Ashaiman, constitution without constitutionalism?
JUST before the news broke publicly, a friend in the Ghana Air Force told me of the savage murder in Ashaiman of his colleague, who he knew quite well.
He was visibly upset and apparently, so were many of his colleagues.
My mind immediately went back to 2017, when the then Chief of Defence Staff, Lt Gen. OB Akwa, was widely reported to have met edgy, angry soldiers at the Burma Hall in Accra to urge them not to undertake any reprisal attacks on the Denkyira Obuasi township following the horrific murder there of Capt (as he was then) Maxwell Mahama.
My worries were that six years on and with no conclusion of the trial of his alleged murderers, the gruesome murder of yet another soldier could inflame passions that could be difficult to control.
If I knew any young man in Ashaiman, I would have called him immediately with just two words; ‘get out!’.
Tanks, firepower, camouflage
Even then, I was stunned by the sheer force of military tanks and personnel as they eventually rolled into Ashaiman as if in a war movie, with a helicopter hovering overhead, and for what purpose I do not know, save to say it was a rampage, no less.
I cannot see how the ‘invasion’ and the subsequent brutalisation of citizens in broad daylight in the brazen full view of cameras can go without condemnation, and loud voices have been raised, rightly, over this unacceptable conduct.
Wrong is wrong, on all accounts.
Interestingly, in private conversations, a few people I know have expressed their support for what the military did on the grounds that ‘Ashaiman boys are too rowdy and the level of criminality and hooliganism in that enclave is too much, so the boys in camouflage needed to send a message to them’ or words to that effect.
Some people have come out with that position in defence of what happened.
The notion, held by some, that condemning the acts of the military amounts to not caring about the horrific murder of Trooper Imoro Sherrif is simply too risible to even attempt to countenance.
Condemning the soldier’s killing and what took place subsequently are not mutually exclusive.
Our collective DNA
Many of those who rightly condemn what happened in Ashaiman do not lose sleep over the police giving hot, ‘talk true’ slaps to criminal suspects to force the ‘truth’ out of them.
They see the enforcing of discipline as tantamount to physical punishment, perhaps arising in part out of our past corporal punishment regime in schools.
In addition, perhaps as part of our collective political DNA arising from our experiences with military and quasi-military governments between 1966 and 1991, we seem hardwired to violence and approve of same as the way forward for our authorities to get a grip on some problems.
We have not quite weaned ourselves off that chapter and moved on, even though our constitution has been in force for three decades.
I suppose this is what CDD Director Prof. H. Kwasi Prempeh calls ‘Transition Without Change’.
Sometime ago, police officers around the 37 Military Hospital were said to march law-breaking commercial drivers to the hospital mortuary to compel them to wash corpses as their punishment. People cheered, even though this was obviously against the law.
Commercial drivers were too stubborn and needed to be taught hard lessons.
In April 2021, task force personnel went into action at Madina’s Zongo Junction subjecting people to all manner of physical punishment for supposedly refusing to cross the highway at the right places.
Some were made to kneel down, others were made to sweep, pick litter or squat.
Bystanders cheered on the task force.
I screamed on these pages that the task force was simply combating lawlessness with lawlessness and that this would be a nine-day wonder because it was lazy and ineffective.
Specifically, I wrote; ‘Article 19(11) of our constitution is clear. “No person shall be convicted of a criminal offence unless the offence is defined and the penalty for it is prescribed in a written law.”
But while the Road Traffic Regulations, 2012, Regulation 154(3) states clearly that pedestrians who fail to use a footbridge or an underpass commit an offence, I am yet to see sweeping, kneeling or squatting defined in law as punishments that may be dished out.
To my mind, therefore, it is wrong, as a matter of law, for law enforcers to compel same. Why should we encourage or tolerate lawlessness in the name of preventing lawlessness?’
A couple of well-educated friends called to tell me I was being ‘too-known’, that too much ‘human rights’ and ‘rule of law’ was destroying the country, and that recalcitrant citizens needed to be taught a hard lesson in obeying the law, because after all they would not dare break sanitation or traffic rules if they found themselves strolling in Burma Camp.
They were happy for a part of the constitution to be disregarded in the greater interest, they claimed.
I am yet to get their views on whether parts of the same constitution should be disregarded in respect of ‘stubborn’ Ashaiman citizens. How much human rights is enough for a society?
I remember the chants of “JJ, do something before you die!” and ‘let the blood flow’ particularly by students and the youth, when Rawlings burst on the political scene decades ago.
To them, ‘disciplining’ the business class and the professional classes, who were mostly middle-aged people they believed to be corrupt, was the way to clean up the society, even if it meant breaking every rule of human decency, natural justice and due process and then stringing them up to shoot them at dawn. JJ obliged.
But eventually the romantic relationship went downhill when his government entered into a deal with the IMF that came with withdrawal of student subsidies and mass worker retrenchment exercises.
We snort in derision at human rights, due process and rule of law as some sort of fanciful, intellectual ‘coat-coat’ luxury talk when it suits us and our prejudices, such as in the infamous Achimota School dreadlock case, or the ban on corporal punishment in schools, claiming that human right claims are a western luxury destroying the country the same human rights, due process and rule of law we are happy to quote ad nauseum in the case of the Ashaiman and other reprehensible brutalities.
This is what Prof. Prempeh calls ‘Constitution without Constitutionalism’.
Democracy comes as a package, inconvenient warts and all, not a pick-and-choose box of individually wrapped chocolates.
Human rights are not divisible, to be portioned out to cuddly people we like or have sympathy for, and withdrawn from those we find reprehensible, whether errant commercial drivers or pedestrians, recalcitrant students or even hardened criminals.
We must make up our minds, whether we want democracy, with its constitution and human rights provisions and due process ethos, or military rule and its ‘my friend, shut up and obey’ mantra.
If we choose democracy, then we must remember that a constitution must necessarily come with constitutionalism, else its words ring hollow and are not worth the paper they are written on.
Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng Head,
Communications & Public Affairs Unit,
Ministry of Energy,