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Opinions of Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Columnist: Umar Mohammed

The Louis Carol affair: Activism and power

One of the things in the political environment that has rattled my personal social media space this week has been the press release by Dr Louis Carol regarding the opposition NDC John Mahama's decision to tap Professor Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang as his running-mate for the upcoming 2020 general election.

I am going to preface the analysis I'm going to make with the confession that I am somehow personally invested in this affair so I cannot say I am entirely neutral in my analysis of the issues at stake. First, I am very partial to feminist issues and thoroughly buy into the agenda for social change that empowers women.

Second, the honourable professor is the mother of a very good friend of mine. That out of the way, I will endeavour to be as intellectually honest as I can be in this analysis.

I have generally grown to dislike gesture politics: what others call politics of representation. My main reason is that I came to political maturity under Obama. I was sixteen years old and an exchange student in Washington DC when I witnessed Obama come into global political prominence.

Like others, I was swept into the frenzy of the undeniable historic nature of his election. But that was only partially. With Obama, many young people, especially black and brown young people, truly believed that he was going to transform the way power works in America, and hopefully, the rest of the world would follow suit.

Obama came from the activist community in Chicago. To most of us who are not Chicagoans, he was a hope that we could rally behind because he spoke our language and used our rhetoric. It is important to note however that much better observers, activists, and scholars like Prof. Adolph Reed Jr. did offer some caution and were earliest to identify the vapidity and neoliberal empty posturing in Obama back when he first won the state senate seat in 1996.

Whatever our delusions were, it is safe to say that Obama turned out to be a complete failure when we put his eight years against the hopes we had in him or those he engendered in us. And yet, I am still not entirely unhappy that Obama won the presidency. Representation matters no matter how I feel about it.

Outside the hopes and dreams of the activist base and tradition, Obama came from, and which people like me judge and grade his presidency by, what Obama did for which people from the activist base like me find unforgivable (the destruction of Libya foremost among them along with little to no criminal justice reform and tepid healthcare policy), when put in comparison with other American presidents is not that bad and in some cases a lot better than what other presidents have offered and were likely to offer anyway.

On war, John McCain who Obama defeated in 2008 is likely to have done more destruction with his “bomb bomb bomb” foreign policy mantra. Judged by his peers (other presidents - all white), Obama is just a standard to an above-average president. But when you move away from the policy focus of activists like me, Obama also served a crucial role in American society and the world at large. Anti-blackness is a global phenomenon. With Europe’s colonialism and racist systems exported to the rest of the world, almost every other culture around the world appear to think that they are somehow better than black people. From Russia to Saudi Arabia, you hear stories of racism against melanated people.

The symbol of Obama at the helm of the most powerful nation in the world served the purpose of allowing people to expand their imagination on racial superiority and inferiority. With propaganda of black family degeneracy polluting newsrooms and small and big screen cinema, the picture of that wholesome black family in the White House for 8 years allowed for a powerful counter-narrative and symbolism. All these are heightened by the degenerate in the White House now with his serial philandering self and his gaudy classless family. Generations of young people grew up with Obama, a black man as President, Michelle, a black woman as First Lady, and Malia and Saha, two black girls as children of the most powerful couple on the planet. That matters.

Even if those of us in the activist base prefer policy over symbols, the powerful symbol of the Obama family in the White House cannot be denied for how much it did and will continue to do to change social perceptions. But I digress.

John Mahama’s decision to tap Prof. Opoku-Agyemang is historic in a place like Ghana where gender is still a really touchy issue in our body politic. We have never had a female President. Neither have we had a female Vice President. The highest-ranking female leader we have had in Ghana was Justice Joyce Bamford-Addo as Speaker of Parliament (2009 to 2013) who was appointed first as Supreme Court justice by President Jerry John Rawling in 1991.

It should be noted that she is alleged to have resigned from the Apex Court in 2004 after the NPP administration led by John Agyekum Kuffuor bypassed her for the position of Chief Justice for a judge four years younger on the Supreme Court than her (I should note that Kuffuor later appointed Justice Georgina Wood as the first female Chief Justice in 2007, three years after Justice Bamford-Addo’s resignation from the Supreme Court).

So the closest to the most powerful position in the land was Justice Joyce Bamford-Addo’s role as Speaker of Parliament. With the nomination of Prof. Opoku-Agyemang, Ghana is likely to see a woman occupying the second-highest leadership position in Ghana in the role of the Vice Presidency. With the way Ghanaian politics runs, she will then be in a prime position to reach for the top post in four years. You have to remember that John Mahama has only one more 4-year term to be president. With him out of the running in 2024, Vice President Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang will be in the prime position to assume NDC’s flagbearer position to run for president.

For any woman or ally of women, for any feminist or ally of feminists, for anyone with sympathy for inclusive politics, the selection of Prof. Opoku-Agyemang is one of the most important opportunities to getting a woman to the Apex Office in Ghana. Other than the fact that she is a woman, it is safe to say that her credentials are beyond reproach. Prof. Opoku-Agyemang has had a distinguished career in academia serving in various roles such as the Deans of Board of Graduate Studies, School of Graduate Studies and Research, and Faculty of Arts, Head of Department for the English Department at UCC, and first female Vice-Chancellor of UCC and for that matter any public university in Ghana.

Those against the agenda for women empowerment often shouting about competence will have a difficult job ahead of them if the venerable professor charts the trajectory I have outlined above towards the presidency. By all standards, her nomination is historic in its potential to change the way we see women and their role in leadership in Ghana. For those of us who believe men already in power have a duty to amplify women and nurture them, like they do men, into leadership positions, Mahama’s choice is nothing but commendable.

The congratulations and plaudits have been pouring in from all corners of the political and activist landscape including from CDD-Ghana, African Women Lawyers Association, etc. Even the New York Times had an article about it given its historical nature. Virtually all my feminist friends, even those who are NPP supporters felt this was historic and some whom I have seen say they will sit out the 2020 election say they will go to the polls because of Prof. Opoku-Agyemang.

Her nomination as Mahama’s running-mate and the potential for her being the Vice President presented a real challenge to the NPP because from what I am seeing, this has generated a lot of enthusiasm for John Mahama and the NDC who many voters were wary of given their previous not-so-stellar stint four years ago governing the country. Whatever the case, Dr Opoku-Agyemang’s nomination is a step in the right direction if nothing but for the symbolic statement, it makes about the role women can and should play in leadership in Ghana.

That is why what Dr Louis Carol did with her press release was a gut punch to many gender activists and personal friends of mine on the historic nomination of Prof. Opoku-Agyemang.

In the political space, it is often the case that many find themselves in very difficult straits when their friends and or principles come in direct conflict with party interests. In fact, for most astute political actors, and I use examples of American politics as examples, you’d often find most people tight-lipped and MIA on such occasions.

I have watched so many Republican Senators in the past three and half years dodge reporters chasing them down the corridors of the Capitol building on one or the other of Trump’s disastrous vituperations. Sometimes you simply need to keep to yourself when party loyalty is pitted against your own principles or friends. And yet, Dr Louis Carol deliberately chose to wade into the nomination of Prof. Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang and that too by downplaying her historic nomination.

In fact, it was not reporters chasing her down asking for her opinion. She deliberately sat down and wrote a 4-page takedown of Prof. Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang’ nomination and posted it to social media and various media houses. Clearly, she wanted everyone to know her position, to read her takedown. You might ask why she chose this to do this. This is the reason for this piece. Sorry for the convoluted way I got to this point but to get my argument, you have to understand the background and philosophical underpinnings of what I am going to say in the next paragraphs.

In the first paragraph of Dr Louis Carol’s press release, she was quick to pivot to her takedown after offering a tepid one-sentence congratulation to the eminent professor. With that one sentence congratulations, Dr Carol moved on to immediately and in a pedestrian manner typical of Ghanaian politics downplay the historical nature of Prof. Opoku-Agyemang’s nomination by listing other women who were tapped for the running-mate role. The disingenuous nature of this move belies the fact that these other women Dr. Carol was quick to list stood no chance whatsoever in getting to the office of the Vice Presidency.

The National Independence Party, of which Prof. Naa Afarley Sackeyfio (the first woman tapped for running-mate in Ghana) was a fringe party that got barely 3% of the vote in the 1992 general election. Ms Eva Naa Marley Eva Lokko’s Progressive People’s Party, PPP (of which she was the running-mate to Paa Kwasi Nduom) was an even more of a fringe party that came away with just over half a percentage point (0.59%) of the vote in the 2012 general election. Nduom’s fringe PPP picked another woman Ms Brigitte Dzogbenuku in the last general election in 2016 and came away with just under 1% of the vote.

Any fair-minded analyst knows these past attempts at VP nominations are in no way even close to what has happened regarding Prof. Opoku-Agyemang’s nomination. But you can expect this kind of pedestrian political analysis from a lot of Ghana’s political punditocracy. You however do not and should not expect it from someone of Dr Carol’s education, much less her past activism in gender and feminist circles. She further attempts a takedown of the Prof. Opoku-Agyemang nomination by claiming it is not transformational progress for Ghanaian women because progress “entails more than just a singular nomination for a running mate.”

The argument she makes in this paragraph is utterly demeaning if not outright libelous. The idea that Prof. Opoku-Agyemang will not be able to effect any change takes from her any power and influence she might accrue in her role as Vice President and the potential for a future role as President. But her argument here defeats the entire premise of representational politics. Should we accept her argument here, then it stands to reason that we can always argue that women are not needed in Ghanaian politics because men can equally make the policies that will transform the lives of Ghanaian women.

It also appears to be blatantly dishonest in that she has often argued for representational politics in the past. And when she herself ran for political office earlier this year, she was vocally supported by gender activists and feminists who used arguments steeped in representational politics which she did not object to. Because of this Molotov cocktail, Dr Carol deliberately chose to lob into the gender discourse in Ghana and particularly the activist base, I am inclined to believe ulterior motives (dark or benign) are at play here depending on how generous you want to be to her.

The first potential motif is that Dr Carol is honestly engaged in a strategic power play here. Let me explain. Dr Carol is a politician. She comes from a political family that is neck-deep in NPP party politics. Her father is a party chieftain. Her rise to prominence in Ghana’s political landscape came in the form of her dust-up with the party base whom we locally call foot soldiers.

After her foot soldiers comment in 2018 and the pressure from them led to her suspension by the president, virtually the only people defending her were gender and feminist activists. During her impressive but failed NPP parliamentary primary, she was boosted on all platforms by feminist and gender activists. On the other hand, I saw party foot soldiers promise to vote against her in the run-up to the election. And when she lost, I saw party foot soldiers jubilate on social media after her loss.

I should say that she mounted an impressive campaign coming in 2nd in a field of 6 candidates despite this being her first run. The generous interpretation of her current political machinations is to assume that she is looking at pivoting to full-time party warrior thereby gaining loyalty from foot soldiers so that she can use that opportunity to climb to the echelons of power to help effect the gender transformations she values.

Read this way, she will be playing what we call realpolitik and power politics. This way, getting to the top to be able to wield power is more important than “palatable” gender and activist posturing right now. After all, she still lost her bid to enter parliament even with the full backing of the gender and feminist activist base pitted against the party’s foot soldier base.

The second potential motif, though less generous, is equally plausible and maybe the most likely of the two motives. One of the realities of activism is that not everyone in these circles is there for the cause. Many are grifters. Some just are power-hungry. Some are overly ambitious. Sometimes, even when they believe in the cause, their ambition for power gets the better of them. Ambition is good to be clear.

So Dr Carol can be, and I advise other women in politics to be, ambitious. The only problem with ambition is when it overrides apparent strongly held beliefs and principles. Many people who we move within activist circles are only using the exposure that the heat and profile activist groups bring to them. Their activism is just a stepping stone for their ambition and climb to the top. I put Obama in that category. Using community activism in Chicago, Obama climbed the political ladder and promptly furloughed his principles for acceptance and place in the ruling elite.

Consider the fact that Obama who entered politics as a fairly middle-class man now has a 12 million dollar mansion in the exclusive Martha’s Vineyard elite hideout with contracts for books and films worth hundreds of millions of dollars alongside delivering speeches to banks for half a million dollars apiece. Obama has thoroughly transitioned from the community activist and organizer to one of America’s oligarchic ruling elite. And his recent political moves (supporting establishment candidates, talking down at black people with the racist and classist bootstraps tripe, etc) shows he is fully transitioned. It could be argued that Dr Carol saw the rise of gender activism and feminist discourse as an opportunity to make a name for herself which she could then ride to political office. She will not be the first or the last.

In academia today, and in the social justice industry, you can make a buck and a name for yourself peddling progress and empowerment of all sorts (including women empowerment) without actually believing in any of these principles or ideas. Neoliberal Professional Managerial Class (PMC) politics today thrives on funding these kinds of vapid initiatives and empowerment seminars so it is a great place to cash in. And the absolute fact is that power centres appear to know these vapid persons and they often boost them to prominent roles in activist groups.

They do so because these persons will not really challenge the status quo. Often times, they are often deployed as agents to counter real progress. This might be what is happening in Dr Louis Carol’s case.

Power, they say gives no ground without a fight. Prof. Opoku-Agyemang’s nomination undoubtedly presents a serious threat to the NPP because they’d missed out on the usual free for all lobbing of dirty attacks Ghana is used to. As a woman, the NPP must tread lightly in their language in any political attack on her lest they are seen as regressive and anti-women. We have already seen a few slip-ups in the past two days that have been seized on by the NDC and other gender activists to attack the NPP as socially regressive when it comes to how they view women.

Yaw Buabeng Asamoah, the NPP communications director’s statement that “John Dramani Mahama choosing Jane Nana Opoku Agyemang is an indication he does not take Ghanaians serious” has already been the subject of gendered analysis and pushback, even though the NPP will argue the statement was taken out of context. So the most potent attacks against Prof. Opoku-Agyemang will have to come from women in the NPP.

I pity the women who have to take on this role because it is an unenviable position to be put in. Yet, ambitious women in the NPP, and some will argue Dr Carol is such a one, will smell blood and see an opportunity to elevate their profile as NPP attack dogs and darlings of the party base if they step into that role. If situated in this understanding, Dr Carol inserting herself into Prof. Opoku-Agyemang’s nomination even though no one asked or pressured her into doing so may be one such opportunist jumping at the chance for political gain.

In the past 24 hours, I have seen an outpouring of love and support for Dr Louis Carol from the party base and I wager Dr Carol is smiling to the bank at home. Some have even promised to move to Old Tafo to vote for her in 2024. Dr Carol probably thinks her gamble in offering a takedown of Prof. Jane Naana Opoku-Agyemang is already bearing fruit. We wait till 2024 to see if she made the right decision or ended her political career by this obvious destruction of her credibility in gender activist and feminist circles.

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