Of Democracy, ECG, and Anti-trust Laws

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This article was first published 10 years ago in The Finder

By Nana S. Achampong

Someone somewhere far away once said something to this effect regarding the nature of democracy: when the government fears the people, that is LIBERTY; when the people fear the government, that is TYRANNY. When there is Liberty, democracy relinquishes to the people their inalienable freedoms, including the freedom of choice of not only who they wish to appoint to be their representatives but also of any endeavor that they collectively deem desirable. This means the collective voice of the people must reign above the wishes of individuals at all times, even if there is a possibility of the occasional blunder arising out of overenthusiasm.

And then there is the individual side which includes the freedom to BE safe and be treated fairly, and the freedom to go about one’s business without humbug such as purchasing the goods and services of one’s choice. In this pursuit, democracy must ensure that no entity – whether an individual or a corporation – is seen to be or is indeed above the law that governs the people. To protect these freedoms therefore, democracy must back the voice of the people with fangs so sharp that just a threat of their bite can compel a government into steering straying entities straight.

That said, the liberty enshrined in democracy – and the freedoms that follow – sets the scene for free enterprise which translates into the right of everyone to undertake any business not deemed illicit by the people who have strong sharp teeth (and are not afraid to use them). And since it is the nature of business to make profits at all times for its owners as a reward for and investment in the endeavor of satisfying the needs of its customers (We The People), it is the responsibility of democracy to ensure fair play on both sides on all levels at all times. This is important because – in a free enterprise – unless consumers are satisfied with the goods and services being offered, producers cannot sell their products, businesses cannot make profits, the economy becomes stagnant, and democracy is starved to death. You remember the Arab Spring and all!

Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the United States’ Declaration of Independence, and America’s third president, once said – and I quote – “timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty”. And he should know: he used to warm his bed regularly by forcing himself on his timid wenches (google Sally Hemings), resulting in many “illegitimate” births. But I digress. The point he was making is that the people must constantly undertake the troublesome business of holding their leaders (and by extension corporations) to account instead of flaying their hopeless hands in the air and sulking like they just don’t care.

I paraphrase Jefferson’s words when I say that Ghanaians are timid people choosing to let some divine warrior fight their battles in the calm of tyranny instead of actually doing the messy business of holding leaders to account. The English science fiction writer H. G. Wells added his two pence that “the greatest task of democracy – its ritual and feast – is choice”. Truly, it is the silence of our voices in the absence of choice that has occasioned seeming insensitivity on the part of our politicians and, by extension, the intransigence of the utility monopolies – especially Electricity Company of Ghana Limited, ECG – in the country.

Fact: it is the nature of monopolies to cozy up to – and insulate – government and powerful opinion leaders such as the press and “the connected” to ensure that their businesses are considered and designated “too big to fail”, a status that allows them to shut their ears to the people’s voice and do whatever they please. And if the monopoly is fully owned by the government, then it becomes practically invincible. Today, the ECG, the sole energy provider from Akosombo’s hydroelectric source to Ghanaians, flagrantly dictates whatever price per Kilowatt usage it chooses irrespective of market forces. And as if that were not corrupt enough, it has also made sure that energy consumers (We The People) buy in advance their unreliable product without questions or guarantees.

In return for this ridiculous cash-and-carry arrangement, this monopoly continuously undermines the broad section of Ghanaians with phenomenally fetid service, sub-standard product delivery, customer support that defies common sense, and a legion of untold misconducts. These malpractices are so irresponsible that Nigeria’s NEPA deserves some kudos. The most annoying part of this is the ongoing power outage exercise which does not seem to have either a schedule or rhythm; sometimes it seems like some torture straight out of Marquis de Sade’s darkest moment while he was incarcerated at the Bastille. The result of this epic incompetence is incalculable, but they include reduced productivity on all fronts, under-industrialization, inconveniences on numerous levels, damaged appliances across the board, and much pain and suffering among users. (Where is PURC, the Public Utility Regulatory Commission, by the way?)

And yet, for these and more, ECG raked in whopping operating profits of GHC 37.22B according to the company vital statistics on their own official website, almost a billion down from the previous year due obviously to incompetence. And it is all legal.

Now, what’s to be done? The German literati and Nobel laureate Günter Grass put it simply: “the job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open,” baring sharpened teeth, I might add. And it’s about time if you ask me. Why do we murmur and grumble among ourselves? Let’s use a united voice and scream. No more monopolies, for it is in robust competition under unobtrusive government regulation that choices appear, and quality improves, and prices go down, and the people become content, and government fears the people’s voice, and democracy prevails and thrives. Simple as that. Who in his right mind would sign on to some crazy cash-and-carry contract like that if there were competitors offering comparative or better services that were billed monthly?

To make this possible, there must be biting anti-trust legislation that prohibits the likes of ECG, Ghana Water and all other monopolies from taking We The People for a ride. Our representatives must craft the laws immediately and bring some sanity into a system that would foster competition and growth and abhor monopolistic and collusive practices. This, of course may take some doing, given the legislative “priorities” before our MPs (who also represent the government). One thing we can do immediately though is use the law at our disposal: a serious consumer class action against ECG. The anthropologist Margaret Mead reminds us that “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. My attention has been drawn to the efforts of a group calling itself Consumer Protection Agency that embarked on just such a mission back in July of this year.

Now, what are we waiting for? Let’s pull together a band of outraged citizens with long lists of how ECG’s atrocities have adversely affected the quality of our lives; let us then obtain counsel of fine young unspoiled ambitious lawyers; and let us make our voices heard with bared fangs  and sue ECG into a new system of perfect competition. And even if this exercise does not yield the results we seek, the principle would have been established. Therein anxiously awaits the first step to ensuring that the government fears We The People, and that our precious little LIBERTY is protected from the tyranny of monopolistic corporations and clueless politicians.

NB: This article was first published in ‘The Daily Finder’ October 9, 2012

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