The heaviness of the presidency

Wed, 24 Dec 2008 Source: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi

By Kofi Akosah-Sarpong

Why would Nana Akufo-Addo, of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP), or John Atta-Mills, of the main opposition National Democratic Party (NDC), want to be President of the Republic of Ghana? The question appears tacky, but you ask such questions for a Ghana that has pressing developmental challenges and figure out who wants to be embroiled in solving the challenges.

Including Ghana, being President of an African country, from a distance, looks scary. From the birth of the African nation-states some 50 years ago, most African leaders didn’t do well resulting in state paralysis, state collapse, economic meltdown, deadly ethnicity, confused policies, civil wars, military coups, looting of the state, and terrified tensions. The curious person will ask why all these negatives? The answer is simple: African elites/leaders do not understand their respective nation-states, making their work as directors of progress perplexing and leading to overwhelming misgovernments. As the newly elected US President Barack Obama, at only 49 years, demonstrated, African leaders/elites have to understand their respective states as deeply as possible before attempting to rule. For such grasp of the huge United States complexities that made him navigate through it to win the Presidency despite being an African-American (people have thought no African-American would ever be President of the USA), it isn’t surprising that the prestigious Time magazine awarded Obama the famous “Person of the Year” title, “for having the confidence to sketch an ambitious future in a gloomy hour” and showed “the competence that makes Americans hopeful he might pull it off.” The understanding of Africa by its elites/leaders for eventual rule involves grasping the coalition of the ethnic groups that form the African states and the ex-colonial, neo-liberal heritage that currently run the states. This is authentically African leadership tradition but have not being appropriated by African leaders/elites. If not, the leaders/elites misunderstanding may lead to state paralysis (Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire), state collapse (Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burundi, Somalia), deadly ethnicity (Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan), economic meltdown (Central African Republic, Zimbabwe), confused policies (Zaire, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Zimbabwe), civil wars (Rwanda, Sudan, Chad, Sierra Leone, Liberia), military coups (almost all the countries in West and Central Africa), looting of the state (Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko, Nigeria under Sani Abacha), and terrified tensions (Nigeria, Cameroon, Burundi, Chad, Somalia).

It is in such backgrounders that Akufo-Addo and Atta-Mills will be viewed in relation to their attempts to rule Ghana as the December 28 presidential run-off approaches.

As Ghana’s history show, the President of Ghana not only faces constant intense scrutiny, but also death threats, and at times, assassination attempts. Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah escaped two assassination attempts in his almost 15-year rule. Jerry Rawlings experienced death threats during a good part of his second military regime and was reported to have slept in various strange places to avoid being killed. Incumbent President John Kufour faced constant heckling from ex-President Rawlings and his associates to the point of bordering on national security.

A Ghanaian president’s decisions in civil strife and peace may help decide other people's lives, and in some cases, the society's future. The civil conflicts in some parts of northern Ghana and the assassination of Ya Na, the late Yakubu Andani II, created immense anguish for Kufour. The ensuing criticisms by the opposition political parties to the effect that President Kufour and his associates are behind it put both the President and the nation in a dilemma, despite the apparent politicization of the matter.

Added to the above, any mishap to any of the leading opposition political party figures is quickly tied to the President and his men. The fatal suspicious car accident of the then running-mate of Atta-Mills, Alhaji Mohammed Mumuni, was quickly read into by some NDC supporters and some superstitious Ghanaians as a plot by Kufour and his NPP to undermine the momentum of the NDC three months into the 2004 general elections. Under intense pressure and stress, Kufour announced that, “The government has, with immediate effect, given police protection to presidential candidates and the running mates of all recognized political parties.”

Still, as Ghana’s democracy deepens, presidential candidates have to jostle every four years to land one of the nation's most prestigious - and most stressful and physically demanding position - President of the Republic of Ghana. It’s the ultimate job and there is no way of getting relief; its four years of pressure and challenges, especially in a country which region is the poorest in the world and military coup scare a clear and present danger. As one can see from mainly Akufo-Addo and Atta-Mills faces in their campaigns outings, life on the campaign trail can be a tough test physically - and good preparation for the challenging life of a President.

Either for political enticement to portray themselves as eternally fit and strong, physically and mentally, or in a country which culture normally makes leaders appear immortal, Ghanaian presidents have to project high degree of health and fitness. The troubling Atta-Mills’ health issue has been a constant in the 2008 campaigns. Like elsewhere in the world, an illness means the entire system is in trouble - the circle around the president, the media, and, most importantly, the Ghanaian public. “An illness to the president is not just a personal matter. It is a devastating public crisis,” noted Jerrold Post, a political psychologist and professor at George Washington University.

Despite having Ghana’s top health care team to address their everyday health concerns and emergency situations, from the first president Kwame Nkrumah (who played tennis and practiced yoga) to Prime Minister Kofi Busia (who played tennis) to President Hilla Liman (who liked long walks) to two-time President Jerry Rawlings (who projected high energy, youthfulness, and strength, and did some athletics), Ghana’s Presidents/Heads of State (here the military junta leaders Gen. Akwesi Afrifa to Gen. Ankrah to Gen. Kutu Acheampong to Gen. F.W.K. Akuffo to Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings) have not been publicly seen to take off their state duties and go on holidays.

Rawlings collapsed on state duty, due to exhaustion and fatigue, and was advised by his medical team to rest a bit. Kufour changed that, demonstrating the mortality of a president, by publicly announcing his vacationing for some weeks to rest and ease pressures from his national duties.

Aside from the civilian presidents, most of Ghana’s military leaders have been afraid to travel outside Ghana for fear of being overthrown. Gen. Acheampong, who traveled only once (briefly to Togo and unannounced), throughout his almost six years in power, was said to be afraid of flying. Facing coup threats and invasions, Rawlings traveled less as military Head of State and more as civilian president throughout his almost 20 years in power.

Among the civilian presidents a periodic long trip abroad may be annoying, but criss-crossing the country and world on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, as Kufour did when mediating the Guinea Bissau crisis in 2004, can be grueling, especially during election times. In an exhausting cross-country travel, when Mumuni was announced as having being involved in an accident, presidential candidate Atta-Mills has to cut short his electioneering campaigns in some far parts of the Brong Ahafo region and quickly come down to Accra, the capital, to see his then running-mate.

Despite Kufour saying his rapid travels abroad are for economic investments that are expected to create jobs and programs that affects hundreds of millions of lives, he has come under sharp criticisms for waste and risking his life in case of accident and its implications for the state.

Like elsewhere in the world, Ghanaian presidents/prime ministers have physical strains. Rawlings, for instance, caught virus while helping to clean a gutter at the Nima slum and got butts of fever and collapsed when on state duty. Busia had an eye problem and has to travel to London, U.K for medical treatment (Gen. Acheampong overthrow Busia during this trip abroad and has to stay in exile for most part of his life). Kufour was rumoured to have got cancer but quickly said it is not true.

The political situations aside, just the day-to-day demands of being president are astonishing. The president could never turn it off. Ghanaians used to wonder where Nkrumah and Rawlings get their energy from to drive their presidencies. The assassination attempts against Nkrumah and the spectre of death threats against Rawlings showed that Ghanaian presidents face near constant, sometimes all too real threats on their lives.

The severe, sustained stress and the reality of being overthrown with the slightest mistake that will force them to live in exile can end the life of Ghanaian presidents quicker, despite the fact that they have received the best medical care. Nkrumah faced tremendous stress while president and dealt with it through yoga exercise, prayers and fasting but even this could not compensate for what he went through during his later years in exile in Guinea Conakry. After being overthrown in 1966 by Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Kotoka, with the help of America’s Central Intelligence Agency, Nkrumah exiled in Guinea Conakry and died in Bucharest, Romania at 63. Busia was overthrown in 1972 and died in exile in London, U.K at 55. Liman, overthrown by Rawlings in 1981, died in Ghana at 64. Liman was inhumanly treated by Rawlings with tribalistic undertones. Most Ghanaian military junta Heads of State were either executed or killed in coup attempts. Generals Acheampong and Akufo were overthrown and executed by firing squad. Gen. Kotoka was killed in the course of a coup attempt. Rawlings is currently the only Ghanaian ex-president or ex-head of state living. Kufour joins him in January, 2009

Experts on presidential psychology explains that a convinced degree of stress can make people “more alert, more focused” during a crisis, “but the data on sustained stress shows a decrease in functioning over time, even though a person may believe he is at the height of his powers.” In the long run, experts say, “stress tends to bring out not the best in people,” as we saw in Nkrumah, the early and ending years of Acheampong and Rawlings, “but magnifies the flaws that are already there.”

Nkrumah and Liman, for example, suffered from severe depression after their overthrow. Oftentimes, the presidency’s many demands can impair a president's mental health. Liman was said to have been disoriented from sustained deadly squabbling within his People’s National Party (PNP) that put his administration in disarray and led to his overthrow in 1981. As the internal deadly bickering of his administration crisis unfolded, several leading PNP insiders said Liman withdrawal to himself and rumors of heavy drinking of alcohol and coffee and smoking made the rounds. Liman showed paranoid tendencies, especially when his political mentor, Alhaji Moro Igala, was believed to have been poisoned to death in the ensuing in-house party conflict, that put terrible strains on him and his decision-making, leading to his under-rating security reports that there are plots by Rawlings to overthrow his regime.

Like most West African presidents, Ghanaian presidents’ face constant juju-marabou influences and attacks from not only some cabinet ministers and party bigwigs but also from some members of the public who may attempt to get favour from the president. Ghanaian presidents are also the subject of prophecies and other indigenous spiritual interpretations, visions, dreams and fortune-telling in a culture that is not only highly superstitious but gullible and can be irrational.

In a story that demonstrates how the Ghanaian culture interprets negatively or positively on the country’s Presidents/Heads of States, the Accra-based The Ghanaian Chronicle reported that “Mr. Moses Growther, a prophet has stated that the former President, Flt. Lt. (rtd.) Jerry John Rawlings was a man sent by God to punish us Ghanaians for our iniquities and disobedience to Him, hence the serious economic suffering visited on the nation. According to him, Ghanaians became indolent, after inheriting a curse from the leadership of the first President of Ghana, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah that any government who toed the line of his ideological principle would worsen the nation’s economic situation.”

To counter the ‘dark’ influences of the culture, Ghanaian Presidents/Heads of State are known not only to consult juju-marabou mediums and other spiritualists but also sometimes fall under the grip of these mediums, who eventually control them, that have consequences for the country, weakening their level of rationality. As the later part of Acheampong’s rule became confusing in the face of economic disarray and heated campaigns for civil rule, he became paranoid and sank deeper and deeper into juju-marabou mediums, foreign necromancers, and other spiritualists. Tantalizing tales of juju-marabou dabbling have made the rounds in the Ghanaian presidency about Nkrumah and Rawlings.

Even the Osu Castle, that is being departed by Kufour and either Akufo-Addo or Atta-Mills, into the newly constructed presidential Golden Jubilee House, have been the intense speculation of “dark” spiritual practices by successive Presidents/Heads of State. This is believed by superstitious Ghanaians to have impaired the spiritual health of the presidency. The metaphysical implications of managing Ghana's business in an Osu Castle ridden with slavery and agony, bloodshed, immorality, massive juju-marabou rituals, frightening military coups and threatening one-party systems, unGhanaian behavior, and general evil deeds was unimaginable.

So eight years into the last leg of his presidency, Kufuor is indirectly telling Ghanaians why he has resisted living at the depressive Osu Castle. This is not only because of what slave trade and colonialism did there but also what some post-independent Ghanaian Presidents/Heads of State did there: all sorts dreadful sacrifices, fearful juju-marabou rituals, brutalities, killings, unfreedoms, chaos, and gross inhumanity.

Presidents Akufo Addo, John Kufour, and Prime Minister Kofi Busia have been known to deal with troubles of their offices which emanates from within the culture with prayers and contemplations. Liman was variously viewed as an atheist and a deep, free thinker. Despite these burdens which Ghanaian Presidents/Heads of State go through those with the fortitude still dream and aspire to be President of the Republic of Ghana as the 16-year old democratic dispensation enters its 17th year in 2009 and gathers steam.

It is such background that Nana Akufo-Addo and John Atta-Mills would be entering if any of them is eventually voted as president on December 28. But as Kofi Sintim-Aboagye, wrote on Ghanaweb.com during the 2004 presidential elections, “The Presidency of Ghana.........like any highly demanding job in the world is tough, especially with all the intricacies imbued in it. However, the intrigued appetite of the human being to climb heights of success is what drives mankind to seek stardom.”

Columnist: Akosah-Sarpong, Kofi