President Mills In Primetime
12th January, 2010
Last Friday, 7th January, 2011, was the second anniversary of the assumption of office by the NDC II government led by President Mills. To mark the occasion, the President took questions from members of the media at the Castle, Osu, in Accra.
While I commend the media for showing up and for asking good questions for the most part, follow-up to questions was lacking. The President failed repeatedly to address the issues raised by questions but was not pressed to answer the questions. Also, it would be nice if in future all such invitations are extended to all media instead of just those selected by the castle. It would have been great to see, for instance, Ebo Quansah in attendance. Furthermore, such sessions must include some regional media who will bring some perspectives lacking in the national capital press corps. It will also be helpful if media analysis on such events focuses on more on how factual the President’s claims were and less on the opinions of the punditocracy.
Predictably, the President’s performance has been extolled by his partisans and damned by his opponents. As the saying goes, “facts are sacred while opinions are free.”
Let me begin with the very obvious attempt by the President and his team to present him as fit for office. While that was largely successful, his attempt to present himself as a healthy man merely troubled by a minor sinus problem did not sound credible. It appears that since his opponents made his health an issue in the 2006 NDC primary, the President has gone to great and occasionally ludicrous lengths to portray himself as healthy. This effort was continued during the press conference. In response to a question on his health, the President even claimed that being prepared to stand and sweat for two hours showed his preparedness to die for Ghana. Really, Mr. President? While that claim might be credible coming from Essien or Asamoah Gyan in a Black Stars shirt, it sounds self-serving coming from a politician. Actually, if anything untoward had happened to the President, it would have been caused by partisan ambition, not nationalistic patriotism. It was not prudent to let a man who is nearly 70 stand for two hours just to prove that he is not sick when that message was at odds with his appearance. The President will get a lot of admiration and sympathy if he states candidly that he was sick but has been treated and can continue with his responsibilities instead of these canards he and his team serves us periodically about his glowing health. We should take the President at his word that he is healthy enough for the burdens of the Presidency and let him continue with his work.
I propose to discuss the substance in the President’s answers on the fuel price increase, the plot to remove the Chief Justice, the charge that he is not in control of his government, Zita and the women and then end on the Ivoirian crisis.
On the fuel price increase, the facts are quite simple. In 2008, Professor Mills, who had almost always been very careful with his words, was facing the biggest crisis in his political career. It was obvious, both to him and to many others that after two previous defeats, he was unlikely to be given another chance to contest the Presidency, either by the NDC or maybe, his health if he lost again. Naturally, he was desperate. So he started saying and doing whatever could get him elected. Amongst his most reckless promises were to reduce petrol prices “drastically” and to “put money in peoples’ pockets”. Not even the eleventh-hour reduction in fuel prices by the Kufuor administration cooled the enthusiasm of the then candidate in his promise to reduce the fuel prices “drastically”. Unfortunately for the President and our country, his dreams have met reality and today, two years into his administration, the President’s administration has increased fuel prices by 70% while crude oil prices have increased by only 50%. To listen to the President’s account of the decision to increase the fuel prices, one would think it ranked with the most courageous decisions in our nation’s history. Listening to the President, I wondered what happened to the NPA’s control over fuel prices? Are they still functioning? To return to the substance, why can’t the President just admit that he lied to Ghanaians and apologize? It certainly will make a lot of Ghanaians less angry with him while restoring the faith of Ghanaians in the institution of the Presidency.
On the plot to remove the Chief Justice, the President was not firm enough in his support of the judiciary or the constitutional order. While he may not be a cat hunter or chaser, to borrow his analogy, there appears to be quite a few people in his party who are itching to go after some “cats”. Most Ghanaians would have been pleased if he issued a ringing affirmation of his faith in our judiciary and the Chief Justice. The problem with the NDC, as always, is not the President. It is always the President’s inability to confront the problem or its makers.
When the President was asked about claims by former President Rawlings that decisions were being made in his name by others, the President’s answer was not on point. He launched into a discourse on the experience and virtues of the former President. Instead, given the doubts about his decisiveness, he should have been clear that he was, is and will always be the man in control of his government. Instead, he left a lot of people wondering whether rumours that he is wringing his hands in impotent anguish while saying “Kofi ore haw me” in reference to Prof. Kofi Awoonor is true or not. These perceptions feed into his declaration, early in his tenure, that Ghanaians only elected one President , not two ---and the perceived willingness of his appointees to defy him on issues ranging the declaration of assets to the repair of street-lighting in Accra by Christmas.
The President’s response to the Zita and the women-quota in appointments issue left a lot of people baffled. In our system of government, there are Ministers and non-Ministers and generally, most people believe that good Ministers are retained while those struggling are changed. However, according to the President, despite being sacked as a Minister, nothing has changed as far as he is concerned with the former Minister. According to the President, even the change in Ministers really had nothing to do with performance. All that he was doing, like a basketball coach, was rotating players in and out of the game.
The problem with the basketball analogy is that star players are not changed unless they feel tired or get injured. Then he implied that he had failed to keep his promise of appointing 40% of women because there were not enough qualified women to appoint. Surprisingly, instead of attacking the President for his sexism, the NDC women chose to attack NPP General Secretary Kwadwo Owusu Afriyie for his remarks about Zita and maternity leave. That was a great opportunity, sadly missed, by the NDC women to practice the “Dzi wo fie asem” saying by the President.
On a day characterized by question- dodging and inconsequential answers, the President really went over the top on the Ivoirian crisis.
I believe that the President’s position that Ghana should tread carefully in support of the ECOWAS, AU and UN positions are reasonable, regardless of his motives. Unfortunately, he has had a lot of trouble explaining himself.
After stating that Ghana was part of the ECOWAS decision, the President stated that Ghana would not provide troops for a military option because we are overstretched. Furthermore, the President added that in his opinion, the military option would not work. Finally, he opined that he believed we should be guided by the Fanti saying in relation troubles “Dzi wo fie asem”.
Now, first, how can the President claim that we will not be part of the military effort when already, our soldiers are helping to protect President-elect Ouatarra? If out-going President Gbagbo attacks the UN troops guarding Ouatarra, will Ghanaian soldiers not be harmed? Will dying during an Ecowas attack be different from dying while defending Ouatarra under UN colours? How then can our President claim that we will not be part of the military action? If the President believes the military option will not work, why did he not persuade his fellow leaders about that view? By stating his doubts in public, is he not undermining ECOWAS? By leaving Ghanaian soldiers in harm’s way despite his believe, is he not risking their lives for an idea that he believes will not work?
The “Dzi wo fie asem” phrase was beautiful. However, the concept underlying that is terrible. Indeed, for a long time, the international community believed in the inviolability of sovereign borders. Under this believe, it was felt that whatever happened in a country’s territorial boundaries should be left for that country to resolve. To put it in personal terms, it was the equivalent of hearing your neighbor beat his wife while refusing to intervene because of the “Dzi wo fie asem” or “Mind your own business” philosophy. Under this regime, the world watched in agony as Cambodia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Zaire, Uganda and many other nations had atrocities or calamities visited on defenseless citizens. Yes—“Dzi wo fie asem” was the reason why all those millions perished under Pol Pot, Mengistu, Mugabe, Mobutu, Amin and countless others. The problem with this philosophy of our President is that quite often, apart from offending our sense of decency and humanity; the problems that started in individual countries could and often did spill over borders to become regional problems. Towards the end of the last century, many leaders came to accept the vision of great leaders like Nkrumah, that we are all our brothers’ keepers. Nkrumah presaged this when he said “the independence of Ghana is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of the continent of Africa”. It was what led him to be a founding leader of the O.A.U. It was what led a new generation of our leaders to transform the O.A.U. into the Africa Union. The central principle of the AU is the acknowledgement of the need for all on our continent to be concerned about all. This philosophy has guided our foreign policy from Nkrumah to Kufuor. That is why Nkrumah was on his way to Hanoi when he was deposed. That is why Kofi Annan and Kufuor worked so hard to solve the Kenyan crisis. That is why Kufuor was so active in searching for peace in Liberia and in the Ivory Coast.
“Dzi wo fie asem” is a misguided attempt to take us back to the unprincipled isolationism of the last century. We should move forward to embrace the new era of international diplomacy which is premised on the assumption that what affects one nation affects all nations. The President, if he does not retreat from this position will give credence to those who believe that he, like this unfortunate ideology he purports to espouse, is passé.
On the whole, the event was an interesting look at the man in the Presidency. It showed that he has changed. Whether that change is for better or for worse remains to be seen. For instance, while he eagerly graded himself and immodestly gave himself an 80% after his first hundred days, he refused to grade himself this time and acknowledged that his evaluation should be left to others. Unfortunately, he could not bring himself to admit that grading himself after his first hundred days had been an error.
The event showed that accountability in our democracy is getting entrenched. It would certainly be a good development if the NDC administration restores the “People’s Assembly”, introduced by President Kufuor, which gave the public a chance to question the President directly.
Finally, let the President learn to apologize, for his errors and his lies and to say occasionally, “I cannot answer that question now” and he will do better.
As for questions, I wanted someone to ask him towards the end this question, “Mr. President, do you feel this job is too big for you?”
Happy New Year and let us move forward, together, to a “Better Ghana”
God bless you.
God bless Ghana.
Arthur Kobina Kennedy