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Opinions of Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Columnist: Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng

NPP needs more Sir Johns

The late Kwadwo Owusu Afriyie affectionately called Sir John The late Kwadwo Owusu Afriyie affectionately called Sir John

Like so many of my fellow citizens, I never met the New Patriotic Party’s (NPP’s) departed former General Secretary, Sir John, in person. Indeed, it feels almost alien to refer to him by his official name, Mr Kwadwo Owusu Afriyie. His moniker seems more appropriate.

After all, he is so far the only knight in our 4th Republic politics. No wonder he has trended so heavily on both social and traditional media platforms since his demise.

Political contradiction?

Sir John’s earthiness and warmth seemed to radiate through the media platforms whenever he spoke. His trademark gravelly voice was laced with humour, a ton of inexhaustible proverbs and little tales to lubricate his thoughts and drive his point home.

On television or radio, he could connect in a way that felt almost personal and intense. It was as if you were sitting next to him sharing a pot of fresh, frothy and absolutely delicious palm wine in his beloved rural hometown, Sakoraa Wonoo in the Kwabre District of the Ashanti Region, which he planted very firmly in many Ghanaian minds.

Sir John appeared to be an interesting political contradiction. At face value, one could almost be tempted not to plant him in the camp of the NPP, descendants of the UP or Danquah/Busia/Dombo tradition, of which the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) was the pioneering player.

This is because from the get-go, that tradition has been perceived as elitist and alien to the ordinary grassroots. Sir John was hardly a poster boy for that image and its ensuing narrative.

Gold Coast politics revisited

The UGCC as a political movement back in the Gold Coast in the 1940s had attracted that image because its leading lights came from a particular segment of the society — professionals and merchants who did not see politics as a full-time vocation but rather something you did in addition to your law practice or business.

As General Secretary of the UGCC between 1947 and 1949, the radical Dr Kwame Nkrumah felt frustrated over several disagreements with the party leaders due to their genteel ‘self-government within the shortest possible time’ posture towards independence from British rule.

This led to his resignation from his position, his parting of ways with the UGCC and subsequently, his founding of the Convention People’s Party (CPP) at Saltpond on 3rd June 1949.

The CPP immediately and effectively branded itself as a mass movement and aligned itself with the common man in the streets, demanding ‘Self-Government NOW!’, in direct contrast to the UGCC approach.

Market women, labourers, farmers, fishermen and other unlettered segments of the society, which of course were in the majority and who proudly referred to themselves as the ‘Verandah Boys and Girls’, quickly felt comfortable in the CPP because they felt Nkrumah and his lieutenants spoke their language and understood them. He oozed charisma and wooed them, and they literally ate from his hands. Their Messiah, the son of an Nkroful goldsmith, had come to town.

On the other hand, they felt completely disconnected from the stuffy, three-piece suit-clad and tie-wearing UGCC folks with their big degrees from English universities, who were perceived as living in another world and unable to come down to their level and dock with them.

The UGCC never quite caught up with Nkrumah as he seized the political baton and ran with it at dizzying speed all the way to independence and beyond.

Claiming the masses

In 1979, the two leading parties for the general elections were the People’s National Party (PNP), descended from the CPP, while the Popular Front Party (PFP) was birthed in the UP tradition.

Again, the perception of their respective political ancestors were visited upon them with PNP winning the election.

The 4th Republic saw the emergence of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) from the embers of the UP tradition, while the ghosts of the CPP struggled to resurrect and were promptly devoured by the National Democratic Congress (NDC) which quickly declared itself as the home of the masses and claimed Nkrumah’s mantle.

Indeed, earlier during the days of the Provisional National Defence Council (PNDC), from which the NDC emerged, the Rawlings-led military government had firmly declared itself as being for the masses, for whom the revolution was launched, it was claimed.

Election as General Secretary

It was for this reason that Sir John, with his down-to-earth demeanour, who connected easily with ordinary people and who never failed to tout his rural credentials, seemed a most unlikely candidate for the NPP top echelons, never mind the exalted position of General Secretary.

But here was the rub — he was a lawyer, belonging to a profession that commands enormous respect in the Ghanaian society and a favourite profession within the NPP. So in a way, he had a foot planted in the ‘elitist’ sands of the Ghanaian society, never mind his rural credentials.

There are those who say that what helped him to win the General Secretary position in the party was a feeling that the NPP needed someone who could square up to the NDC’s General Secretary, Johnson Asiedu Nketia, also known as General Mosquito.

The view was that the NPP yearned for someone who would be willing to shed his suit jacket, yank off his tie and get into political fisticuffs with the sharp-tongued General Mosquito, who appeared to be tormenting the NPP in his trademark down-to-earth manner that endeared him to many, including his opponents, even if they seethed at what he had to say. Sir John seemed the most likely candidate to deliver the perfect insecticide for General Mosquito’s painful stings.

The media made it a point to call up one of them when the other delivered a barbed comment in public, and you could be sure the reply from the other side would be equally rib-cracking. He famously summed his failure to retain his position in the party in two words ? ‘fear delegates’, something that candidates for elections in both major parties have often been reminded of as they went into battle before delegates for selection as parliamentary candidates or party officials.

Legacy for Sir John

The record of the NPP in the 4th Republic has included major policies that have changed many lives in this country, including the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), the School Feeding programme (SFP) and the Free Senior High School (FSHS) programme, just to name three of several pro-poor policies over the years.

Despite all of these, there seems stuck in some people’s mind, a persisting image of the party as an elitist and exclusive one, friendly only to big business. Of course, as it is to be expected in politics, the opposition NDC has always milked this perception at every opportunity while proclaiming itself as a party of social democrats.

The NPP cannot afford to ignore this perception and simply point to its pro-poor record in protest. Optics are very important in politics.

The party must continue to work at connecting with the ordinary voter, a skill Sir John perfected almost effortlessly. Of course, this does not mean it should make itself less attractive to the professionals and business community.

The party can, and should be, a tent broad enough to accommodate all manner of persons comfortably, whatever their station in life. To be able do so, more Sir Johns need to be encouraged and groomed to be more visible to the electorate, especially at the national level.

That would perhaps be the greatest legacy to the fallen party hero.

May his soul rest in peace with the Lord.