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Opinions of Thursday, 4 February 2010

Columnist: Acquaye, Samuel Jude

Lonely Arthur Kennedy: But He's A Gem For Ghana And The NPP

About the middle of 2006, the BBC did a feature on a thin young African American senator, asking, “Is this going to be America’s first black president?” It was the first time I saw Barack Obama. Honestly, with Obama’s stoop and funny gait, I foolishly- like we’re all apt to judge initially by appearance- thought that the BBC was trying to mock a political maverick. And then when the story itself rolled, the station showed a portion of Obama’s speech to a largely white audience. He said something like “Thank you all for coming. I know I’m getting all this attention not because of me but because of you, because we’re in times where we all realise that we need change.” And then I realised this man was different.

I checked him out on the internet and learnt that he had also lived one of my intellectual fantasies; Barack Obama presided over the Harvard Law Review in 1990, serving as its first black president in the over 150 years of the publication’s history as America’s most prestigious law journal. I spent time reading dozens of his speeches, reading his personal and senatorial websites, and checking him out constantly on cnn.com.

I told many friends about the inspiring African American politician I’ve come to know about and my strong belief that he’ll become president. Very few minded me. In November 2008, Barack Obama was voted the first African American president, an event whose historical significance needs no elaboration.

But a year before Barack Obama won even the democratic nomination, I saw a soft spoken and profoundly intelligent man on a repeat of a Good Evening Ghana episode on Metro TV. I almost wrote off this man too. This time not because of his looks, but because he started his interview with a statement about being born into poverty.... And out of cynicism for the way almost every politician claims to have been born poor but seem to care very little about the poor’s plight, I switched to another station to see if I would get something more interesting to watch. No station was showing any thing I found interesting so as a politics aficionado, I switched back to Metro TV to watch this politician like that.

The next hour turned out to be one of the most inspirational of my life. I watched as Dr Arthur Kobina Kennedy engaged Charles Sam in the most intellectually stimulating political conversation on Ghanaian TV I had yet seen. In about 50 minutes, he eloquently discussed, with infectious passion and encyclopaedic knowledge, corruption, the role of the state in promoting business, Africa’s future, education, the way we can engage Ghanaians abroad in national development, decentralisation, strengthening the NPP and several other issues as part of a bid to become the NPP’s flag bearer for the 2008 election. Later, I checked out his campaign website, contacted him to express my admiration and support and started telling my friends again about another politician I’ve seen, even better than Barack Obama, but even more importantly, he was Ghanaian. I predicted that the man was going to be president. This time, I was terribly mistaken: Arthur K didn’t just fail to become the NPP’s flag bearer, but he polled an embarrassing one vote at the party’s congress. I still maintain that Dr. Arthur Kennedy immensely qualifies to be president: he’s got terrific communication skills, an amazingly even temperament, brilliant ideas about building the NPP and Ghana, and very useful international experience. However, unlike Barack Obama, Arthur Kennedy is in a democracy where family background, contacts, and money are excessively more important than ideas, and passion, and imagination.

But who is this man?

Dr Arthur Kobina Kennedy was born in September 1958 in Hohoe in the Volta Region into a very poor home. His father died even before he was born and he spent part of his childhood years at Mankesim with an elder brother. This brother added Kennedy to his original name Atta Kobina, naming him after US President Jack Kennedy. But this brother-mentor did something even more useful for his kid brother than merely naming him after the remarkable leader: he gave JFK’s biography to Arthur K to read at age seven and according to Arthur K, this is where his original passion for public affairs springs from. Arthur K says when he left for Kumasi to live with his mother later, his brother left him 2 chop boxes of books when he was leaving for teacher training college. And this boy who had been wisely mentored to love reading, pored into the books. As a bright student, Arthur K went through school largely through scholarships and benevolence of people. He went to Osei Kyeretwie for his O level, Presec- Legon to do his A level and entered the University of Ghana to study medicine. At Legon, he became the first medical student to become Commonwealth Hall JCR president and later the first medical student to become NUGS president. As NUGS president, his confrontations with the military government of JJ Rawlings led to several problems for him culminating in his exile to Canada where he continued his education, completing medical school later in the US.

Between 1995 when he completed medical school and 2007 when he returned to Ghana, the man served as the CEO of a medical corporation with 13 facilities spread over the state of North Carolina; he served as a member of his county’s chamber of commerce; he served as his sate governor’s representative on the board of a diabetes initiative; he also served as a member of a peer review board that oversees the performance of doctors in the state of Wisconsin; he served as a member of Clemson University’s board; he worked with American political giants like Dick Gerphardt and Teddy Kennedy to provide health care for low income earners from county to national level; he was honoured by the legislature of his state for his contributions to the state ; and had May 19 declared Arthur Kennedy day by his mayor in honour of his outstanding contributions to his city.

Dear reader, you notice this author is an admirer of Arthur K. I don’t intend to conceal this. “The consciousness of good intentions”, wrote Alexander Hamilton, “disdains ambiguity.” They say we must strive for our politics to be ideas-based and I thoroughly support this. But people, and leading personalities especially, will push the ideas that must enrich our politics, and Arthur Kennedy is one of these.

Arthur Kennedy, in my opinion, has come to represent, sadly, something that is largely missing in our politics: a culture of decency, honesty, open debate, and a passionate bend for things intellectual. Since 2007, Arthur K has consistently, and sometimes with seeming reckless gut, written widely and spoken eloquently about the issues of our country: from improving the national health insurance to the role of money in our politics; from how we can improve university education to women’s rights, from the quality of our journalism the impropriety in our public discourse. If the NPP is unhappy with him now, then the party obviously didn’t study the man well before making him its chief spokesperson, which I doubt. Nana Akuffo Addo looks like one of those men with a natural love for excellence and must have known what he was doing. Arthur K has never been different.

I had always expected that Dr Arthur Kennedy will write a book. I just didn’t know it was going to be so soon. He wrote an article in 2007 about leadership in Africa and suggested that one of the ways we can nurture good leaders is to let those who serve under our leaders to write BOOKS about their experiences and let that be a record for posterity. From what i hear being said about his book, it’s an honest effort live up to his own recommendations. I have not read his book yet, but I’m not very surprised about some of the revelations in it. This man the NPP is unhappy with now is the same who over two years ago mocked the NPP’s creation of a Ministry of Tourism and Modernisation of the Capital City; who questioned the wisdom in building flyovers in Accra instead of feeder roads to link farming areas with markets; who deplored- on national TV- the supposed inability of about a third of Kufour’s ministers to use the internet in 2001; who decried the use of party funds by ministers to pursue personal plans; who indicated that there is, at least, a statistical reason that the NPP will lose the 2008 elections if it took things for granted.

But Arthur K also, more than anyone, was the one who put Kufour’s accomplishments as president into proper perspective. He was the one who rightly indicated that Ghana constructed as many roads in Kufour’s 8 years as in our entire previous history; he was the one who cleverly showed that for every 3 policemen in the year 2000, Kufour added 2 by increasing the size of the police service from 15000 to 25000; he was the man who told the NDC that despite their incessant criticism of the NHIS, over 11 million Ghanaians were voting for it with their feet by registering...

For me, Dr Arthur Kennedy has merely been doing what he has always done, from his campaign for flag bearer to Communications Director of the NPP’s 2008 campaign: “... [to] be with passion, the voice of the poor and a champion of their concerns..., [to] lift this nation’s sight and point us towards a better future...to restore integrity and good governance to our nation and become a beacon of hope to those who yearn for good governments in Africa[,] not just for our age but for the ages.” He appears, in conflict with our very compliant culture as a people, traitorous and ill-motivated because he clearly shows more commitment to these ideals than to any group of people- whether JJ Rawlings and the PNDC or the New Patriotic Party.

As a young man who is passionate about our nation’s future, I believe Arthur Kennedy and his great party need not fight. They’re pursuing the same goal. Arthur Kennedy is just one of the radical stock from his political tradition like the young Nana Akuffo Addo who fought UNIGOV in the 70’s; Adu Boahen who inspired young men and women from various political persuasions to agitate for democracy; Busia who filled his cabinet with bright young men who were more inclined to dream and look forward; Danquah who fought Nkrumah’s despotism to death; and even the great Nkrumah himself who ultimately broke away to hasten the movement towards independence.

But unlike Nkrumah, Arthur Kennedy needs not go his way. It’s about time that the NPP seriously constructed itself into a corporation with proper and solid structures that includes all its many bright men and women including Arthur K, to derive the maximum from them. This renewed NPP should make room for open debate, energise its grassroots, and inspire more young men and women of a genuine liberal democratic bend into the party’s fold. If the party does this, it’ll be able to command that critical electoral victory that can enable it to carry out its ideals about building a modern Ghana.

Indeed, it’s not just the NPP that needs to do this but all our political parties including the ruling National Democratic Congress. Our country is waiting in anguish for this kind of leadership from any of our political parties. And whichever party is able to do this, Dr Arthur Kennedy and his kind will be crucially important.

But there is another dimension to “the phenomenon Arthur K”. Quite characteristic of our laid back attitude and our strong herd instinct as a people, I believe there are a lot of Ghanaians who share in the principles that the man stands for but are keeping quiet. Arthur Kennedy is receiving too little support from the many well meaning Ghanaians who are failing to stand up for the worthy cause of this gem of a citizen. Perhaps, reading his book and pointing out his and the NPP’s mistakes will not be a bad place to start from.

I hope in writing this article, I’ve helped in bringing some clarity into discussions about this intriguing personality. Arthur K is a simple man if you meet him: humble, affable, unpretentious, intelligent, forthright and completely guileless. It is difficult to succeed in politics anywhere with such a character. In a third world democracy where too much of our public affairs is characterised by intimidating opacity, it will be doubly difficult for Arthur K to succeed. But Ghana is not much but for its citizens, and if our nation must succeed, then citizens like Arthur Kennedy must.

SAMUEL JUDE ACQUAAH Student, University of Ghana atoacquaah@yahoo.com