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Opinions of Monday, 16 February 2009

Columnist: Kennedy, Arthur Kobina

Forming A Government

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Over the last couple of weeks, President Mills has been busy assembling his government. Across the Atlantic, even though President Obama took office after President Mills, he appears to be further along than President Mills. However, he too has not been without his stumbles. A number of his nominees have had to decline their nominations. He has withdrawn a nominee. There have been protests by his own party against some of his nominees. The minority has walked out in protest against a nominee.

Historically, cabinet-making has always been a difficult task. In Parliamentary systems of government, particularly when there are minority governments, forming a cabinet must take into account many varied interests. This is because the resignation of a Minister or two can lead to the collapse of the government. This has occurred repeatedly in both Israel and Italy. In the Presidential system too, who is selected for Ministerial positions sends a very clear message about the priorities and values of the President. Generally, criteria for Ministerial selections include competence, service and loyalty to the party, geographic/ethnic balance and integrity. Of course, there are other factors, including the personality and philosophy of the President making the appointments. President Lincoln appointed all his rivals to cabinet positions. When he was asked why he had done so, he quipped “How else can I keep an eye on them?” In modern times, Tony Blair wisely kept Gordon Brown in his cabinet despite their well-known personal differences and his government was the better for it.

Competence has been universally accepted as a criterion but is hard-to-define in politics. Is it know-what or know-how? Too often, we mistake eloquence for competence and when the chickens come home to roost, we are surprised. In recent American history, there have been two very spectacular examples of heralded appointees not living up to the hype. President John Kennedy swept into office with a group of academics who were described as “the best and brightest”. In the end, they bungled the “Bay-of-pigs” invasion and led America into Vietnam. President “Bush 43” swept into office with what experts regarded as the best foreign-policy team in the last quarter-century and that team led America into Iraq!

The disconnect between supposed competence and performance is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Recently, I was speaking to a very high-ranking member of the Kufuor administration about a Minister who was very highly regarded by the Press when a reporter who was listening said “Oh, he just knows how to take care of the Press so he gets very good coverage.” In other words, the public’s perception of that particular Minister based on Press reports was not shared by the knowledgeable people in government and the Press.

Service and loyalty to ones party is very important and controversial. As soon as the NDC transition team was announced, some NDC stalwarts complained that some who had not been active during their years in the wilderness had resurfaced. They felt that those who were more active in the party’s cause deserved to be considered first for opportunities. This is a very important issue. Sometimes, in our politics, those who have served very well and are competent but may have offended the “powers that be” in the party are neglected just to “teach them a lesson”. When individual differences are addressed this way, it tends to reinforce the perception that power was won by an individual and not a group and to leads to bickering that can go on for years to the detriment of a party. While this is happening, the same “powers that be “ who are intent on punishing those who were opponents or have “sinned” are busy reaching out to others, from the margins of the party or even sometimes outside it to show “inclusiveness”. Since charity begins at home, inclusiveness, to be genuine, must start from within one’s own party. Geographic and/or ethnic balance is important. The question is to what extent. After dumping Moses Asaga, President Mills has moved to replace him with someone from the same area. Are the people of Mr. Asaga’s region, district or ethnic group entitled to the position just because it was initially offered to one of their own? To broaden the issue, are Fantis entitled to a certain number of Ministerial appointments because of their number? While obviously, there is a need for the cabinet to “look like the nation”, too much emphasis on that may be to our detriment. Ultimately, the people of Asaga’s ethnic group or district are more interested in development of their area rather than seeing a few local folks who have made it.

Integrity, in this context is a loaded word. Unfortunately, many who cannot follow the nuances of policy can follow the titillating details of moral failings and scandals. Interestingly, frequently, it is difficult to make the link between private lapses and public competence. President Clinton had “Monica problems” that nearly ended his Presidency prematurely but was a good President. Ironically, Jimmy Carter, another Democratic President, was as straight as an arrow and certainly without “Monica problems” but an unsuccessful President. The problem is that sometimes, our excessive focus on moral lapses gets in the way of evaluating competence of cabinet nominees. While integrity or ethics and other such things are important, we should know that when we pick Ministers and even Presidents, we are not picking priests. Some people may make exceptional priests but they will be terrible Ministers. After the number of appointment processes that have occurred under the 1992 constitution, there needs to be some reflection on the appointment process. First, I believe that frequently, the Appointments Committee, while doing a good job, sometimes lacks the expertise to engage nominees in an in-depth discussion of the Ministries they are nominated for. Therefore, I suggest that Parliamentary Committees for the various ministries that probably have more expertise be given the responsibility of vetting the nominees. This means for example that the Parliamentary Committee on health should vet a nominee for health etc. The other side of the coin is how much care goes into the nominations on the President’s side. On a few occasions, nominees now and in the past have appeared quite uninformed about the Ministries they have been nominated to lead. One expects that whenever a person is nominated for a particular Ministry, that person, before showing up for the Parliamentary hearing, would take the trouble to get acquainted with his/her designated Ministry.

Second, I suggest that such committees or the appointments committee make use of experts during the vetting of nominees regarding the national priorities of particular areas or Ministries.

Third, the hearings appear to be too partisan. There seems to be a proclivity on the part of government members to protect the nominees and a determination by opposition members to embarrass some nominees. This leads to situations where the chairman of the committee disallows very reasonable questions on one hand and the tendency of the opposition members to ask questions that are either too trivial or too personal while important questions begging to be asked are left unasked and therefore unanswered.

Fourth, the Press has a role in the vetting process which they are not playing. One would expect that the Press would investigate and unearth, for the benefit of the appointments committee, a nominees track record, competence and conflicts. In the United States for instance, most of the nominees who had problems had these problems first identified by the Press before being followed up by members of congress. While our press makes a lot of noise, it frequently shies away from the neutral, diligent and conscientious reporting that will make them real players in our appointments process.

Finally, let me address the role of chance or luck in appointments, particularly for the benefit of the deserving ones who have been left out this time. Emperor Napoleon of France was once approached by a lady who wanted an appointment for her son as a high-ranking officer. After listening to her for a while, Napoleon was reported to have said “ Madam, all that I need to know is whether your son is lucky. With luck, one can achieve a lot with little ability”. Napoleon’s point was that there is a force beyond any of us that determines these things. In 1979, Victor Owusu of the PFP had spent all his adult life preparing for the Presidency but he was defeated by the relatively unknown and untested Dr Limann and as they say, the rest is history. In 1996, President Rawlings disregarded many who had served the NDC loyally and were more experienced to pick Prof. Mills as his running mate and as they say, the rest is history.

In 2008, Nana Akufo-Addo by-passed many in the NPP who had served the party and were very well-known in politics to pick Dr Bawumia and if fifty or so thousand votes had gone the other way, Dr Bawumia would be Vice-President today, on his way, probably to a future nomination and possibly, the Presidency.

Whenever we get bypassed for appointments or honours, we must understand that sometimes the fault is not in ourselves but in our stars. Long live our democracy and long live Ghana.

Arthur Kobina Kennedy