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Feature Article of Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Columnist: Awuni, Manasseh Azure

Savannah View: Boycotting the IEA debate

By Manasseh Azure Awuni

A popular Akan proverb teaches us that satisfaction breeds forgetfulness. This proverb, perhaps, explains why politicians never seem to learn. How? It is not easy to remember how it feels to be hungry when one is full. Otherwise, how could Mr Richard Quashigah, the propaganda secretary of the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC), say what he said on air the other day.

The NDC had announced its intention boycott the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates in the run up to the 2012 elections. The reason for the boycott, according the Propaganda Secretary, is that precedence had been set, and that the sitting president does not partake in the debates.

But Mr Richard Quashigah did not end there. He said on Joy FM, an Accra-based radio station, that that the IEA Presidential Debate was not an effective platform to market President Mills and the NDC’s achievement ahead of the 2012 elections. Annoying, huh? Irrespective of the political binoculars through which one views the issue, it is important to note that the continuous boycott of such an important debate is dent on our democracy and an affront to the intelligence of the electorate. It is a case of the elected becoming too arrogant and snobbish towards the electorate in whose name they exercise their power. When a panellist mentioned the fact that it was a case of “political arrogance” on Joy FM’s Newsfile programme, the other day, the Deputy Majority Leader in Parliament and MP for Wa Central, Hon. Rashid Pelpuo, asked that the statement be retracted. But what is more arrogant than this?

The current trend of incumbent boycotts started twelve years ago when Professor John Evans Atta Mills, boycotted the 2000 Presidential Debate as the sitting vice-president seeking election. Former President Kufuor also boycotted the 2004 edition. The 2008 Presidential Debate had no sitting president or vice president contesting the election and we witnessed one of the most stimulating and intellectual political discourses in recent times.

The late President Mills again announced his intention to boycott the 2012 debate and the trend is likely to continue in the future. This is unfortunate because one main bane of our democracy is the absence of mechanisms to hold our elected representatives accountable for their utterance and actions. For this reason, our politicians can mount campaign platforms and promise to build bridges where there are no rivers. They would later justify it as a political talk when pushed to the wall. A platform such as IEA’s Presidential Debate therefore presents a decent and common avenue to hold those seeking political office accountable for their actions and promises. The current trend of the incumbent presidential candidate boycotting this all-important debate is both unfortunate and disrespectful to the electorate, to say the least. The IEA is one of the most respected public policy think tanks and has contributed immensely to the development of our democracy. No amount of smear campaign against this public policy think tank will stick and justify the boycott.

Or what effectiveness is Mr Quashigah talking about in relation to the platform? Has satisfaction made him forget how, in the recent past, avenues such as the IEA Debate were the only way the NDC could get the opportunity to express themselves satisfactorily in voters?

If Mr Quashigah has forgotten, someone should tell him that I still remember his humiliation one evening at GTV. He had brought an advert for airing and the Political Broadcast Monitoring Committee had to preview it before it was aired. Fortunately, I was at the “converter room” to dub as a story so I had the privilege of seeing the preview. That ad was about two young graduates who accused the ruling government of ruining the economy, which accounted for lack of jobs. I remember when some members of the committee gathered, that ad was rejected. The argument was that the NDC could go on with their message without attacking the ruling government. Yet, the same GTV would later air political ads that called the NDC “thieves, brutes and murderers.” Mr Richard Quashigah might have forgotten that even the state-owned newspapers mistreated his party and at a point in time, it appeared as though it was a grand plot to keep the NDC perpetually in the wilderness of opposition. Many reports, including the EU Observer Monitoring Group, indicted the state-owned media for their biased coverage of the 2008 elections. So what effective platform is Mr Quahsigah talking about the NDC using to market their candidate?

Or is it because the NDC is now in power and are exploiting the state media, especially GTV as the 2011 African Media Barometer report on Ghana indicates? Well, unfortunately for the NDC, the hypocritical media gurus are shamelessly up in arms and are determined to see to it that the state media accord all political parties equal opportunities. One wonders where they have thrown objectivity, one of the cardinal principles in journalism.

Like the ignoble Ghana Bar Association, which no right-thinking Ghanaian should take seriously, some civil society groups have greatly compromised their positions as neutral observers and have lost their respect within some political persuasions. But the same cannot be said of the IEA, especially when the Institute has provided equal opportunity for all political parties with representation in parliament to share their objectives with the public in many ways. Looking at what the IEA has done through its Political Parties Programme and the initiation of Bills such as the Presidential Transition Bills, it will not be fair to give it a bad name and consign it to the gallows just because of the disputed publication by the GNA of the NPP’s abuse of incumbency in the 2008 elections.

Anyway, that was not news. It was too obvious and that phenomenon will not go away any moment soon. Has anybody seen the sizes of bill boards of the two main political parties? The tables have turned, and one does not need to depend on the Ghana Integrity Initiative’s “questionable” reports to know that the NDC, like the erstwhile NPP are abusing incumbency.

The argument that the boycott is following precedence and that it the debate is not an effective platform to market the presidential candidate are untenable. In the first place, we follow precedents only when they are good and acceptable by society. So the NDC cannot stick to the bad precedent they set and lost power. Besides, anybody seeking a political office owes it a duty to the electorate to tell them what they intend to do. It is not a favour they are doing us. For incumbent candidates, it is becoming clear that a platform such as this is likely to remind them of their myriad of failed promises to the electorate. To play it safe, the NDC and NPP have over the years adopted this insincere posture of dodging the electorate. The electorate must not accept this. Our politicians will continue to take us for a ride when we don’t demand accountability from them. The 1992 Constitution places the duty of holding public officials accountable on the media. But inadequate resources, poor capacity and polarisation along party lines have rendered the Ghanaian media impotent in this respect. For instance, it took only one question by a BBC journalist to expose the loopholes in Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo’s promise of free senior high school education. Policy think tanks, such as the IEA, therefore fill the void that has been created by our overzealous praise singing, malicious and vilifying media. Sometimes it is only through platforms such as the IEA Presidential Debate that we can hold our politicians accountable and the sitting presidential candidate should not choose to appear or boycott it.

The IEA has indicated the boycott will not affect the debate. But it is not exactly true. The NDC and NPP are the main contenders in this election and they will constitute the real debate. The programme will not be as lively as it ought to be without one of them.

As for the NDC, there are questions they need to answer. What will they do if allegations are made against them in the debate? How are they going to refute that? Will they hold a press conference to refute the issues and “set the records straight?” And will they expect the media to be there? If yes, then they should respect us by taking part in the debate.

The platform, which the NDC now describes as ineffective was the same platform that was used to market then candidate Mills when they were in the wilderness of opposition. It was on this platform that the late President Mills spelled out his elaborate plans for the nation, such as the Savannah Accelerated Development Authority. It was on this platform that candidate Mills promised to empower women by ensuring that at least forty per cent of all his appointments would be women. And it is only fair that President Mills’ successor, President John Dramani, tell us on that same platform why not up to 10% per cent of women have made it to his list in many of the areas of appointment.

Anything short of this is unacceptable.

Savannah View is a weekly column published in the The Finder newspaper/Ghana. Writer’s email: azureachebe2@yahoo.com

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