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Elsie Bryant

The Institute of Applied Human Excellence of Ghana
Leadership Lecture Series Launching at Kofi Drah Conference Room facilitated by The Political Science Students Association of Ghana and Applied Excellence Society – Africa, Brought to you by: C. Charles Jackson Foundation
The role of the youth in ensuring a peaceful election or ‘decolonising Ghanaian leadership’- Elsie Bryant
Good morning and thank you for having me here today (spoken in Twi)…

My name is Elsie. I come from Milton Keynes, which is a town just half an hour on the train from central London, and a city that’s full of Ghanaians. Sunshine, nature, social justice and Ghanaian and Nigerian music are a few of my favourite things (Sarkodie, Stonebwoy and Shatta might be my all-time favourites and I can’t stop dancing to Mansa). I write a blog called Development Truths, work for an organisation called The Rules working to bring down global systems of oppression, and I’m working on a project in the UK called ‘British Empire State of Mind’ to challenge Britain’s colonial mentality, which is still a big problem for us all.

I’m sure you’re all wondering what a white girl from the UK is doing here to talk to you about the upcoming Ghanaian national elections. I wondered myself.

I’m not a Ghanaian and I’m not a politician (although I’m not sure being a politician automatically qualifies that you know anything about politics). Unfortunately I believe we live in a world where, as a result of hundreds of years of oppression, subjugation and white supremacy, the mainstream global story is that ‘West is best’ and whiteness is superior. It’s a story that’s told and reinforced in our global economic and political system, in our “trading”, in the international media, often in our education systems, in our religions and spirituality and even in popular culture.

In the words of Kwame Nkrumah:”The history of a nation is, unfortunately, too easily written as the history of its dominant class. But if the history of a nation, or a people, cannot be found in the history of a class, how much less can the history of a continent be found in what is not even a part of it – Europe. Africa cannot be validly treated merely as the space in which Europe swelled up. If African history is interpreted in terms of the interests of European merchandise and capital, missionaries and administrators, it is no wonder that African nationalism is in the forms it takes regarded as a perversion and neo- colonialism as a virtue.”

This story, of ‘west is best’ and whiteness is superior, is obviously a myth and there are many people working to challenge it and rewrite it, but it’s pervasive. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been greeted admirably as ‘our former colonial masters’ by people I meet here. And perhaps that has something to do with why I have the privilege of standing in front of you all today when there will be thousands of Ghanaians more intelligent, eloquent and better qualified than me to talk about what’s needed from Ghanaian leadership and the upcoming elections. But. This is also why I agreed to talk to you today (and I am truly honoured to do so). To add my voice, as white British person, to the chorus ofvoices that are saying and have said for a long time, that ‘our’ way is not the best way or indeed the only way. I truly believe that Ghana’s potential for leadership lies not in chasing ‘economic growth’ or Western ‘civilisation’, or following orders from the worlds’ powerful, but in challenging global power structures, finding your own unique way and teaching the rest of the world a thing or two about what real leadership looks like.

I’m not here to teach you anything. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot more from you if we get the opportunity to talk (and I hope we will). I also am not here to patronize you and I will certainly repeat a lot of things you already know. What I am here to do is to make you think, to encourage you to criticize, to challenge and to ask questions of our world, of power, of whiteness and of leadership – both at home here and abroad. So that we, as young people, can see and do things differently for a world that actually works for all of us.

First, to dispel a myth: Britain is not a true democracy. Don’t let anybody fool you into thinking it is. So if you thought I was here to tell you how we do elections successfully in the UK, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Apart from the fact that our voting system discounts the views of well over half of the electorate and is designed to keep certain parties in power, we are also very much increasingly at the mercy of big corporations and banks undermining democracy, as you are here. Corporations have got away with huge tax breaks (Facebook, for example made $2.bn profit worldwide last year but paid less tax in the UK than I did…) and big companies, with the support of our government, have broken up our public utilities, our public transport and are now working on breaking up our public health service – a service that is free for all and that has saved the lives of incredible numbers of people. I know you have similar issues in Ghana. I believe that Dumsor Dumsor was due, in part, to the break up of the Volta Region Authority and the introduction of (mostly foreign owned and foreign financed) private sector Independent Power Producers who were providing less than 20% of the power, but taking over 60% of the revenues. I know that Vodafone, when it bought a 70% stake in Ghana Telecom in 2008, was given a five year tax break by the government and that that “between 2011 and 2012, the country lost about $90 million and $70 million due to stability agreements in the mining and oil and gas sectors respectively” (Dr Eric Twum, CEO, Green Growth Solutions in Ghana). I know that plenty of foreign companies take your natural resources and pay very little to you for doing so – sending their profits straight back to their home countries (if they pay at all – I know illegal mining is rife here too). I know that your fuel prices have gone up 28% this year alone.

So you see, in many ways, our problems and oppresions are similar. And they are definitely connected.

‘Western’ doctrine (originally that of Britain and Europe and now, increasingly of the US and China) has dominated the world for a long time and continues to do so today. Its dominance has been so incredibly powerful that for centuries the West has shaped the global stories – dictated global politics and economics and had direct impacts on our daily lives – slavery, colonialism, genocide were carried out under this ideology and today we see new forms of oppression with neoliberalism and resource theft.
But how often do we stop to think about connecting the dots? Connecting the dots between cause and effect, past and present and to think about how all oppression is connected?

Today, in our internet era, saying that ‘everything is connected’ has become really popular. Beyond being able to communicate and travel like never before, it seems that increasingly we are all trying to make sense of this dawning awareness that the challenges we face do not stand alone. Climate change, for example, is not just about carbon emissions but also economics, race relations, patriarchy and power.

Simply saying that everything is connected doesn’t get us very far though. The real challenge is to understand how everything is connected. When it comes to the root causes of inequality and poverty, many of the all-important hows are not only to be found in every national economy, but transcend them all.

The first critical reality is that, in the most practical and important sense, there is one global economic system. Yes we have our national systems, but they are all part of, and increasingly subservient to a single mother-system. This is an important idea to get our heads around – so instead of taking the UK or Ghanaian economies and then looking where they link to the global system, we start at a global level and then look down at the UK or Ghanaian economies and start to connect dots to see how they are similar.

You don’t have to work from this perspective for long to recognise that there is a single set of rules. They may be implemented in different ways or clothed in different language, but they are as true for the UK and Ghana as they are for China, the US and South Africa.

The second point is that this one system, with its single set of rules, is being governed. There are people who see its wholeness clearly and operate from that perspective. Right now, most of these people, unsurprisingly, sit in organisations that have genuine planetary reach; private corporations, international institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and the World Economic Forum, and a small number of large NGOs. You all know too well how much power institutions like the World Bank and the IMF wield at the national level.

This leads to the third truth, which is that the people with the most power in the global economy are those who align with its interests. Which is another way of saying that they effectively promote and implement its rules. This isn’t some conspiracy theory. The top priority of any system is to survive. One way the global economic system does this is to draw people into positions of influence who will help it to survive. So the primary purpose of our capitalist system is to produce capital, so it will work constantly to refine and improve its ability to do just that. It will continue until it is stopped by an external force of some kind, or it collapses under its own weight.

Connecting these dots leads us to one very important realisation: even some of the most powerful people in the world have no choice but to obey the rules as long as they want to be rewarded by the system, with more power or wealth. In other words, unless a politically significant mass of people actively choose otherwise, the rules of the system will govern us, not the other way round.

The system itself will not see human suffering as an imperative to change its rules as long as those rules serve its immediate survival. It can’t predict the future. It can no more ‘feel’ human suffering than it can foresee its own destruction at the hands of climate change. Only us humans, with our predictive capacities, can do that. If the rules are to be changed, we cannot expect the system to do it, we must do it ourselves.

One of the most fundamental rules of our single global system is economic growth. How many times have you heard the mantra that ‘growth is good’ – it’s said so often that it feels like common sense. We’re told that increasing production and consumption to grow the amount of capital in the world is the only way to keep our economies going and to reduce inequality and poverty.
This logic can be found in all international debates and plans. The recent “Sustainable Development Goals” are a good example. They rest on the fundamental assumption that every country, every company, even every human being, must grow their material wealth over time, before anything else. This is measured in GDP for countries, and profit for businesses.
But what if there is a fatal flaw in this logic? What if this rule is not fit for the purpose of guiding us into the future? What if, instead of being good, it is a driver of so much that is bad?

The evidence is clear. Totalitarian growth of all parts of the system has not only led to destabilising the climate by making sure consumption is always increasing, everywhere, but has also created vast amounts of poverty and inequality. This might sound counter-intuitive at first glance – doesn’t more money mean less poverty? But consider this: since 1990, global GDP has increased 271%, and yet both the number of people living on less than $5 a day, and the number of people going hungry has also increased, by 10% and 9% respectively. Add to that the wage stagnation across the developed world, and increasing inequality both within and between countries pretty much everywhere, and the shakiness of this basic logic becomes evident. Aggregate economic growth does not translate into less poverty.

The second part of the problem, which further complicates things, is that the way we achieve this growth – the imperative for every part of the system to constantly grow its material wealth, is destroying us in the most real and painful way. The consumption-driven mechanisms we use to achieve it, and the GDP measure we use to define it, have us locked on a path to ruin by actively encouraging us to treat finite natural resources as if they were infinite, and prioritize the growth of the money supply over everything else. In fact, being pro-growth is being anti-nature.

It is only by connecting dots that we start to be able to see the true shape of the challenges we face. We all face. Whatever our issue-focus, there are underlying rules and norms that affect every part of human life. Growth is just one.

At first glance, connecting dots in this way might make the job of radical change feel more difficult. We struggle hard enough to affect change locally, let alone nationally, let alone globally. But something liberating and empowering happens when you start to connect the dots to see what’s going wrong; the same process also allows you to connect the dots between the struggles for making things better. We start to see that what’s driving the destruction of the rainforest in Indonesia is the same basic set of rules that are causing rising food prices in Kenya, the explosion of student debt in America and austerity here. We become connected, in very real and actionable ways, by a realization that we are all being screwed by the same basic set of rules.
Most importantly, we start to see new and different solutions. Ideas that previously seemed to only solve one problem can start to be seen to solve all.

For example, strong local economies with independent currencies and food sovereignty challenge the monoculture model of ‘development’ – I know you have Food Sovereignty Ghana here working to encourage that. Gift economies or exchanging favours or services rather than money disrupt the system’s rules by their very existence. As we start to develop new types of relationships, with each other, with our communities, with Nature itself, we will invite in new types of social relations based on a vast range of diverse and mutually-supporting solutions that will write over the old story of our broken system and broken ideas about growth.

In fact, these new models and experiments are already taking place all around us. From the Brixton Pound in Britain, to the Zapatistas in Mexico, to Rojava, the Kurdish free state in northern Syria to Food Sovereignty Ghana here; a new breed of post-capitalist thinking is taking hold and spreading through networks of conscious citizens. However, the mainstream media is not set up to see these shifts. They are pushing the old story of growth. And in their blindness lies our opportunity. The solutions lie in our ability to see how the old system is connected, while recognising the patterns in the diversity and the growing wonder and power that is filling the void of the crumbling face of growth-based capitalism.

So what does this mean for Ghanaian leadership?

What I’m sure my government would want me to stand here and say today is that Ghana needs a leader who will continue to tell the story of ‘Africa Rising’ that’s being talked about in the media, and celebrates an emerging future of high growth, market demand, multinational corporations, and openness to foreign investment, all of which is supposed to secure Africa’s and in this case, Ghana’s place in the global economy.

In line with this, universities and companies are investing a tremendous amount of money into grooming the next generation of African leaders, you in fact, who are supposed to have elite degrees, look good in business suits, and be firmly devoted to free-market policies; basically, you should be what the World Economic Forum wants you to be. The idea is that you, as new leaders will secure the promises of Africa Rising, continuing the trend of high growth, market demand, and foreign capital flows.
All of this sounds very slick and exciting, and offers a welcome antidote to prevailing stereotypes. But as I’ve just explained, we need to be really careful about this idea.

First of all, what’s always struck me about Africa Rising is that it completely ignores history. If you think about it, by far the strongest period of economic growth in Ghana was during the 1960s, and 70s, just after the end of colonialism. In fact most African countries were developing incredibly well, and were rapidly reducing poverty using strong state-led interventions in the economy. Ghana and Africa were rising without resorting to Western prescriptions, relying instead on visionary leadership from figures like Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania – leaders with a clear commitment to social justice and pan-African solidarity. In fact, this miracle was occurring in spite of interference from Western countries: during this time Western governments conspired to assassinate no fewer than seven African leaders for challenging Western economic interests and we all know that Nkrumah was removed from power by a CIA-backed coup. In a memo from the United States President’s Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Komer) to President Johnson in 1966, he wrote: “The coup in Ghana is another example of a fortuitous windfall. Nkrumah was doing more to undermine our interests than any other black African. In reaction to his strongly pro-Communist leanings, the new military regime is almost pathetically pro-Western.”

Post-colonial policy didn’t sit well with Western powers because it relied on a model of economic independence that regulated foreign investors. So the West did their utmost to put an end to it, and in the end they succeeded. In the 1980s and 1990s, the IMF and World Bank forced African governments, including your own, to liberalize your economies under Structural Adjustment Programs. They forced you to sell off public assets, cut public spending on health and education, cut subsidies to local businesses, and cut tariffs on Western imports. In other words, you were forced to abandon the very policies that had been so essential to your success. We can think of this as the second wave of colonization.

We now know that structural adjustment was a complete disaster for African economies. Per capita income fell at a rate of 0.7% per year, the GNP of the average African country shrank by 10%, the number of people in extreme poverty more than doubled, and dozens of states failed. It would be impossible to overstate the scale of the devastation that this represents – and yet to this day the World Bank and the IMF have not been held accountable.

Instead, they insist that we forget the past, and focus instead on the fact that Africa is growing again. But if you look more closely, this growth happening in other parts of the continent is nothing like what happened in the 60s and 70s. It relies almost entirely on resource extraction; and instead of reducing inequality it is clearly making it worse. The number of poor people in Ghana and across the continent continues to rise, but meanwhile a relatively small elite is becoming tremendously wealthy, and foreign investors are raking in record profits. So we have to ask ourselves, who really benefits from this economic model? If Africa is rising, who is it rising for?

The dominant reason for the scramble and partitioning of Africa at the Berlin Conference in 1884-85 was economic exploitation. Namely, as articulated by Jules Ferry, the then Premier of France in 1885: to have free access to raw materials of the colonies; to have ready made markets for the sale of manufactured goods of the colonising countries, and; to use the colonies as fields for investment of surplus capital.

To think that Western governments, corporations and elites have ‘evolved’ beyond colonialism and exploitation today is evidently absurd – despite independence Ghana is still a country very much allowing largely free access to its raw materials, offering ready made markets for the sale of manufactured goods of foreign companies and allowing investment of surplus capital (to be repaid with interest).

This opens up tough questions about the issue of leadership. Why are we so set on grooming leaders to reproduce a foreign model devoted to extraction and accumulation, materialism and consumption? Why not model our economies on the principles of Ubuntu – on justice, equality, and ecological responsibility? During this age of economic and ecological crisis, why follow a failing model when we can lead the world to something better? The history of Africa is replete with examples of such leadership. Think about Thomas Sankara, the President of Burkina Faso, who resisted Western economic prescriptions for his country and fought for true and meaningful sovereignty. And Ken Saro-Wiwa, who organized against the plunder of Nigeria’s resources by Big Oil. To me, such figures represent the true potential of African leadership. They sought to decolonize African economies.
And yet the global economic order could not tolerate them. Both were assassinated for their efforts, along with many others who resisted neoliberalism. Now contrast these figures with the slick-suited leaders we celebrate today, who have been ratified by international capital, and groomed to serve its interests.

But let’s be real – you’ve got homegrown problems too

My intention with this talk isn’t to remove accountability or blame from Ghana and your government completely – they are heavily indebted to a whole range of organisations, and within the seemingly narrow hallways of power they have been afforded within a system deliberately designed to limit power, they have made some bad decisions. In fact, your government seems to share many of the incompetencies, failings and self-interests of the government of their former ‘colonial masters’ – our government in Britain – hearing reports of officials being lavishly rewarded with houses, cars and fuel on top of generous salaries feels as horrifying to me as when we discovered in Britain that our MPs had been spending public-funded expenses on second homes and duck houses.

Today the system of governance here, like ‘my’ government and the majority of national government systems across the globe, is incompetent, at least partially corrupt, self-interested and unwilling (or perhaps feeling unable) to stand up to big business, imperialism and neoliberalism. They also think short term – to what’s going to win them the next election and keep them in power, rather than what’s going to be good for the future of the country and it’s people (although citizens tend to think short term too, so it’s a difficult path to tread).

You’ve also got problems at the grassroots level in a way that we don’t in the UK. I won’t ask how many people in this room have paid a bribe or had the opportunity to pay a bribe before, because I’m pretty sure everyone would raise their hand. I have never been asked or even considered the possibility of paying a bribe in England. Not once. I have also never encountered anyone being financially incentivized to vote a certain way.

The big ‘C’s’ – corruption and coups haven’t aided Ghana’s success and they won’t. What might have become of Acheampong’s ‘Operation Feed Yourself’ in a democratically-elected, stable, corruption free government? And don’t get me wrong – we have a form of corruption at the national level in the UK too, but it’s legitimated by the government to make us think it’s all ok – they just call it ‘business’.

Africa has a legacy of creating great leaders who are thwarted by Western intervention and it is a sad state of affairs that Ghana, like many other countries once under colonial rule, has seemingly been forced into a self-perpetuating cycle of bad government after bad government. It seems that the collective way of operating is kowtowing to carefully marketed Western doctrine, allowing multinational corporations to eat up the country in return for a quick fix or a quick buck and putting self-interest and ‘economic growth at all costs’ first at the expense of citizens, traditional values, pan-Africanism and humanity.
The thing is, that Ghana has so much going for it

I hear time and time again that Ghanaians prefer foreign product and the lack of pride in Ghana I often see here saddens me. I suppose in many ways it’s understandable after years of being forced to adopt the ways of others, but it’s still surprising.
I’m not just talking about the wonderful innovation I see all around me here, from bamboo bikes, to Kantanka cars to incredible music and dance moves like Amanda, Alkayida and Azonto. You’ve got stuff Ghana.

You still remember things here that we have long lost and forgotten in the UK, to our detriment. We have forgotten how to dance. We have forgotten how to live in harmony with nature. We have forgotten how to use our hands to make things. We have forgotten how to be colourful. We have forgotten where our food comes from. We have forgotten how to be with our families and our communities. These are things that I feel are still known here, but I can hear people telling me are slowly being forgotten (although perhaps not how to dance!) The Western way is to destroy the environment and fight with nature; to make everything by machine or in countries like China where people are paid very little for their work; to eat and waste food that doesn’t taste like real food anymore and is packed up in plastic and pumped with chemicals and sugar; to wear dark, stuffy suits and ties and mass-produced, cheap clothing; to go weeks or even years without speaking to neighbours or to spend more time chatting to friends online than in person.

I see the mining and the deforestation and the rubbers and plastic destroying your rivers and your environment (Last year Ghana’s former Ambassador to the United Nations, James Victor Gbeho suggested that the country had “lost 95 percent of its tropical forest since independence, largely due to foreigners exploiting resources); I’ve spent time with the young people of Curious Minds Ghana discussing the break down of the extended family and community parenting in Ghana; I’ve seen cheap foreign products break in peoples’ hands; I have puzzled over why anyone would want to wear a tie in 40 degree heat. Don’t forget who you are.

Ghana is a country built on a bounty of natural resources and boats a bounty of human resources. The combination of the two – acting as responsible stewards for your beautiful land and rivers and trees and sea and harnessing the power and the wisdom of your people is a dynamite combination and one we could all learn from around the world.

It’s not up to me to tell you what a ‘successful’ Ghana would look like – that’s for Ghanaians to decide, and you already have enough people telling you what to do. But perhaps it will be a Ghana bolstered with reparations for the many damages done to your economy, your people and your resources, one that is able to exist within an international system of true equality and respect, where foreign companies and countries follow the rules instead of making them and where Ghana is allowed to invent itself however the people decide – free from the shackles of neoliberalism, imperialism and being developed in the Western image, for Western benefit.

So, what would a Ghanaian leadership look like that embraced what it means to be truly Ghanaian? Perhaps it would be a leader with the understanding and empathy needed to navigate Ghana’s complex history and diverse make up of tribes and languages and cultures. A leader with the integrity and courage to stand up to corruption within the country and coercion from the outside, with the best interests of Ghana and Ghanaians always in their heart and mind. A leader who respects the cycles and teachings of nature as the Dagomba elders do in the north, where they have farmed Zoosali for centuries and lived intimately with the land.

A leader who, whether male or female, has a deep respect and reverence for women and feminine wisdom and recognizes the importance of their freedom. A leader with the wisdom and resourcefulness of Kweku Ananse. A leader with the humour of Azonto. A leader who is able to balance the good and necessary of the ‘new’ and ‘foreign’ with the values and traditions and culture of the old. A leader with the creativity and community spirit of the Akan, the dynamism of the Gah, the celebration of the Ewé. A leader who is less like a banker and CEO and more like Nyerere and Nkrumah, or Sankara and Saro-Wiwa, devoted to demanding real justice, real sovereignty, real democracy, and fighting to unleash the true potential of Ghana. Perhaps that is someone in this room.

We. You. Are the future. For our countries, for our people, for each other, for our world. We’ve been left with countries that are experiencing increasing inequality, the destruction of our environments, painful austerity and are being bullied by big businesses. But we also see things differently to the generations that have gone before us – we more connected and more conscious than ever before. More and more of us are waking up to the fact that the world isn’t working, that our problems are all connected and we are being inspired to take responsibility to change things for the better. The answers don’t lie in the UK, the US or China and they don’t all lie in Ghana, or in any one country or way of being. It was Nkrumah who said: “We face neither East nor West: we face forward” and in that there is a lesson for us all.

It’s time to ask questions. To challenge. To call out what’s going on and to organise. The change we so desperately need in this world isn’t going to start with our grandparents, our parents or our leaders – it’s up to us. True leadership will not come from NDC, or NPP or even CPP, it’s not one person or a political party being elected and telling everyone else what to do anymore, it’s about us collaborating, coming together, realizing that we’re all interconnected and working together in solidarity to make our countries and our world really great places to be and live. I hope you will join me.

Oluwallahdon. Akpe. Medwoasi

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