The Nation (Nigeria)
Rebecca Akufo-addo’s example
‘In Nigeria…we see this syndrome of Nero fiddling away while Rome burns’
GHANA’S First Lady Rebecca Akufo-addo has just shown the world how to call the bluff against accusations of venally preening off public commonwealth. Last week, she turned down a parliamentary decision to make her position a salaried one and announced she would refund all allowances paid her office from public coffers since she’s been there. The refund would go as far back as 2017 when her husband, President Nana Akufo-addo, assumed office for his first term; he won a second term in December, last year, which took effect in January.
First ladies of the West African neighbour of Nigeria had over the years received regular allowances as part of executive privileges. But the country’s members of parliament raised the stakes recently by approving salaries for wives of the President and Vice-president for the supportive roles they play. The executive spouses were slated to receive 21,000 Ghanaian cedis (some $3,500) a month, backdated to 2017 – same salary as cabinet ministers – in line with a 2019 recommendation by a government panel. The approval by MPS, however, triggered outrage among Ghanaians who considered it self-serving and insensitive to deprivations suffered by many ordinary citizens. A sector of the populace also criticised President Akufo-addo for permitting the arrangement.
Madame Rebecca clapped back against the public outcry early last week, saying she never asked to be paid and had “only received that which existed and (was) attached to her status, albeit informally.” She as well made known she would not accept the salary approved by parliament, given the trend of public conversation around it. A statement from her office said: “The public discussion has been laced with some extremely negative opinions, in some cases, which she finds distasteful, seeking to portray her as a venal, self-serving and self-centred woman who does not care about the plight of the ordinary Ghanaian. In view of this, the First Lady, in consultation with the President of the Republic, has decided to refund all monies paid to her as allowances from the date of the President’s assumption of office, i.e., from January 2017 to date, amounting to GHC 899,097.84 (about $151,600).”
Earlier, Ghanaian Information Minister Kojo Oppong Nkrumah had rebuffed criticisms of President Akufo-addo, saying he couldn’t be faulted since it wasn’t his statutory brief to approve salaries and benefits for the Executive. Nkrumah told local media that surviving spouses of Presidents and Vice-presidents had received monthly allowances since 2001. In recent history, however, a presidential panel on emoluments for public officeholders recommended salaries for the executive spouses. “That recommendation was forwarded to the Seventh Parliament, which gave the approval and it is now to be implemented. It is not true as is being circulated that the President approved emoluments to the First Lady and Second Lady,” the minister argued. Even among the Ghanaian public, opinions differed as to the propriety or otherwise of the first lady rejecting the offered salary and refunding past allowances. Some people said she was entitled to the pay because it was approved by parliament, adding that she was only bullied by the populace to reject what was her statutory right. Cynics argued that she rejected the money openly just to avoid public criticism and might cash out by other means in private. Others insisted, however, that it was inappropriate for her to draw salary on public coffers while her husband is duly remunerated from the same coffers, and that the refund she offered to make should be deployed to deprived members of the citizenry.
Those developments in Ghana have morals that are applicable far beyond Ghanaian shores; specifically, there are morals for Nigeria. One moral is that people in power can take public sentiments, right or wrong, to heart enough to be instigated onto drastic paths of remediation, also rightly or wrongly. It is for Ghanaian laws to determine whether the salary offered the executive spouses could be legally defended; what is instructive meanwhile is that negative public outcry nettled the first lady into rejecting the offer and also deciding to refund allowances previously paid her, even when those allowances were conventional. We could ask why public outcry has not sufficiently nettled Nigerian lawmakers into sacrificing some of their allowances that have been widely described, rightly or not, as overly bogus; or why the executive arm has not felt challenged to minimise if not eliminate budgetary heads on travels and entertainment at the presidency among other porks, despite public outcry against excessive cost of governance. The judiciary have theirs, only these are less obvious because they customarily operate in the shadows. High cost of living in the country is strangulating ordinary Nigerians and flattening out purchasing power, and what you see is the power elite seeking avenues to wring more out of the people to fund government bills largely comprised by expenses of political officers. Many groups, including civil society nonprofits, have been waging advocacy on the need to review emoluments and cut the cost of governance; the Ghanaian first lady’s example showed modest steps that could be taken towards that end.
Another moral is the disconnect possible on the part of purported representatives of the people when they use their office to serve narrow ends. The controversial spousal salary in Ghana was recently approved by MPS in sheer disconnect from worsening economic experiences of many citizens and growing public disenchantment over the situation. Only a couple of weeks back, thousands of youths gathered on Accra streets in a peaceful protest against difficult living conditions and security challenges, with some holding up signs that read: “Youths are unemployed and crying, fix the country!” and “Ghanaians are dying, Akufo-addo wake up!” among others. That rally was in response to a call by opposition National Democratic Congress (NDC), but Ghana’s youths have been raising their voices against economic hardship in the country for several weeks via the #Fi Theco ntr hashtag on Twitter. Faced with growing burden of public debt and fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, government has imposed new taxes, which combined with a rise in fuel prices have provoked discontent among many Ghanaians. Considering the circumstances, it was a most inopportune time for self-serving largesses from the common purse, but that was what the MPS did with the approval of spousal salaries, hence the public outrage elicited.
In Nigeria as well, we see this syndrome of Nero fiddling away while Rome burns. Or how do we explain the power elite’s conspiracy to hand over petroleum pricing to wild forces of unguided deregulation amidst inflation that is already at runaway levels, even with far more extreme inflationary effects such policy measure portends? Meanwhile, the ‘gasification’ of power that was promised as alternative remains in the realm of exclusivity. The national legislature gives endless approvals to more and more borrowings by government that aren’t translating to ease of living by the citizenry – at least, not yet. And the legislators themselves pursue legislations primed to invariably worsen the cost of governance while safeguarding their own comfort. Late in April, a bill seeking to create additional 111 seats in the 469member National Assembly was processed through second reading at the House of Representatives. To be clear, not that the intention of the bill namely reserving special seats for women isn’t laudable, but it seeks to do that by creating additional seats rather than carve out the special seats from existing membership. Rebecca Akufo-addo’s example shows how to incur personal discomfitures in consideration of a larger good.
The last paragraph of my piece last week titled ‘Crackdown on terrorists’ ought to have read: “Separatist agitation isn’t in itself a crime, only that agitators must conduct themselves decently. But the root causes of such agitation must as well be confronted and redressed. And if we claim to be in a democracy, there are norms of conduct that must distinguish us from behaviour in a police state. There was no such distinction in what we saw of the crackdown on separatists.”
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