John Atta-Mills and the spirit of democracy

Thu, 8 Jan 2009 Source: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

Politically, for long Ghanaians have been in some kind of indistinct bereavement for genuine democratic practices they sense they have lost somewhere – what was authentically Ghanaian traditional value where consensus and participation drive politics, a sacred Ghanaian stuff.

For almost 27 years out of their 51 years existence, Ghanaians squandered it, throwing it away in the messy interregnum of 21 years military juntas and 6 years of one-party systems. A whisper over the years said “Ghana had been founded on democracy and freedoms but muddled.” For the interim these qualities were hidden, impounded in some internal exile, regenerating. Now John Evans Atta-Mills rides into the Golden Jubilee House branding democracy and freedoms in a kind of matured triumph.

But are they real stuff? The authentic Ghanaian traditional possessions, revived and restored to the Golden Jubilee House? Do they still have transforming powers? I will answer them later. For now everyone knows that Atta-Mills’ democratic struggles are real, having attempted to be president three times. Ghanaians watched him. Atta-Mills looked at very bad odds and gambled; running against the formidable Nana Akufo-Addo seemed, at some point, a mere technicality.

As Dele Momodu, the veteran Nigerian journalist-businessman based in Accra, wrote of Atta-Mills in the Lagos, Niger-based This Day, “But history is full of twists and turns. The Prof had been written off by many pundits. They said he was finished in politics. That age was no longer on his side. And that his health was failing. Some even alleged that he was being ravaged by cancer, and predicted only gloom and doom for him. But the man only had problems with his eyes, suspected to be a bout with glaucoma or cataract at the most. He went into his primaries to duel with much younger personalities, and richer favourites. He was also said to have lost the favour of his political godfather, Jerry Rawlings. Against all odds, he won the primaries in a landslide victory. And many queried the rationale behind picking a candidate who had brought failure twice already to their party, when there were younger and funkier aspirants like John Mahama, Eddie Annan and Ekow Spio Garbrah.” After much grueling campaigns, Ghanaians made an interesting choice – one that a year ago lay at the outer margins of the feasible. They responded to Atta-Mills by voting him in a very tight race against Akufo-Addo. Ghanaians deserted the strong national view that Atta-Mills would be disturbed by the restless and autocratic former President Jerry Rawlings, founder of his National Democratic Congress. In a Ghana which democracy isn’t consolidated and that purport to be a flash-point of African democratic enlargement, Ghanaians gave their future to Atta-Mills under the purported shadow of Rawlings. They rejected an Akufo-Addo shaped by the moral universe of democratic struggles for the past 30 years in favour of the Atta-Mills who has dabbled in a pseudo-military regime and not known nationally as a democratic and freedoms struggler.

The long-running drama of election 2008 was a leap of faith in a bitter and unpredictable election year that saw the far remote rural Tain deciding who the President of Ghana becomes. The tightness of the race and the similarity of the parties’ manifestoes might explain the closeness of the votes and the immense light put on politicians that saw some heavy weights loosing.

The departing Osu Castle of John Kufour, impresario of democratic and freedoms enlargement, couldn’t help Akufo-Addo, in some inexplicable ways, become president. This made the NPP spineless, confused, whining, rudderless – rushing to a Fast Track Court to stop the Tain post-run-off election and later redrawing their case from the court. And shunning the Tain elections, purportedly for security reasons.

In the face of rising crimes, poor sanitation, global economic meltdown, energy crisis, and soaring food prices, discontent with politics was down on a deeper anxiety. Atta-Mills moved to assuage Ghanaians. Ghana’s moral, economic and political pre-eminence in Africa seemed to dim. The battleground ceased to be raw Soviet-type Socialism but democracy and freedoms as vehicles for progress. Atta-Mills successful campaigns for the presidency makes him the epicentre of Ghana’s flowering democracy. The election has made Atta-Mills a key democracy and freedoms driver. Atta-Mills campaigns, conducted with dignity, with earnest attention to issues and with impressive display of calmness under fire, served to flower the legitimacy of Ghanaian politics and thus, potentially, of the budding democracy itself. Atta-Mills victory places him in a position to thicken democracy and freedoms.

Atta-Mills, carrying the unique value of his generation to lay the ground work for democracy, represents the principle of broadened democracy and inclusion – women, the disabled, the marginalized, and the youth. This will have African meaning as well. Atta-Mills stated the winner’s vision when he said, “My dream is that Ghana in this century will be the nation that leads Africa. An educated, thriving, and prosperous democracy, that we can hold up as an example to the world of what Africa can be, when its people move and work together.” Atta-Mills’ year was a mixture of luck, timing and temperament. In the first presidential elections on December 7 he lost narrowly to Akufo-Addo. In the second one, on December 28, he won narrowly against Akufo-Addo. In a hang parliament, where the NDC has 114 against the NPP’s 107, Atta-Mills has to be a magician, joggling both the NDC and NPP legislators (and the other 7 independent ones) to drive his policies through. The role of luck in 2008 is conspicuous – as the political system became unpredictable with remote rural Tain swinging itself and becoming the chief determiner. Atta-Mills came to the finish line after hustling through very narrow gates. Atta-Mills won 50.23% of the popular votes against Akufo-Addo’s 49.77%. From around 9 million legal ballots cast Atta-Mills beat Akufo-Addo by just 40,000 votes.

For Atta-Mills, the course of his campaign was strewn with crucial antecedents - his ability to ward-off his alleged sickness, his university peers not voting for him as the Vice Chancellor of the University Ghana (where he was a law teacher), Rawlings shadow hovering over him that made him appear not-his-own-man, and the picture that he flashes images of Kofi Busia and Hilla Liman, both seen as politically dull and easily manipulable Prime Minister and President respectively.

It was Atta-Mills luck that most of these notions surfaced early in the campaign, allowing time for him to prove his equilibrium and allowing Ghanaians to get bored by them and move on. If these accusations had intensified in the homestretch of the campaign, Atta-Mills would probably have been defeated. Atta-Mills’ best luck was that despite Kufour’s economy having impressive record with GDP of $16 billion, from $4 billion under his NDC in 2000, most Ghanaians were still being dragged along the bottom for the duration of the campaign. Akufo-Addo, as the face of NPP, had hoped that Ghanaians would stick with Kufour’s economics and policies they knew rather than risk the economic damage that Atta-Mills might do. The other six presidential candidates didn’t do any harm to Atta-Mills.

There weren’t enough voters disgusted with the Kufour performance that they were willing to take a chance that Atta-Mills might tax and spend the economy into yet more troubles. From their manifestoes, there were slight difference between Atta-Mills and Akufo-Addo. If there were vast difference between the NPP and NDC programs and Kufour communicate his economic performances better to the public, Akufo-Addo might have been turn out as the next president. Drawn from political tradition that was born out of military juntas and that transformed itself into social democracy, history may eventually decide that the key to Atta-Mills’ accomplishment (assuming he does well) lay in his temperament - in his grasp of Ghana (more the implications of its history and culture), his resilience, hopefulness and eagerness to act, in his inclusiveness and curiosity, and his dexterity as a democratic dancer. Atta-Mills, by his long association with Rawlings, doesn’t come from the sunnier side of Ghanaian political character – he is simultaneously a mixture of Busia, Liman, and Kufour, as opposed to Rawlings and the sterner, more punitive traditions of Nkrumah.

Atta-Mills has a progressive agenda – universal health, universal education, youth employment, decentralization, public sanitation, worker retraining, family values, for example - and believes it is Accra’s job to carry it out. Atta-Mills knows that the Nkrumah era of lavish big Daddy government is not possible model in the 2000s. Ghana has more deficits to deal with and Atta-Mills will take office under immense fiscal constraints. These limitations are expected to empower Atta-Mills’ stronger side – in propping up the private sector, establishing programs for students, or giving small businesses incentives. It will be quickly seen how the demands of development, increasing population, the flowering challenges of democracy and freedoms, and the increasing threats of regional security may square with some of the designs that Atta-Mills worked in the campaign – famously the themes of “change.” Again and again in debate, campaigns and speeches, Atta-Mills talked about the need for Ghanaians to find in themselves “change.” The word was borrowed from the American President-elect Barack Obama – “Change we can,” in an America that was messed up by eight years of the George Bush presidency.

Ghana hasn’t gone through the trauma that America has such as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on terror and the 9/11 terrorists attacks. Atta-Mills “change” has more to do with the fatigue and the perceived arrogance emanating from the eight years of the Kufour years. That makes the Atta-Mills “change” a mantra not necessarily a therapeutic concept but the periodic reinvention of Ghana, where Ghanaians, for the past 17 years dig out of their deepest problems and every four years elect a new government. It is a way they save themselves from some useless politicians and institutions, decline, stagnation and other developmental challenges.

Tain was the epic of all these. The Ghanaian epic is reinventions: Nkrumah couldn’t drive democracy through enormous challenges and transformed it to one-party system, the long military junta rots and general discontent saw the little known Rawlings emerging and stabilizing the system, and, under immense pressure, re-introduced democracy, and Kufour remarkably fertilizing democracy and freedoms.

Every time there are elections, as of the Atta-Mills, it brings Ghana a new self-awareness and broadened democracy. It brings inclusion – democratic enlargement toward more democratic enlargement, freedoms nurturing toward more freedoms. The Atta-Mills “change,” if it succeeds, will bring democracy and freedoms to full harvest, to power and to responsibility that Atta-Mills and associate clamoured for. This is despite the fact that little was heard from Atta-Mills about democracy and freedoms.

At 64 years, Atta-Mills saw the struggles for freedoms and democracy, their afterglow and triumph, their mess up by thoughtless elites/leaders, and the various attempts to re-invent democracy and freedoms, and now grown in unprecedented feat in the past 17 years. Yet, democracy and freedoms are still toddlers and need nurturing – Atta-Mills’ “change,” if properly rehearsed, may be part of the food to nurture democracy and freedoms – this will be his generation’s gift to Ghana.

For the next four years, Atta-Mills will carry the Ghanaian spirit of democracy and freedoms. Atta-Mills will come down to the Golden Jubilee House in Accra rejoicing, parading and bringing the Ghanaian possessions – goodness, energy, rule of law, traditions, freedoms, democracy, ideals, luck – like treasure to his new home.

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi