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Opinions of Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Columnist: Kennedy, Arthur Kobina

State Of The Nation Address- A Review

Last Thursday, President John Evans Atta Mills delivered his first “STATE OF THE NATION” address.

Many have commented on his stumbles over a word here and there and his composure. I think most of those comments are unnecessary and really beside the point.

Let us agree that he delivered the address successfully and he demonstrated a good sense of humour. Too often, we focus on style at the expense of substance and when we do so; our country is the worse for it.

A review of the address shows that the President raised some important issues, omitted some significant facts and ignored some very important issues. The President called for consensus in Parliament and that was good.

He pledged to build on the foundations laid by his predecessors and that is commendable. While he gave the impression that this is due to a difference in attitude between him and his predecessor and to his concept of “justifiable continuity”, this spirit is actually required by the “Directive Principles of State Policy’, which is part of our constitution.

He discussed governance and made some very good points. He admitted that some of our important governance institutions are under resourced and that was true. He urged passage of the Freedom of Information Bill, a National Broadcasting Law and a “Code of Conduct in government” and all of these deserve serious consideration by the Parliament and the nation.

Regarding Parliament, the President pledged to open constituency offices, establish a “Member of Parliament Development fund’ and to assign national service personnel as research assistants for parliamentarians.

Regrettably, it is unclear where they will work since MP’s do not have offices. Also, the President’s benevolence towards Parliament underlined the dependency of Parliament on the executive and the gradual undermining of the supposed separation of powers by succeeding Presidents. As President Mills himself said jokingly “In the light of recent developments, people say that Atta Mills does not like Parliamentarians. These initiatives show that Atta Mills cares for you.” A Parliament dependent on the generosity of Presidents to get resources for its vital functions can never be truly independent. Furthermore, the President pledged support for IEA-sponsored initiatives on public financing, political parties and Presidential transitions.

To achieve some of these goals, the President called for a “National Constitutional Review Conference” to explore the constitutional changes pledged by various political parties during the 2008 campaign. That is a welcome development.

Then he talked about our nation’s founding and pledged to establish a “Founder’s Day” to honour President Nkrumah. That Nkrumah deserves to be honoured for his role in founding Ghana is beyond dispute. The question is whether others deserve to share that honour. When Ghana won the Africa under 20 trophy in Rwanda, one player, Ransford Osei, was mentioned more than the others because he got both goals in the final match but we did not honour him alone. Ghanaians knew that he could not have won the tournament alone. Others brought Nkrumah back home to join the struggle for independence that was already under way. Therefore, while his contribution was very significant, he was one of a team- the big six. Let us honour all of them.

While these areas covered by the President were significant, there were serious omissions by the President. Some were factual while others were on issues.

First, the President talked about our debt obligations without stating our DEBT-TO-GDP RATIO. The nation should have heard that the DEBT-TO-GDP RATIO was about 189% in 2001 and is now about 55%. Second, when the President talked about inflation, he should have compared inflation figures in December 2008 to those of December 2000 but he did not.

Third, he discussed transportation without addressing the deaths on our roads due to accidents and how his government will solve it.

While these factual omissions were troubling, the issues the President glossed over were breathtaking.

First, after weeks of back-and-forth about ex-gratia, the President’s silence on the issue was deafening.

In the days before the President’s address, the Presidency had announced its intention to establish a panel to review the Parliamentarians’ ex-gratia awards. In reaction to that, questions had been raised about whether the President had authority to review the award, to the disadvantage of the Parliamentarians. The President missed a great opportunity to calmly lay out his views as to whether or not he believed the awards were excessive and to explain the basis of his believe that he has authority to review the awards. While at it, he should have candidly expressed his opinion on the ex-gratias for Presidents Kufuor and Rawlings.

Unfortunately, he did not. As things stand now, the ex-gratia issues, though in the shadows, is still very much alive. Now, it is up to the

Parliamentarians to assert, maybe through litigation, their right to the award and To question the President’s authority to vary the award to their disadvantage.

Ironically, while President Mills was dodging the issue, his Predecessor, President Kufuor publicly and forcefully defended his approval of the ex-gratia for MP’s. Unfortunately, he did not discuss the Presidential ex-gratia. In my judgment, the greatest omission was the Presidents failure to address the sporadic attacks on NPP supporters by NDC supporters during and after the 2008 elections. As is well-known, the periodic flare-up of violence had made Ghanaians very worried about possible disturbance of our peace after the elections. While there has not been generalized violence, in Agbobloshie a number of times and in Tamale, there have been attacks on NPP supporters leading to the destruction of property and some deaths. While some leading members of the NDC have condemned the violence, the President should have used the occasion to condemn the violence in the strongest terms and to pledge to the nation in clear and unambiguous terms that he would enforce the peace and pursue the purveyors of the violence.

While the President’s failure to address this important issue was a significant error, he compounded it by talking about justice for some past victims of violence- The Ya Na and Mr Mobila. The references to pursuing those cases created the unfortunate impression that the President was more interested in politics than justice. When the Ya Na’s death is revisited, in defiance of the opinion of the Regent of Dagbon who asked that it not be used for politics, what effect will that have on the work of the Committee of Eminent Persons led by the Asantehene? Once we decide to go back to redress past injustices, shall we go as far as the eight Generals executed extra-judicially under the AFRC? Shall we go far enough to look into the circumstances of Danquah’s death in prison?

Surprisingly, President Mills appeared to have it right when he said towards the end of his address “I invite my fellow citizens to join together in the process of re-generation of our country. We have to do it together—the past is gone—let’s together build a better Ghana underpinned by honesty and integrity.” Unfortunately, while stating that the past is gone, he chose to resurrect the divisive past. While he stands on his pledge to pursue justice for those who died unjustly, President Mills must be careful that his negligence does not create new martyrs whose unjust deaths now will demand justice in the future. While we can walk and chew gum at the same time by pursuing justice for the late Ya Na, Mobilla AND OTHERS while protecting the living from politically motivated violence, we must be careful not to leave the unfortunate impression that we care more about justice for the dead than protecting the living.

President Mills has a difficult job and therefore deserves our support. However, while we must support him, we must not be sycophantic. Loyalty is not the same as sycophancy and we must insist on that distinction.

Instead of tying the nation’s star to the competence of one man, we must as the President suggested, focus on strengthening our institutions. To this end, let Parliament stand up for itself and stop relying solely on the generosity of Presidents and the crumbs Parliament can get from the President’s table. The relationship between the Executive and Parliament must be based on mutual respect between two vital branches of government.

Finally, it was the first time our nation had three elected Presidents in the same room. It was a signal moment for continuity in our governance. Unfortunately, it was marred by the absence of any obvious civility, let alone cordiality between Presidents Rawlings and Kufuor. It would have been great to see them shake hands and even embrace warmly. While not apportioning blame, since President Kufuor got there first, President Rawlings should have gone over to greet him. While it did not happen this year, I hope it will happen next year, together with a group photograph of all three Presidents. It is a rare and historic privilege, particularly for Africa, to have that many Presidents, in the same room and we must celebrate that.

Let us move Ghana forward, united.

May God guard and guide Ghana.

Arthur Kobina Kennedy