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January 2010

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It was their best performance in the tournament. Yet it was the performance that ended the incredible journey of a youthful, inexperienced Black Stars squad that had been written off by so many.

Having forced me to eat humble pie on more than one occasion over the past three weeks, I guess I should be saying that I am entitled to the last laugh because my prediction that they won’t win the cup came true. But I am not laughing.

This is not a team that should be laughed at for losing. Getting to the finals of AFCON 2010, the first time Ghana has made it this far in 18 years, is no mean feat. That it came from a team many expected so little from is an achievement worth celebrating.

At the very least, they restored my hope in the Black Stars. I lost all faith in the senior national team in 1994 after infighting culminated in their disgraceful exit from the Cup of Nations in Tunisia. They didn’t disgrace themselves (and the nation) as many had expected and for that they can go around with their heads held high.

This Black Stars squad has also proved a very important point that big names do not necessarily make a great team. That’s why the team made it to the finals of ACFON for the first time in 18 years with unknown and inexperienced players. They’ve vindicated my position that the Black Stars are better off without the likes of Michael Essien and Sulley Muntari.

Finally, this Black Stars squad has provided many Ghanaians with an inspirational story that any group of individuals can get to the heights they aspire even when they’ve been written off by everyone else. The morale here is pretty simple: it’s bad enough to be written off. What’s worse, though, is for you to write yourself off. The Black Stars, I think, came this far because they refused to write themselves off. By believing in themselves, they made the nation proud and put smiles on millions of faces. Even those faces which frowned at the coach’s decision to field such an inexperienced squad have been lit up.

It’s been an amazing two weeks for the like of Kwadwo Asamoah, Andre Ayew and Anthony Annan. Their achievements in Angola (more than the performance of the likes of Essien in Germany in 2006) should restore Ghana to its position as a football powerhouse in Africa. If our football administrators are wise enough to keep this squad together, I am optimistic that they will create some big waves at the World Cup in South Africa – and wherever they play in the future.

For all of these reasons, I have little choice than to put all my pessimism and start from now on to start rooting for the Black Stars again. And, truly, it feels very good.

Two teams that had been written off at the start of the African Cup of Nations in Angola are just two matches away from lifting the trophy. But one must eliminate the other before the cup gets within reach.

At the start of the tournament a lot of Ghanaians, probably led by me, had very little faith in the Black Stars, a team plagued by injury and filled with inexperience. The Nigerians, on the other hand, wrote off their team – the Super Eagles – because of its recent poor form. The fact that the team had to struggle with minnows like Kenya to qualify for the World Cup didn’t inspire much confidence.

To reach the semi-finals of the tournament is in itself a major triumph for both the Stars and the Eagles. But today, one must get rid of the other to bring the trophy within reach. It’s going to be a grudge encounter and what is at stake is more than a place in the finals of AFCON 2010.

The team that loses will feel a serious dent in national pride.

And so even though I have not been known to be a keen supporter of the Black Stars and I still have doubts about their ability to lift the trophy, I am hoping that they soar above the Eagles today. If the stars lose it won’t hurt me as much as my Nigerian friends calling me to gloat. That will make me miserable.

It’s true, I have not shown much faith in this squad but today, I am going all out to root for Milovan Rajevac’s squad in the hope that Andre Ayew will play like his dad did against Nigeria in Senegal in 1992 and Asamoah Gyan gets inspired to play like Tony Yeboah. Surely, they won’t let me down, will they?

As a teenager, who had just gained admission into St John’s School, I was confronted with all sorts of temptations. I had been a stubborn chap in basic school and in secondary school there was the temptation to take it to a different level. Waywardness beckoned. There were new freedoms and there were days I felt like going all out to explore the world out there. I was really tempted. But I didn’t give in because I wanted to remain in the good graces of my English teacher.

Mrs. Grace Vera Effah (pictured with her grand children) was a sweet lady. She still is.

She always wore a smile, which could calm any raging storm in a teenager’s heart. She had a good sense of humour and she joked about her VW beetle. I first heard the ‘kornumtea’ joke about committees being avenues for people to drink tea, from her. So whenever I hear that a committee has been formed, I smile and remember Mrs. Effah.

She knew her stuff and she taught it well. But she wasn’t just a teacher. She was a mother to us all. She advised, she chastised and she encouraged us.

“You are not just passing through the school,” she used to say. “Let the school pass through you.”

I don’t know about my classmates but Mrs. Effah touched me with her kind words, her beautiful smile and her work ethic. She was never late for class. For the three years that she was my English teacher, I can count the number of days she was absent on the fingers of one hand. And each time she couldn’t make it to class, she made sure that word got to us in good time.

Mrs. Effah was the first person who told me to read just about anything I laid my hands on. I become a voracious reader because I wanted to impress her. She made me want to impress. I wanted to build my vocabulary, improve my grammar and write creatively – just so I could be in her good books.

Mrs. Effah hardly came to class with a cane and I never saw her whip anyone with a cane. She reprimanded us in her own special way. Whenever she reprimanded me (and it wasn’t often), it hurt more than a cane would.

One day, most of the class scored miserably in a class test. Mrs. Effah was disappointed and she didn’t hide it. It was an easy test and she couldn’t understand why so many people flunked. As she spoke about her disappointment, I could see her eyes glistening. There were tears. She took out her handkerchief and quickly wiped them off. That image is etched on my memory forever. I passed the test and much of what she was saying did not apply to me. But seeing those tears in her eyes made me realize how passionate she was about her job and how she cared about her students.

She wanted the best for her students just as any mother would want the best for her sons and I wanted to please her just as I would my mother. I did my best and today, I am all the better for it.

If I ever win a Pulitzer, I’d dedicate it to Mrs. Grace Vera Effah. But since a Pulitzer is such a long way off, I decided that as Mrs. Effah celebrates her birthday today, I’d honour her by telling the whole world, that I am eternally grateful for the positive impact she made on my life.

She taught me to use a lot of words but none of them can sufficiently render my gratitude to her. All I can do is pray that she’s blessed with many more years of good health and abundant joy.

President Mills’ first reshuffle of his governing team took too long in coming. Now it has come and it’s left many people scratching their heads – or other parts of the anatomy below the waistline. What is the president thinking?

Having been criticized for fielding a second-string team, the president must been feeling some pressure to bring in some more brainy and experienced heavy-weights. And who does he bring in?

E. T. Mensah – reputed to be a former barber of Jerry John Rawlings – is being moved from parliament, where he is majority chief whip, to the ministry of employment. Mr. Mensah is a loyal party man and his appointment is a shrewd political move – not a pragmatic, well-thought out decision to create jobs and ensure contentment on the labour front.

First, E. T. Mensah is a Rawlings-loyalist (what do you expect, he used to cut his hair) and so his appointment will satisfy Rawlings who has been breathing down the neck of the President, demanding the appointment of some of his men.

Secondly, E. T. Mensah will have to come up with creative ways to create the illusion that jobs are being created – especially for disillusioned party supporters who have been complaining that they’ve been neglected. His abrasive character will also come in quite handy whenever there is labour unrest – and there could be a lot of that in the coming months as government tries to get the ‘single spine’ pay structure in shape.

The appointment of majority leader, Alban Bagbin, as Works and Housing Minister is also a shrewd move to placate Rawlings and silence Bagbin who has also been quite strident in his criticism of the Mills style of leadership. It’s very unfortunate (ahem!) that Bagbin will accept this job when he’s built so much clout and garnered a lot of experience as a lawmaker. It’s even hypocritical for someone who has been speaking over the years about the need to ensure the independence of the legislative assembly, suddenly make a u-turn to take up a job in the executive. But it’s understandable hypocrisy.

Bagbin wanted a ministerial job and he was unhappy with the decision to scrap the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs. Now the president has given him more than he desired and that should make him happy. President Mills can now sleep with both eyes closed, without the fear of a majority leader scuttling his legislative agenda.

There is also a lot of money at the Works and Housing ministry and since Bagbin knows (and cares) so much about how the party is run, he will be tasked with the responsibility of making sure there is a steady stream of funds from the ministry to the party’s coffers. I hear the kickback percentage has increased recently from 10 to about 15 percent. Make no mistake about it. Bagbin has not been appointed to ensure an efficient delivery of water to Ghanaian home. He’s just coming in to serve the interests of his party.

The most striking part of the ministerial shuffle for me, though, is the decision to move Zita Okaikoi from information to the tourism ministry. Zita didn’t do much at information. She’s the most reticent information minister I’ve seen in my short life. The first time she tried to defend government policy, it was a disaster and immediately thereafter she was instructed never to open her mouth to speak publicly without authorization and coaching.

She will go down in history as the only information who could never hold her own to defend any serious government policy. Of course, she could explain the agenda of Obama’s visit and take pictures of the visit of the superstar president for her journal (which we are yet to see) but she never was able to stand up to explain economic policy or something as banal as why the president is reluctant to move into the presidential palace.

She should never have been information minister. In fact, she shouldn’t have been a minister at all. But the president must know more about her than most Ghanaians do. That should explain why she’s still a member of government.

I am guessing that Zita’s background as a bar owner influenced the decision to send her to the tourism ministry. She must know a thing or two about tourist establishments and maybe, by the time she’s moved out of government (hopefully) or moved to another ministry (more likely), she would have found creative ways to stop people from defecating around the Cape Coast and Elmina Castles. Plus, Zita is so damn pretty. Her good looks on any poster will help boost tourist numbers to the Buebeng Fiema Monkey Sanctuary. But don’t expect her to come up with any serious policies to make tourism our number one export earner.

The man replacing Zita at the information ministry, John Tia, will surely do a much better job than she did – even with half of his brain switched off. That would mean less work for the likes of Okudzeto-Ablakwa and Agyenim Boateng, giving them more time to focus on their schooling. Ain’t that swell?

If Zita’s relocation to tourism doesn’t make sense, the president’s decision to shut down the office of the presidential spokesman should. It means that the information minister will be the president’s principal spokesman. That’s good. It should mark the end of the era of the duplicity in the functions of the information minister and the erstwhile presidential spokesman. Hopefully, we’d be spared the embarrassment and confusion of governmental doublespeak.

The decision to move Cletus Avoka from the Interior Ministry is also a very wise one. Avoka, no doubt, is ‘Team A’ material. He’s got a fine brain, he works hard and he means well. But his appointment as Interior Minister was a mistake, especially with one faction in the Bawku dispute accusing him of siding with the other. Yet the president stubbornly stuck with him, wasting a precious year that could have been used to take vital steps towards ending the conflict in Bawku and saving a few precious lives.

With Avoka’s reassignment to another ministry, the new interior minister, Martin Hamidu – who would have been vice president if Mills had won the election in 2000 – should be able to take Bawku towards peace. Martin Hamidu is also an experienced man and he must bring some ‘Team A’ qualities to President Mills’ squad.

Akua Sena Dansua is going to be our first female sports minister and it’s impressive that the president will want to take a risk with her in such a high profile position. She’s a smart woman and she will not need two deputies to help her do the job. She’s been sent there to halt the ‘chop-chop’ at that ministry. Women ‘chop’ less, you know and I am very certain that Auntie Akua will not spend our monies on ‘chinchinga’. She will definitely not travel abroad with a male companion, confusing the president and making it difficult for him to know the difference between “corruption” and “indiscretion”. If, she however decides to travel to South Africa, for example, with a male companion, I hope I will be that companion.

All in all, President Mills’ first reshuffle seems like a capitulation to me. It’s all aimed at pleasing a few individuals and serving the interests of the NDC. I see very little national interest in this reshuffle because it’s not far-reaching enough. Zita must have been kicked out of government – along with the likes of Juliana Azumah-Mensah, who is now moving to Women’s and Children’s Affairs. That Ashanti Regional minister should also be kicked out of office.

The president could also have done more to reduce the size of the government, which is still too big for a developing country. Do we need all those deputy ministers? I don’t think so. Hopefully, this is just the beginning and at the end of it all, we’d have a stronger team which will take us places.

I am devastated.

I just can’t believe that la Cote d’Ivoire is out of the African Cup of Nations and Ghana is still in contention. I tipped our western neighbours to lift the cup and never in my wildest dreams did I see an inexperienced Black Stars squad to go beyond the group stage.

Today, the Black Stars played their hearts out against a determined Angolan side and secured a place in the semi-finals. Suddenly, they are looking like a team that could win the cup.

I think they won’t but I like to be surprised.

Whether the Black Stars win the trophy or not, one thing is for sure – the team is better off without the likes of Michael Essien and Sully Muntari. A few months ago when I suggested that the two should be kicked out of the squad, a certain Kojo Annan said it amounted to throwing the baby away with the bathwater. Well, they are out and the team is throwing eggs in the faces of all its critics.

About la Cote d’Ivoire, the least said about them the better. For the second CAN running, they’ve disappointed me and I am not going to back them again for a long time to come.

On the day that Arsenal was kicked out of the English FA Cup, I expected them to give me something to cheer about. The least I expected of them was to field a disorientated defence against Algeria – who had been all but written off after their abysmal first game against Malawi. Those Ivorian elephants have really trampled on my heart and it hurts so.

With Cote d’Ivoire out of CAN 2010, I don’t know which team to bet on. I will decide after all the quarter-final games have been played. But I am thinking that, perhaps, I should just sit back and enjoy the games without sticking my neck out for any team. I hate to be on the losing side. Or I should cultivate a little more faith in the Black Stars, who, I admit, seem to be enjoying promising resurgence?

I am eating a lot of humble pie tonight. I stuck my neck out and predicted that the Black Stars will be kicked out of the African Cup of Nations today. But they proved me wrong with a one goal triumph over Burkina Faso.

With that they’ve qualified for the quarter final stage of the tournament. It was a well-deserved victory. Some of the played really gave a good account of themselves. Overall, it was an average performance but a few of the players seemed determined to get people like me to stick our feet in our mouth.

I didn’t give them a dog’s chance, especially after they lost so miserably to the Ivory Coast last Friday. Today, they needed a win and they got just that.

So I get it.

My prediction didn’t come true and I am getting a lot of taunts from so many people through phone calls, text messages and e-mails.

“Your eye die”, one of them wrote to me.

“Shame on you,” another said.

“Anything can happen in soccer,” a friend wrote on facebook as he advised me to have a little more faith in the Black Stars.

Unfortunately, I still think the team in Angola is one of the weakest Black Stars squads this nation has ever had. It won’t win any trophy. Not this year. And certainly not with the likes of Asamoah Gyan and Haminu Dramani playing like some basic school boys from Nana Kobina Nketsiah LA Primary in my hometown, Essikado.

I must say, however, that Dede Ayew has got legend written all over him. His every move mirrors the sultry skills of his dad. He is such a delight to watch. It is the likes of Dede Ayew, Adiyiah and Kwadjo Asamoah who hold the future of the Black Stars.

I see Angola as the nursery where they are being groomed for the future, when, hopefully, they’d inspire me to have some confidence in the Black Stars again. So, for now, if the win over Burkina Faso boosts their confidence, I am happy for them. For their sake I am more than delighted to eat every humble pie I deserve.

In the 1990s death seemed to be having a good time grabbing one official of the PNDC junta after another at a certain hospital in London. The angel of death, it seemed, was lurking in the corridors of Cromwell Hospital, ambushing and capturing Ghanaian government officials who were admitted there for treatment.

It was very common at the time to hear GBC Radio announcing the death of one ‘big man’ after another – at Cromwell Hospital. It got to a point, the very serious matter of death turned into a joke.

“If you are sick and in need of treatment abroad, avoid Cromwell at all cost,” healthy government officials joked among themselves, I am told. They laughed and laughed off a certain pervasive stupidity, which continue to make African leaders think it is alright for them to seek medical treatment in hospitals in places like Johannesburg, Berlin and London (not at Cromwell, though) whiles the healthcare systems in their own countries fell to pieces before their very eyes.

As he lies in his hospital bed in Saudi Arabia, receiving treatment for all sorts of diseases affecting his kidneys and heart, I wonder what is going through the mind of Nigerian president, Umaru Yar’adua. If he lives (and I hope he does), will he go back home with a determination in his heart, given a new lease on life, to make sure that almost all ailments known to man can be treated in hospitals in his country?

I will like to know the last thoughts of Courage Quashigah, our former minister of health, as he took in his last breaths in a hospital in Israel. Did it ever occur to him that if he had done enough, the doctors who tried to save him would have been Ghanaian doctors working hard in Accra and not Israeli physicians in a hospital in Tel Aviv?

At the height of his health crisis – when his opponents thought he would fall dead any minute – President Mills (then a mere presidential candidate) sought treatment in Johannesburg. He lived. I wonder if that has changed his outlook in anyway and filled him with a determination to, at the very least, start a process to transform our health care system.

And that makes me wonder: will President Mills and the current health minister do any different? What steps will President Mills take to make sure that if he ever suffers a relapse, he would be able to walk to Korle Bu and get the treatment he deserves: world class, professional and life-saving – just as he got in Johannesburg.

I am sorry Quarshigah died a week ago. My sincerest sympathies go to his family. But I look at his tenure in office and I ask myself: what did he do to make sure that in the short- to long-term, our country’s health system is developed to such an extent that there is little need, if any at all, for anyone (rich or poor) to go abroad to seek treatment. From one angle, I see little: “regenerative health”, which did him no good. From another angle, sadly, I see nothing!

I just don’t understand why a group of human beings, supposedly endowed with brains and skills like any other, will sit down and watch their health systems crumble while they pay so much to take advantage of what others have built.

How long does it take to build a world-class hospital?

It shouldn’t take more than a presidential term to build a well-equipped, well-staffed hospital which can cater to almost every medical condition on earth. We are not talking about a new engineering feat here. We are not asking any African government take on a new engineering feat – building something like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It’s hospitals we are talking about here.

With fellow-feeling and a fair sprinkling of common sense as well as some money and determination, every African country should have at least two world class hospitals, which will make it unnecessary – except in very rare cases – for their leaders, and even the commoners, to seek treatment in hospitals abroad.

If there was a world class hospital in Nigeria, Yar’adua will be at home and his countrymen wouldn’t be so angry with his absence from the country. If there were good hospitals in Ghana, there would have no need for Atta Mills to go to South Africa for treatment only to return to Accra to tell us that “Atta Mills has a problem with vision.” One can only hope that whatever problem he has with vision has not affected his ability to look into the future. I pray he sets a good example for other African leaders to follow and he wouldn’t end up dead in a hospital like Cromwell.

If our leaders had been less selfish and half as sensible and forward-looking as they should be all those deaths at Cromwell Hospital in the 1990s, should have prompted them to start having visions of building world class hospitals at home. Sadly, almost 20 years after Cromwell Hospital gained popularity in Ghana, women in labour are forced to walk up stairs in our “premier” hospital, our healthcare system is as sick as the people it’s supposed to treat.

Thus, the Cromwell Syndrome (the malaise that makes it impossible for our leaders to think about fixing our health infrastructure whiles resorting to what others, more sensible, I suppose, have built) afflicts many African nations. As Ghanaians wait to welcome Quarshigah’s mortal remains and as Nigerians demonstrate against the absence of their sickly leader, I can’t help but dream about the day we’d get a lasting cure.

At the beginning of a new week, I wish to express my appreciation to all those who made the end of the last week a happy and enjoyable one for me. Last Friday was my birthday and I was deeply touched by the kindness and thoughtfulness of friends – both new and far.

At the beginning of the day, my colleagues at Joy FM presented me with a TV set I was planning to buy for myself. And it was my favourite brand too – Panasonic. The on-air presentation was a humbling experience for me.

Later in day, Efua Houadjeto of Image Consortium footed the lunch bill for 15 of my favourite people. The food at Foodies (owned by Azumah Nelson’s wife, Peggy) was delicious and we all had a blast (modern slang for ‘fun’).

Earlier, one of my key mentors, Kwaku Sakyi-Addo performed ‘happy birthday’ for me on his saxophone.

It was a sublime moment for me that the legend of Ghanaian journalism serenaded me with a complex musical instrument. He told me later that it had taken him three weeks to rehearse and I appreciated the performance even more. It got me thinking about learning to play a musical instrument. I’m looking at either the guitar or the piano.

Later in the afternoon Eugenia Appiah, who runs Spelling Bee Ghana, bought me a delicious chocolate cake which I shared with my friends at Joy FM. In the evening Eugenia brought together some friends for an adult spelling bee. My group came second in the team competition and I won the individual competition. I had a great time and I wouldn’t mind a rematch. I am thinking of suggesting to Eugenia that the adult spelling bee should be a regular event.

All throughout the day, I received hundreds of text messages and online messages from people I know and those I don’t know, wishing me well and praying abundant blessings on me.

Until last Friday, I’d never been touched in so many ways by so many different people in so many different places on the same day. It was one of the best days of my life. I didn’t want it to end. I am thankful to all those who made it possible with kind words and generous deeds.

Ashanti Regional Minister, Kofi Opoku-Manu, must have smoked some weeds before mounting the podium to address NDC supporters over the weekend. There are few other ways to explain the senseless speech he delivered, urging party supporters to resort to violence to resolve their differences. If he wasn’t under the influence of any hallucinogens, then the man must be in need of serious psychiatric evaluation.

“If you can slap him, do so,” he said in Twi as he lashed out at those whose deeds were threatening the NDC’s stay in power. Comments like these are reckless and irresponsible. You don’t expect a man in Mr. Opoku-Manu’s position to utter them. But he did.

Two days later, he had no recollection of what he had said until a recording was played back to him. That was when he came to his senses, acknowledged his momentous folly and offered an apology, which only came after some big wigs within the government instructed to clear the mess he has created.

“I’ll be the last person to advocate for warfare of any type and having listened to this myself, I must say I really feel sorry,” he said.

But he didn’t stop there. He offered a veiled defence. He claims he was speaking in a “charged environment”, implying that he wasn’t using his head. He was speaking by heart. You could say he was farting with his mouth.

For opening his mouth too wide to spew such dangerous nonsense, Mr. Opoku-Manu has shown himself to be an irresponsible man who doesn’t deserve to occupy the position he does. He must be sacked. And if there is anyone who deserves a hefty slap it is him. That half-hearted apology he offered only after he had been instructed to do so is not enough.

He must go.

If he can speak so recklessly in public and urge his people to go about slapping their opponents, you can only imagine what he tells them in private. In public it is “slap him”, in private it could be “shoot him”. You never know.

If President Mills is really the ‘Asomdwehene’ he loves to be called, he shouldn’t have people like Opoku-Manu working for him. If the president is serious about promoting tolerance, building a united nation and preventing conflagrations like the one in Bawku from spreading to other parts of the country, he should have sacked Opoku-Manu on Monday. It’s not too late, though.

As he celebrates his first anniversary in power, President Mills has another opportunity to show the nation that he’s committed to being a father to all. No responsible father will look on unconcerned as one of his older sons incites the younger ones to slap each other. Opoku-Manu is a nation-wrecker and he must go.