Cameron Duodu on Ghana’s ‘Reichstag fire’
A gross overreaction by Ghanaian security forces to claims by
an opposition activist have sparked debate about the government’s
tolerance and accountability writes Cameron Duodu, journalist and author of The Gab Boys.
What an activist claimed as Ghana’s own ‘Reichstag fire’ is exposing the totalitarian underbelly of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) government. The fire in question occurred in the early hours of 14 February at the residence of former President Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings. Rawlings was not at home but his wife, Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, and one of his daughters were. They escaped unhurt but the house and their belongings were burnt to ashes.
The incident was headline news. Friends and supporters, including President John Evans Atta Mills, trooped to the charred house to offer their sympathies to the family. Then there was a nasty twist.
After days of rumours, an opposition activist alleged foul play and official collusion. His allegations suggested a bizarre comparison between the fire at Rawlings’s house and the conflagration that destroyed the German parliament in February 1933 and helped usher in Nazi rule. Instead of dismissing such claims, the state authorities treated this activist as a threat to national security.??
Ghanaians had already started asking, with their usual flashes of political wit and scepticism, some awkward questions about the fire. Why had Rawlings failed to protect the property, an old colonial residence built mainly from wood, from fire? And what about relations between Rawlings and Mills, who had just suffered another tongue-lashing from his predecessor.
Rawlings had been railing against the continued “inaction” of Mills and his ministers in the face of complaints about national living conditions. Rawlings made it clear that he had a legitimate interest in how the Mills administration acted, as he had founded the ruling NDC. These attacks led some to question the sincerity of Mills’s sympathy for Rawlings.
Into all this convoluted theorising, Nana Baafi Darkwa, a 27-year-old supporter of the opposition New Patriotic Party went to Top Radio and proclaimed on 18 February that Rawlings himself had set fire to his own residence, a sort of Reichstag fire writ small.
Bizarre as the proposition was, what followed was worse. Despite the right to freedom of speech, the young man was picked up by policemen (apparently under the direction of an NDC official) and arraigned before court for making a false statement. He was remanded in custody for two weeks. This caused wide consternation, as it was seen as a military-rule style of operation.
Opposition parties denounced the arrest as a descent into totalitarian rule and declared that they would boycott parliament until the man had been released. Mills, doubtless embarrassed by the affair, expressed his regret at the arrest. Chief Justice Georgina Woode asked a more senior judge to take over Darkwa’s case. The judge granted bail and released Darkwa from custody.
That is not the end of the affair. Ghanaians continued to ask questions. Of the more sardonic internet offerings, one stands out: “Is our judiciary as independent as the constitution provides? Will the judge who jailed a citizen for an offence whose penalty is a fine be disciplined by the Judicial Council? Of course, we shall ignore solving any of the problems laid bare by the current controversy, until another fool rises again to become an instant hero to fools. That is how a foolish country runs its affairs, wouldn’t one say?”