I wish I had a personal anecdote to build this on. The type Tanehisi Coates so beautifully structured his “My President was Black” story on. The kind that sets your reader’s mind in the right ambience, sharing subtle details about my president’s charm on the microphone. How he trekked the entire country with alacrity during the dying days of the campaign while I was crouched in an overcrowded bus in his motorcade for journalists. How he co-authored a wonderfully scripted biography. Or even what fills the magical flask he carried around during the waning days of his campaign.
But like the average Ghanaian, I was never privileged enough to watch this master communicator from up close and personal. I probably could have gotten the opportunity if I was a die-hard NDC fanatic who religiously followed the president whenever he was within a reachable radius or knew someone with connects up the political ladder. Heck, I could have shaken his hands and done the thing where Ghanaian men snap fingers after shaking hands, with the president if I had taken part in the Meet JM campaign which brought randomly selected Facebook followers of the president in close contact with him for the best part of a day. That was how innovative my president was in reaching out to the masses. In many ways, that focus ended up being his nemesis at the end of the day.
No one doubts the ability of John Dramani Mahama to get across to his audience. A master’s holder in communication and a former deputy minister in that very field, my president had earned a reputation as a peerless communicator. He excelled in the spotlight whenever given the opportunity so much so that he seemed to find a thrill in baiting his opponents into a debater. His predecessor did not enjoy those so much. His interviews were gems and his speeches always seemed to have some of the most quotable lines in the political season. One of them, “recipe for mediocrity”, would end up haunting him earlier this year.
Being the excellent talker he was, President John Dramani Mahama did enunciate the direction he wanted the country to take the minute he took the reins of government after the sad demise of his predecessor, Professor Attah Mills. With a somber mood, he urged fostering on in clichéd terms yet with the type of mood that makes you think “this is the kind of man I want leading my country. He is not as experienced as the other guy, but I would be ok with him in charge. Just look at the way he talks and carries himself!” So he succeeded in sweet talking his way to the presidency in a manner never seen before. He beat a legendary statesman who himself was eloquent with words and had been after the presidency way before the constitution of the country was first penned.
Eloquence does not operate in a vacuum. It is not enough to be silver tongued in the German language when you live in Kazakhstan. In Ghana, it goes beyond that. Regardless of how well you speak Twi, having an accent contorts it. It widens the chasm between you and the audience you seek in a manner you are not really responsible for. Regardless of whether the accent is an inadvertent one or affected like the one we call Lafa, it smacks of uppity. How we got to this conclusion as a people, I would never know.
Nana Akufo-Addo, the man with an accent even when he speaks Twi was seen as out of touch with the hoi polloi. Nothing he ever did or said was enough to endear him to the people as a humble man. His “presidential pose” was said to be haughty. Even when he drank sachet water and ate from an earthen ware, it still felt too contrived for some.
Riding on this contorted understanding of humility and arrogance, Mahama made his way to office. For four years, he ruled over a country sharply divided over what development meant for a developing nation like ours. Was some amounts of corruption tolerable so long as work was being done? Was it ok to bloat costs of projects if at the end of the magnanimous structures were up and standing? Did the mere existence of infrastructure mean we were there yet? Did the economy deserve more attention than the putting up of infrastructure? Was the very building of infrastructure not an effort to stimulate the economy in desirable ways?
In many ways some of the answers to these questions were obvious. No amount of corruption was to be tolerated and neither should we be overlooking cooked up costs of projects. But the infrastructure vs. economy one was a tough one to crack. It still is but retrospectively, the outcome of the 2016 elections settled that questioned in many way. With over a million vote difference, no one needs an academic exercise to know that Ghanaians had clearly delineated the predominance of working on the economy to put monies in the pocket of the people from putting up lighted up fountains at interchanges.
My president thought otherwise. I bet he still thinks the same. You see throughout the campaign season, it was clear he trusted the dozens of schools he had put up to get him the votes. He knew times were hard and so as was his stock in trade, he promised to get stuff better in the next term. Postponing what he had to do was something he reveled in, just like he showed us with the dumsor situation. But his communication skills was something he reveled in more.
In more interviews than can be counted on all the fingers we have, JM touted how well he had campaigned. He kept reminding us of how in touched he was with the people, found his way into a debate at the tail end of the campaign season to lecture us on the obvious but in a melodious manner after he had chickened out of an earlier one and then to top it all off, tried to remind us of our dislike for accents by mimicking his opponent’s slang. But 2016 was not going to be another 2012. We would later learn that issues mattered to the Ghanaian electorate and no matter how complicated it might seem at times, intellectualism was going to play some role at the end of the day.
Because why else would a seemingly well carried out campaign fail to get the numbers out in the Volta Region, lose several seats in the Northern, Upper East and Upper West Regions? Why would the catchy sloganeering which won it in 2012 fail to do the magic in 2016 and fall woefully short of the 1 million target in the Ashanti Region and 50/50 goal in the Eastern Region?
By being so in touch with the people, my president got out of touch. He forgot that the very people who voted for his predecessor because he was asomdwehene (king of peace) were the same people obsessed with the 1981 coup leader who sent many to the stakes at the firing grounds. JM might have gotten into power on the backs of a people who both sympathized with him in his grieving period and were charmed by his display of Ghanaian humility but they were not buying that in 2016. Even if he did not slur his words and made his R’s silent, they were not bothered. That was never going to light their dark rooms and neither was it enough to assuage the effects of the ever rising in value dollar.
My president was (still is for the next 2 weeks or so) John Mahama, the communicator par excellence. He did lose the plot eventually but he still cared for the nation. He was no Iddi Amin or Gnassingbé Eyadéma but he eventually did get carried away. He became the dead goat who refused to listen.