Address by Flt. Lt Jerry John Rawlings, former president of the Republic of Ghana at the Extraordinary Congress of the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLGA) in Abuja, Nigeria – Saturday, March 6, 2010
Your Excellency, Honourable Ministers of State, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you for inviting me to deliver the keynote address at this Congress.
Last December I was at the Africities Conference in Marrakech, Morocco where I spoke into detail about the significance and importance of decentralisation to the political development of the continent.
This Summit I understand is meant to celebrate unity within the association but I am a little disappointed to hear that you are still grappling with that subject.
The problem of unity or the lack of it is down to our inability as a continent to develop our political evolution in a manner that will inspire a little more confidence in the populace.
Ladies and gentleman, I am very passionate about decentralisation and the development of local governance on our continent as it has immense benefits to our development. The ideals of integration such as single currency, advantages of economies of scale and stronger bargaining power can never be downplayed. However we cannot achieve any of these if we are unable to prevent exploitation and the disempowerment in our individual countries.
African unity is and will always be the cherished dream. Some of the stages towards it are the regional groupings such as SADC and ECOWAS. As painful and as slow as the process may appear I would like to use this opportunity to appeal to all of us to make efforts towards improving the quality of justice on our continent as the underlying foundation.
Africa stands pretty much indicted in human right abuses and nothing is more painful to human endeavours than the violation of our fundamental rights.
National governments may appear to carry their heavy national burdens but local governments are manageable subdivisions of national government. It is the one area where concepts do not only become realities but do become tangible – The area where our people could feel the ownership of their political endeavours.
This is one area where political, traditional and religious leadership could bring its respected presence to impact on issues that violate human dignity.
Justice, which seems to be eluding us, can be made a reality at the level of local government working hand in hand with the appropriate authorities and credible courts to achieve a healthy political atmosphere. Let us achieve this in order to reignite the confidence of our people in the authority of the state.
Economic hardships in fact become bearable when and where the people have confidence in the judicial process. So much energy is wasted by the stresses of the denial of justice. This wasted energy can be channeled towards socio economic development.
Justice is so fundamental to our stability and development even as we make the promise of oil wealth for tomorrow as we have started doing in Ghana. But that promise can never take the place of unlived justice today.
During the last invasion of Iraq, an entry that was considered ill-timed the phrase ‘arrest and bring to justice’ was suddenly thrown out of the window and all we kept hearing was ‘we will kill, we will pursue and kill’ coming from the mouths of governing and opposition politicians.
It was as if that was the language required to maintain one’s political credibility. For us in Africa where killings seem to be part of our political existence, these utterances were a further dip in our quest to establish due process.
If Christian democratic and human rights pontificators would decline to this level, is this not further license for the perpetuation of human rights abuses on our continent?
Distinguished ladies and gentlemen our security forces are fighting machines, but human beings are at the centre of it and we cannot afford to manage them in a manner as to make them lose their conscience. The damage will be too costly.
Orders to ‘Shoot on sight’ not only damage our image but causes extreme irreversible damage on the ground. Unarmed innocent civilians and even cripples become targets of coldblooded killing.
In Ghana for instance we have always had the practice of rectifying and punishing the wrongs of past regimes. In doing that we have been sending a message that you cannot abuse your office while in government. One would have expected that institutions that are put in place to check crime would be strong enough to prevent such crimes or punish culprits while they are still in office but that is rare on our continent and invariably such crimes become punishable only when the regime is either overthrown or shown the exit.
If we do not punish such crimes in the life of the regime but do so only after its removal many are able to escape the net of the law and the practice perpetuates itself thereby stunting development on a national scale.
It appears that for the first time in Ghana’s political history we are going to enter a situation of failure to deal with the crimes of a previous regime – serious crimes, not just economic crimes but crimes related to human rights violations and this is obviously going to perpetuate a corrupt ruling class syndrome. How can we therefore guarantee the future stability and development of our nation state and by extension organisations such as yours, which have been established with well-meaning intentions of boosting development in Africa?
Ladies and gentlemen, it is important we focus on the issues that affect our national politics because the problems facing well-meaning associations such as yours are symptomatic of the problems we have created in our national politics.
Across the continent we have embraced elective democracy as the way forward but have woefully failed to put in place checks and balances and have allowed our politics to degenerate into the corruption of the electoral process where money, intimidation and abuse of incumbency most of the time leads to the further disempowerment of our people.
The negative fallout is that most of our people have great difficulty in voting out regimes that employ fraud, intimidation and corruption to perpetuate their stay in power – intimidating use of the coercive machinery of state.
Ladies and gentlemen, recently two Nigerian acquaintances asked me; “how is it possible to vote out an incumbent government?” In other words what we succeeded in doing in Ghana by voting out the previous government in early 2009 was just not possible.
Initially I was about to say ‘why not?” then I thought if it was so obvious then they will not have asked. In looking at the dilemma that made him ask that question I found the appropriate answer in two things – in spite of the abuse of state machinery by the then incumbent, the machinery of state had not entirely lost its sense of right and wrong in spite of unlawful orders that were issued.
Secondly we had infused in the people the capacity to defy fraud and violence and to be prepared to risk even their lives so the incumbent did not get away with attempts to steal the will of the people by undermining the electoral process.
Ladies and gentlemen, the United Cities and Local Governments of Africa is a very important institution with noble objectives for the development of the continent’s local government structure but it has been caught up in the problems facing national politics on our continent. It has been caught up in the weaknesses created by our failure to consolidate political development on the continent.
It is very easy to lay blame at the doorstep of some countries that have chosen to drag their feet and stall the progress of the organisation through boycotts and threats of a parallel organisation. But I believe we all have to accept some culpability when it comes to problems facing our continent and by extension of UCLGA.
Are we all not aware of the political excesses in our individual countries? Are we not aware of the abuse of political power by some of our elected leaders?
Ladies and gentlemen, what have we done to stem the tide of political decline in our countries? We all have a responsibility to Africa to speak out and take action against wrongdoing. We need to be courageous in standing up to the wrongs that are impeding Africa’s economic and political growth. By so doing we will be building a society that respects the values of true justice and accountability.
What is preventing UCLGA from having a united front? It is because we have been unable to secure the sanctity of justice within our individual countries. It is imperative that every member of this organisation present or absent recognise that this project transcends individual agendas. It is about developing a unifying structure that will enhance the process of local governance in Africa.
Though significant progress has been made in some countries, a lot still needs to be done to create more powerful and autonomous local government authorities. Our people can only be empowered if their contribution to national development is recognised at grassroots level. We cannot afford to take entrenched positions and by so doing cripple the organisation that was established to consolidate the strength of local governments in Africa.
I pray that UCLGA achieves unity soon. Dissenting opinion should not be disregarded. Rather you need to create avenues for accommodation and compromise. You all have one goal – to strengthen the role of the association. If that is the intention then let the unity efforts, which you started bear fruit, by discussing your differences, however, entrenched they made be.
Members of UCLGA need to also appreciate, understand and respect the rules that govern the association. If people choose to disregard the legal framework that governs the association, it loses its relevance. If some of these constitutional provisions are ambiguous or inimical to the progress of the organisation you also need to critically assess these and engender review.
The success and unity of this organisation can only be achieved if members recognise that they have a collective responsibility to the ordinary people of the continent for whom strengthening of the structures of local governance will bring so much succour through local development.
The development of your association is inextricably linked to the socio-political development of our continent. The journey to reconciliation may seem long, tortuous and even impossible but it is achievable and I enjoin all of you to join hands to make it work.
Your Excellency, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, thank you.