“You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose,” a former New York governor, Mario Cuomo, once said. The poetry of politics is adorable when there are brilliant oratorical fireworks to savour and impressive rhetoric to bamboozle. Such is poetry. A staccato rendition of a good poem would still make sense. Prose is different. A good prose has a thread tying various things together. The concept of governance is like also that–a continuum. Yet every government is unique and different. So no two presidents are the same. It is also dangerous to judge every president by the same standards of yesterday, especially when the presidents bear different names. Johns come in different shapes and sizes. And every John has a style.
The other day, senior colleague George Sydney Abugri teased us with a beautiful allegory in a signature letter to Jomo. George made it relevant and urgent: A banku seller posts a vacancy advert for a support cook. The advert did not make any assumptions that since many of its target readers may be banku eaters, they should also know the duties of a support cook. The ad went on to particularise, painstakingly spelling out a detailed list of dos and donts. George wondered why some Ghanaians had been quick to dish out a report card for ex-President Atta Mills when they had not been clear on the questions the president had failed to answer in the examinations. “He is weak. He is not hitting the ground running.” These are blanket generalities. Tell us why he is weak. Tell us exactly what you want him to do?
This was before our dear president passed on. Even weeks after his funeral, talk is still going on about the legacy of ex-President Mills and whether he was only a good, humble person or he also managed to convince the Ghanaian citizenry that he was an effective president. Sekou Nkrumah has stated his position on Mills that he was a good man but not a good leader. Others have emphasised Mills’ humble and incorruptible side, praising him for uniting his country and leaving behind a better Ghana. His spiritual father, Prophet TB Joshua, says his client died a martyr and had leadership qualities that were too advanced for Africa. His one time political master, ex President J.J Rawlings, however, thinks that his frenemy could have done better at investigating some excesses of the past NPP government.
While we continue to slug it out as participants in a democracy, other Africans outside of Ghana are willing to speak our collective judgement on our departed president. Cameroonian Augustine Sunjo, a follower of Ghanaian politics and a keen admirer of Mills’ God-fearing nature, exclaims: “What else did Ghanaians want in a president? Did you want a leader who would clamp down on the opposition like most African leaders do, and throw people into jail with careless abandon?” In John Evans Atta Mills, Sunjo thinks Ghana is blessed: “Ghanaians are very very lucky people. You guys are very lucky,” he says, gratified that he has disembowelled all there is in him to give credit to a man whose only fault was that he was too good.
The elders are always unmistakable: we put a lot of premium on things that are new or unfamiliar. Often the familiar miss our admiration and respect. Maybe we got too familiar with a peace-loving president and wanted some action. But what kind of action did Ghanaians want? Climb a podium and issue threats amidst frightening gyrations, stamping his feet and daring anybody to dare him, to see where power lies? Or cast aside civility and decorum and thunder aloud his authority to break our tympanic membrane? Would it have sat well with our experience of effective rule if Ghana were like Gambia, where the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports that people live in fear? Charge people with treason for coughing too much?
I had reserved my thoughts about ex-President Atta Mills’ performance because I am certain I would not be very sincere. I admire folks like Egbert Faibille who are able to put it out that they like John Mahama as a friend but they are rooting for an Akufo-Addo presidency. That is being sincere. When Mills was vice president, I had the privilege of engaging my former teacher in a hearty chat. I had visited his office in a personal capacity. He doesn’t wear the authority of his office on his sleeves, so he would hardly be caught in the trappings of power. You leave his presence a satisfied person.
That is Atta Mills the man. Atta Mils the president was not any different from Atta Mills the man. That is what impresses Augustine Sunjo–that a man would refuse to let the circumstances of his office corrupt his nature. Sunjo submits: “Even you and me, we would be so different if we get a little social or professional elevation. We would feel so important we would needlessly insist on protocol for everything.” Sunjo had met President Mills at T.B Joshua’s synagogue church. He was awed by the faith of a man who believes that his presidency subsists on the presidency of a higher being. That began his love affair with Ghana. Sunjo doesn’t know much about the new Ghanaian president, but he has a lot of admiration for country Ghana.
Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin is a journalist. He lives in Ottawa, Canada.