Categories
Thoughts

The Myth of the Artist

Originally posted on Christina Webber’s blog found here.

Articles were circulating during the height of the pandemic expressing concern for the future of the creative industries. Headlines warned that the cultural sector had been one of the hardest hit by Covid, and that going forward early career artists and entry-level freelancers would struggle to find work. I read those reports and thought: ‘what’s changed’? Of course, the world has changed – and I don’t wish to minimise the impact of Coronavirus both on a human level and economically – but it’s not like we were inundated with opportunities beforehand. I agree that we need to seriously consider how we remodel after the pandemic, and that many inequalities in existing systems have been brought to light by the restrictions faced by the population and the adaptations that were suddenly made possible because the majority of us were in lockdown. A greater focus on accessibility both on and offline should be born from this, allowing for improved flexibility and provision for previously overlooked audiences: those with access requirements, caring responsibilities, chronic health conditions, those unable to travel into city centres, or travel at all. The digitisation of the creative industries through virtual exhibitions, digital engagement activities, remote learning and accurate, immersive translation of ‘in-person’ experiences for those unable to physically take part – all these things were simply not seen as a priority before Covid and now we’re realising how much can be done when the issue of access is paramount. That stuff is hugely important, and great leaps have already been taken. The programme of activity now available for photographers online? The variety offered by institutions like Street Level Photoworks, who have excelled in offering material online? It’s amazing.

But what I want to focus on in this hopefully short-ish text is the need for further adjustments to be made, and to highlight the perpetuated infeasibility of ‘accessibility’ in an industry that at its foundation relies upon unpaid labour, voluntary contributions, and a system of network-based nepotism that biases those able to physically take part and take risks. There is an unwritten assumption that to be a serious photographer you need to be flexible and comfortable enough to put all your energies into something with no guarantee of pay-off. As we move forward into whatever comes next, we should be careful not to misremember a world where exhibitions were always busy, where opportunities for early-career artists (especially those without certain privileges) were bountiful and lucrative, where commissions were commonplace and where early creators felt a freedom to try and fail. The truth is, it’s tricky to be present in this industry.  It’s tricky to consistently turn up. The last 18 months should not eclipse the reality of photography in Scotland pre-2020, merely because a pandemic has seen the bigwigs struggling and the ‘art world celebrities’ are suddenly also without work.

In 2020 I launched a podcast called Finding Focus, recorded shortly before the pandemic hit the UK. As a co-founder of photography critique group Fresh Focus, I speak to a lot of early career artists. I realised talking to my peers that I was having the same kinds of conversations with multiple people and that behind the scenes most other photographers were struggling too. One of the main messages coming through was that we all felt we’d been under some illusion that to be ‘a photographer’ or ‘an artist’ you had to do this with your whole self, you had to make your sole income only from photography, and that to do otherwise or compromise your time and energy in way was a failure. We all felt a pressure to appear professional, active and engaged, and bowed to an unspoken stigma about any pursuit that wasn’t behind a camera, any part of your life that didn’t fit into a specific ‘artist’ aesthetic. Before leaving University I was told to quit my day job by a tutor who I’m sure was well-meaning, but who couldn’t see that that simply wasn’t an option for me. He believed I needed to put everything into photography to succeed. He believed I needed the freedom and flexibility of being unemployed to be able to make it taking pictures. I knew, over £1k overdrawn after paying off my degree show, that that simply wasn’t an option.

Somehow the ‘myth of the artist’ prevails today: someone comfortable, flexible, prodigious, aloof, able to take risks. That’s just not real. In a world of image-makers changing all the time – where zero hour contracts, funding applications, burnout, bloggers, baristas, residencies, pinterest and polaroids exist all at the same time – why does this fantasy survive? 

I think the ‘shiny’ side of social media fuels the fire; confirming for many that the photography industry is full of competent, successful, happy and commercially savvy individuals who are solely making pictures. Scrolling through my feed I see artists with elaborate exhibitions, carefully considered behind-the-scenes shots of studios and work-in-progress, frames in bubble wrap, and desks draped in sunlight. Is this why the myth of ‘the artist’ persists ? The photographers on my feed don’t sweat, or cry, or stand behind a till. I mean they do, of course, but we don’t see it. And when we don’t see it, we don’t feel like we can talk about it. Considering that social media is the primary way a lot of early photographers network, and for many this may be the only space available to interact with their peers, it can take years to learn that actually you’re not the only one working three jobs, or with kids, or caring for a relative, or battling with your health, or struggling. The merging of professional and personal in online avenues creates an auto-biographical grey area, perpetuating the idea that ‘real’ photographers are worry-less, don’t falter, and don’t compromise. We crave professionalism and so we edit. But what does that achieve, really? We need to reclaim this space.  What exists beneath the surface of Instagram feeds and exhibition catalogues is an art world full of multi-faceted individuals with a range of commitments, skills, priorities, backgrounds and careers. Artists that stack shelves, that campaign, that breast feed, that drive trucks, that answer phones, that regularly, repeatedly, get rejected. For some reason all these brilliant bits get blurred out. Both institutions and practitioners are complicit in this bizarre performance. And in ‘real life’ too – it’s easy to assume that the photographers speaking at events and giving masterclasses don’t also have part-time jobs or other commitments because even if they do it somehow still feels taboo to talk about that. We’re encouraged to discuss our successes and not to linger on the hard graft, or the lucky breaks, or the undeniable privilege that got us there. Only once in my life has someone asked at one of these talks ‘where did the money come from?’ and I was ecstatic.

We have a whole generation of artists putting their best faces forward online on the off chance someone might notice them, see their cultivated professionalism and productivity, and invite them to do paid work. Indignation is muted because everyone wants to make a good impression. Nobody wants to challenge anything for fear of  burning a bridge, digital or otherwise, and everyone remains friends. Facebook friends. Nobody wants to be the first person to point out it’s not really working, especially minority groups, for fear of being branded ungrateful or problematic. It’s uncomfortable and it self-perpetuates – we all believe we’re the only one that hasn’t ‘made it’ yet.

It’s not all about money and it shouldn’t be all about money and yet calling it an industry does assume someone is getting paid. I didn’t pay the contributors to my podcast, but I was very clear with them about that. I didn’t make a penny from this, I never expected to. It wasn’t a profit-making enterprise. But equally, this was only possible because at the time I’d lost all my work. I had nothing else to do so I seized something I wanted to exist and squeezed it into the world. And that’s what I mean about access – when nobody gets paid, we’re instead relying on time. It’s either or. You’ve either got money or you’ve got time. Being ‘an artist’ requires both. How can we talk about accessibility without pointing out what a barrier that is?

Who is making money here? Voluntary roles that are necessary for Festivals and Galleries to operate are advertised as exclusive positions or ‘invaluable opportunities’ for which you have to carefully apply. Invaluable opportunities. All this language is doing is  reinforcing the idea that being picked to work for free is a privilege. I’m not saying that these aren’t meaningful experiences but there seems to exist this idea that if you enjoy doing something and care about it you shouldn’t expect to be paid. Again, I didn’t pay my podcast participants. It’s not definitively exploitative to seek voluntary support. But it’s important these relationships are considered as such – as relationships with a give and take – as opposed to an essential part of a business surviving. If an industry doesn’t work without its volunteers it’s not really working. We have to consider the financial machine behind a lot of these institutions as businesses, and recognise where the money is going, because someone is getting paid. At some point a value judgement has been made which acknowledges the vast appetite in early-career artists and understands it’s not necessary to pay these positions because there will always be those able to do this for free. What’s accessible about that? Those with financial support, those with allowances, those who have been able to put the unpaid time aside – everyone with the flexibility and opportunity and privilege to do so will. And all those people that face barriers here: those with access requirements, with caring responsibilities, those who are unwell, those unable to travel – what about them? Accessibility isn’t just about allowing people to view work. It’s about participation too. There are still so many obstacles in place that make taking part, or taking part for very long, impossible. The system acknowledges that there’s an appetite, and takes advantage of it.

How is this going to change? How can practitioners and institutions engineer a different path for young photographers, for those who face barriers in whatever format between their pictures and a platform? I keep coming back to the idea of changing the perception of what an artist is. Proving that often interesting photographic work often comes from individuals with a diverse remit; with multiple priorities of which ‘making art’ is but one dimension. 

So I return to my initial point: to say that the creative industries are ‘in trouble’ seems to be stating the obvious. If we were looking at this as any other business or commercial entity that can’t afford to pay all its staff it would seem outrageous. It’s unfair to assume that making work is dependent on having the time, space and money to work for free and this shouldn’t be all we see. I’m a huge believer in advocacy, in making things happen, in doing things yourself and I don’t want to shovel all of the blame on the galleries, festivals and competitions that likely believe they are doing their best to support practitioners. We’re all complicit in perpetuating the myth of the artist, and it’s a wider issue of course when we start to thinka bout editing our personas online. But let’s talk about this stuff! We can change the way exhibiting photography works, and lockdown has already kickstarted some of that: more paid online commissions, more flexibility in blended on/offline events programming, transparency on where money is going, transparency too on how you get your work seen, or which publications pay contributors, on which galleries commission new work, shared storage for those without space to store materials, an accessibility officer in every institution, listening events with recent graduates and start-ups to see what support is needed in a fast-evolving climate, low-cost equipment hire, low-cost studio spaces, community-building, more paid reviewers, more paid opportunities in general, and fundamentally more space for failure. Not only can we shed the idea that artists are privileged prodigies who sit all day waiting for inspiration to strike but it also makes the work accessible and available to so many more contributors. Those who can only afford to dedicate a day or an hour at a time to making photographs. We are curating an idea of success that just isn’t realistic. Unless we start to acknowledge the problems we’ve always had, pre-Covid as well as now, we can’t enable real change going forward.

By Christina Webber

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Questions

Can We Escape the Male Gaze?

The term ‘the male gaze’ was coined when describing how people interact with media. The concept is that media is usually catered towards what a heterosexual man would find appealing: showing men in a powerful way and women in a sexual way. Women become sexual objects, and their most appealing qualities are those that benefit the male protagonist. This concept has seeped out of the media, and into day-to-day life. Women walking down the street are cat called and their intelligence is devalued in the workplace. This concept is exemplified by the wage gap: women get paid less for doing the same amount of work because their value is seen in their looks, not their intellectual or physical capabilities. Women begin to see themselves as valuable if they are sexually appealing, or can please the straight man. Eating disorders and body image issues permeate women’s lives. Additionally, the male gaze frequently fetishizes other cultures or hypersexualizes marginalized women. However, the feminist perspective emphasizes reclaiming female sexuality.

Sexual liberation is a pinnacle of the feminist movement. For example, as feminism progressed more forms of contraception became available to women and access to abortion is generally widening. Women having sex outside of wedlock is seen less as a sin and dirty and more liberating. Although there is still a stigma against women for having sex that is much less applicable to men, it is progressively dissolving. Where it used to be seen as ‘disgusting’ for women to dress provocatively, many progressive women see that as sexually liberating. There is however a discrepancy in the male and female vision of this. 

To many women, dressing provocatively, and feeling good about the way that she looks is a form of liberation and is not done to please the male gaze. However, when seeing a woman dressed in a provocative way many men assume that she is ‘asking for something’ or dressing to please him. This begs the question, when are a woman’s appearances the consequences of internalized misogyny and when are they reclaiming their appearances? When are women’s positive feelings about how they look related to their own reclamation, and when are they positive because they are pleasing the male gaze? Giving women the freedom to dress as they please and have sex with who they want without shame will allow women to escape the sexual stigma placed on them that is evaded by men. How can we accomplish this without catering to the male gaze? How can we allow for these freedoms without valuing a woman’s worth based on her sexual activity?

Instead of asking women to change the way that they act, a big part of this needs to be educating men and changing pillars of society. For example, if examples are set by this generation that it is unacceptable to view a woman dressed provocatively as a subliminal message that she is seeking to please men, this may erode the stigma for the next generation. Also, if there is more media representation of women in power as well as more representation of women in powerful corporate and political positions, there will be more respect for a woman’s intelligence beyond her physical appearance. Women should continue to dress the way that they please and have sex with whomever they please, however the male gaze itself will not change until these societal changes are implemented. Therefore, despite women’s attempts at reclamation, men will continue to see women as sexual objects until gender roles have a complete overhaul.

by Cora Fagan

Categories
Thoughts

Singing birds in sickness, Sing the same blues songs

The title is poignant, a lyric from the band Song: Ohia in a song called Blue Chicago Moon. Fronted by the late Jason Molina who passed prematurely due to alcoholism, the song like many of those sung by him, is deeply seeded with pain and anguish. It’s a seeming pain of a man who maybe could not fit into the world coming up against its increasing modernity, individualism, free marketisms or ill gotten ways. That in itself is a speculation as to know exactly what went through Molina’s head is impossible.

Singing birds in sickness, Sing the same blues song. This lyric stands out and could be applied to the many voices through the ages that cried out in need of help, in warning, or in pain, repeating the bringing to attention a problem at hand. Those that hear the shouts are very often more willing to suggest its a cry of “wolf” than a true warning. It seems particularly fitting in explaining for the recent unsettling existential dread that seems to hang over us. If the Covid-19 pandemic was a fire alarm regarding our changing world, the latest IPCC report on climate change is the fire in the front room. It is more or less around us, the sickness if you will, whilst those in the know continue to sing the same blues song. Are we to continue ignoring it?

I have struggled recently with this seeming existential dread as some have termed it climate anxiety. I think applying such a label is not helpful and narrows focus to climate change and inaction solely, when in reality it’s a combination of many things, at least in my own case.

For example, I seek out philosophy likely to negate my lack of spirituality, but my lack of spirituality feeds my seeking out nihilism and existentialism in philosophy. The political structures of neoliberalism enforcing a culture of individualism, reinforced particularly in the Anglosphere to the point of stressing ownership of property or a home, and the competitiveness of you against others, reduces the sense of community and belonging.

This combination of commonplace belief systems already weighs heavy on many, specifically a lack of spirituality and neoliberalism, which restricts support, economically, socially and therefore fundamentally mentally. It already places many individuals in a position of apparent futility, broken or unmotivated to begin with, existing and occupied by their black mirrors. Couple this with the inaction over climate change, therefore current and coming disasters (even with dramatic action tomorrow) and you have recipe for a generational anxiety or angst, not solely climate related anxiety.

The so called “climate anxiety” is much deeper, it has many structural causes within culture, society and the economy. But some of us continue to Sing the same blues song, whether about climate, politics, economics, society which seems to fall on increasingly deaf ears, with those around us becoming passive and uninterested. The use of general labels introduces categorisation and therefore grouping of individuals reducing scope for collective action for the totality of our problems. Our song should be loud and in every wording so that is understood by many and not reduced to a few.

By Anonymous

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Questions

What is Terrorism?

Terrorism is without a doubt one of the most elusive and contentious terms in the political lexicon, and the question “what is terrorism?” is situated at the centre of most discourse on terrorism. The existence of multiple definitions of terrorism highlights the indefinite answer to this question and reveals the profound influence of power dynamics in the application of such labels. In many ways, the meaning and significance of terrorism is constructed and determined by the subjective viewpoint of whoever defines it at any given time, which fluctuates depending on the socio-political conditions in which they live, as well as their frame of reference.

Why does this matter?

Terrorism’s lack of comprehensive meaning has not only hindered the possibility for a more analytical and dispassionate approach, but its apparent malleability as a concept has created a vacuity for actors (state and non-state alike) to define what terrorism is according to their unique political and tactical involvements in both the international and internal arena. 

In this way, government bodies and associated terrorism academics are selective about what constitutes terrorism, producing terrorist activity and publicity in a way that functions to serve Western state interests. As Saul (2006) duly states, “the more confused a concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation”.

The Global Terrorism Database (GTD), for example, defines terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by non-state actors to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion or intimidation”. The GTD, which is maintained by the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, notably excludes the significant violence and terrorism that is committed by governments and state militaries, reflecting the selective processes, social biases and power-relations associated with specific interpretations of terrorism.

State-terrorism and the Contra War

Taking a more analytical approach highlights the bias and subjectivity rooted in mainstream perceptions of terrorism supported by Western states and exposes the harmful implications of such a narrow, restrictive conceptualisation of terrorism.

To use a historical example, the Contra War in Nicaragua under the Reagan administration (1981 -1989) is a prime example of U.S. control over the labelling of state-terrorism, which was alternatively defined as “internal defence” and “counter-insurgency” for the purpose of containing the spread of communism. The Contras were a U.S.-sponsored paramilitary group who were armed, trained, and financed by the U.S. to combat the revolutionary left-wing Frente Sandinista Liberación Nationale (FSLN) guerrillas, using tactics such as murder, rape, mutilation, kidnapping, and destruction. 

This supposed U.S. counterinsurgency was described euphemistically by the government as “coercive diplomacy”, yet if terrorism is indeed defined as “the threat or actual use of illegal force and violence”, then why are these acts not labelled as such when committed by the state? Accordingly, Richards states, “one danger is that if terrorism is not so clearly defined, the powers of the state may extend very far indeed”.

During this time, the Reagan administration was involved in a propaganda campaign in an attempt to portray the Contras in a positive light, while covertly funding and encouraging them to use terrorist tactics. This labelling (or non-labelling) of terrorism by the state functioned to align with state-endorsed definitions of terrorism, and these state-sponsored acts of terrorism are described by Chomsky as “a form of low-intensity conflict that states undertake when they find it convenient to engage in war without being held accountable for their actions”. This served to legitimise the actions of U.S. state-sponsored groups and undermine the civilian population and victims of terrorism in Latin America, as well as grant the U.S. acquiescence and detach the state from explicate acts of terrorism. 

What implications does this have for wider society?

Despite the West being the main source of terrorism in recent years, it has managed to deflect the terrorist indictment onto its victims, through construction of semantics that serve its ends, which is largely supported by opinion forming circles (namely the mass media). The Western model of terrorism views the West as an innocent target and victim of terrorism and maintains the view that it only responds to others’ use of violence.

It is clear that power dynamics and subjectivity are heavily entrenched in the usage of the term terrorism. It is frequently used as a pejorative epithet, and its subjective usage has become a notable impediment to achieving a universal definition of the term. The termsterrorism and terrorist hold intrinsically negative connotations and are laden with condemnation that is usually applied to one’s adversaries, seeking to delegitimise their political motives. Hence, the decision to label an organisation or individual as terrorist is an inherently partisan undertaking — definitions of terrorism are entirely dependent on who defines them, who controls these definitions, and why such definitions are used.

The realisation that self-interests and strategic objectives of the state are entangled in mainstream conceptions of terrorism is of paramount importance, and there are countless modern-day parallels to the above example of the Contra War. Most interpretations of what terrorism is are produced by and for the dominant, rendering both victims of state-terrorism and oppressed communities powerless in the construction of alternative discourses. 

The powerful (namely the state) are arguably the most responsible for actions of political violence, but if they maintain purchase on foreign policies and intellectual resources that shape and establish dominant discourses on terrorism, they will do so in their own favour, which affects wider society in both explicit and covert ways. 



References

  • Chomsky, N. (2003) Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  • Global Terrorism Database (2018) Available at: https://www.start.umd.edu/research-projects/global-terrorism-database-gtd
  • Greene, A. (2017) “Defining Terrorism: One Size Fits All?” in International and Comparative Law Quarterly, 66 (2). pp. 411-440.
  • Richards, A. (2013) Conceptualising Terrorism. London: UEL Research Repository.

By Molly Wallace

Categories
Thoughts

Uncertainties of a Beacon of Democracy in Africa

BBC Radio is one of my favourite channels. I love the phone-in-sessions especially World Have Your Say and other personal stories about overcoming difficulties. As I write this piece, I cannot but recollect a BBC Sports program about a certain period of the African Cup of Nations. In that session of the BBC Sports program, there were jokes about the African countries. And this was how the joke went: all African countries meet at a pub and they display their manliness by requesting a smorgasbord of strong drinks. When it was Ghana’s turn, in a quiet voice like that of a child, it said, “Can I have a glass of milk?” This of course set off a round of raucous laughter among the panelists.

The juxtaposition of Ghana to a child, in my view is not necessarily a denigration. It portrays Ghana as pure and innocent. Qualities which sum up the stage Ghana finds herself in several decades surrounded by countries of which have fallen into the very pit of hellish civil war. The kind which Dante would have been proud to use in his “Inferno”. Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Togo; countries that are the immediate neighbours of Ghana have always experienced one form of altercation or another but not Ghana. The consequences of the Liberian civil war exist in Ghana in the form of the Liberia Camp, occupied by refugees who have went through the psychological and emotional trauma of war, refusing to go back to Liberia after two decades. Just as some Liberians found Ghana to be a haven, the children I teach from Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Lebanon, etc. see Ghana as a haven of peace. Ghana indeed has been the most peaceful place in the African continent.

This is not to say Ghana has never had challenges. Like all Africa countries, Ghana has been marked by the indoctrination of European colonialism but has weathered it quite well. Despite that Ghana has not felt the serrating and the destructive effect of the underbelly of civil war (which have been felt by the Rwandans, or Nigerians with Boko Haram, to name but a few). Thus, the comparison of Ghana to a child is apt, an innocence of the devastating nature of civil war.

My fear however is that this child is gradually losing her innocence, the consequences would not be pleasant, thus the trepidation and uncertainties. In 2016, Ghana elected a new political party, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) with Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo as its flagbearer. The previous governing party, National Democratic Congress (NDC) led by John Dramani Mahama, was booted out of office because of the reported canker of corruption. Prior to its election, the then opposition party (NPP) which went on to win the 2016 election, fervently promised to drastically deal with corrupt politicians and act of corruptions. Upon its assumption of office, nothing has changed much, except some would say corruption is at its very peak. Perhaps the words of a Special Prosecutor for corruption, Martin Amidu, (appointed to prosecute all involved in corruption in politics and the economy) that his employer is the “mother serpent of corruption” affirms the horrifying state the country faces.

During the rule of Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo, there were rumours and videos of civilians being trained in military warfare. This was reported by private media. The civilians trained in military tactics were called the Delta Forces. During the 2020 election, it was soon to become apparent why the Delta Forces were recruited and why the government appointed his relatives to the positions of the Electoral Commissioner, the justices, and key functions (who could have put a stop to any fracas the country experiences) in government. Indeed, for four years (2016-2020), the ruling government led by Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo was playing a game of chess with rules the opposition (NDC) was not aware of. The result leading the opposition (NDC) to having their hands being tied, effectively being handed a checkmate.

The civilian militia, Delta Force, had a role to play in the 7th December 2020 election. It is alleged it stole and burnt ballot boxes at opposition strong-hold and put into force other skirmishers which resulted in the death of nine people of which the media reported. This is unheard of in the history of Ghana’s elections. The justices appointed by the government shows clear nepotism and their necessity in the election is clear. The current opposition (NDC) who have disputed the 2020 election are faced with challenging the result of the election in front of judges appointed by the ruling government. On the 6th of January 2021, the Members of Parliament had to propose and vote for a Speaker of Parliament, when the ballot papers were being countered, a member of the incumbent NPP government, tried to do away with ballot papers cast, to have a person of their (NPP) choice as the Speaker of Parliament. To some this is just a confirmation that that the incumbent government led by Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo, rigged the 2020 election. And the very public figures who previously, could have expressed their views concerning the errors in the election have their hands tied, because they have been appointed by the government in several positions and therefore one cannot bite the hand that feeds it. Indeed this is almost admirable; it took foresight, effective planning and the ability to believe in one’s own lies to make this possible.

As a confirmation of the unease the country is experiencing, a movie, “Freedom and Justice” by a Ghanaian actor, dancer, musician, Kobby Rana was banned from its 25th December 2020 debut. A trailer of the movie portrays almost effectively, the corruption that has brought about the snail-pace or even a halt to the progress and development of the country. A country which gained independence at the same period as the likes of Malaysia, to use a comparative measure of development. With all that is occurring, the consequence is an undertone of unrest and uncertainties. Can Ghana continue in the midst of the lies, armed civilian militias (at the detriment of trained and qualified security officers), a disputed election, a government that practices Machiavellian and mafia-like tactics?  Will Ghanaians be willing to unify as the newly sworn in government of the Nana Addo-Dankwa Akufo Addo hopes for in his inauguration speech? Is this beacon of democracy in Africa losing its glow?

by Ali I. M.