|Definition: Lit. ʻsomething smallʼ, gifts given by politicians to their constituents, also euphemism for a bribe|
|Keywords: Ghana – Sub-Saharan Africa – West Africa – Bribe – Gift – Payment – Favour – Political party – Elections – Euphemism|
|Author: Dagna Rams|
|Affiliation: Université de Lausanne, Switzerland|
By Dagna Rams, Université de Lausanne, Switzerland
|Nokofio (also noko fio and noko fioo) is an expression in Ga, the language of the indigenous population of the Ghana’s capital of Accra. The direct translation is ʻsomething smallʼ. The term describes gift transfers within patron-client relations and in the political life more generally (see also Pozornost', d'akovné, všimné). A politician might distribute small bills of money or bags of rice to his constituents at the end of a meeting. The status of nokofio is a subject of debates – recipients defend it as a benign sign of reciprocity between representatives and their voters, while critics emphasise its degenerative influence on political accountability. Examples of nokofio in Ghanaian media invoke in turns laughs and alarm. Inciting to give nokofio is a subtle art in its own right and includes referring to seniors as ʻdaddyʼ and ʻmummyʼ, casually reminding that ʻit’s Saturdayʼ or that ʻChristmas is comingʼ, and making inviting hand gestures.|
Gift giving is prevalent in Ghanaian politics. According to Lindberg (2003), of the 72 MP candidates for the 2000 elections he interviewed, 57 claimed to have spent above 25 percent of their campaign budget on personalised gifts. Nugent (2007) reports on a candidate purchasing ʻfootballs to win over constituency youth, (…) bottles of schnapps for the chief and pots of wine for the “youth”ʼ (2007: 268). The same person insisted that ʻnobody would vote for a candidate who did not demonstrate his/her generosity in this wayʼ (ibid). A Ghanaian MP for a Ga district was ʻaccused of wining over the youth by handing out nokofio at campaign rallies and other eventsʼ (Paller 2019: 210).
Ghana has returned to multipartyism following the former dictator J. J. Rawlings calling elections and becoming democratically elected president in 1992. Since, Ghana has shown a growing commitment to democratic process and values. Electoral turnout average is 72 percent. This commitment to civic values makes research into the consequences of gift giving difficult, as voters might not want to speak openly about the influence of nokofio on their electoral choices. Lindberg’s (2010) recent study shows that politicians do not monitor whether gifts translate to votes and similarly, Nugent (2007) says ʻmoney cannot literally buy votes under conditions of a secret ballot: at best it can buy goodwillʼ (254-5). A growing number of swing voters demonstrates that Ghanaians are voting on performance and are changing their political preferences. The shifts in power prove that oppositional parties are able to sway elections despite having smaller budgets. The 2016 election that went to the opposition has been decided by the biggest margin in Ghana’s history, almost 10 percent compared to the average of 3.8 percent for the previous elections in 2000s.
The importance of nokofio in political patron-client relations might mark social inequalities in the democratic process. For less affluent voters, gifts represent more gain than for others, and this could mean that the poorest Ghanaians are more responsive to nokofio and thus see their political choice as more circumscribed. Yet the literature urges not to rush into conclusions about the distribution of power in gift-giving relations. Nugent (2007) cites a political candidate complaining about her constituents: ʻ“You go to them and the approach is a sort of a blackmail. If you can’t meet their demands, they tell you the thumb is there. They will definitely not vote for you next time”ʼ (Nugent, 2007: 268). Nokofio is a practice that implicates both givers and receivers – the former for replacing political agendas with individualised gifts and the latter for demanding or accepting this individuation and obscuration of a political contract. The discussion about who is more to blame - givers or receivers - often reaches a stalemate.
Making fun of nokofio is an act of democratic atonement popular with comedians. Comedian Ato Kwamena Dadzie had launched a fake ʻNoko fioʼ party as part of the KSM show. Among the proposals of the party is ʻgiving every Ghanaian a donkeyʼ (although important people will get camels); the President taking ʻat least 40 regular Ghanaiansʼ on all of his international visits so that by the end of the term ʻat least half of Ghanaians would have travelled abroadʼ; and creating jobs by employing young people to clean the dung of the numerous new donkeys. The key criticism that underpins the satire is that nokofio does not fundamentally change anything for the better, but rather gives fleeting moments of satisfaction to individual needs or desires.
Documenting cases of nokofio in broader politics has been key to Ghana’s anti-corruption efforts, perhaps most audaciously spearheaded by the country’s foremost journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas. In his two recent exposés, about national football and the judiciary, Anas secretly filmed several officials taking bribes. Films follow a similar plotline. First, gifts exchange hands at the lowest levels of official hierarchy. Of particular resonance with the public at this stage are two types of bribes – goats and yams – as they result in shenanigans especially poignant on the camera. Goats do not want to cooperate with the bribe takers and heavy yams are not the easiest to move around. Accra’s streets retorted sarcastically to these exchanges: ʻnokofio ni gbomo baayeʼ (ʻsomething small to feed onʼ). As the films progress, the plots reveal acts of corruption and voluminous bribes in the higher echelons of power, implicating high court judges and the President of Ghana Football Association himself. Rather than circulated on the Internet and viewed in the secrecy of one’s private home, Anas’ films are screened in the National Conference Centre located opposite the country’s Parliament. The spectacle arouses mixed reactions. The attitudes of takers invokes laughter – a sly expression at the person accepting the bribe and returning the crumpled envelope in which it came, or accepting a bribe while pretending to sleep – but it also invokes contempt and frustration. The films successfully present nokofio that starts at the peripheries of power as a building block for the overall corruption of the system – and that it is at once comical and consequential.
Nokofio is proximate to another Ga term, kpakpakpa popularised by a man randomly interviewed on Accra’s streets. Once asked about the state of Ghanaian economy, he explains he gets by owing to moving in a ʻkpakpakpaʼ way, which means ʻyou pass here, you pass here, and then you elaborate yourselfʼ. The term is accentuated by man’s hand gestures that suggest frantic movement. For the interviewee, this movement is about buying things in one place and selling elsewhere. This less politically overt sense of nokofio is the subject of a ʻNoko Fioʼ TV series that refers to the term to capture the travails of making ends meet in urban Ghana.
Nugent, P. 2007. ʻBanknotes and symbolic capital: Ghana's elections under the Fourth Republicʼ in Basedau, M., Erdmann, G. and Mehler, A., Votes, Money and Violence: Political Parties and Elections in Sub-Saharan Africa, Uppsala: The Nordic Africa Institute and Natal: University of Kwazulu-Natal Press
Lindberg, S. 2003. ʻ‘It’s Our Time to ʻChopʼ’: Do Elections in Africa Feed Neo-Patrimonialism rather than Counter-Act It?ʼ, Democratization, 10(2): 121-140
Paller, J. 2019. Democracy in Ghana: Everyday Politics in Urban Ghana. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.