When John Kufuor arrived at the Osu Castle to meet with John Atta Mills, the two men were all smiles. They were behaving like old buddies who hadn’t seen each other in a long while. It seemed like the perfect photo opportunity for a nation badly in need of a thermostat to help cool down escalating political temperatures.
“I invited him so that we discuss matters of mutual, national and international interest,” President Mills said. “Pure and simple.”
“The two of us are joined by the national interest which must be managed with necessary decorum and circumspection,” Kufuor responded. “You don’t play it in public.”
And with those few words, the two men went into a closed-door session with their minders and advisers in tow.
Later, the hangers-on on both sides came out of the meeting room – leaving the two men alone to speak one-on-one, eyeball-to-eyeball.
No one will tell us exactly what they spoke about. But there is a lot of speculation going on.
From the grapevine, it seems Atta Mills wanted Kufuor to tell Akuffo-Addo to stop saying “all die be die”.
“Why not go and tell him yourself?” Kufuor might have asked.
The former president had other things on his mind.
“Where is my ex-gratia,” he might have asked. “It’s been two years already. Do you want me to go and chew grass? If you don’t get me that ex-gratia, I will also be singing ‘all die be die’ pretty soon. And you don’t want that.”
The body language of the two men at the end of the meeting, suggests that the meeting didn’t go the way they both expected. But it seems Mills was more bruised: Kufuor, reportedly, told him off. So at the end of the meeting Mills’ smile had disappeared. Kufuor had a smug look on his face and he was more than willing to say a few more words to the media. Mills, who was all chatty before the meeting started, decided that he would rather not say anything about what had transpired.
In the media, however, Atta Mills seemed to be winning. His people were claiming the fact that he invited Kufuor for the conversation makes him a unifier. People have been praising him – left, right, centre. As usual, the NPP are not so impressed.
By and large, it seems, Ghanaians feel this sort of tokenism is good. I’ve heard some think-tank officials tanking in their thoughts – along with some religious leaders: the meeting will reduce the political temperature in the country.
But the political temperature in the country hasn’t gotten to boiling point where we’d so badly need a thermostat. Even if the political temperature was so high, a short meeting between Mills and Kufuor would be of little effect – if any at all. If handshakes and photo-ops were peace-brokers, the Middle East would have been one of the most peaceful corners on earth.
The fact is that Atta Mills has not been the fatherly figure he promised to be. In fact, under his rule, this country has become even more divided than ever before. What with the NDC and its footsoliders thinking the whole country and everything it has to offer should be handed to them – seizing anything from public toilets to cars meant for auction? Being portrayed as a unifier was the last thing on Atta Mills’ mind when he offered to meet with Kufuor. But that’s the windfall benefit he’s reaping.
So let’s stay on that for a while.
Any country which makes as big a deal as what we are seeing and hearing about this simple closed-door meeting between Mills and Kufuor, is a country on a very weak foundations. It is not the first time, is it? George Bush comes around. Rawlings shakes Kufuor’s hand over dinner and Ghanaians start jumping around excitedly, claiming it’s a sign of hope – only for Rawlings to turn around to say or do something outrageous to tell us that anyone who thought he had patched up with Kufuor was fooling himself.
The fact that people get excited and start singing songs of hope and unity when they see a sitting president smiling with a previous one indicates that there is a certain yearning in Ghanaian hearts. We want to see our current leader working closely with those who came before him – tapping into their experience, making good use of their knowledge, learning from their failings. Show me a country where current leaders don’t see those who have gone before them as enemies and I will show you a country destined for greatness.
Ours is not such a country.
Rawlings saw those before him as saboteurs and killed most of them. He made sure that the one he didn’t kill lived in ignominy and died in penury.
Kufuor saw Rawlings as a threat and withdrew all his ‘privileges’, calling him ‘sasabonsam’ (the devil) in the process. Mills looks upon Kufuor with a certain suspicion and sees Rawlings as a threat – even though the Mills we know today is a creation of Rawlings.
This “they-against-me” mentality draws us back. There should definitely be a way for Mills to tap into whatever experiences Kufuor and Rawlings garnered with their joint 27-years in power.
If we left it to the sitting president to decide how he works with his predecessors, he would tell them all – especially those who are not in his party – to go to hell. So let’s force him to work with his predecessors. Legally. Constitutionally.
We have a Council of State which is supposed to be advising the president. I think every former president should automatically become a member of the council of state. With such an arrangement the sitting president will be forced – in the national interest – to hear the opinions of those who have gone before him. He cannot decide to meet with them just to pull a publicity stunt when he sees his popularity plummeting.
Getting former presidents to serve on the Council of State would also force the likes of Jerry Rawlings to put on the cloak of elder statesmen and stop talking ‘by-heart’ at the first opportunity. Knowing that they have a particular, dignified forum to air their views on pertinent issues would be some sort of restraint against corrosive speeches and un-statesmanlike conduct. They can still choose to do their politics. But they will talk as wise men and their words will carry more weight.
Secondly, I think we should do as the Americans do and make it mandatory that every former president gets regular national security briefings. Former presidents who handled the security of the nation for years need to be kept in the loop on anything that threatens to tear the nation apart. If situations crop up that they faced previously – perhaps wrongly like how Kufuor handled Dagbon – the wisdom of hindsight helps prevent a repetition of previous errors. There may be fears that someone with the temperament of Rawlings could abuse the insider information he would be given, using it to sabotage the establishment. Under a democratic arrangement, it’s hard to see any former president decide to cut short the enjoyment of his retirement (getting paid for doing so little) to engage in subversive activities. If Rawlings hasn’t done it, I don’t see anyone else doing it in the future. In any case, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces should be able to deal with anyone, former president or Regular Joe, who tries to abuse a privilege like receiving regular national security briefings.
Finally, it should be mandatory for the government to invite former leaders to every major national assignment. This should not be left to vindictive sycophants in the office of the president to decide. Attendance to national events should be a right every former president must enjoy.
Serving on the Council of State, receiving regular national security briefings and actively participating in major national events, would foster the culture of inclusivity this country so badly needs. We need every functioning brain we have to push us forward – it doesn’t matter whether it is hiding under an umbrella or sitting on an elephant.
It takes more than the president having an occasional brunch with his predecessor to get all brains (and hands) on deck. Let’s start by tapping into the vast experiences of our former leaders; let’s give them bigger, legally well-defined roles and we’d be all the better for it. After all, we all agree that “experience is the best teacher”.