Trust in Democracy: A Short History of Confusion in Ghanaian Telecoms


When many people say things like: “democracy isn’t suited to African circumstances” and stuff like that, it is usually because they haven’t really thought carefully about what democracy, qua “democracy”, is meant to do.

Democracy, when carefully analysed, is not a tool for taking efficient decisions. It is not a gearbox for arriving at optimal strategies for governance. It is, instead, a set of “brakes”. It is designed to slow, tamper, and moderate. So that should bad or wicked people take over a country, their damage would be minimal and there would be a way to transfer the reins over to others peaceably. That really is all democracy promises, and in many ways it is best at this. All those who curse democracy have never proposed a better tool for doing this one thing well.

For all the other stuff of governance and development, a country needs other instruments, conditions, and cultures. We sometimes use the word, “institutions”, as a shorthand, though some then quickly abuse the word to mean “organisations”.

Institutions are best thought of as “protocols”, “logics” and “strategic intents”. That is also why they must have “specificity”. Institutions are best when they specialise.

The challenge is that some of the issues that confront a society as it develops cannot be narrowed down to a specific set of goals or even agenda. They seem pervasive. They seem to concern the very ethos and mindset of the people generally. And these kinds of issues therefore transcend institutions.

Some of these “issues” include complex notions such as “democratic trust”, how people come to accept certain rules of equity as indeed “agreed to” even when they don’t fully understand them; and the even more nebulous idea of “intellectual climate”, how we summarise the quality of ideas that set the benchmark for how people think.

The current situation in the Ghanaian “telecoms” sector concerns these two issues: democratic trust and intellectual climate. I will explain briefly. The technical details will be very simplistic, for brevity and clarity sake; bear with me.

We have in place now a kind of “telecoms landscape” that is roughly segmented into three broad, crude, domains:

Content (voice and data)
Services (electronic banking, mobile money, geolocation etc.)
Governance (rules, protocols, standards, accounting etc.)

In all these domains, there are again two broad segments: domestic and international (you can also look at distinctions such as “consumer”, “enterprise” etc, but for this analysis that isn’t necessary).

With this crude background in place, let me explain the “problem”.

Telecom companies carry content from their customers and charge them “transportation fees” or even take a cut of the revenue. They also generate some of this content, and sell to their customers. They also facilitate actual services and charge the service provider a fee. And they produce their own services and sell directly to customers. They may do all this domestically. But occasionally they serve as importers, clearance agents, or export agents. In short, one can look at their business in very similar terms as one would any other business. Sometimes, they are like one of those big fuel transport companies. At other times, they are like TV3, Multimedia or Omnimedia.

The thing is this can breed complexity. Which makes it hard for perfectly fitting analogies to be used. And that in turn means that most people shy away from applying common sense principles to evaluate what happens in the sector. This is a common challenge in democracy. Citizens simply do not have the time to break things up into bite-size chunks, compelling them to “delegate their thinking” to others. This works fine so long as some grand principle of “democratic trust” is active.

The second problem is that political decision makers are not always immune to this same “time-constrained understanding” problem. Just that the illusions of “delegated thinking” prevent them from admitting this. Very often, issues have so many layers that decision makers get lost, and they too have to “delegate their thinking”. They rely on consultants, and “experts” both in the private and public sectors. This should work alright so long as the “intellectual climate” is favourable. That is to say, so long as it is fashionable for hard-thinking and quality ideas to be valued, prized, and rewarded.

When both democratic trust and the intellectual climate suffer a downturn, pandemonium results.

Firstly, we decided that content coming from abroad needed to have a tariff, not very different from how we tax material goods.

Even though this content is clearly “digital” in character. This is akin to saying that making a call from Takoradi to Accra need to reflect the distance, because that is the case when transporting oranges from Tekyiman to Kumasi.

Soon, we began to have doubts about the “shipping companies” who bring the digital goods from abroad. So we went and hired companies like GVG and “delegated the thinking to them” about how to solve the problem. Because digital goods are not like physical goods however, people continued to bypass the gatekeeper we had hired.

So we invented a new problem called “simbox fraud”, and hired Subah to prevent people from bypassing the gatekeepers.

Then we said that SIMbox fraud koraa it is not really about tax revenue per se but about manning the “customs posts” of digital imports and since this is digital importation we are talking about and not physical imports, GRA shouldn’t be calling the shots, it should be the NCA.

So we went and brought Afriwave to come and monitor the “customs posts” through which all digital goods should flow into Ghana. When it was pointed out that there is a huge sea not just around Ghana but also “inside” Ghana called the “internet” so this has nothing to do with manning “customs posts” as the SIMboxers can always “smuggle” the content through any of the numerous inlets and estuaries, we remembered that smuggling is dealt with by the Police. Subah immediately entered into a relationship with the CID and jumped back into the picture.

Then we remembered that this distrust problem wasn’t limited to “imported digital goods”, it also affects domestically produced digital goods. So we asked Afriwave to also start monitoring the domestic trade.

They should build guardposts in between each major telecom company so that digital content passes through them from one network to the other. When it was pointed out that most of the digital goods are consumed within the same network within which they are produced, we changed tact and insisted that even those goods should be tracked, regardless of where they originate or may be going.

Then some smartass quickly saw a loophole. How can Afriwave carry digital goods between the telcos and also be responsible for counting the goods? How? We snapped our fingers, and said, “shegey!”

Then we went back to GVG. But this time GVG, knowing how fickle we are, was happy to partner with Kelni, a “majority owned Ghanaian company”, giving us: KelniGVG.

Subah was then kicked out. So here we are now:

Afriwave takes content generated by MTN customers and pass it on to Vodafone. Then they take content generated by Airtel-Tigo customers and pass it on to Glo. As they do this, KelniGVG tags along, counting every good and fastidiously recording it in the book of judgment.

Then we looked on our handiwork, and we said, “it is good”. And our work was marvelous in our own sight. So we said, but what about the services? Sorry? I mean if they are lying about the goods, surely they can lie about the services too, right? Of course! So we asked GHIPSS to come and be doing.

For electronic money to move from Airtel-Tigo to Vodafone, it has to go through GHIPSS. And to ensure that no one is lying, including the government-owned entity, GHIPSS, KelniGVG will be following every transaction, counting it pesewa by pesewa, dama, simpoa, just like that.

If this is still a little bit overwhelming for you, it is like saying that the only way to trust Papaye to pay the correct amount of tax is to hire people to stand there and count every plate of rice and chicken sold. And the only way to trust Nyaho Clinic to pay the right tax is to sit there and count every patient they operate on. But we are where we are.

What about the people who actually invented most of this stuff that we are copying? Britain, America, South Korea, Germany etc? Why are they allowing “standards bodies” and “industry associations” to build systems for interconnection and interconnectivity? Don’t they know that these telecom companies, unlike say chocolate companies and pharma companies, are congenital liars? How can they trust their standard tax regimes to work when we are talking about digital goods and services here?

And why are they more focused on creating ICT companies that generate truly novel innovations instead of those that make their money counting digital goods and inspecting other people’s services, the majority of which are imported anyway?

If you think carefully before you respond, you would conclude that “democratic trust” and the “quality of ideas” are at play.

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