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Opinions of Saturday, 18 February 2012

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

Gargantuan or Elephantine Heckling of the President?

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK

The first time I heard the word “gargantuan” was at St Augustine’s College in Cape Coast when one of our English Masters (as they were then known), used it in a lesson. It was no big deal at the time as he was well known for using big words and for that matter, all we said as usual was, “ya yusu” (literally meaning, he has used it). Mr Gyasi Appiah’s (who I understand later became the Headmaster) control over the Queen’s language was incredible. Little did I know that this word would become a Ghanaian phraseology thirty six years later? Today, most Ghanaians, if not all, know the word “gargantuan”, thanks to Woyomegate and the former Attorney Generals. Even the President has adopted the word in his lexicon and at the state of the nation’s address on Thursday February 17, 2012, the President was reported to have referred to the heckling he received at the hands of the minority in Parliament as “Gargantuan”.

Most of us have become victims to the word and there is not a single day that I do not come across it on the Ghanaian media, especially on Ghanaweb. In fact, I am also a victim as I often use or misuse it in conversation with my Ghanaian friends. For example, for the last three months, I have been disappointed that my favourite programme on Radio Focus “Epone” has disappeared only to find out that it is now broadcast on 1 Power FM. When by accident I found “Epone” on 1 Power FM on my laptop on Friday February 17 2012, the first words that came to my mind was, “what a gargantuan luck?”

But are we all using the word appropriately or misusing it? The everyday usage of the word would soon make it lose its significance and very soon many Ghanaians will forget what led to the word becoming part of everyday Ghanaian phrase. For me, Mr Gyasi Appiah taught me that the use of any word should be appropriate for the environment, the situation, the occasion, etc and therefore since NPP’s symbol is the elephant and their MPs’ behaviour at the state of the national address was abhorrent, I will describe their behaviour as “Elephantine”, which is synonymous with gargantuan but appropriate for something negative.

Before considering the behaviour of the minority on the day in question, it is important to remind ourselves of the importance of this annual ritual by the President. This is a constitutional duty required of the President to report to the nation the state of affairs and also an opportunity for the President to tell the nation his programme for the year/s ahead. It is therefore a very sacred constitutional duty that the four arms of government (the Executive, the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Media) as well as Ghanaians must take very serious. Unfortunately, since I started showing interest in this constitutional duty from 2009, it appears to me that it becoming a joke.

Last year, the controversy was about the refusal of the President to acknowledge the presence of the Ex-President Kufuor and the Chief Justice who were invited and were present. Despite protest from the minority, the President went ahead with is address and did not acknowledge the two in his salutation. That resulted in the majority retaliating by refusing to stand up on the departure of the President from the house and to see him off after his address as protocol demanded. This year, I was very disappointed with the salutation when I read the full text of the President’s state of the national address to the august house and the nation.

The President began his address by acknowledging only the Speaker. No other dignitary was addressed directly or indirectly by the President. To be honest, this year’s salutation was worst than last year’s. I accept that, there is no laid down format or prescription for the way the President should deliver the state of the nation address but protocol demands that certain individuals and groups must be addressed directly and indirectly. If this was done deliberately to avoid the lapses of last year, then I am afraid, it was a diplomatic blunder that could affect negatively the image of the Presidency and the President globally. It was an indication of a President who lacks confidence as a result of one mistake or was the mistake last year deliberate to cause embarrassment to the Ex-President and the Chief Justice? No wonder, the Chief Justice sent a representative this year and I do not blame her for not attending in person.

For example, in Obama’s recent state of the Union address his salutation was: Mr Speaker, Mr Vice-President, members of Congress, distinguished guests and fellow Americans”. Why the President could not address members of Parliament, the distinguished guests and Ghanaians, is a mystery to me? How could the President ignore the very house he was addressing directly or the distinguished guests invited to the event by the Presidency and or Parliament, including representatives of foreign governments and international organisations? Was all that to avoid missing someone or some groups? This is disgraceful and should never be repeated again (if Mills ever gets the opportunity to deliver a fifth state of the nation address). The President’s communication team still has a long way to go, when it comes to protocol.

I have not seen the television coverage or listened to the audio of the address but from media reports, the behaviour of the minority in Parliament (NPP), to say the least, was atrocious. In fact, I know that heckling is done in all democratic societies and Ghana is no different. However, on a day when there were invited and distinguished guests in the house, one expected Parliamentarians to heckle wisely and in a humours manner but not in an elephantine way. The role of the opposition is to hold the Executive accountable and to put forward alternative policies and programmes to the electorates. Opposition should be done constructively and in the best interest of the nation, though sometimes it is for political expediency as it happens even in matured democracies such as the US and the UK. However, what happened in Parliament on Thursday was none of the aforementioned but an orchestrated plan by the minority to disgrace the President. The intensity of their heckle was such that, it was suggestive of a deliberate effort by the minority to prevent the President from performing his constitutional duty to the house and the nation. They behaved as if they were angry students who were trying to prevent their headmaster or headmistress from speaking to them on a subject they vehemently disagree with.

I know that as often with NDC/NPP defence, supporters of NPP would say that the NDC did the same to Ex-President Kufuor when they were in opposition and it also happened to Ex-President Rawlings and even the late President Limann and Prime Minister Busia. Yes, that may be true, but do we want our elected members in opposition to behave the way they did on Thursday in the presence of guests in a televised state of the nation address? For me, what is wrong is wrong and it does not matter whether it happened to Rawlings or Kufuor. I expect members of the house to be more honourable and less dishonourable, after all they are referred to “Honourables” What is honourable about heckling the President by taking whistles into Parliament to make noise? It was childish, infantile and elephantine.

One problem with the opposition is that sometimes they are too confident for their own good. By showing the President red card and telling him to go away because they are sure of victory in December 2012, they forget that, the decision to show the President the red card rests with the electorate and not in the hands of Parliament or the minority in parliament. The Presidential elections are yet to be held and ten months is a very long time in politics. They have soon forgotten that it was the same confidence that led them down in 2008. Instead of the Elephant showing the President red card, NPP should remind them that neither the party nor their parliamentarians is the referee for the game. They are instead one of the teams participating in the championship game and should not take anything for granted. They should learn from the experience of the over-confident Black Stars in the just ended Africa Cup of Nations tournament, who flopped disappointedly.

Ghana should strengthen its democratic practices and it beholds on the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary as well as the media to ensure that democracy is not only sustained but it also grows and develops. Would it not have been an honour and a privilege to see the two ex-Presidents, the Chief Justice, the leader of the main opposition party and NPP Presidential candidate and all party leaders present at such an important annual event and being acknowledged by the President, no matter what their ideological differences are? That is what happens in true democracies and we expect nothing less next year, whether it is Prof Mills still in the driving seat or Nana Akufo Addo as the new pilot. Let’s learn from our mistakes and not accept that, this is not the first time it has happened. That is just an excuse to justify the unjustified.

By Kofi Ata, Cambridge, UK