It was about 6 am in Nairobi (Ghana was still asleep as Kenya is 3 hours ahead of GMT) on 25 January 2012, and I had just arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta Airport after travelling overnight from Accra. One thing I like about my network provider is their form of roaming: the number works like a local number once you enter a new country. In the past, I could only make and receive calls, but curious as I am, I tried the Web facility on the phone, and it worked!
I logged on to Twitter, and found a message from a friend: Is it true Uncle Atta Mills resigned?
A news website had reported late the previous day that President John Evan Atta Mills of Ghana had resigned his position as the leader of the ruling party. Quoting ‘deep throat sources from the NDC party headquarters’, the website indicated that the President, in handing over his resignation letter to the General Secretary Johnson Asiedu Nketiah, promised that he would finish his term as the President of Ghana ‘even if all his ministers abandon ship’.
The story went further to state a new flag bearer would have to b e elected, listing potential candidates as the Foreign Minister Mohammed Mumuni (he had said in an interview after being elected as Parliamentary candidate for Kumbungu that he was prepared to contest as a flag bearer, an interview which confused not a few people), the Vice President John Mahama, Ekow Spio-Garbrah, and Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings, who contested against the President for the flag bearer position in 2011.
I responded to my friend on Twitter: Bro, just arrived in Kenya and reading it on the net. I don’t believe it, but we got to wait for morning to break in Ghana.
I checked on other news-sites and on Facebook. Folks had started discussing the issue, with some already going with the story, and calling victory for the opposition NPP and its leader. This response from a reader was typical: “Uncle Attah (sic) has finally confirmed his one term agenda.”
Some also called for day to break in Accra for confirmation or otherwise.
Of course, the story was untrue.
On 3 February 2012, another leading Ghanaian website reported under the headline “Nigeria Threatens to Leave Africa!” that following the election of Beninois President Boni Yayi as the Africa Union (AU) President, the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria (who, it was reported, contested the position and lost) had threatened to “break away from Africa and form an independent continent of Nigeria”. The website quoted from a press release by one Reuben Abati: “Since Africa does not consider our President, Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan good enough for the Chairmanship of the Africa Union, then Africa does not deserve our presence on the Continent.”
Further, the site stated that Nigeria had given a 1 week ultimatum to AU to reconsider and make President Jonathan its head, and not bother to try to contact the President as the position of the Administration was non-negotiable.
My friend Seun Kolade posted it on his Facebook profile and surprisingly, some readers took the story seriously! One person commented thus: “What a stupid ideology from a senseless administrator like GEJ and his cabinet. So easy it is to form a continent. What a cluster of fools we have at the realm of governance in Nigeria.” Another comment: “If Nigerians can afford to cope with the clueless GEJ, will AU also falls into the same pit. Abati statement is laughable to say the least… GEJ is living in fantasy and somebody needs to tell him the truth. That is if he will listen…”
In my comment on Seun’s posting, I stated, “Satire, oh and many readers are taking it seriously on [the website]. Is it that most of us don’t have critical reading skills so that we accept everything we read at face value?” Seun’s response was that it’s both lack of critical reading skills, and a poorly developed, or altogether non-existent, sense of humour. “I think most of us will excuse the latter, to some extent,” he continued. “There probably hasn’t been much to laugh about recently. Speaking of Nigeria, for example.”
Of course, the story fed into existing sentiments. And that is what the false stories are crafted to hatch onto. And, oh, there were 345 comments on the said story on the news website, when I checked at the time of putting this article together.
My question remains: Have we lost our sense of satire or did we even have it in the first place? Or, it is rather our lack of critical reading skills?
A couple of weeks ago, in February 2012, news broke about a video which showed the flag bearer of NPP, Nana Akufo-Addo, ‘fondling’ a make-up artist at the state broadcaster, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC). The news made propaganda value for the ruling party, especially, with a deputy minister trumpeting it and others calling for the arrest of the ‘perpetrator’. The incident happened in 2008, in the lead up to the Presidential Elections in December of that year. For me, the first question to ask was: if the issue happened four years ago, and was captured in a film on the 2008 Elections, why hasn’t it become an issue for discussion all these years? Also, would such an incident happen in the full glare of people in the room?
When the lady in question, the supposed victim, was later interviewed, she refused the allegation and expressed surprise that it had become a topic for debate.
2012 is an Election year in Ghana. There will be a lot of propaganda stories, many of which will backfire or be refuted. But the proponents won’t care. Because most people will remember the first shot, not the rejoinder. The political parties will attempt to play on your gullibility quotient this year. Be critical. Read every story twice. Question everything. As my friend Abena Serwaa noted on Twitter, look at the sources of the news you read, as most often, opinions are published as news items. Personally, the newspaper reporting the news has an influence on the amount of salt with which I take the take the story.
One purpose I have this year: to educate my readers to be discerning readers and listeners. Of course, I am mindful of the fact that an election year is the most likely one in which one can be branded. As a writer, the delicate balance is to remain critical yet unbiased.
As Ghanaians, we have to up our critical reading skills. As we read, we need to reflect on what we read and do our own deductions and draw our own conclusions.
Wikipedia defined critical reading as “the opposite of naivety in reading. It is a form of skepticism that does not take a text at face value, but involves an examination of claims put forward in the text as well as implicit bias in the texts framing and selection of the information presented. The ability to read critically is an ability assumed to be present in scholars and to be learned in academic institutions.” I say we should teach it in our homes and on our airwaves. We should teach our children to question. We need to teach them how to be skeptics.
John Steinbeck captures my thoughts well: “A story has as many versions as it has readers. Everyone takes what he wants or can from it and thus changes it to his measure. Some pick out parts and reject the rest, some strain the story through their mesh of prejudice, some paint it with their own delight. ”
This year, the politicians and journalists will attempt to buy your mind and influence your thoughts and, hopefully, your voting pattern. Will it be for a pesewa?
About the Writer
Nana Awere Damoah was born in Accra, Ghana. He is the author of 3 books: Tales from Different Tails, Through the Gates of Thought and Excursions in My Mind. Nana started serious writing in 1993 when he was in sixth form and has had a number of his short stories published in the Mirror and the Spectator. In 1997, he won first prize in the Step magazine National Story Writing Competition. His short story Truth Floats was published in the first edition of African Roar Anthology. He is the creator and editor of Story Loom.