Every electoral victory has its own winning narrative and as a Ghanaian looking in from the outside, I come to this party with a certain unease about adding to the clutter already out there. I will leave that to a crowd more reliably informed.
Until now, political punditry was a perfectly harmless side occupation for people with high intellect and time to spare. These days much of what passes for insightful political punditry is the regurgitating of old opinions by people in the Confirmation Bias industry who live in their own thought bubbles. I will return to that momentarily.
For now, I have a story, a short story to share.
Circa 1993, Accra. The tropical humid air at the Kaneshie Market like other food markets in the urban cauldron of Accra, as ever, was heavy with a fetid mixture of fermented delicacies, open sewers, garbage, burning fat from Suya and fried food. Somewhere in the chaos, Ataa Oko clutching a half-eaten roasted plantain in one hand and a small bag of peanuts in the other, bent his hulking frame ever so slightly so he can get into the impossibly packed mini-van trotro. He sighed from the effort, but the sigh had the additional weightiness of a man with lots of life’s regrets and pain on his mind.
Life was bleak.
Ataa Oko was a man twirled up in the kind of personal pain that sometimes leads one to blame everyone; his parents, his siblings, his friends, in fact, veryone and anyone were the reasons why Oko was trapped in life’s quicksands. Ten years of hustling as an Einwanderer in Mainz, Germany ended instantly on a Monday morning when two agents from the Bundespolizei with their two-tone German Shepard side-kick showed up at his apartment.
Two nights before, Oko and some of his African friends had made their usual 80-minute biweekly roundtrip to the Commerz-bank Arena to watch his countryman, Tony Yeboah lead the lines for Eintracht Frankfurt in tearing opposing defenses apart. The two olakpas now at his front door were friendly but firm and informed Oko they were acting on a tip that he was seen on that night peeing into the Rhine from one of Mainz’s many bridges. Oko denied and protested, but it did not matter. His Gastarbeiter days were over and in less than five hours was on a one-way Lufthansa trip back to his old hang out at La, Aboomi.
Now on a trotro and tormented by what could have been, he was in a full meltdown. He yelled out a stream of profanities at the mate for trying to cheat him out of his change then turned his ire on Jerry Rawlings for dragging Ghana into a mess with his policies.
His rant and public meltdown over Oko went home to desolation in Aboomi. His torment, though, was not over.
A day after telling his fellow riders on the Osu-bound trotro how corrupt and horrible Jerry Rawlings was, he was picked up and detained by the BNI. His offence, you guessed right, for public humiliation of Jerry Rawlings. It didn’t matter that JJ did not personally witness the event and it surely didn’t matter that Oko was exercising his rights to free speech, even if it was unpleasant.
I ran into Ataa Oko when a fishing expedition for news took my boss, Kwaku Sakyi-Addo and I to Nana Akuffo Addo’s office. As we made our way to the top floor where his office was, we heard a man in a heavily Ga-accented English bellowing, “I swear dis will never happin in Jarmani”. Instinctively we sniffed blood in the water; this is news.
Later, we will learn Ataa Oko was in Nana’s office to help his lawyers prepare his defense at his upcoming trial. His charge, insulting JJ. You see, in 1993 JJ and his para-military hangers-on were swinging freely, and the sweep of their powers was only second to Kim IL Sung or the Tonton Macoute in Haiti. If this was 1993, half the folks who freely bloviate on TV and radio these days will be wishing they had another vocation. JJ himself described it at the Culture of Silence
Nana Addo was taking on Oko’s case pro-bono, Latin for free bonto.
That day, Nana Addo with his typical intense gaze like a man surprised by what he is seeing in his children’s room, assured us Oko’s case “small trouble”. He was, however, troubled by why the state will waste resources to prosecute a man for coarse language. No big deal, and wondered why this was such a curiosity for a pair of journalists from the Chronicle.
He didn’t understand, we were newsmakers and peddlers of free speech.
The smile on Nana’s face the expression of man who has seen worse. After all, on countless occasions he had defended people against charges of conspiracy to commit subversion, subversion and the concealment of subversion, so Oko’s anti-Rawlings rant on an Osu-bound trotro was just your garden variety case.
We smiled and ran away with our loot for the week, a front page headline for the Ghanaian Chronicle.
Don’t get me wrong Nana is a lawyer, and lawyers like drug dealers sell their wares with the singular motivation of seeing their clients come out on the other side of the transaction; on a high! So there may be nothing special here, because like most high profile attorneys Nana’s clientele would always include an eclectic mix of Politicians, Journalists, Hustlers, Ex-boxers, Pimps, Smugglers, retired Soldiers, Jesus-seeing philandering Prophets, Businessmen, de-stooled Chiefs, Maamobi Marxists and sidewalk Con-men from Dahomey. At the funeral for his late wife in Kumasi, I heard him tell friends he became a lawyer to defend voiceless people and I rolled my eyes and dismissed that as a self-pat-on-the-back by a lawyer.
But Oko’s case was different. He was poor, He was a recent deportee, and he was a product of a bad educational system and had a loud mouth as his only defense. Yet, here he was facing an adversary who was known to have equal disdain for both rich and poor people. Obofo nnim aboa yarefo. Without Nana and his team of lawyers in his corner Oko was looking at a life of unforgiving penance at Keta Krachi Prison. Oh, I forgot. Oko was a Ga man whose freedom of speech was being defended here by an Akyem lawyer.
I am recalling this story partly as a response to the election period vitriol that accused Nana Addo’s campaign of being driven by nativist impulses, and partly as my own personal experience of how the now newly elected President stood up for little people who with the odds stacked heavily against them were being asked to fight back against Jerry Rawlings tyranny without any tools. I heard Nana Addo accused of being an Akyem provincialist who wanted to move the capital to Kyebi.
Not even Osei Blue-Blue, Awuku Jagger, Zio, Doubleman and all the lifelong Kyebi residents would have believed that nonsense.
This was low, and is part of the reason why my fear of the political hack is up there with my fear of flying, my fear of tongue-speaking Christians, my fear of light-skinned women and my fear of betting. All five require me to have a strong leap of faith.
In the short but complicated circularity of the electoral history of Ghana the political punditry class in Ghana sold us the narrative that a politician from the House of Dankwa and the UP tradition will never win the Presidency. The received wisdom especially from the Nkrumaist side of that thought bubble was that any political idea or movement from the House of Dankwa, and Asante will always generate an opposing reaction from the rest of the country that was neither Akyem nor Asante.
Nkrumah’s victories at the two pre-independence legislative elections in 1951 and 1956, and the 1960 elections were the seminal moments for this narrative and it stuck. The loop was completed when J B Dankwa’s reputation was pulled apart by the CPP propaganda machinery as a traitor. History, they say, is written by winners.
So for them Afro Gbede and his National Alliance would have won the ’69 elections if Busia, a Bonoman and his Asante PP friends did not get a leg up on the rest of the field with help from Afrifa and the Ghanaian Military. Oh, and Kuffuor won only because Jerry Rawlings and everything he represented needed to be knocked off their long f***ing perch.
As long as the theory held they believed it and force-fed the rest of us with that flawed logic. And as long as the troika of J.B Dankwa, Paa Willie, and Adu-Boahen failed to win the Presidency they were in business. Which is why many of them, foaming at the mouth, lined up to tell us emphatically that Nana Addo will NEVER become a President.
You could say much of that myth was anchored to the inability of politicians from the House of Dankwa to shed the perception that they were Abuakwa elitists with messianic motivations. I will expand on that in the future, but for now our main worry should be on how the new President will govern.
He comes to the job not only as one of the most qualified candidates, but also as one of a few with the most tested credentials I have seen on the African political landscape for a very long time. As a long time civil rights activist, an advocate of open society and a former foreign minister to boot, Nana Addo has the street smarts to challenge prevailing assumptions within the global economic super-structure that an African country can only be a supplier of cheap raw material and a dumping ground for cheap manufactured goods from emerging economic centers in Asia and South America.
At a deeply fundamental level, I know the new President understands that Ghana can unshackle itself from the bottom of the global economic structure by getting the bedrock issues right. Goals by previous governments to move Ghana to a middle-income country have remained just that; goals. We can do it with the right leadership and it’s not a long shot; ask the Singaporeans.
All governance is about poor people, and poor Ghanaians while enamored with the shiny infrastructure all over Accra know one thing; people don’t eat flyovers. The people who eat flyovers are the corrupt people who profited on contracts for these structures. In fact, the NPP was elected with a historic victory in spite of the NDC’s reminders of the new infrastructure gracing the landscape of Accra. If the NDC argument were true, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast would have long been declared first world countries.
The truth is Ghana, like all African countries, always needs a truly transformational leader who will change the structure and the mindset of how we run our society. People don’t eat democracy, democracy is the dinner table on which ordinary people want to set their dinner. Which is why poor and the ordinary Ghanaians who voted Nana into power expect him to deliver on his promise of making Ghana a better country for all of us
Education, education, education. I’ll leave that for another day.
One of the biggest pitfalls for all African presidents, both elected and imposed, remains the unrestrained sway of hangers on, party hacks and ward-heelers. In an era where the loudest is also the wisest, good and decent Ghanaians have been forced to cede grounds to party operatives masking as pundits on radio and TV to demonize anyone who does not live in their echo chamber. How did we get here?
I cringe when the odd political discussion on TV descends into attack on an opponent’s virility. I hope the NPP will buck this trend and instead trust that good public policies backed by clear communication will be enough to win hearts. Any government that relies on demonizing its opponents to make its point assumes that the rest of us are not intelligent enough to understand a good policy position without first being told that people with opposing views are fools and sons of whores.
Every time I hear those potty mouth pundits I remind myself of what the central character of the movie Time Bandits, Evil Genuis said when Benson interrupted him with a stupid comment- “dear Benson, you are mercifully free from the ravages of intelligence”
Thankfully, we have elected a president who is neither evil nor stupid. Time for the lawyer from Nima to defend us because we are all Oko.