Feature Article of Thursday, 22 November 2012
After all the campaigning and mudslinging from every available political platform and feasible fora by the various political parties contesting Ghana's presidential elections on December 7th, it appears the prominent voice behind the altar at the International Central Gospel Church (I.C.G.C.) might decide the winner of the elections. Yes, I am saying potential voters who listen and pay fealty to the voice of Pastor Mensa Otabil - the preacher whose spoken words have been caught up in the political theater - will decide the December 7th presidential elections.
For those unfamiliar with the story, here is a summary of the chain of events: A political propaganda outfit, Education Watch, affiliated with the NDC (a Super PAC, if you will) has been running campaign advertisement of an audio sermon of Dr. Otabil in which he alleged that - "that education can never be free; free education will compromise the quality of education; and a State run education would make the pupils the property of the state and in the process strip parents the dignity of raising their own children" (emphasis added).
Pastor Otabil held a presser and lashed out at the NDC affiliated outfit charging in strong terms what he considered as mischievous use and misrepresentation of his words to bolster the NDC’s argument to undercut the opposition party NPP's campaign promise to provide free education when elected to power. It must be noted that before the presser, Pastor Otabil's church (I.C.G.C.) had issued a press statement to that effect, which evidently was to no avail. Pastor Otabil, in addition to vehemently condemning the actions of the NDC affiliate group for using his words for political gains; also, called on President John Mahama to intervene to stop the group from using his words and drawing him into the political theater.
In a rare I DID NOT APPROVE THIS MESSAGE stance, President Mahama’s campaign team issued statements distancing the president from the controversial advertisement containing Pastor Otabil’s sermons. The President's campaign team said, "President Mahama wishes to reiterate his position that he did not and has not endorsed any political advertising containing Pastor's Otabil's voice, neither is he aware of any surrogate affiliated to him as being behind the promotion of such tapes."
Yet a vitriolic verbal war has been going on over the airwaves and web between mainly NDC affiliates and surrogates and the I.C.G.C. and sympathizing members of the Christian community. From JoyNewsFile to Ghanaweb to Facebook to Twitter have been littered with fiercely divided opinions with some showing wedded loyalty to the revered and influential pastor while others lampoon Pastor Otabil. Even some NDC surrogates have questioned the credibility of the “man of God” and in the process further stoking the fires of political hostility between the Christian community and the NDC.
This note will not address the merits and demerits of Pastor Otabil's presser and the fallout from it; nor will I address the substantive issue at stake - whether or not the government can or should provide free education to all children of school going age up to the Senior High School level, as stated in the Constitution of Ghana. Nor I will address whether it was the politically expedient thing for the NDC to be mired in this controversy. My take is the potential consequence this controversy might have on the December 7th election, if any.
Before you dismiss this assertion there is a little, but very important statistical fact you should know or be reminded of: the 2008 presidential election was decided by 40, 000 votes. Yes, former President Atta Mills of blessed memory squeaked by Nana Akuffo Addo by . . . . you say it: 40,000 votes. The margin to win might even be smaller this time around based on how further divided the already divisive country has become.
Against this back drop, in an election of the slightest of margins, if we are to give any weight to the predictions of the pundits and forecasters, unless they are also living in a FOX News bubble, the voice behind of one of the largest churches in Ghana could sway the outcome of the elections if aggrieved sympathizing Christians perceived that the “man of God” is being maligned by the NDC. Pastor Otabil’s church has a conservative estimate of at least 30,000 members across Ghana. Throw in about 100,000 more sympathizing fellow charismatic Christians who listen to his sermons; some with wedded fealty to his teachings. That gives you a massive voting bloc which can sway an election.
As indicated above, opinions have been starkly divided between those in the church community, particularly members of Pastor Otabil's church staunchly defending their pastor against what they consider as a political propaganda to insult, smear, and discredit the esteem "man of God." On the other hand, are those who consider Pastor Otabil to be of a particular political leaning hiding behind the pulpit to inject himself in the current political discourse either to promote or undercut a viewpoint.
In an age of the adulation of “men of God” where pastors of mega-churches are beyond reproach, picking a fight with a pastor, particularly, an influential one held in such high esteem in the Christian community in Ghana could be a political suicide. In a society where some congregants cling to every word that comes out of their pastors’ mouth based on blind devotion and loyalty, it is not farfetched to suggest that aggrieved sympathizers of Pastor Otabil might vote against a political party in solidarity.
If likely voters who hear Pastor Otabil’s voice which resonates from behind the pulpit in Christ Temple in Accra across the globe through the airwaves and internet pay fealty to his voice, and also can read the tea leaf to determine his political leanings, a solidarity vote for Pastor Otabil might decide the outcome of the December 7th presidential election.