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Opinions of Saturday, 3 January 2009

Columnist: Nelson, Ekow

The day the NPP’s fox was shot

Ekow Nelson, January 2009

In December 2000 the New Patriotic Party (NPP) was swept into power by an expectant Ghanaian population on a wave of emotional fervour and Rawlings fatigue. Eight years later the NPP’s assumption and hope that residual doubts about former president Flt. Lt. (rtd.) Jerry John Rawlings would be enough to keep it in the power appears to have evaporated. The NPP’s fox: the strategy of scaring people into believing that electing the NDC or Professor John Evan Atta Mills represents a return to the bad old days of the P/NDC has been well and truly shot in the 2008 elections.

In 2000, the country gave the NPP a clear mandate both in the parliamentary elections where it won a narrow but important majority and in the run-off for the presidency in which John Agyekum Kufour obtained 57 percent share of the votes cast. After 19 years in power, the country had grown weary of former president Flt. Lt. (rtd.) Jerry John Rawlings and his reconstituted PNDC, which had become the NDC under a new constitutional dispensation in the fourth republic, and was clearly yearning for change.

With a background of civil disobedience and protests against unpopular government austerity measures, notably the introduction of a 17.5 percent sales tax in the mid 1990s, a coalition of opposition parties, including former rivals rallied round the NPP and helped propel it to power in 2000. The coalition held in 2004 even though it had begun showing signs of frailty with a better than expected showing for the NDC in the 2004 elections.

Although the coalition had all but collapsed by 2008, the ruling NPP hoped that, along with some tangible achievements such as the introduction of a national health insurance scheme, free school feeding programme and a flurry of capital infrastructure projects, vestigial doubts about Flt. Lt. (rtd.) Jerry John Rawlings would be enough to help them win ‘one touch!’. As someone jokingly said, they had forgotten that they had already sold ‘OneTouch!

The electorate was constantly reminded that while the opposition NDC’s presidential candidate was a mild-mannered University professor, he was not in control of his party and as soon as he won, Flt. Lt. (rtd.) Jerry John Rawlings, the NDCs founder, would move in and begin to wreak havoc and revisit upon the people of Ghana the violence and mayhem of the 1980s. A vote for Professor John Evan Atta Mills was a vote for Rawlings and with him, a return to the bad old days.

As fate would have it, two of the leading young Turks the NPP deployed in the frontline of its campaign were old war horses – Mr. Dan Botwe and Dr. Arthur Kennedy - that had built their political careers opposing Flt. Lt. (rtd.) Jerry John Rawlings in the1980s and who served respectively as secretary and president of the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS). Indeed both gentlemen contested the presidential candidacy of the NPP but performed rather poorly in their party’s primaries. Curiously, the main internal opponent of the NPP’s presidential candidate who had a larger following in the party appeared to have been granted less air time and a minor role compared to those offered these two anti-Rawlings war-horses who had scant support among their party’s delegates.

So the stage was set: this, like the 2000 elections, was going to be a reprise of the anti-Rawlings campaign of the 1990s but like all over-used strategies, this time, the one-pony horse show of Mr. Dan Botwe and Dr. Arthur Kennedy failed to resonate. Just as Senator John McCain’s prisoner of war status did not help him win the presidency in the 2008 US elections, the valiant efforts of these two gentlemen against what was indeed a brutal Rawlings regime in the 1980s would not be rewarded in 2008. Why? Because the electorate had already rewarded them – in 2000 and 2004 - and they could not go on demanding rewards for eternity. At some point they needed to play a different tune, but having built their careers on an anti-Rawlings fervour with no evidence of prior intellectual curiosity about politics, they knew no other and misread the mood of the nation.

We have all seen it happen in various elections around the world. For much of the 1980s in the US Presidential elections ‘liberals’ were the enemy to be feared and for a while it worked. Michael Dukakis was portrayed as an arch liberal who would release murderers back on to the streets to cause more mayhem and havoc; John Kerry spoke French so was suspect and his anti-Vietnam war stance after his own admirable service suggested he might have communist leanings. If it was not fear of the ‘reds’ and communists, it was fear of anything foreign – meaning anything outside the US and non-white. So we saw Fox News swing into full gear in the 2008 elections with endless replays of inflammatory snippets from Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s infamous sermon. Even a photograph of president-elect Barack Obama in traditional Sudanese garb was invoked as reason to fear what he represented. Not to mention his middle name Hussein: surely “he must be related to Saddam or must be a Moslem terrorist” we were invited to believe. Such scaremongering does work but it does so only for a while. Unfortunately the scaremongering of the NPP that a vote for Mills was a vote for Rawlings pushed by the anti-Rawlings warriors of Dan Botwe and Dr Arthur Kennedy, failed to deliver for the NPP.

The voters knew that the first four years of the NPP were too early to expect much; but after eight years in government, they expected the NPP to account for its own stewardship to which they had been live witnesses, and not to run on fear of what might happen if the other guy got in. In those eight years Rawlings has said some dumb things but he also posed no threat to anyone. If he lived in the same country as everyone when another president was in charge and caused no one any harm how could he represent any danger? More importantly, during the 2008 elections, he has been an embodiment of comportment and wisdom – certainly in the last few days when tensions have been running high. Gone are the wild ad hominem attacks on opponents; in came sober reflections and wise words about keeping calm and calls for unity.

Rawlings has been out of power for 8 years and he was not seeking re-election in 2008. Making the election about him was about the dumbest thing anyone could do and it is no surprise that it did not work. Clearly of course, the proof of this will be in how the Atta Mills government – should he be confirmed as President - conducts itself and how much influence Rawlings is perceived to wield. If he wields more than the electorate wants or expects and he hijacks the presidency for his own purposes and agenda, then surely the NDC will not deserve a new mandate and will be punished at the polls in 2012.

As for the NPP, they need a new strategy to plot their way back to power now that their fox has been shot – temporarily at least. As Flt. Lt. (rtd.) Jerry John Rawlings exits the political stage, fear of his past will diminish and so will the fortunes and effectiveness of an anti-Rawlings campaign and certainly that of anti-Rawlings warriors. Dan Botwe and Arthur Kennedy fought a good fight but they have had their reward. They need a new tune to be relevant to Ghana’s future or exit the stage with the protagonist of their political narrative and allow newer and more capable people with fresh and imaginative ideas onto the NPP’s stage.

Ekow Nelson London, January 2009