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Opinions of Thursday, 28 February 2008

Columnist: Ato Kwamena Dadzie/Daily Dispatch

THE OUTSIDER: When George Bush passed by

Rewind your mind to July 2007. That was when Accra hosted the African Union Summit, attended by more than 50 African heads of state. Then all roads remained open, the Ghanaian police was in absolute control (or so it seemed) and many people didn't really care. Isaias Afewereki is in town and so what? Who the heck is he, by the way? I remember driving right behind Robert Mugabe's convoy then.

Come back to February 2008, my friends. The president of the United States of America is in town and everything has come to a standstill for him. Some of the most important streets in Accra have been shut down for him and the Ghana police is only playing second fiddle to the American Secret Service (even the IGP needs accreditation to go anywhere near the official ceremonies). Long before his plane lands, all flights to and from the Kotoka International Airport were delayed (for hours) to make way for our very special guest. Mr. Bush's arrival is live on TV and our leaders are sweating in the palms as they wait anxiously to shake hands with him.

Ghana more than laid the red carpet for George Bush. It was like a saviour has come and everything had to be done to make him happy so that salvation will be guaranteed. President Kufuor met him at the airport together with almost a dozen ministers. And there was a glint in all their eyes.

Just imagine how you would feel if you get an opportunity to meet and shake hands with, say, President Kufuor. That, I reckon, is exactly how our president and his ministers felt when they met with George Bush. And the whole the event is live on TV. It's the first time in my short life that I've seen the arrival of a foreign dignitary being broadcast live on TV. And it was not just on national TV. Even the private broadcasters suspended regular programming to let every Ghanaian know that a great man is in town.

Hours before Bush's arrival, the president of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa was in town. But many didn't even know. I bet government officials were in no mood to entertain him longer than necessary. "Hurry up and get the hell out, Levy," were the unspoken words. "We are expecting a better president so the earlier you leave the better. Why in heaven's name did you come here by the way?" Vast inches of column space in the newspapers and hours of airtime on radio were devoted to discussions on the importance of Mr. Bush's visit. One newspaper said we were "privileged" to have a man as important as Bush visit our country. Others suggested that Mr. Bush's visit will put Ghana in the international limelight, and therefore, help bring in investments.

Unfortunately, though, the world media did not focus as much on the trip as expected. Hours after his joint press conference with president Kufuor, I watched CBS News and there was no mention whatsoever that the American leader was in Ghana. I saw a couple of short reports on BBC World and CNN alright but it wasn't the sort of coverage that would have been accorded Mr. Bush if he had gone to, say, Egypt or Sudan. Yeah, Sudan would have gotten more coverage in the international media if Mr. Bush had gone there.

The major newspapers in the US either didn't cover the trip or simply treated it as fifth grade news. The only semblance of prominence they accorded the trip, was in the news reports in connection with his denial that America was planning to set up a military bases in Africa.

But we were all told to feel privileged and proud.

For the privilege of hosting Mr. Bush, many Ghanaians were rewarded with hours in traffic as roads were closed to enable him pass by with ease. I spent about 90 minutes on a drive from the Nima Police Station to TV 3 – a trip which usually takes just about five minutes. But it was all worth it. I was privileged to sit in traffic for so long just waiting for the most powerful man on earth to pass by.

Apart from the prestige he brought us and the money he gave for our diseases, Mr. Bush caused two of our most prominent citizens – the current president and his predecessor – to do something they wouldn't normally do: shake hands.

It happened at the banquet in honour of the august visitor. In the past, Mr. Rawlings and Mr. Kufuor have refused to sit under the same roof, much less wine and dine together. Just recently, Mr. Rawlings preferred to sit in the midst of 'Ordinary Joes' to watch the Black Stars play in an African Cup of Nations match at the Accra Sport Stadium – as far away as possible from Mr. Kufuor, who was enjoying the cool breeze at the VVIP stand. Every Ghanaian knows there's no love lost between Mr. Rawlings and Mr. Kufuor. The former has often threatened to "boom" the latter, who in turn calls the former "Sasabonsam" (devil).

But when Mr. Bush came, the two men decided to be at their best behaviours. Mr. Rawlings surprisingly showed up at the dinner and even shook hands with his arch-enemy. The day after the dinner, the newspapers said George Bush had reconciled the two. I didn't agree. The enmity between the two men goes too deep. It will take more than a handshake and a couple of fake smiles (even in the presence of George Bush) for them to start sharing bottles of 'Star' in the beautiful foyer of Hotel de Waawaa. I think rather that Mr. Kufuor and Mr. Rawlings just decided to put on a show to give Mr. Bush the false impression that all was well between them. I believe they did it in the national interest and for that they deserve commendation. Thanks to their splendid performance, perhaps, George Bush might want to come back for an encore. However, if they start calling themselves names again, we should not be surprised.

For now, I'm very delighted George Bush passed by. Thanks to the trip, I know that he's more important than all 53 African leaders combined. That's why we blocked a lot of important roads just for him – an honour we will never accord all African heads of state if they all choose to come visit at the same time.

I'm also grateful for the $17 million he gave for malaria control, even though I can't help thinking that the money is too small. We spent almost twice that amount to celebrate Ghana@50 and for an endeavour as serious as dealing with the terrorist threat posed by Mosquito bin Laden, surely, Mr. Bush could have done more.

Above all else, it's really nice to know that Mr. Bush cares for us in Africa. "It's in (America's) national interest to help people who are suffering from disease and hunger and hopelessness," he says. We might not be aware that it is in our interest to help ourselves. So it's very reassuring to know that the American president believes that it is in his country's interest to see to our interests. At least I know that, as they say in America, "someone's got our back."

Thank you, Mr. Bush.