By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor
July 15, 2011
I know that what I have set out to do in this opinion piece will definitely incur the displeasure of die-hard NPP followers who don’t want to hear anything contrary to what they have in mind about their party and its Presidential Candidate. To such fanatics, who regard Akuffo-Addo as a sacred cow, any attempt by anybody to point out his dark spots is a sacrilege that must be met with an “all die-be-die” attitude (insults and vain threats of physical attacks). They are quick to hurl insults at anyone who dares to see their sacred cow differently as if doing so will erase those dark spots. I have developed a tough skin for their insults and will go ahead to tell them what I have noticed as a problem for their Akufo-Addo as he goes round on this grassroots campaign tours. If for nothing at all, I am glad to see him descend from his high horse to walk among, talk to, and eat and drink with the common people in their localities. His choice of this strategy to reach out to the electorate and appeal to them for their votes in next year’s polls is appropriate even though it has its peculiar characteristics for us to examine. I will do so with particular emphasis on the person using this strategy, not necessarily the strategy itself, and explain what I consider to be the negative ramifications.
My intention is to point out some dark spots in the user and to throw more light on why his choice of this method may make or mar his political fortunes at the polls. I do so with a clean conscience and will not regard as worth my bother any bad-mouthing by those who have already steeled themselves against seeing anything contrary to their own self-righteous perspectives.
When politicians become desperate for political power, they go to all lengths to make their aspirations obvious. Some force to speak the language of the people; others adroitly interject their political speeches with common sayings from the language of the people in communities that they visit; some wear attires common in the localities; others surround themselves with public figures who sway public opinion in the various communities they visit; and some resort to physical acts such as participating in cultural festivals (drumming and dancing) or donating items to support community projects and programmes.
Yet, others resort to outright bribery and corruption. Let’s not forget that some profusely make promises while others choose blackmail to bulldoze their way through the electoral field. In many cases, it is not difficult to know that most do things that betray their hidden motives.
Ghanaian politics has examples of such political jingoism. Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah is known for identifying with the common people (“the Verandah Boys/Girls”) and even wearing the smock whenever he was visiting Northern Ghana. He really was politically astute enough to know how to entice the people. As a commoner himself, he knew how to seamlessly relate to the common people. No one can begrudge Jerry Rawlings for raising the stakes in this political game. He has done more to endear himself to the common people in their local communities than words can describe. At a time when he wore a smock on a foreign tour, his critics condemned him for demeaning the Presidency. I repeat that no Ghanaian Head of State has yet succeeded in beating Rawlings to it in this game of identifying with the people, whether in mannerisms, communal labour, or other associated human gestural behaviour. No wonder he is still on people’s lips as a down-to-earth leader who empathizes with the people.
His approach made it possible for him to know whatever rumours were doing the rounds in the country or anything else bubbling in the grapevine. He knew when his opponents in Kumasi began their chorus of “Akonta be si fam” (“Our in-law will lose power”) because he had many channels through which to either reach out to the people or to be reached by them. Otherwise, how could he have stayed on the throne for almost 20 years? He may be condemned for other things but not this natural propensity to be in touch with the common people.
Others have sought ways to reach out to the people, especially the eligible voters, through such grassroots connections. The difference between them (and what they do or how they do it) is that unlike the Nkrumah or Rawlings approach—which is natural and unfolds smoothly— theirs is easily discernible as unnatural, forced, deceptive, and temporary. Theirs is easily seen as a political gimmick aimed at only one specific objective—to grab the unwitting people’s vote at election time and return to the ivory tower.
The problem with such an approach is that it is underlain by a selfish personal motive. It is regarded as a spontaneous act that has arisen because of the dire need by the user for the people’s goodwill. This is where the problem lies for what I have noticed about Akufo-Addo’s campaign strategy at the grassroots. Where has he been all these years not to know that he needed to descend from his high horse to interact with the common people but wait for the electioneering campaign period to do so?
Akufo-Addo comes across as overly desirous of becoming Ghana’s President. His public posturing and utterances reveal him as someone who regards next year’s elections as his for-the-taking. I don’t blame him because at his advanced age, and considering the fact that he had once stood on Mount Sinai and seen the milk and honey flowing in the valley close to the Promised Land but missed reaching there at the 2008 polls, he must do all in his power to avoid a second electoral disaster.
More importantly, he is certainly the favourite among the NPP’s bigwigs and his choice at the party’s congress to contest the Presidential elections again is a clear demonstration of the trust reposed in him to return the party to power. He had fought and failed twice in 1996 and 1998 to be the party’s flagbearer; and losing the 2008 elections by a whisker is something he will not want to forget easily.
Thus, if he fails to win the 2012 elections, he will be forced to abandon his quest. He would have become too old and worn out, if not broken down, to lead the party again. He can’t cheat Nature. That’s why he has started early to reach out to the electorate under this umbrella term of “Listening to the People.” A fair and good game in and of itself.
His tour of some communities in the Central Region did bring him into touch with people in their local communities, living spaces, lorry stations, and other public places. He has so far been shown casually dressed and eating with the “common people” in their comfort zones at home. Here is the picture of a “common man” on the political campaign trail. But the truth is that he is not a common man, which the common people know.
One picture showed him eating fufu (or was it plantain ampesi?) in a household and holding a bottle of water. This portrayal raised many questions that I couldn’t immediately answer. It was not because Akufo-Addo was hungry that he joined the residents to eat that food nor was it because he couldn’t afford to buy anything of the sort on his own to eat. It was a political ploy to suggest that he could blend easily with the people in their own homes and do whatever they do. With ease on the inside too?
The political advantage of this approach is enormous, at least, to those who don’t have the luxury to spend time examining it carefully to see it from its multi-dimensional perspectives. They will quickly conclude that he is indeed, “a man of the people” who must be voted for. We don’t know how many of such people will constitute what percentage of the electorate but any impression of the sort will be favourable to Akufo-Addo, at least, until something else arises from such an approach to change that impression. Those who are smart enough to read a deeper meaning into that approach will not hesitate to dismiss it with contemptuous abandon. They will see through it and conclude that it is just a political ruse to worm his way into the favour of the common people whom he hadn’t found expedient to relate to all these years until now that he is desperately seeking their goodwill to redeem himself. Such an impression holds water—and it sticks too.
I remember very well a similar thing that he had done before the 2008 elections when he abandoned his own luxury car and decided to either walk or join a tro-tro bus and interact with the ordinary people, moving from Nkrumah Circle to Osu in Accra. That spur-of-the-moment act painted a picture of him that some of us laughed to scorn. He came across as condescending and too desperate. Of course, such an act of desperation, combined with other factors, couldn’t put him in power.
The decision to use this grassroots method has other aspects too. It is made up of impulsive manouevres that run counter to the NPP’s own reaction to the house-to-house strategy that the NDC’s Professor Mills had adopted for the 2008 elections. Criticizing that strategy, the NPP activists made it clear that it wasn’t the answer to Professor Mills’ quest for political power. They laughed him to scorn and the Daily Guide newspaper even portrayed him as not achieving anything but drawing the attention of street children in Accra, who followed him and took a keen delight in hooting at him for fun. In effect, they dismissed that approach as ineffectual. But at the end of the day, every political observer agreed that it played a big role in the NDC’s ability to connect with the people at the grassroots level; hence, the quick turn-around for Professor Mills, especially in the run-off.
Thus, in choosing to use this method of “listening” to the people, Akufo-Addo may be up again against forces which he will be wise to handle tactfully. Despite his loud claims to be a “Nima boy,” meaning that he had lived among the downtrodden people and shared their sentiments, it is no exaggeration to say that the reality is different from that image.
The question, then, becomes: Is it only now that Akufo-Addo knows how to come close to the people, especially in search of their votes? Is he really listening to them at all?
He may be out there, getting close to the people in the various circles that he interacts with; but the most important question is: Are these people actually listening to him? This is where the nub lies because the people will make their electoral decision based on how they perceive him (beyond his utterances, political posturing, and their (mis)construal of his messages to them).
To me, his efforts can pay off only if the people listen to him. As of now, it seems he is more focused on using this grassroots strategy for showing off than for serious political mobilization. That is the problem with campaign approaches that don’t evolve naturally from the mindset and demonstrable behaviour of the candidate. Being a common man and demonstrating it as such is a natural bent, not a politically motivated one.
I hope as he goes about eating the people’s food and listening to them, there will be no rumours later on to the effect that he didn’t just eat and listen; but that he also slept with some. We have his own claims of virility and the praising of women’s buttocks to fall back on in defence. Eyes are watching.