In communication studies, there is a theory called Agenda-Setting. It is when the media keep raising a particular topic/issue to the top of national discourse.
Students of communication studies would therefore do well to follow how one subject – the Electronic Transaction Levy or E-levy – has set the national agenda for discussion since November 2020.
The e-levy’s agenda-setting impact has been felt in all parts of the country – and very much so in Parliament where parliamentarians engaged in hot blows, with one even using a sharp object on another member… leading to him being injured.
Since the Fourth Republic started, one issue I have not ceased talking about is the failure of both the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and National Democratic Congress (NDC) to communicate effectively about their policies and achievements.
It was the NDC’s inability to communicate effectively that contributed heavily to sending them into opposition in the 2000 and 2016 elections. And as if the NPP were not in the country, they could not learn any lessons from that – hence they failed to effectively communicate President J. A. Kufour’s eight years outstanding achievements, including several social intervention policies which really helped the poor in society. As a result of this, the NPP suffered defeat in the 2008 elections.
Since assuming office again in 2017, the NPP has lacked effective communication of its policies and achievements, especially the achievements made during the first term of President Nana Akufo-Addo – particularly fulfilling the major election promise of Free Senior High School, despite the teething problems of which some are still present. The NPP failed woefully to communicate achievements of the Akufo-Addo government’s first term; and this, in addition to the party’s unfair treatment of some parliamentary candidates – including the imposition and protection of some, massively led to the party losing 32 seats in the 2020 elections. This same loss of majority in Parliament led to the party’s candidate for the speakership losing out.
One would have thought that for all these years the NPP and government would have learnt lessons and therefore would up its game and adopt effective communication strategies to bridge the gap between government and the people. This would have ensured that its achievements and major policies would be effectively communicated to the people to gain their trust and support. However, recent events have shown that no lessons have been learnt.
Many a time, political parties in our part of the world believe that their members who can speak the loudest and with the most acerbic tongues are those to be entrusted with their communication. We have seen many in the NDC and also the NPP – square pegs in round holes, but with the most acerbic tongues – whom the president described as babies with sharp teeth.
One thing I know about all the ministers in government is that they have public relations or communication officers. But the questions to be answered include: are those occupying such positions the right ones in terms of knowledge, expertise and experience; and if they are the right people, do the ministers value their advice or input on what they should say or not say; how and when to say or not to say what they plan to say? One clear thing is that the current government has failed woefully with its communication – perhaps the weakest we have seen under the Fourth Republic.
There is this misconception by many politicians and others that mass communication can be done by anyone who eloquently speaks one language or another. But this is completely wrong.
Mass communication – the act of relaying information from a person, group of people or an organisation including government, to the public or a segment of the public – is a professional venture. Thus, communication as a profession is effectively practiced by those who understand its theories and models, especially in the case of government, the media’s agenda-setting theory and how best to use it.
On November 17, 2021, the Minister of Finance, Mr. Ken Ofori Atta, in presenting the 2022 budget statement in Parliament, announced the introduction an E-levy to be charged on mobile money payments, bank transfers, merchant remittances and inward remittances above GH₵100. Since then, it has become the main topic on the national agenda, and the reason is that communication of the new tax was poorly done. Even what the tax covers or not is still unclear to many Ghanaians.
The plan for communicating the new tax should have been made somewhere in the early part of last year and handed to communication experts to take up communicating it to the country. In the absence of an effective communication, many Ghanaians have been fed the wrong information by both government spokespersons with divergent and confusing messages, and others who because they are against the tax are giving their own explanations to win the people to their side.
Peter Drucker, an Austrian-American management consultant and educator, argues that “the most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said”, and this is exactly what has happened. The poor communication of the E-levy to the people of Ghana has resulted in many hearing what hasn’t been said.
Following the controversies surrounding the E-levy, government has now realised its failings in effectively communicating it to the people. The Minister of Finance is now moving round the country doing townhall meetings to do what should have been done long before introducing the new levy – communicating to the people. It’s like what our elders would say: defeathering the bird before taking it to the old man to identify it.
But despite the townhall meetings, there are still some communication problems – as too many NPP members and government officials keep making contrasting statements on what the E-levy will do. Even some of the ministers joining the Finance Minister in his townhall meetings are not communicating; they are only creating semantic noises (word choices that are confusing and distorting what the experts are saying) without answering the questions put out by Lasswell (1948): “Who says what in which channel to whom with what effect?”
At the Tamale townhall meeting, the Ghana News Agency (GNA) reported that even after Mr. Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, Minister of Information, had assured mobile money vendors that the E-levy would not collapse their business, some participants said they were not convinced by the arguments he and other ministers had made. One Alhassan Seidu, a mobile money vendor, told the GNA that Mr. Ofori-Atta “could not assure us that the E-levy will not collapse our business”.
Even the NPP’s Director of Communication, Yaw Buaben Asamoa, is not effectively communicating in answering the most pressing questions people are asking. He said in Kumasi recently that: “The e-levy will serve as a catalyst for private sector investment, both local and foreign, into productive areas”. How does this statement answer, for instance, questions about accountability the people are asking?
While the Finance Minister is appealing to Ghanaians to accept the E-levy, his deputy, Abena Osei Asare, says Ghanaians are not against the levy and that government will ensure the bill for the levy is passed it. What makes her that sure; and if it is that easy, why has government not passed it? Also, the New Juaben South MP, Michael Okyere Baafi, has asked Ghanaians to change their mobile networks if the E-levy makes their mobile money (Momo) transaction charges high. He has also stated that if Ghanaians reject the E-levy, government will scrap the Free SHS. These kinds of statements simply smack of arrogance from government and its communicators.
And on use of the revenue to be accrueed from the E-levy, we still do not know what precisely it will be used for as each government spokesperson gives one target or another. For instance, Ms. Osei Asare says government is “going to use some to reduce our elevated debt levels which came about as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic” – a clear addition to what her boss has said. Also, whereas the Finance Minister says only two percent of Ghanaians pay tax, the NPP Western Regional Secretary, Charles Bissue, says it is four percent.
The Majority Leader and Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Osei Kyei Mensah-Bonsu, and his deputy, Alexander Afenyo-Markin, have also made contradictory statements. Afenyo-Marking announced an impending withdrawal of the tax only for Kye-Mensa-Bonsu to contradict him.
Generally, mass communication should aim at persuading people to make changes in their beliefs, opinions and how they think about issues. Therefore, effective communication entails focusing on the entire communication process; not just the content of the message, but also considering potential barriers at several stages which can keep one’s intended audience from receiving the message.
I wish our politicians would see communication to be as important for government as much as they see fiscal and all other important policies.
What’s currently missing is an effective communication strategy; a two-way process that has clear messages presented through appropriate platforms, designed for the diverse Ghanaian audiences – and most importantly at this stage, shared by trusted people. What government needs currently is a long-term strategic communication plan whose success depend on the creation and maintenance of public trust, which is presently missing.
One of the biggest problems facing government now is how to convince the Ghanaian people to believe there will be proper accountability, transparency and effective usage of taxes collected. So, why can’t the people now be told some of the projects undertaken in the last five years, how much they cost, and the sources of their funding? This will quickly raise credibility and trust levels.
In 1995 the NDC government introduced the value added tax (VAT), meant to replace both sales and services taxes. The public rejected the new tax’s introduction, arguing that it would create inflationary pressure on prices. Despite nation-wide protests including the famous Kumi Preko demonstrations, the tax was introduced and operated for about two months before it was stopped. Following that, an intensive national education campaign was undertaken and VAT was eventually reintroduced in 1998 without protest.
As the situation is, my appeal is for government to suspend introduction of the E-levy and continue engaging all stakeholders and much of the general public on the need for the levy. Withdrawing the E-levy now and engaging the public over it will enable government to smoothly re-introduce it at a later date, as happened with the introduction of VAT.
The author is Media and Communication Consultant & Political Scientist. Author’s e-mail: [email protected]