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Opinions of Monday, 18 November 2013

Columnist: Ata, Kofi

Is Mahama trying to bury bad news on November 19?

Ask any Ghanaian what will happen on November 19, 2013 and s/he will tell you that the national football team, the Black Stars will play the Egyptian national team, the Pharaohs in Cairo for the second round of the FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff, which will decide which of the two countries goes to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. The match is the last of the five African playoffs and will receive global attention as by that time the four African countries would have confirmed their places. The day is also when four European countries play the second playoff matches, so after the Egypt-Ghana game, football enthusiastic Ghana and Ghanaians will turn their attention to watch and listen to commentary on the European games.

I am sure not many Ghanaians are aware that November 19, 2013 is also the 2014 Budget Day, when the Minister for Finance and Economic Planning presents the second budget of the Mahama administration in Parliament. Earlier this year, the President told Ghanaians in his State of the Nation Address that, the meat has been eaten to the bone. Since then, the economic situation has gotten worse with the government’s inability to generate sufficient revenue to pay workers. I wonder if the choice of November 19 as budget day was deliberate to bury bad news.

The last Labour government in UK became an expert on managing news. According to BBC News, New Labour became expert in the art of controlling the formal "news agenda". The key to this art was a planning process called The Grid- an extremely detailed forward diary which dominated the policy-making process in Whitehall. Government announcements were divided into "good news", such as a planned extra spending on the health service or "bad news", like the critical report on councillors' expenses which, a ministerial aide at the Department for Transport suggested, should be "buried" in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in what became known as “good time to bury bad news”. Care was taken to make sure bad news were announced on what were likely to busy news days, such as during major sporting events, at Christmas and holiday times, when the news was likely to get less attention. Conversely, the release of good news was timed for slow news days when there were few national news or events scheduled so that each announcement made the maximum impact.

Perhaps, when the NDC General Secretary attended the last Labour Party Conference, he learnt “The Grid”. We know that Mahama’s government has had bad publicity in 2013, particularly, in the months of October and November (GYEEDA, SADA, SUBAH/ISOFOTON, Woyme, Waterville and now Vickileak). We also know that one of NDC’s flagship achievements, the Single Spine Salary Structure implementation is now in tatters as it is being claimed as one of the causes of the budget deficit, consuming 70% of internally generated revenue.

The budget is the financial policy statement for the next financial year. It is also an opportunity for the government to give an account of its management of the economy or a review of the current financial year. That is, its performance relative to the various economic indicators or targets the government set itself in the previous budget. From what we are hearing, it is obvious the government could not meet any of its projected targets and that is bad news. Again, from the body language of government, the likelihood of taxes going up as well the tax net being widened is very high. The minority in parliament will surely take advantage of the not too good news to heckle the Finance and Economic Planning Minister when he delivers the budget. It is no surprise that November 19 was selected because that day, all attention will be on football and not the budget.

It is possible the date is a mere coincidence since it could have been pencilled in prior to FIFA announcing the dates for the playoffs between Ghana and Egypt. One would then ask that, due to the seriousness and the national importance of the two events, would it not have been wise for the government to have rescheduled the budget date from November 19, 2013?

On the contrary, the budget might contain some good news after all. That is, what is happening in Ghana may not be all doom and gloom, but the reality could be light at the end of the tunnel as is being claimed by NDC. Whether there is hope for the future or not would be in the fine details of the budget and should this be the case, then, the government would have missed a great opportunity to sell the good news to the citizenry. On the other hand, if November 19 was deliberately chosen as budget day to bury bad news, then that could be a major propaganda coup and I will probably give the government credit for it.

One of the major challenges that NDC governments have faced since 2009 is its communication and how it manages news. Often, the messenger becomes the news and the message is lost in translation because of poor delivery mechanism. A typical example was “the get your passport and leave” by General Nunoo Mensah. Indeed, he was referring to a very important matter that requires national urgency, the indiscipline in Ghanaian society. Sadly, he ended up sounding a threat to Ghanaian workers and even disrespecting teachers whilst commission a school.

However, with the media landscape in Ghana and the determination of an opposition to expose the economic mismanagement and corruption by the Mahama government, this propaganda coup may not be successful and could even backfire on them. The fact still remains that the government cannot run away from its performance and the corruption that it is engulfing the country. The government can only hide for some time but it can never run away from the reality of the economic situation. For example, the Single Spine was taunted as a miracle achievement during an election year only for the same policy to be blamed for the economic mess shortly after the elections, when reality stared the government in the face. Remember what Bob Marley said, “he who fights and runs and way, lives to fight another day”. There is no better day to bury bad news because even wall have ears. Perhaps, a budget read just after November 19 would have been better received because of the potential feel good factor from the Black Stars qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the third consecutive time.