It wasn’t exactly a debate. The three main presidential candidates (plus a three-time also run) didn’t exactly engage each other in a debate but they merely fielded questions from two veteran journalists on a wide array of issues ranging from why a certain engine has not been cranking as well as it should to whether Ghana should adopt nuclear energy. It was dreary at times (at some point, I felt the end couldn’t come soon enough) but there were exciting, humorous moments (which I thoroughly enjoyed).
There were just about two confrontations: first was Nana Akufo-Addo stating “the simple fact” that: “the contribution of manufacturing to the GDP in Ghana is not zero, it’s 10 percent…” This was after Prof. Mills had said – for the second time – that the contributions of the manufacturing sector to GDP “about which we are singing from the roof top is zero”.
Then there was the moment when Dr. Edward Mahama of the PNC appeared to be questioning what Dr Kwesi Nduom of the CPP had done – whiles he served in the Kufuor administration – to improve economic co-operation amongst West African states.
Whether it was a debate or just another Q&A session, it was one of the finest moments for democracy in this country. For the first time since these so-called ‘presidential debates’ started eight years ago, the candidate of the ruling party joined in. In 2000, Atta Mills was too busy to be bothered. In 2004, Kufuor pretended he had more pressing national engagements to attend to. This year, however, Akufo Addo (being the ruling party’s candidate) readily agreed to be part of the ‘debate’. Perhaps, it’s because he is not an active member of the government – Atta Mills was vice president in 2000 and Kufuor was president in 2004. Or, maybe, Nana is not as snobbish as he’s made out to be.
Nana, though, was the disappointment of the night for me. I like Nana’s oratory – never mind the drawl. Whenever Nana had spoken to my hearing, he’s left some beautiful “quotable quotes” in my mind. I’ve seen Nana debating in parliament and he always acquitted himself very brilliantly. He can be aggressive and he can be cunningly persuasive. And he knows when to draw which weapon.
On the night of the IEA presidential debate, however, Nana seemed subdued. His dressing wasn’t bad but it didn’t exude much confidence. He seemed restless and uncomfortable in his seat. I am tempted to believe that Nana felt cowered by the fact that there were three other guys and he was left all alone to defend Kufuor’s policies (the good, the bad and the ugly) whiles at the same time promoting his own. Secondly, I also feel that Nana might have been told not to appear aggressive so he can fend off the criticism that he’s arrogant. Whatever the case may be, Nana lost ground in the debate – not because he didn’t address the issues, but simply because he failed to connect with the voters.
You can’t blame the guy. He was the only one on the dais who had to both defend and ‘attack’. Maybe, Atta Mills and Kufuor were very much aware of this fact when they refused to take part in the debates of 2000 and 2004 respectively. For me, Nana’s brightest moment on the night was when he spoke about sub-regional integration. Serving as a foreign minister for so long might have helped but he really spoke about the subject with deep insight. He was pragmatic and the manner of his delivery showed a bit of the finesse I know him for. “There have to be two or three countries within ECOWAS that have to take it upon themselves to drive the integration agenda,” he said. “I want Ghana to be one of those two or three countries.”
Defending a different man’s policies and using such defences to promote your own ideas takes more time than was allotted each of the candidates. As a result Nana hardly ever completed his responses within time. He therefore came across like an undisciplined spoilt child who felt he deserved more than everyone else. In the debate, Nana was almost always belled out. And even when he was belled out, he continued talking and talking and talking… and talking! At some point, Cyril Acolatse (one of the moderators) had to remind him: “Nana the bell gives you a full stop.”
Atta Mills, on the other hand, seemed to have come into the debate to ruffle Nana Akufo Addo’s feathers. He did what I would have advised him to do. For a man who has been accused of being sick and not being his own man, he needed to be gutsy and show that he had got a solid pair between his legs. And he did just that.
He attacked even when he didn’t need to. For example, the point he made about the oil find was completely unnecessary. We all know that the oil didn’t get to us by any man’s “good deeds”. So there was no need to respond to this. However, Akufo Addo – rather unwisely – fell for the bait.
“Even if it’s not the results of good deeds”, Nana said, “it’s clearly the result of good luck.” Atta Mills said the oil was “a blessing from God”. Nana said it was by “good luck”. The average Ghanaian believes more in God’s blessings than in “good luck.” But that’s what Atta Mills wanted – to get Nana to falter, make needless rebuttals and appear like the bully everyone says he is.
Unfortunately for Mills, his ‘attacks’ made him appear like a grumpy old man. I heard someone say the other day that Mills was behaving like John McCain! Just that Nana didn’t have the coolness of Obama.
Whether grumpy or too aggressive, let it be said that Atta Mills was quite brilliant on the night. On some subjects, he spoke like a true professor. His answer on improving educational delivery was spot-on and quite pragmatic. Mills also showed exceptional discipline with time. Most of his responses were within what had been allotted. Unlike Nana Addo, Mills shut his trap the moment the buzzer sounded. It made him seem so abrupt that the other moderator, Kwame Karikari, told him at a point to endeavour to “round up” after the buzzer had sounded.
Edward Mahama of the PNC is usually a brilliant chap. But his failure to realise that Ghanaians will never vote for him baffles me. On the night of the IEA debate, he seemed very confused and also appeared to have lost touch with reality. Perhaps, a big coconut fell on his head on his way to the event. How else will he explain the idea that if he becomes president “every Ghanaian child at lunch will get one piece of chicken”? When asked about health delivery, Dr. Mahama – a medical doctor – faltered.
His remark about school girls who get pregnant, however, was one the best quotes of the night. “The child is in the womb – not in the brain,” he said. “So she [the pregnant girl] can still stay in school.” Mahama will not win the presidency. I am very sure of that. But I hope that our educational authorities take his words on pregnant school girls seriously.
Now, for me – like most Ghanaians who have spoken on the debate – the man of the night was Kwesi Nduom. He showed a fair amount of knowledge about the subjects that were discussed on the night. He came very well dressed for the occasion and he looked quite presidential. Even though he had come in traditional garb, he didn’t look the least as casual as Nana Addo or Atta Mills. Somehow, Nduom also managed to connect with the audience. I think the camera might have had something to do with it because for quite a while, he seemed to be speaking directly into the camera (and to the audience).
“I want all Ghanaians to listen to me very carefully on this one,” he said directly into the camera, drawing some laughter from the audience. “If this oil is not going to benefit the Ghanaian then it must stay in the ground.”
Nduom exuded a great deal of confidence. He was eloquent and he was practical. Nduom’s charm on the night was not just with his messages. He spoke with a certain conviction – and for a jaded middle class which is looking for something radical in its next leader, Nduom was the guy.
“You’ve listened to them… Now, listen to the alternative,” he said. “What we need in this country is not the same old things… the same things that have been done over the past 16 years.” This resonates with a lot of people.
In this race, Nduom is the underdog but in the debate he showed that he is a man ready for the job. But – unlike Mills, he didn’t sound like an aggrieved man. He was sincere and he was honest – even to the point of citing an example many rejected outright. Speaking about our broken and unresponsive pension system, Nduom decided to recount his experiences. “I helped to set up the system in Zimbabwe,” he said. “If you die today, wherever you are in Zimbabwe, your death benefits will be paid to you the same day.” In Mugabe’s Zimbabwe where toilet roll has more value than currency notes? And what’s the use of death benefits to a dead man?
On the night, Nduom was also humorous. Some will say: “of course, he’s was being a typical Fante man – concert party all the way. But his humour was good because quite a number of us are tired of leaders who take themselves more seriously than they should. Nduom also show us that he just like all of us – a human being. When the buzzer sounded prematurely he complained. After he had mentioned his Zimbabwean example, the murmur from the audience took quite a bit of his time. Once again, he complained. “With all of that I think I need some additional time,” he said.
Most important of all, Nduom won the ‘debate’ because he didn’t spend time reminding us about how terrible the situation is. We know everything already. And we know who is responsible and Nduom showed great wisdom in refusing to play the blame game. Choosing rather to speak intelligently about how he would resolve the problems helped him connect with many Ghanaians with optimism.
“I don’t want to invent the wheel,” he said. “It’s a matter of leadership working with a sense of urgency and it will get done.” Add such optimism to the fact that he was speaking and citing some of the great examples of our founding president and Nduom sounded so much like Nkrumah – without the despotic streak, of course. He seemed to be providing an alternative to the NDC and the NPP. It might not be much but that’s what most half-educated voters are looking out for: an alternative.
But was Nduom’s performance at the debate enough to win him the presidency? Absolutely not! Most of those whose votes really matter – the rural, illiterate folk – do not care a hoot about debates. Some of them might have listened but they made up their minds long before the candidates agreed to ‘debate’. Many others still don’t know the debate even took place.
Whatever the case may be, Nduom, has registered his presence on the political radar. That’s good for him, his party and our democracy. Indeed, democracy has never had it so good in this country. That’s not up for debate!