A Place for the President to Lay His Head

Tue, 30 Aug 2011 Source: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi

Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng

The recent spat over the President’s Regimanuel “mansion” or “security outhouse”, depending on who is telling the story, highlights a very simple issue, which is where the president of this republic must officially reside and work. This is a historic problem, but currently framed in the inevitable NDC-NPP rivalries. References to presidential residences are often limited to the tenures of Messrs Rawlings, Kufuor and Mills who all have had “issues” with their presidential living arrangements, but the matter goes much further than present politics would suggest.

In fact, the question of where the nation’s leaders live has never been settled which is why we have these periodic bouts of embarrassment over presidential residences. Kwame Nkrumah lived in a house in Accra New Town when he was Leader of Government Business” and shared power with the Governor between 1951 and 1957. He worked at the Castle but did not live there; Christianborg Castle at Osu was the home of the Governor. When he became President Nkrumah turned Flagstaff House, which had been the headquarters of the Army into his presidential palace where he had his office and residence. He also built the Peduase Lodge as an official retreat and a place to receive foreign dignitaries. Older citizens recall that none of the following heads of state and government lived in an official residence: General Joseph Ankrah, General Akwasi Amankwah Afrifa, President Akuffo-Addo, Prime Minister Prof. K. A. Busia, General Kutu Acheampong, General Akuffo, Flt Lt Jerry John Rawlings, Mr. Hilla Limann, Mr J. A. Kufuor and now Professor John Atta Mills who, like others, shares his time between the Castle and his own house.

In effect, in a country steeped in traditional cultures revolving around palaces and their occupants there is no officially designated place for the leaders of the nation and their families to lay their heads. This contrasts sharply with the practice in most countries where the official residence of the nation’s leader is either coded into law or steeped in convention and cannot be changed at whim. Some of the most famous residential addresses in the world fall into this category including the White House (USA), 10 Downing Street (UK), Aso Rock (Nigeria), State House (Liberia), the last two being in our own West African neighbourhood. It had been hoped that this problem would be resolved from 2009 but the NEW Flagstaff House remains free of the presidential presence, and so we have to say that there is still no properly designated presidential palace. The question is, why?

Part of the answer is history, part is security and the third could be politics. The state being a seamless and continuous entity, one government simply carries on from the last and it is convenient just to carry on also where the last one functioned. The sheer volume of work in relocating a presidency must be a deterrent to making the move. In 1951 the African Administration shared government with the colonial government which retained important portfolios of defence, foreign affairs and the Interior. Therefore, naturally, Nkrumah had to share the Castle working space.

The move by Nkrumah to Flagstaff House was strategic and tactical for political and security reasons. The Castle, with its associations with colonialism and slavery was not the ideal working space for a radical pan-Africanist, and it was also said to be rather unsuitable for doing presidential business. In addition, apart from escape by sea, a leader under attack would not have the open ground that the location of Flagstaff House afforded. Furthermore, Osu did not have the space to house the presidential guard that developed opposite the Flagstaff House. (In today’s overcrowded Accra, these advantages are seen as serious handicaps for the place to house the presidency, of which more later). Nkrumah’s successors, who overthrew him chose not to work at Flagstaff also for political and security reasons. They were soldiers more comfortable at the Barracks, and largely detested Flagstaff for its associations with Nkrumah and the CPP. On returning to civilian rule in 1969 both Dr. Busia and Mr. Akuffo-Addo, who was a ceremonial president, worked at the Castle, although Busia, who was not a head of state, had to travel daily from his Odorkor residence outside Accra to work, braving cruel abuse from political opponents who took vantage positions along his route.

The idea of a permanent home for the country’s leaders, if it was ever on the cards, evaporated completely with the overthrow of the Busia-Akuffo-Addo government in 1972 because the National Redemption Council men who took over power were of pure military stock with no pretensions to civilian oversight of any sort, and that included consolidating the ascendancy of the barracks. These were the men who supervised the caning of civil servants for coming to work late. For them, ruling the country from the Burma Camp was both a matter of honour and an article of faith. The Supreme Military Council that took over from the NRC in a palace coup was even more conservative in drawing a clear line between the military and civilian regimes; for them living away from the barracks would have amounted to abandoning their first principles. In all of the above cases, the bottom line was politics and security, which we ought to have confidently assumed to be resolved, or resolvable with the return to civilian democratic rule in 1992, except that with Flt Lt Rawlings still in charge and he had long established his comfort zone – a combination of the Castle, Gondar Barracks and his Ridge residence. The nation ought to have drawn the line after Rawlings and insisted that the President, whoever he or she was, being the first Servant of the people had to live in a place designated as the Presidential Palace. Alas, no such place was prepared or proffered and so Mr. Kufuor opted to stay at his own house and trek daily to work at the Castle. In the second half of his eight-year tenure, Mr. Kufuor turned his attention to this problem and secured financing from India to build what many hoped would be a permanent seat of government for Ghana. In his last weeks in Office, the former President made a great show of what his government chose to call Jubilee House, the choice of name signalled that this house was not built on a politics-free foundation; in 2007 the NDC members of Parliament, then in opposition, stormed out of the House during the final debate on the loan for the presidential palace.

Today, part of the palace, renamed Flagstaff House, houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after its own offices were razed in a fire. Experts say the new place is not suitable for use as a presidential palace as it is situated rights smack in a traffic zone and close to a major road and shares a wall with the French Embassy. Furthermore, they point out that much of the interior work in the residency is either uncompleted or not fit for purpose.

Of course, no one can force President Mills or any president to live in a house he does not want, but this country has to go past the indignity of its chief executives being officially homeless and leaving them to make embarrassing compromises on their residential arrangements. If Flagstaff House is unsuitable let us agree to build a new acceptable palace or for ever declare that the colonial Castle will remain the official residence and offices of the Presidency so that anyone wanting to be president would know that it is part of their responsibility to live there.

As for the almost empty Flagstaff House it would make a lovely national arts house which can host galleries, museums and various bits of our national heritage. With its iconic shape and situated in a very accessible place and in potentially lovely grounds, such an arts house would be the centre of tourism to Accra; at the moment there is no such place. Think of the Louvre in Paris or the National Gallery in London. We would be up there with the best of them and this house, currently unloved by a large part of our population could be a unifying symbol and will, with time, pay its way in the world.



Columnist: Gyan-Apenteng, Kwasi