President John Mills might go down in history as one of the most diffident leaders the world has ever seen. His effeminate gestures, his frail voice and the general manner he carries himself – tossing his head about when speaking, for example – doesn’t exude confidence in any measure.
A man who has set himself the task of rallying the nation to build “a better Ghana” needs to demonstrate in word and in deed that he knows what he’s about. The Atta Mills I saw on Wednesday is not that kind of man. He’s never been. And he may never be. But can’t he, at least, try?
President Mills said in his inaugural speech that his government will “hit the ground running” and if he expects the whole nation to start running after him, he needs to immediately shore up his confidence level. His aides should get to work, teaching him a whole lot of presidential mannerisms. They also need to ensure that conditions around him are always just right so that he feels as comfortable as possible.
This wasn’t the case at the Independence Square on Wednesday. Crowd control was shamefully awful and the media scrum around the new president didn’t help matters. So as he moved to the dais to take his oath of office, there was too much chaos around him. In the full glare of television cameras, President Mills stumbled and nearly fell. It’s hard to tell what exactly happened but it seems he might have tripped on his ‘kente’ or some cables. This should never have happened. But those who gasped at the near-fall and heaved a sigh in the hopes that things were going to go smoothly thereafter might have been very disappointed.
The mere recitation of the oaths turned out to be a theatre of embarrassing drudgery – not just for the new president but for his citizens as well. He had the written oaths in his hand. All he had to do was to follow the lead of the Chief Justice and read out the words, inserting his name where appropriate. At one point, it seemed he couldn’t hear the Chief Justice clearly. We don’t know exactly why. Some say the president’s auditory canals need as much desilting as the Korle Lagoon. Others are of the view that the public address system was not functioning properly and so it stands to reason that he couldn’t hear much except for the cacophony from the rowdy crowd. But I thought that was why the oaths were written out for him. The idea was for him to look at the damn booklet and just read.
Unfortunately, Mr. President didn’t have his reading glasses on. The pair he wore are like mine – they only help you to see farther. They are not for reading. Therefore, the president was very seriously handicapped – in his ears and in his eyes – as he took his oaths of office. As a result, he resorted to mumbling words which were not supposed to be in the script. Alarmed, the Chief Justice calmly asked for the process to start all over again. The new president instantly became a laughing stock and an object of pity at the same time. This could have been avoided if his aides have had his reading glasses on hand. And that’s why I say that those around the president should make sure that he is as comfortable as possible at all times – and most especially in public.
Fumbling on his oaths in public as happened on Wednesday made our diffident president seem worse than a hapless kindergarten kid who cannot remember the words of the poem he is supposed to be reciting at the school ‘open day’. But as if that wasn’t bad enough, the president decided to deliver the all-important inaugural speech extempore. His spokesman, Mahama Ayariga, would like us to believe that President Mills delivers “brilliant” speeches off-the-cuff. I beg to differ. The gift of gab in not one of President Mills strong suits. I can’t remember a single speech of his which made me go “wow!”
His inaugural speech was like most of the rest from the past. It was uninspiring and it’s the sort of speech you tend to forget even before it ends. Even Barack Obama – the most gifted orator in the world today – doesn’t speak extempore on such important occasions. I would have thought that the president would have gone to every length to make his inaugural speech extra special and so I was quite disappointed. Delivering a speech as important as his inaugural address without a script was big mistake. The speech was good. But it wasn’t good enough because it lacked the strong punch lines (or the ‘quotable quotes’) many of us would have loved to keep in our minds to mull over for a while.
I can’t help but compare Mills’ inaugural speech with Kufuor’s in 2001. I still remember phrases like “all-inclusive government”, “golden age of business”, “zero tolerance for corruption” and “property owning democracy” – from the Kufuor speech of eight years ago. Kufuor’s presidency was defined by these ‘nuggets’. It’s been less than 48 hours since Mills’ speech and I can’t point to a single phrase that remotely suggests how he intends to run his government. The only thing I remember from his speech is his partial-plagiarism of the Noko Fio Party motto when he said: “We have changed to move forward”. He left out “to chop small”.
I never expected Mills to deliver a rousing speech. But what we got on Wednesday was far below average. I am sure the story would have been quite different if the president had been advised to come along with a script – and a pair of reading glasses, of course.
It is a rarity that a man would stumble, fumble and ramble within a period of 30 minutes at the most important event in his life – his induction into the highest office in any country. Mills achieved that feat on Wednesday. We can’t congratulate him for that. But let’s pray that in the next four (or eight) years, he only comes up with equally rare but very positive feats, which will move our country forward and earn him abundant praise.