Do We Mean What We Say for Accountability in Ghana?

Author(s): Abdulkarim Mohammed
Date: June 16, 2021
Country: Ghana
Language(s): English

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In Ghana the concept of accountability and how it is communicated is highly influenced by the cultural and traditional usage of euphemisms that avoid touching raw nerves and tackling unpleasant issues head-on. Although there are countless positive local and traditional accountability vocabularies, phrases and idioms, their usage has been limited to application in traditional settings and has not been adequately projected to advance the cause of transparency and accountability.

In this piece, I have sampled a few of the popular and commonly used words, phrases, and proverbs to illustrate how accountability is generally communicated in local parlance with an illustration of both their real and twisted forms. Though Ghana is multilingual, with more than eighty rich languages and dialects spoken across the country, the Akan group of languages (Asante Twi, Akuapim Twi, Fante and others) are by far the most widely spoken. As such many of the popular accountability sayings are drawn from these languages, though there are many other popular phrases from other languages such as Ga, Ewe, the Mole-Dagbani group of languages, the Guan group of languages, Hausa etc.

Let us start with paemu ka, an Akan phrase which means say it as it is, without fear or favour. This phrase is usually used to urge on those speaking the truth to spill the beans and let the chips fall where they may. It always has a positive connotation in its usage. Typically, this is a phrase that may be used to encourage subordinates and people who may otherwise be in a position of weakness to speak truth to power, voice out against wrongdoing or corruption by superiors or peers, even if it portends negative consequences. This can be used to promote whistleblowing and transparency.

Closely related to this is the very popular word fiilifiili, a colloquial Hausa word which connotes plainness and it is often used to depict full transparency. The Hausa word fiili means open space with no restriction. Thus, the usage always portrays full disclosure without let or hindrance. Another popular word with related meaning is the word plain-plain. This derives from English, which is the official language in Ghana. As it can easily be deciphered, it is obtained by just hyphenating the word plain with itself. Plain-plain denotes truthfulness and going straight to the point without any contortions in speech or statement of facts. It is thus commonly used to demand forthrightness and avoidance of doubt. In the same vein, kasikasi in Dagbanli means without blemish and it is easily understood and used by many speakers of other languages in Northern Ghana in relation to transparency and truthfulness.

Conversely, corner-corner which also derives from English is used to express opacity. It is often used to depict actions that are carried out in a suspicious manner, under wraps, without transparency and often with ill motive. The use of corner implies seclusion from the open. Dibi mamenibi (in Pidgin English one man no chop) is an Akan phrase which literally means ‘‘eat and let me eat too.’’ In its positive application, this phrase calls for equity and fellow feeling in dealing with one another. It faults selfishness and promotes a culture of sharing. However, it is also commonly misconstrued and used to call for a compromise of standards for undeserved favors based on a twisted principle of live and let live. A classic example is when a customs officer is persuaded with this phrase to undervalue tax liability in exchange for a bribe, or a public office holder offers a contract with the aim of getting a kickback. Both parties gain privately at the expense of the state. Of similar meaning and usage are the Akan phrases ɛnsa kɔ ansa na ɛnsa aba (with its Pidgin English version hand go, hand come) and benkum dware nifa na nifa nso adware benkum. The two statements are proverbs that are similar in meaning and usage. The first with its Pidgin English version clearly illustrates interdependence on one another and the need to be each other’s keeper. The second literally means the left hand washes the right hand and the right in turn washes the left (in Pidgin English, scratch my back make I scratch your back). This beautiful phraseology is unfortunately often used to call for undeserved favours with the promise of reciprocating the same. The application of this within the political context is widespread as public officers use them as a bargaining chip for ‘returning the favour’ of development or some benefit from public largesse if voted for. It is easily used for vote buying.

Two Akan proverbs that have become very popular in Ghana’s recent political landscape are:

Kwatrekwa se ɔbɛma wo ntoma a, tie ne din: If an unclothed or naked person promises you clothes, just listen to his/her name, or beware of the naked man who promises you clothes. This is a proverb that espouses the value of due diligence. It challenges citizens to carefully evaluate whoever is putting themselves up for public office to determine whether they can be trusted or have anything of value to offer – integrity, resourcefulness and equity. It is also a statement of caution not to trust state affairs to men/women of straw or necessitous persons who may use it to enrich themselves. This expression was popularized by a presidential candidate in the early years of Ghana’s return to multiparty democracy under the fourth republic in 1992. A wealthy entrepreneur leading one of the opposition parties challenged Ghanaians to elect a resourceful candidate who had the knowledge and wherewithal to change the fortunes of the nation. Though a common Akan proverb, his pronouncement in a soft timbred voice on a political platform resonated so much with Ghanaians and became an instant ‘hit’. Although he did not win the elections, till today politicians continue to use this expression against their opponents and call voters to make informed choices. Unfortunately, this expression is often used to merely spite and mock opponents and not for any deeper reflection on accountability.

Adze wo fie a oye: A Fante proverb which literally means “it is good to have something at home” or “it is right to protect what is yours.” This idiom gained household usage when another presidential candidate used it during an electoral campaign in his home region in 2004. The idea was to convey a message of self-preservation, a sense of belonging, connectedness to one’s roots and to rally support from an area that had previously rejected ‘one of their own’ in the previous general election. The popularity however came on the back of a controversy as the proverb can easily be translated to mean promotion of nepotism and ethnic-based politics. That is exactly what his opponents did. There were even counter pronouncements of a revised version of the proverb as adze papa wo fie a oye. The addition of papa which means good or better changes the meaning to ‘‘it is right to have not just anything but a good thing at home.’’ There were also insinuations of promotion of ethnic induced favoritism with another very popular Akan saying, Kokofu bɔɔlobɔ, wonua enim a yen paase wo, which literally translates as ‘‘in Kokofu football (soccer), passes of the ball are based on kinship.’’ This is an afront to meritocracy.

Though just a scratch on the surface, the above illustrates how local languages in Ghana have been used in accountability discourse over time. Some of these words and expressions such as djulɔ kwakwe (that is a stealing mouse) in the Ga language or baraawo in Hausa, which communicate thievery, have direct meaning, however, others require deeper reflection and some decoding to understand. For instance, akokɔ ɛnto wɔ bedwam which in Akan literally means “the hen does not lay its eggs in public” is used for the non-disclosure of ‘weightier matters’ in public glare and rather to opt for in-camera discussion in order to avoid disgrace – similar to ‘not washing dirty linen in public.’ It has often been abused as a caveat for and expression of refusal to render account of stewardship. Whereas some words such as anansɛm (Ananse stories) which connotes lies or untruth can easily be traced to the source language and traditional fables of the trickery of the spider, others such as azaa, kalabule or kanana (all of which mean fraud) can hardly be anchored in any local language but are widely used as unpleasant descriptors in popular accountability parlance. The reflections elaborated above demonstrate a very potent set of words and phrases that promote transparency, accountability and equity in Ghana, although they are sometimes trivialized in popular usage.

ABOUT ACCOUNTABILITY KEYWORDS

Key terms in the accountability field often have different meanings, to different actors, in different contexts – and in different languages. This project addresses “what counts” as accountability, analyzing the meanings and usage of both widely used and proposed “accountability keywords” – drawing on dialogue with dozens of scholars and practitioners around the world. The project includes both an extensive Accountability Working Paper and more than 30 invited posts that reflect on meanings and usage of relevant keywords in their own contexts and languages. To share a post about a keyword that interests you, send us a proposal at arc@american.edu.

AUTHOR INFORMATION

Abdulkarim Mohammed

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Abdulkarim Mohammed is the Country Manager for the International Budget Partnership (IBP) in Ghana where he works with vulnerable smallholder farmers and mining affected communities to demand improvement in basic service delivery through enhanced fiscal governance. Prior to IBP he was the Program Manager for Active Citizenship & Accountable Governance with Oxfam in Ghana where he led efforts to increase revenue transparency and state accountability through citizen’s influence over public finances, particularly those derived from extractive industries and foreign assistance. Karim also led advocacy initiatives for political reforms and citizen-driven social accountability aimed at consolidating Ghana’s democratic experiment.

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