Consider this alternative history: In his first week in office, Nana announced that the next time he drove past a broken traffic light in his motorcade, he would fire the person(s) responsible for maintaining that traffic light. The result? 100 days later, there would have been no broken traffic light in Accra.
It’s such a shame that “communication” in Ghana’s political governance has been so reduced to shouting matches among party apparatchiks that the strategic use of communication for nation-building has not been appropriately prioritized and fully utilized. It’s a shame too, therefore, that my biggest disappointment with the NPP government so far has been in communication, you know, that ministry with three deputies. Here are three issues that could have been managed better.
First, the king’s speech. It’s done, we’ve moved on, but lessons remain for how to prevent such a mess in the future and how to clean up such mess as messes are bound to happen.
While the original sin may have shown bad faith, the government’s response showed bad judgment. The initial response was slow and one got the feeling that the people managing the president’s communication were either too busy celebrating or too inexperienced to see the gravity of what had just happened, and, therefore, was to come. Instead of an expertly-worded proper press release to insulate the president and change the subject knowing very well that more than one part of the speech would soon be revealed to be obroni wawu (Hello, internet), we got a drip-drip of an apology.
From the outside looking in with my limited information, I would have advised the presidency to immediately own the “error by an overenthusiastic staffer” and announce that the person had been suspended, never to contribute to the president’s speech again. Media relations folks would call that staying ahead of the story. Rather, the official attitude appeared to be that it would blow away like most domestic political scandals, forgetting, surprisingly, that this was prime time and the whole world was watching. And this story proved it had legs (any communication professional could have warned them!) and so it walked and walked all the way to America’s late night comedy shows. God forbid the president make an official trip to the U.S. and a late-night comedian begin his skit with, “Remember this guy?” God forbid!
Second, managing expectations. Under-promise and over-deliver. Remember that one? The NPP seems to have forgotten; thus, it missed several opportunities to pivot from campaigning to governing. Like all political parties, this party came into power with many promises on its shoulders. That’s how the game is played, right? But once in power, you govern based on reality. (Ask Donald Trump) And when you find a previously undisclosed GHS7 billion hole in the coffers, you take—I know this is a terrible choice of word under the circumstances— advantage to adapt your promises to reality. That’s just how the game is played.
From the State of the Union speech to the budget statement to the radio and TV appearances, the main message should have been about what a mess the country is in (and that’s no lie): the dirt, the debt, the theft, the galamsey, the broken schools…this is where the party “communicators” come in handy. And so you reset the psychological baseline and give an outline of a plan for getting us out of the mess, complete with a timeline.
When you do that, people will sympathize with you and give you time. People are smart and Ghanaians like to think of themselves as forgiving people. Instead, even after inauguration the government kept on promising things and talking about how quickly it will fix things. Free SHS and things. When you do that, you own the problems too quickly. And that’s where the NPP finds itself.
Take dumsor. When it started again in February, the minister was all over the news talking about how it will be fixed by this date (and missing this date) and then that date (and missing that date)….so Mahama’s dumsor quickly became Nana’s dumsor. If I were the minister, I would rather have been all over the place talking about how bad things were and how long it would take to fix them and ask people to bear with me and make sacrifices and demonstrate the sacrifices that the government too was making by asking every ministry to turn off appliances at certain times, etc.
Finally, consider the public trials of Otiko Djaba. After barely taking her seat, the Minister for Gender was under fire. First, for staying silent on the abuse of the lady suspected of theft in Kejetia. I was told her justification was that she can’t comment on every single case. True. But consider that since the Kejetia beating, there have been a publicized gang-rape of a 14-year-old and many others, I trust, that have gone unreported. Who knows how many rapes could have been prevented if the minister had used the moment of the Kejetia beating to forcefully signal how swiftly and drastically her ministry would deal with violence against woman?
In summary, part of leadership is about sending signals about what is acceptable and what is not. The president may be putting the right pieces together for the big task before us, you know, 110 ministers, retreats, reviews and processes and legislations, meeting with chiefs, clergy, and all that, but we don’t have the luxury of time for all those moves to eventually work their way through the system for the person in charge of the traffic light at Tettegu junction to go and fix it. How many lives will have been lost by then? The president can take a short cut by sending signals at the top for the people down there to do what they are already equipped to do but don’t do because no one pushes them. People must feel that there’s a new boss in the building. And everyone must shake in their boots when they hear, “Nana is coming.” Right now, they’re not.
To understand why Ghanaians don’t understand why Otiko Djaaaba did not come out about the Kejetia mob for days, Nana Addo must understand what Ghanaians did on Dec. 7, 2016. We didn’t vote to change government; we voted to change Ghana. We must feel it. We must see Customs officials being taken to trial (better yet, jail) for taking bribes at the port. We don’t want to hear that it takes time (that’s Mahama talk.) We need to see things happening.
From diplomacy to photography, various elements of communication should be thought through and carefully planned to send the right messages and fit a narrative. (For instance, don’t blurt out a plan for free SHS until you’ve thought through the details of your plan.) We’ve all oohed and aaaahed over Peter de Souza’s photos of Obama. What we haven’t seen are all the crappy ones or how he picked his moments and chose his shots to project a certain image of the man, a predetermined image, such that him lying on the carpet holding a baby is seen as cool. It requires not just artistic skills but also an understanding of statecraft at the highest level. Here at home, our task is to use those techniques to establish rule of law, solidify our democracy and boost our social and economic development.
Mahama was good at the slick things, the speeches, the photos, the videos, the graphics, but he lacked authenticity and deeper thinking beyond PR. And he fatally went overboard especially during the campaign. As an old man put it in Fante, “Efi dzi ina oyeh nkwon.” (It was disgusting.)
To their credit, the president’s men and women seem to have listened and made changes to correct the amateurish photography of the early days. (Geez, that was bad!) I hope it’s a sign of a listening government, one that will continue to listen and improve as the honourable minister for information and his three deputy honourables settle in.
PS: This piece was written before the Franklin Templeton bond kerfuffle. Though the deal doesn’t seem to be the scandal that the NDC is trying to make it out to be, the finance ministry should have taken a smell test and taken proactive steps to deodorize it beforehand—much better than reactive press releases.