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Opinions of Thursday, 5 March 2009

Columnist: Asubonteng, Bernard

Repackaging NPP: A Road Map?

Many Ghanaians, including political pundits, analysts, commentators, and, even some not-so-funny comedians, have all offered their divergent views pertaining to the interesting dynamics that unfolded during the 2008 General Elections held in Ghana couple of months ago. A host of analysis, commentaries, criticisms, thoughts, and what have you, have all focused on the reasons behind NPP’s huge loses and, also the factors that engineered NDC’s spectacular election victories. This writer has suggested in a previous discourse that the NPP’s defeat, to a greater extent, emanates from “arrogance of power” that blinded a bunch of the party leadership to fail to properly read the pulse of Ghanaian electorates. In other words, the head of the snake was cut from the rest of its body, making the vital airflow impossible. The NPP started running out of political oxygen about four years ago, maybe right after Kufour’s re-election. I called that period an era of political disconnect—a sheer miscalculation, overrating of re-election chances, underrating of political opponents, including Ghanaians in general—that culminated in bringing NPP down to its knees.

Well, there is no sense crying over spilt milk. Some of us have already made our opinions known by pointing out some of the drawbacks that brought the party back to opposition after 8 years in power. Let’s now move on and try to come up with some game plan(s) and see what the future may hold for NPP come 2012. For starters, let’s attempt to brainstorm ideas and political strategies. I have some ideas in mind; though, none of them is exhaustive. Perhaps, you, the reader, have the best ideas of all. What do you have in mind? As the sages have said, two heads are better than one. Come on with your ideas.

Meantime, I’ll suggest that we try to tone down the personal attacks and instead, debate ideas, offer sensible feedbacks, and help make this forum not only a great market place of ideas but also an indispensible medium for intellectual discourse. It’s alright to attack, but these attacks should be based on facts devoid of ad hominem and tribal sensibilities. No matter where we find ourselves, Ghana will still be our motherland. Even if some of us pretend as if we are no longer Ghanaians, somebody somewhere will remind us of our Ghanaian identity every now and then. You know where I’m coming from, especially if you live in the U.S. I think we all want the best out of Ghana. So our focus should be on hard facts when debating ideas. Attacking without facts makes one looks like a stone-headed moron.

At any rate, excuse me for the detour. I know the purpose of this conversation today is on how the NPP can effectively repackage its brand to be competitive in the next election cycle. One aspect the party needs to take a closer look is the membership structure. If I’m not mistaken, the NPP constitution has a section that establishes a “founding membership.” The section simply states that if a person meets or exceeds certain financial threshold in terms of contribution that person automatically becomes a “founding member” of the party. This presupposes that with a big money contribution you can become “owner” of the party. Isn’t this practice a recipe for corruption, party alienation, a sense of ownership, political arrogance, and I’m-above-the-party-rule mentality? Think about this scenario: because of your huge party donation you’re now considered a founding member of the party (NPP). Now the party wins power and the president who is also a founding member like you appoints you to a cabinet position. You start screwing up your position on managerial and ethical levels, what will the president do? I can anticipate what your response will be. Without hesitation, you may say the president must get rid of that cabinet member. But from the current NPP membership structure it won’t be that easy to fire a so-called founding member who happens to be a state minister/secretary. In most cases, especially in Ghana body politic, what the president does under these circumstances is to reshuffle the cabinet and the problem still keeps lingering on.

As a former active grass-root member of NPP in the early 1990s when the party was in its infancy stage, I can claim that I’m familiar with most of the party’s structural arrangements. I used to be the youth organizer in Manhyia constituency, Kumasi, where Dr. Addo-Kufuor, the former president’s younger brother was a parliamentary candidate.

Back then I interacted with many foot soldiers who believed that there should be no such thing as a “founding member” regardless of one’s large monetary contribution. Those concerns still echo today. Nobody should feel a sense of ownership of a broad national political party. This is because as the ownership mentality sinks in, the member concerned starts taking the party for granted, thinking that he or she is untouchable.

I don’t want to go into details vis-à-vis which of the minister(s) under Kufuor administration should have been fired long time ago because of ethical lapses. Though, it’s fair to say the “founding member” concept runs counter to contemporary democracy. To me, anyone who supports and genuinely shares the party’s philosophy should be considered a founding member. True, political parties need money to survive; but, no one should be allowed to use money to hijack a democratic party. Modern democracy is not for a selected few; then it won’t be a democracy. The people on the grass-root level ensure that democracy becomes viable. In this Information-age, political campaigning has become so competitive and broad-based that the last thing a party wants to do is to alienate the broad mass of the people by appearing as a party of elites.

The NPP is great organization with politically savvy members and followers all over the place. The party should not worry about the other parties regarding their internal restructuring. Rather, NPP should be the trailblazer by taking the lead in reorganizing itself to be in sync with the core values of what it truly stands for. This also means in the absence of a presidential candidate, the party’s chairperson should be the leader and the main spokesperson of the party. If the party assumes power, the president should be the sole caretaker of the party in addition to making all the cabinet appointments. The NPP cannot wait any longer to confront this political albatross and the tired old concept of “founding membership.” ideology. This may sound inconsequential and trivial to some, but many of us knew all along that there was no way President Kufour could fired any of his cabinet member who was considered a “founding member” and ran into ethical problems in performance of his or her official duties. Many of us saw examples of some of these scenarios. However, I don’t think it’s fair to blame the president all alone, judging from the party’s constitutional structure.

In modern-day politics, image and perception count a lot! This brings us to another important factor that needs serious consideration: communication. The party’s communication or PR machine wasn’t up and running effectively. I would not be surprised if somebody in the party’s leadership had persuaded him-or herself—during the 2008 elections—into believing that the party was doing a “heck of job” in the communication frontier. We know that there are different levels of communications. Communication is not only a message delivery or an information transfer. In fact, one of the effective ways of communication is when the message is wrapped in the package of strategic control. This means not only that communication is used as a tool for controlling the environment, but also to choose communication strategies that are suited for attaining a specific desired goal(s). This can also mean that you have to define your message concisely, efficiently, and present it before your opponents seize the chance to define the message for you. The NPP was not showing any tangible initiative or creativity, needless to say a sustained interest in sending its message across. The opposition parties, especially the NDC, spearheaded by Rawlings, was easily handed the task of defining NPP’s messages and its policies in the later days of Kufuor’s administration.

The NDC almost succeeded in painting the NPP government in a negative light. One can argue that the trend of the election results buttress this point.

Instead of taking proactive road, the best the NPP could do was to always react to accusations leveled against the party. Perhaps the conventional wisdom of the party leadership was that Ghanaians would not give NDC a chance because of the party’s misrule under Rawlings. But, as I said, efficient communication can somehow change long-held adverse perceptions and images.

His admirers don’t call him “Dr. Boom” for nothing. Rawlings has mastered certain ways of communicating with many Ghanaians irrespective of some doubts assigned to his sincerity. Honestly, I’m not a fan of Rawlings, but from a professional standpoint, I will say Rawlings knows well how to cynically navigate the provinces of his demographics and targets them with sound bites. The metaphor—Boom—associated with Rawlings suggests that whenever he speaks, his message captures the attention of the broad mass of the population as a bomb does when it’s detonated.

Admittedly, I truly didn’t understand the importance and the essence of contemporary communication or PR till I had the chance to study mass communication at the university level in the U.S. I found out communication is every thing. Indeed, it’s the “nucleus” from which every human endeavor draws its lifeline. No wonder the U.S. and the other Western nations have used all forms of mass communication to project their images and values around the world. Back home in Africa if you’ve never lived in America before you might think life in the U.S. is second only to heaven because of the constant media portrayal of an image of a land fill with milk and honey. That is the power of an effective communication. Often I wonder how life on this earth will be without any form of human communication. Even within human body, there are some forms of efficient communication constantly going on without which the body cannot survive. I’m bringing all these up to remind the party that no matter our academic accomplishments or wealth, without studiously crafted messages, NPP may still not be able to win the hearts and minds of many Ghanaian voters in the next elections.

The communication equation becomes more compelling as we enter political arena where broad issues and ideas are traded on constant basis. One of the pioneers of mass communication, Ivy Ledbetter Lee, said it better: “Since crowds do not reason, they can only be organized and stimulated through symbols and phrases.” The NPP needs to move quickly and regroup. I hope the party is listening without dismissing this discussion as coming from one of those too-knowing self-styled Ghanaian “experts” living in the U.S.

Lastly, some of the old-guards of the party should take the back seat and selflessly make way for fresh faces and new ideas and strategies. Every misfortune is a blessing in disguise, they say. I hate to lose or fail; but, I also believe there is virtue in failure. When you fail, in most cases you come back to your senses. You learn after all that what goes up must come down. If you’re smart and contemplative enough, you’ll take a deep breath, sit back, and try to figure out what actually went wrong so those mistakes would not be repeated again. The right time for the NPP to repackage itself, reframe its message, and reevaluate its past performance is now. Everything should be on the table…And, yes, a qualified woman can also be the party’s flag-bearer, too.

Let’s explore all these possibilities.

By Bernard Asubonteng (media communication writer, ATL. GA)