It is a lesson that I have learned a couple of times in my young lifetime; one that I will no doubt learn again. Take last week, for example. When his protégé won occupancy of Flagstaff House (side note: I refuse to call the building by its current name until it is given a more sensible one), one would have assumed that Uncle JJ was going to fade to black, moving away from the public eye, his mission to return his people to power accomplished. There was one moment in particular, after the results were announced, when he told journalists and cameramen gathered outside his house in anticipation of a ‘Boomism’ to head to town and follow the crowd as he should not be the centre of attention. Uncle JJ? Shying away from publicity? Glad that someone was capturing this genuinely historic moment on film, I thought to myself that we really had arrived at the end of an era. Alas: this was an assumption and, as I said earlier, one must never assume.
Last week, our former leader was back in the news berating President Mills for his directive to District and Municipal Chief Executives of the outgoing administration to remain in their posts until new appointments have been made. I wonder what Old Boom-Boom expected? Mills’ nickname is not ‘God of War’: it is ‘Asomdwehene’. Besides, the NDC won the elections by so small a margin that reassuring the half of the country whose feelings towards their party range from mild dislike to full-blown terror makes far more sense than taking revenge for treatment meted out to the party faithful all the way back in 2001.
Rawlings is by no means the first former President to make his successor’s life difficult. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher became a bane to John Major, who stepped into her high heels as head of the Conservative Party after she was pressured to resign in 1990. Thatcher was held in reverence by most party faithful but evoked very negative feelings not just among the rest of the electorate but among some members of her own party. Sound familiar? Thatcher too handpicked Major as her successor but accidentally let it slip that she expected to be a backseat driver of his administration. Even if she had not said anything, the perception was already there and it put Major in a tricky position, forcing him to demonstrate his independence from her. I repeat: does any of this sound familiar?
Major took new directions on key policies – regional integration and social policy spring to mind - and his leadership style was far less autocratic. Thatcher indicated her disappointment in him, making unhelpful comments and interventions that only deepened his public image of being a weak leader. After Tony Blair’s Labour Party crushed the Conservatives in the next election, Major would look back and describe Thatcher’s behaviour towards him as “intolerable,” accusing her of turning his government into a Greek tragedy.
Of course, Britain and Ghana are different countries. The conciliatory approach that President Mills has adopted has been largely praised and, while Mills’ movements have been described as being somewhat effeminate by one cheeky (but on-point) journalist, his performance thus far has not been considered weak.
Health concerns eventually forced Thatcher to fade into the background and it has done her image a world of good. In recent polls though, she has come out a British hero; one that even the current Prime Minister Gordon Brown – a Labour Party supremo - has not been ashamed to say he shares certain convictions with. Ghana is held in high regard the world over for what happened here in December, but how much more amazing will it be when our presidents are able to invite their predecessors – past and historic - over for dinner at Flagstaff and freely state their admiration for them without feeling like scrubbing themselves down with industrial-strength stain remover immediately afterwards?
While I feel for President Mills, I sympathize with those who point to our constitution, indicating that it leaves Uncle JJ free to free his mind. I just wish that he would pick his moments a little more carefully. One week into your own man’s administration is a little too early to start knocking the man down. Even worse is the fact that he will go down in Ghanaian history as the first major critic to the Mills Administration… and all for a decision that has not even fully played out yet.
Rawlings’ fighting talk had its uses during the elections, mobilizing NDC supporters to march to the voting booth and kick out their supposed ‘oppressors’. However for every NDC supporter inspired by their Great Founder, there were probably two floating voters who found his style and opinion completely off-putting. A fear of moving backwards to the revolutionary days that Rawlings seems to reminisce so fondly over kept many from voting NDC in spite of the fact that they too clamoured for change. I have a feeling that the margin by which the NDC won the election might have been wider had he stayed in the background and allowed his memory to foster a little nostalgia instead of constantly holding press conferences and reminding so many people why they dislike him.
The cliché thing to do when talking about African leaders is to wheel out Saint Nelson and start using words like ‘legendary’, ‘heroic’ and ‘exemplary’. While I am loath to fall into that trap, it has to be said that Uncle JJ’s fellow Forum of African Elder Statesmen member sure knew how to pick his battles with his successor’s administration. The biggest single criticism that Mandela had of his successor’s government – one he never let him forget – was the Mbeki Administration’s stance on HIV/AIDS. Now that is something worth fighting your own about.
One might have assumed that the Rawlings Clan would have spent the past few days celebrating the dropping of charges against Mrs. Rawlings and bonding over the juicy prospect of suing the former President.
Like I said though, never assume.