Feature Article of Friday, 23 November 2012

Columnist: John Hamilton

Serious Discussion or Amateur Hour?

In my previous pieces, I analyzed the Ghanaian Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, as well as commented on the quantitative and qualitative bases for predicting an outcome in this very tight race. So I would now like to focus on last night’s debate, the last of the 2012 Presidential cycle and speculate as to how it might influence the final 2 weeks of the campaign.

In my first column, I made the comparison between the lackluster performances of incumbents Barack Obama and John Dramani Mahama, and the energetic performances of the challengers Mitt Romney and Nana Akufo-Addo. I closed by saying that John Dramani Mahama, like Obama, would have to prepare for a strong comeback in the rematch.

I was surprised that this big comeback, in which Mahama would reassert control of the race and demonstrate to voters that he and his party deserved reelection, did not happen. But I never dreamed that I would witness the pathetic stage show conducted by the "class clown" Hassan Ayariga of the minor NPC party. Hassan Ayariga provided some comic relief in the first debate, but last night he turned up as nothing less than a stooge for Mahama, bought and paid for by the NDC. Frankly, I would call this a corruption scandal.

I cannot imagine, in America, a serious discussion about the future of the country, where so much is at stake, being mocked like it was by Hassan Ayariga last night. He showed himself to be more suited to run for student council than President of a proud nation and it is a shame he went to such lengths to act like a jester in front of his boss, John Dramani Mahama. For example, he coughed loudly during Nana Akufo-Addo's answers repeatedly. He conveniently had coffee and tissues delivered to his seat right in the middle of Nana Akufo-Addo's remarks – under complete silence, if not complicity by the moderators. The Ghanaian people should really consider if the IEA should be given the mandate to continue with future debates, or if a new, more serious organization should be formed.

But the strategy backfired, as Nana Akufo-Addo did not take the bait. He allowed the antics to proceed and stuck to his message. It was a presidential and statesmanlike way to behave, and such behavioral matters are keenly noticed in traditional societies like Ghana’s.

Aside from the Ayariga scandal, there were several interesting points in the debate worthy of commentary.

On the topic of natural resources, all of the candidates agreed that Ghana’s oil belongs to Ghanaians, but only Nana Akufo-Addo offered a plan that really give the benefits of the oil to Ghanaians. By dedicating oil revenues to Ghana’s education system, mainly the free SHS program that has taken center stage in this campaign, Ghana could develop a population prepared to take on the next phase of their future. Importantly, Nana Akufo-Addo mentioned that the oil is a finite resource and Ghana cannot rely on it forever, they must use it to build to the next chapter in Ghana’s development: a well-educated people ready to take on the jobs required of a modern, industrialized Ghana. Nana Akufo-Addo owned this topic.

Another point of contention last night was the issue of the judgment debts being doled out by the NDC government. In Ghana, where debt has skyrocketed, waste in the form of these dubious payments should be the greatest source of anger amongst the people. Nothing can hinder the infrastructure, economy, and development of a country then the abuse and waste of public funds. Nana Akufo-Addo's point that just one of these debts would have built over 400 schools should strike a chord with every Ghanaian. That statement alone about the Woyome judgment should send the population into an uproar to throw out the current government.

In terms of style, President John Dramani Mahama tried to appear Presidential, wearing a blazer and not traditional Ghanaian attire. On nearly every question, he boasted that the topic at hand was already being addressed – a typical debate ploy used by incumbents, including President Obama when he schooled Mitt Romney about military logistics. But I am sure the average Ghanaian viewer last night found little reason to believe Mahama's boasting, considering the excessive inflation, high unemployment, deteriorating healthcare, and failing education system that they face every single day.

When it came to closing statements, Nana Akufo-Addo really had his shining moment. His appeal to the people for their votes calling on everyone from first time voters, the youth, the elderly, merchants, and the hopeless was a powerful one. You could have heard a pin drop while he delivered his pledges. It was an interesting style for him as it showed confidence and compassion at the same time.

This remains a tight race – polling gives the lead to Nana Akufo-Addo but the antics last night make it clear that the NDC will stop at nothing to hold on to power. And they’ve got the machine, the money, and the muscle. But if the NPP flagbearer carries his passionate appeal to the people through the homestretch and turns out frustrated citizens to vote, he can overcome the NDC’s largesse and achieve victory.