Opinions Fri, 31 Aug 2007

The Candidate From Abroad

Imagine this scenario.
It is the day before Ghana’s World Cup debut in Germany in 2006 and the coaches are discussing the line-up for Ghana. One of the coaches says. “I think the foreign based players are amongst our best but we must exclude them because they live abroad”. Of course none of the coaches said that and if any of them did, his colleagues would think he has lost his mind. Indeed, one of the most important reasons why the Black Stars did so well was because we used our best talents, regardless of whether they lived abroad or at home.

Of course, politics is not soccer. However, like soccer, politics is a team activity and to win, a team must field its best talents. It seems however that in politics, some have a problem getting beyond address to field our best talents. While they have no difficulty accepting the advice of foreigners from international organizations and foreign nations, they are reluctant to accept our own that have lived or live abroad for political leadership. Even while we question the depth of understanding that those who live abroad or returned recently have of our problems, our governments routinely cite approval by officials of foreign nations and institutions as proof of their effectiveness.

During the last year, I have traveled the length and breath of this country in my quest for my party’s nomination for President. While my vision, clarity in communication and passion for Ghana are lauded by many, there is a significant minority both within and outside my party who say “He has the best ideas among the candidates but he has lived abroad for so long.”

Let me be the first to concede that a President must demonstrate a clear understanding of the problems of the country that he/she wishes to lead. However, it is not clear that living in a country for many years necessarily increases one’s understanding of the problems. To insist that it does will be the equivalent of insisting that a patient who has been a diabetic for many years necessarily understands the disease better than a physician who does not have diabetes. Indeed, there are some who have imbibed the status-quo so completely that they have become part of the problem and cannot be part of the solution. They are incapable of leading the transformational change that is needed to make our country better. To complicate the picture, our history shows that every elected President except for President Rawlings spent some considerable time living abroad. President Nkrumah, Premier Busia, Presidents Limann and Kufuor: they all lived abroad for significant periods and were better-than-average Presidents. Of course, this does not suggest that a President who has never lived abroad cannot be an excellent President. It suggests that living abroad is not an obstacle to being a good President. To be fair, those opposed to my candidacy do not object on the grounds that I have lived abroad. They do on the grounds that I have not been back long enough. As some put it, “ we at home have suffered and therefore deserve to enjoy leadership positions”. This of course presumes that leadership is a reward for being around rather than an opportunity to serve. The important question is whether, upon his or her return, a period of local apprenticeship or “re-acculturation” will make a leader better. The answer is that it depends on the person’s training and experience. While it might help those who are new to politics and leadership, it can be argued that the waiting time could quench the raging fires of reform and transformation that such a person acquired outside. For example, President Nkrumah returned from abroad as a student and benefited from the time he spent back home before getting into government.

Nearly twenty years and two months ago, my last day in Ghana before exile started as a normal hectic day for a final-year medical student. Unbeknown to me, my life was about to change. That day, the PNDC government announced that a speech I had delivered two weeks earlier condemning military dictatorship was subversive and that I should report to the police. It was generally believed that since I already had charges of subversion pending from my leadership of the struggle to restore democracy in 1983, I should go into exile rather than face a long prison sentence or possibly, EXECUTION. As I prepared to leave then, the fear was not whether I would return to run for political office some day. It was whether I would, as a result of my repeated persecution, disengage from the politics of this country. I recall vividly the words of former NPP General Secretary, the late Agyenim Boateng: “Son, I know you have suffered. A lot of people in your situation would turn their backs on this country but do not do so. Learn as much as you can if you get out safely and some day, when things are better, come back and help.” Regrettably, I was unable to say goodbye to my mother who died during my exile.

Then my courage in opposing the Rawlings dictatorship was hailed by all our political giants; Victor Owusu, Paa Willie, John Bilson, Sam Okudzeto, President Limann; to mention just a few. Some sent words of consolation when my mother died and was buried in my absence. Some people who were in politics saw the same challenges that I faced and chose not to confront them.
To be clear, while sacrifice and service must be recognized and honoured, I do not believe that anyone should be made President because of their service or suffering. I believe that elections are about the future, not the past. Candidates, in my view must be judged on their vision, competence, integrity and compassion. Those who choose our leaders and seek public office must be guided by the larger interest of the public rather than by private ambition. The ultimate question an elector must ask before casting his/her ballot is “Which of these candidates is most likely to make Ghana better?” After leaving, I managed to graduate as a doctor, by the grace of God, four years after my class-mates had graduated back in Ghana.

While abroad, in line with the advice of Mr. Agyeman Boateng, I worked assiduously to hone my leadership skills:

• I served as CEO of a corporation with 250 employees for five years

• I served on a state Commission established by law from 2005 till my return to Ghana last March

• I served on the Board of Directors of Orangeburg District Chamber of Commerce, a state-wide association and three national committees related to healthcare.

While doing all these, I was very active in Ghana’s politics; participating in protests against the PNDC, contributing money to the NPP after it was formed, writing articles and attending meetings. Ironically, as a result of my commitment to the betterment of Ghana even during my absence, I have on the record more opinions and proposed solutions to our problems than most of the other candidates.

I have been publicly recognized by associations, individuals, government officials and states. The Americans never worried about how long I had lived there; they worried about how relevant my skills were! That may be one of the reasons why it is one of the greatest countries on earth. While I missed certain events and developments due to my absence, I was exposed to certain things due to my presence abroad. The question is whether on balance, my stay abroad has made me better prepared or not compared to my contemporaries who stayed behind during the time I lived abroad.

While my qualifications and my experience should be scrutinized, it is my conviction that my stay abroad should be seen as an undoubted asset for the following reasons:

First, it has helped me to acquire executive experience in perhaps one of the most competitive societies in the world and to gain a breath of knowledge about politics and leadership that would have been difficult to acquire at home. Second, my temporary physical distance gave me the perspective to see our country’s weaknesses and strengths in sharper relief with the contrast of other societies. Indeed, it was the need for such perspectives that motivated European noblemen to send their children abroad to travel for a year in each of the last two centuries. This same sentiment motivated some ancient African kingdoms to send their royals abroad for education in foreign courts and to develop perspectives about their societies. For example, the founder of the Asante Empire, King Osei Tutu, was sent abroad for such education and returned to launch one of the greatest Kingdoms in African history. The need for leaders with a fresh perspective is so central to American political culture that Senators, Congressmen and incumbent Vice-Presidents are seldom nominated or elected as President. Instead, Governors who are not considered part of the governing group are often elected. Third, my early education here as a kid growing up in poverty imbued me with a deep compassion while my work with the poor in America has given me skills for the alleviation of poverty that would prove invaluable in my desire to reduce poverty and renew our country. I will be without doubt an eloquent voice for the voiceless and a passionate advocate for the underprivileged as President. Fourth, our nation looks abroad for a big share of our budget. It looks abroad for inspiration for a lot of policies and for a lot of expertise; non-Ghanaian expertise. Since we eagerly take so much from abroad to aid our development, why not one of our own who has learnt their ways and has a fresh perspective? Like the proverbial tree-stump in crocodile-infested water which can never become a crocodile, I will always remain a Ghanaian to my core. This country, Ghana, lives in me completely.

Predictably, some ask whether I cannot wait till a later date or serve in a smaller capacity for now. The question is not whether I can wait. The question is whether the nation must wait needlessly while its problems pile up and perhaps its most dedicated and visionary leader in a generation stays off center-stage because a quarter-century ago, he dared to confront dictatorship and ended up in exile to escape imprisonment or death!

It is unfair and injurious to the interest of our country.

Finally, the question of whether a leader coming from outside can be effective was answered decisively in 1919. That was when a new Governor, Gordon Guggisburg, arrived to take charge of the Gold Coast.

A decade later, he had built;

* Takoradi Harbour

* Korle-Bu Hospital

* Achmota College

* The road and rail networks that are still an important part of our transportation infrastructure.

He proved that vision and passion matter more than how long a leader has been around.

The test for our democracy and for our country is whether we can judge that candidate on merit or hold against him his absence from the country resulting from his brave and selfless service.

History awaits the NPP’s answer this year and next year, the nation’s answer. We can and must do the right thing by judging all candidates on merit; for their vision, their competence, their integrity and their compassion. Our nation’s interest, the needs of posterity and history all demand that we choose the best candidate, regardless of where he lives or has lived. That is the approach that took the Black Stars to the World Cup and since politics is more vital to our nation than soccer, we can do no less! God bless our homeland Ghana!

May he continue to give us brave and wise sons and daughters so that we can forever have “ FREEDOM AND JUSTICE” !!!!

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

Columnist: Kennedy, Arthur Kobina