last, but what can they do?

The World Bank-funded forum said the people in such communities should take an interest while the road is being built and ensure that the contractor is using the right materials, in the right quantities and employing the best people for the job.

 This sounds like a very radical, even revolutionary, approach but is this not what we would all do if we employed someone to build even our chicken coop or doghouse? 

So why are we not doing so  for projects worth millions of cedis that are meant to improve our communities or the country as a whole? 

Citizen empowerment for development has been on the cards as a basic development idea and model for the best part of 30 years. Many studies have concluded that it adds a valid and energising dimension to the development process. However, in order to make it work, we need to find a model that works for us in our special circumstances.

Imagine what would happen if every community formed a citizens monitoring team to check out projects in their communities and did it diligently without compromise. Of course, such a system could weed out bad contractors and expose their corrupt counterparts in the civil and public services. 

Well, hold the thought and consider this: Such a system existed for centuries and ensured the survival of our communities pretty much during precolonial times and even into the early post-independence years.

There is a template for such communal defence groups. In a recent article on the galamsey infestation on Akyem Abuakwa lands, veteran journalist, Cameron Duodu, called for communal vigilante groups known as ‘Asafo’ in Akan to patrol those lands and the threatened water bodies to save them from predatory gold diggers. 

The word “Asafo” is linked to war, as the root “sa” means war in most Akan languages. However, the Asafo group was not only a war fighting group but protected their communities or even individuals from all manner of threats wherever they came from. 

It would appear that the time has come to evoke the Asafo spirit and make citizens directly responsible for ensuring accountability and, therefore, peace and progress in their communities. 

Ghana is not at war with any external force, but the despoliation of our national assets and resources calls for measures that would be justified in wartime, albeit within our democratic rules and culture.

The simplicity of this idea commends it as an ideal platform to rid ourselves of corruption and shoddy services, but for one thing- we have tried it before, some would say, and people did not like it. 

I am referring to the People’s Defence Committees (PDCs) and Workers’ Defence Committees that sprang up in the wake of the coup d’etat of  December 31, 1981.

The revolutionary organs had the same purpose of empowering ordinary citizens to take charge of accountability processes to ensure that our collective resources were not abused.

 The trouble with them was that they became, in short, order organs of the very state, which the citizens were supposedly empowered to monitor. The idea was good because only an organised force of local people can ensure that our money is properly spent in the way it should be on every project. 

Unfortunately, politics gets in the way of good ideas as it did with the PDCs and gave them such a bad narrative.

If the idea of citizen empowerment is to work, it has to be completely free of the party politics that has so infected the very fabric of public life in Ghana. This will be a tough ask. 

The truth is that foot soldiers of whichever party is in power at any moment can be so easily invoked to see itself as being under siege from the citizens monitoring process and, thus, contaminate it with party politics. 

Politicians can use this as a means to undermine any such system the moment party politics is introduced into it. Therefore, the best way to do this is to insulate it from party politics.

The challenge is, therefore, to find a model that can work for us, but what exactly is this work? Simply put, we need to create a mechanism that allows us to use “people power” to ensure value for money. 

From the start to finish, we need to be able to raise any concerns we may have about any projects being executed.

 In order to do this, we must have every bit of information about every single project. This can be done by passing a law that requires the local publication of the details of every project in the areas affected by it.

Obviously, the easiest way to publish this information is to post it on local notice boards and even on social media sites. Additionally, the Procurement Law can be amended to make it mandatory to publish the details of every winning bid in newspapers. This will make it possible for all of us to know what the end product of the project is meant to look like.

Now, let me return to the Asafo idea. As we all know, the reason why people get away with all kinds of abuses in Ghana is because most of us feel too small as individuals to challenge people who have wealth or authority. 

However, if we act together, the fear of victimisation and isolation that inhibits our individual actions disappears. This was the rationale behind the formation of Asafo companies in traditional society and it should form the basis for collective citizen empowerment in monitoring development projects.

Beyond development projects, the Asafo idea must help us to safeguard our collective resources. 

Of course, one is not necessarily advocating the formation of marauding bands parading up and down the high street wearing feathers and frightening clay makeup, but why not. If it worked in the past, it just could be the old solution to a forever problem.