Sophia Akuffo: Cost of active citizenship
Three weeks ago, I wrote about the call to be active and engaged citizens.
I recognised the importance of active and engaged citizenship, but pointed out that we often overlook an important dimension of that call –the costs to the citizen. In my conclusion, I made the following point – “The state must demonstrate through word and especially deeds that active and engaged citizenship is needed and appreciated. While we urge citizens to be active and engaged in a responsible manner, we must equally urge the state to reduce the cost and burden of active and engaged citizenship.”
Last week, I woke up, as many others did to a powerful image of the recently retired Chief Justice of Ghana’s Supreme Court – Madam Sophia Akuffo – making the rounds on social media. She was pictured picketing at the Ministry of Finance in solidarity with pensioners who were concerned about the government’s debt exchange programme. She also spoke to the press and among other things said, “I am no longer a government employee. My mouth has been ungagged and I am talking, and I am saying what I feel.”
The reactions have been quite interesting to observe. There are those who have written in praise of her actions especially because of her stature as a former high ranking public official. Then there are those who have expressed reservation about her actions and words. One I found intriguing is that by virtue of having been an appointee of the current government, she should have voiced her concerns internally and not publicly.
It reminds me of a classic book I read in graduate school – “Exit, Voice, Loyalty” which essentially argues that individuals have three choices when in disagreement with an action – to leave (exit), speak up (voice) or stay quiet and play along (loyalty). When put within the context of a public officer, the options available would be to resign (exit), register disagreement (voice), or remain quiet for the decision to be implemented (loyalty).
She is a retired Chief Justice and therefore has already exited. She argued that she now had her voice back (“my mouth has been ungagged”). In office, it is unusual to hear members of the judiciary, especially the highest court of the land, make public comments on matters of public policy. And on the question of loyalty, recognising the dire consequences of the policy decision on the pensioners, showed loyalty to fellow citizens. But I am wondering if to some, she should have shown loyalty to the party, whose government appointed her Chief Justice, by not speaking up publicly.
Reflecting on those who expressed reservations got me musing about the point of my opinion piece from three weeks ago regarding the cost and burden of active and engaged citizenship. It then became even more apparent to me that those costs and burdens were not only impositions of the state but also of our fellow citizens. For example, in one of the reservations I read, a fellow citizen wondered why the former Chief Justice went to picket in the first place as this is not something that directly affects her.
To that, I pose the following questions: must an issue directly affect us before we raise our voice? Can a fellow citizen who is moved by empathy not raise their voice in solidarity? The “why are you there” question leads to the questioning of motives. It always saddens me when fellow citizens are quick to question the motives of other citizens who step up inside the public square. We must strive to build a civic culture where we give citizens the benefit of the doubt.
The other cost and burden from citizens come from those who are politically partisan. For these citizens, active and engaged citizenship is sometimes seen as attempts to discredit their side of the political aisle. In response, there is always that concerted effort to discredit, not the message, but the messenger. My favourite one is “poly tanks”, a term coined by a partisan friend of mine to describe think tanks. In addition, there is the questioning of motive and whether the said citizen is interested in something from their political opponents.
Who wants to be set up by other citizens for merely raising their voice?
I do not claim that in raising their voices, citizens always get it right, but I do worry about what the cost is to them. Active and engaged citizenship is no mean feat. I admire those who have the mental and emotional fortitude to do so in the face of the cost imposed on them. In urging citizens to be more active and engaged, we may want to urge fellow citizens to reduce the cost they also impose.