Tamale Debate Reveals Candidates’ True Presidential Characters

Sat, 15 Nov 2008 Source: Danquah Institute

The real value of the latest IEA debate was difficult for voters to put their finger on prior to the event itself. Wouldn’t it just be a re-run of the Accra debate which preceded it? What more could we learn from watching the candidates restate their positions and reaffirm their characteristics, surely familiar to the vast majority of people by now? The answer came loud and clear on Wednesday night in Tamale.

The novelty had gone. The unfamiliarity of the candidates with the format, and of viewers with the candidates, which had so influenced the reaction to the first event was replaced with an opportunity to make a genuine comparison of the candidates. This time, there were none of the distractions and curtailments of the first debate. Rather each of the candidates knew what to expect and so could make their case without distraction. Even the organisers had learnt some lessons, as the format and moderation were noticeably conducive to a substantive debate of ideas. And how different the picture seemed this time around.

Paa Kwesi Nduom found praise after the first debate for his light and entertaining manner. Certainly, his pithy performance added to the entertainment factor. Without the shock of the new to soften its edges, however, he knew that this time he would have to reveal a foundation of sound policy leadership to contrast with the bells and whistles of his stylish delivery. Arguably though, his performance in the first debate caught up with him on Wednesday evening as statements and summary positions which were meant to be taken seriously were interpreted as jokes by the audience and moderators alike. Indeed, the CPP candidate visibly struggled with the decision whether or not to accept and enjoy the warm laughter that greeted every utterance of his mantra, “we are where we are”. He seemed to be aware that to do so would be to abandon the goal his advisers will no doubt have set him following the first debate – adding presidential gravitas and mastery of policy to his enjoyable turn in Accra.

The reverse was the situation facing the NPP candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo. His performance in the first debate left no one in doubt as to his grasp of the issues, nor of the rigor with which the NPP legislative programme was scrutinized prior to publication in the election manifesto.

But there was certainly a feeling that the performance in Accra of Dr Nduom in particular made the other candidates seem by comparison ill at ease with the softer requirements of a debate such as this. The presidential debate is not just an audition for the role of governing, it also asks the candidates to show they can be the personal embodiment and representative of the values of the Ghanaian people.

To those who know him, Akufo-Addo is a remarkably good natured and personable man. But throughout his professional life he has often had to separate his personal qualities from his professional persona. After all, would Ghanaians have been as comfortable with an Attorney General who could make them laugh, or one who could remain unambiguously professional when dealing with issues such as the repeal of the Criminal Libel laws which for so long hamstrung Ghanaians’ freedom of expression? And would Ghana have gained the confidence of the international donor community in anything like the way it has if the man at the helm of the Foreign Affairs Ministry had not been able to convince them of his single-minded respect for their concerns?

Akufo-Addo has had to learn quickly that, compared to being Foreign Minister or Attorney General, to be President requires a greater projection of personality, even as it offers graver powers and responsibilities. His performance in the second debate was that of a man who learns fast. He remained in total control of the issues surrounding the policy agenda, but at the same time was relaxed and confident in allowing his vitality and personality to shine through.

But the debate also gave us an opportunity to get behind the candidates’ campaign promises and manifestos. On Wednesday we were treated to the sight of the candidates being asked to summarise complex positions in seconds, without knowing in advance what they would have to speak about, nor what one another might say. It was an enlightening experience, for example, to hear the NDC’s Professor Mills’ claiming that his idea of an affordable home is one that could be paid off out of a worker’s salary in four years. The NDC will now have to come forward and clarify, either that Prof. Mills is so out of touch with the purchasing power of an average Ghanaian, or that his vision of an affordable home is one that is so spartan that it can be paid for in a matter of months.

That was probably an example of a long standing policy which did not stand up to much scrutiny. On the other hand, there were messages which seemed to have been made up on the spot – enlightening, but in a very different way. For example, the PNC’s Edward Mahama’s view of government’s role in the private sector. “Businesses are like a fish,” he said, “you have to feed them.” Whether this was part of an extended metaphor that never reached the surface or simply an off the cuff remark, it was still instructive for viewers who were looking to these answers for hints of the skills each man would bring to the presidency. As expected from the CPP’s Paa Kwesi Nduom, there was a long list of grand-sounding subsidies, with the notable absence of any revenue generation plans to pay for them.

More concerning than either of those examples was the apparent effect of peer pressure on some of the candidates. It was a shock, for instance, to hear Professor Mills reverse an NDC manifesto pledge to continue with the appointment of District Chief Executives, seemingly on a whim. After hearing the other candidates endorse a review of the practice to consider directly elected officials at District level, Mills caved in and agreed that this would benefit Ghanaian democracy. It leaves one wondering whether he had not thought through the policies that went into the NDC manifesto, or whether he has so little confidence in his own party’s positions that he is willing to drop them without consideration live on television.

If anything, Nana Akufo-Addo, the NPP’s candidate, was guilty of omitting details of some of his programme’s more ambitious plans, although that was understandable given the time constraints of the debate format. His intention, for example, to raise Research & Development spending from 0.5% of GDP to 5% will be welcomed by everyone from public universities to private business. That he did not lay out the mechanisms by which his government would achieve this obviously means that praise for the plan is conditional. The difference that Akufo-Addo can legitimately point to, however, is the NPP government’s record of following through on such promises, and his own reputation as a man who has the ability to get his head around the detail of a policy and summarise the big picture for others.

Akufo-Addo’s performance has rightly been praised for showing the requisite blend of personality and policy. However, Ghanaians might just as likely remember the way he adapted to the unique challenges of the debate format following the first event. It is this ability to take on the lessons of past experience which looks likely to influence the thinking of millions of Ghanaians as they go to the polls in December.

Ross Fitzgerald Public Affairs Specialist Danquah Institute

Columnist: Danquah Institute