The Fat Debate

Posted by By at 3 March, at 08 : 53 AM Print

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From my Archive


The taxi rolled past me before screeching to a painful halt.

“Got no break?” I enquired of the driver. He patted his steering wheel and made no reply.

“La Road,” I said, watching his stern face masked by a Peter Tosh goggles. Another pat on the steering wheel, he gave me a baleful glance before muttering, “Get in.” The door took some opening. I settled into the springy back seat. We traversed the new Odorkor road, rounded the U-turn and nosed our way into the city.

I noticed that most of the shops were closed, and also that the usual traffic hold-ups was not in existence today. “Why are the shops closed?” I asked the driver.

“Glancing another look at his mirror, “Demonstration.” He said.

“Demonstration, where is the demonstration?”

“They have demonstration, that’s why they closed shops.” He elaborated.

“Demonstration is when you go into the street to march, shout, throw stones and destroy things. I see only closed shops, but no demonstration.”

The driver was not impressed with my analysis. He gave no reply. Instead, eyes rigidly fixed on the road ahead, he craftily negotiated his jalopy through the light traffic. As we approached the Kaneshie, I saw several people milling around closed shops. I could take it no longer – I was dying to find out what was going on.

“Please, stop,” I told the driver. He gave no indication of hearing me. I tugged at the back of his shirt and asked him to stop.

“How much do I owe you?”

He muttered some incomprehensible, rapid-fire Twi.

“How much should I pay you?” I repeated the question.

“Odorkor to Labadi is two-five.”

“But we are not in La, yet. We are in Kaneshie, not even close to a quarter of the journey. How much do you want for the journey so far?”

He threw up his hand in great despair, “Masser, you no sey na you call me make I go Labadi. Now you no wan pay. Why, masser?”

The haggling and the wailing took some time, but I finally settled him. I went to one of the cluster of groups on the pavement. The first chap I accosted was a Hausa guy who promptly dismissed me with, ‘I no speak.” The next fella, a barrel-chested, heavy-muscled man with Iron Mike menacing looks was more communicative.

“Demonstration against the evil ‘FAT’.” He answered my question of why they closed their shops. I walked and sat him on one of the long benches.

“What is so odious about the VAT?” I enquired.

He gave me a withering look, “Everybody knows that the FAT is bad.”

‘Excluding me. I don’t know why it is bad. Economics has never been my strongest points. That’s why I’m begging guys like yourself, who are knowledgeable enough to understand its nitty-gritty, to please explain its mysteries to uninitiated like myself.” I beseeched him. He seemed genuinely flattered by the flattering.

“The FAT is just too bad.” He analyzed mysteriously. That didn’t help me much, and I told him. He seemed genuinely at a loss about what to do with me. He’s accepted my flatter that he’s knowledgeable about the nitty-gritty of economics, ego alone will not allow him to leave me without, at least, debating the fine points.

“Most of the shops seem to be closed…” I said, offering him an avenue within which to wriggle.

“Yes,” he took the bait, “you see that all, all of the shops are closed.” He merely repeated what I said. ‘Everyone knows that the FAT is a bad thing.” He offered as a way of explanation. I wasn’t satisfied and I told him so. I tried not to appear to him as too aggressive, just a plain moron seeking knowledge.

‘Government has put 17.5% FAT on every item in the shop. So, prices go up about five times increase. People no come shops.” He said ungrammatically.

We both knew that he was exaggerating – most of the surveys show a three-fold increase.

“17.5%!” I exclaimed. “That’s just too much.” I was trying to encourage him.

He liked it. Smiling broadly like a man who’d just won a lotto, he explained, “Now, my friend, you see why it is bad?” He smiled again, triumphantly.

“Is it the principle of VAT you’re protesting against, or the high 17.%” I asked him.

“Both.” He shouted automatically. “FAT is not good for business, and the 17.5% they put is just too much for everybody. So, they are both bad…” He was so convinced of his arguments that he acknowledged it with broad smiles.

“Will you for argument sake, accept a lower figure, say 10% or even 5%?”

“No way, Ghanaman no go gree. The government must go. They too bad.”

Now we are moving to a new and potentially dangerous grounds. I tried to steer him back to the VAT issue. He was adamant. VAT and bad government are just two sides of the same bad coin. They must both be scrapped.

“What,” he exclaimed without prompting, “they too bad.” It was hard for me to understand which of the issues he was talking about.

“Maybe that’s why they are in government?” I tried to placate him.

He laughed sardonically. That is one of the enigmas about the Ghanaian – in the midst of fiery debates, they retain their broad smiles. His teeth were strong and very white. “You mean to tell me that only bad people go to the government?”

I dodged the trap. “No, I don’t mean that. What I mean to say is that the world over, people think that they have the worst government. I asked you to explain to me why you’re protesting against the VAT. Disappointingly, you’re unable to do so. I really have credited you with much intelligence. I saw the whole bunch before coming to you. You appeared to me as the most responsible and the most intelligent among the lot. Or do you have a problem explaining it to me?”

He was thoroughly confused with my castigating him in one breadth and praising him the next. He suffered from the same ailment that afflicts the masses all over the world. Beyond writing wall- graffiti and bombastic sloganeering, they’re incapable of moving the arguments a debate forward. This incapacity is well recognized by those who made it their business to study mass- psychology. It is also well known to politicians who use it to score political points.

My opponent appeared to be a well-liked local champion – eight out of ten people that passed by wave him a greeting. He acknowledged them all. A real political animal, if ever there was one.

The direct question registered the desired effect. He stroked his young mustache. “I have got no problem,” he said, looking very grim. “The FAT is bad. The government is bad. That’s why it must go.”

“‘IT’!” I exclaimed. “The government or the VAT? We appeared to be moving in circles.” I didn’t try to hide my irritation.

He ran his large eyes on me. “I’ve already explained to you why the FAT is bad. I also told you why the government is bad.” He said, looking very sour.

“You did no such thing.” I retorted very sharply. “You told me that both the government and the VAT were bad. You did not explain to me why. An explanation is exactly what I was looking for when I came to you. As a highly-educated man, I don’t expect you to be telling me what I can get from taxi drivers and trotro mates.” I said, promoting him from an ‘intelligent’ man to a ‘highly-educated’ one. It was obvious from his countenance that he’d no idea how to deal with me.

“What exactly do you want then?” We’re back from where we started. I calmly explained to him what I was seeking, adding: “Is the VAT directly affecting your business negatively. Since you’re just tacking the VAT onto your buying prices, I thought it is the consumers, the end-users, who should be protesting, not you shop-owners. Or, am I missing the big picture? I said, offering him a wide berth to wriggle through. He jumped at the opportunity with alacrity.

“You’re mistaken there,” he bellowed. “It is not only the end- users who are adversely affected. We are also affected in a very direct way. We, sellers, are bearing the opprobrium that should be directed against those irresponsible leaders in government. The buyers see us as a bunch of pound-of-flesh-demanding-shylocks bent on piling more troubles on their already heavy burden. The government dumped on us a hasty, ill-conceived policy. They have all the resources to educate the people, they chose not to. What do we retailers know about FAT to explain to our customers?” It appears that my opponent would not let go now that he’s found his tongue.

“If I understand your position correctly, you retailers have taken it upon yourself to protect the consumers. Is that it?”

He missed the sarcasm. “Precisely.” He intoned like a man who feels the excitement of a triumph.

I decided to shoot him down. ‘Isn’t that a bit dubious, considering the fact that you have never missed an opportunity to jerk up your prices at the slightest provocation? When and how did you discover a conscience that turned you into consumer advocates? Is your case not like that of a hawk taking up the case of the chickens? What is in for you? Please don’t assault my intelligence by saying that you’re motivated by nothing but noble altruism.”

His expression has shifted to outright hostility. “Are you among those who believe that we retailers are nothing but blood-sucking vampires, or are you a government agent?”

“No, I am neither. I am merely a curious fellow seeking answers to issues that perplex me. I merely asked you what is in the struggle for you. I refused to buy the argument that you’re fighting to protect the consumers. Are you in any way threatened by the VAT?”

“Me,’ he cried. ‘I am not afraid of anybody.” He boasted and beat his chest for emphasis.

“I am talking economics and not physical prowess. Are you financially threatened by the VAT?”

“Of course, we all are. Who isn’t? We shop-owners have to increase our prices because of FAT. But our competitors, the street-hawkers, and all those lazy bastard who left their farms to come and sell Korean dog-belts on the streets of Accra can keep their prices down since they do not have to pay FAT. They are attracting our customers away. Now you know why the government is bad?”

He demolished his otherwise impressive argument with the last linkage. “Now I understand why the VAT is bad for your business, I still don’t see how that translate into bad government.”

“Man, he be like sey you be government agent, sef.” He cast suspicious glances around to ensure that we’re truly alone.

I made no attempt to deny his silly accusations.

“You see,” he caterwauled, “instead of the government arresting all those street urchins, those traders for day, armed-robbers for night bastards, and shooting all of them, they are allowing them to take over our business. We are the only legit people. We are the ones that rented the shops. Who pay the taxes? We. Those bastards on the road,” he was getting agitated, “those swarms who are disgracing their country, selling every description of junks from Asia and Europe. Those lazy-bastards do not rent shops, they pay no taxes. They have no respect for themselves or for their country. What will the visitors coming to our country think when they all those muscles wasting away on the highways? Which self-respecting man will go on the streets running after cars to sell dog-collars when he can rent a shop. Now you know why the government is bad?”

Before I could reply, he left me and rejoin his group.



About the Author 

Femi Akomolafe is a passionate Pan-Africanist. A columnist for the Accra-based Daily Dispatch newspaper and ModernGhana, and Correspondent for the New African magazine, Femi lives in both Europe and Africa and writes regularly on Africa-related issues for various newspapers and magazines.

Femi was the producer of the FOCUS ON AFRICANS TV Interview programme for the MultiTV Station.

He is also the Man and Machine Coordinator at Alaye Dot Biz Limited, a Kasoa-based Multimedia organization that specializes in Audio and Video Production. He loves to shoot and edit video documentaries.

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