Presidential Communications101

Esther A. Armah

Finally. The President’s silence was broken. He addressed the Nation. He stepped into the furor that had gripped millions. The Nation got a presidential statement regarding the US military Agreement – or rather the DCA (Defence Co-operation Agreement).

Is that the end of the controversy and the issues arising?

Sadly, no.

What was requested and required of the President; what criticisms was he required to respond to and how well did he deal with the waves and waves of anger, outrage, fear, information, misinformation and politicized information that came from all directions regarding this Agreement and its implications on questions of Ghana’s Sovereignty and Constitutionality.

I wrote extensively about the Agreement and my own questions in this column – with the headline: ‘THE ISSUE not THE INDIVIDUAL! on deflection, distraction & the national interest’.  That piece took on the issues of deflecting from the issue by getting caught up in the individual statements made by party political figures like Mr. Anyidoho of the NDC.

Like millions of Ghanaians I had many questions, I found the extended silence profoundly problematic and the party politicized filling in of the space vacated by the President deeply unsatisfactory.

There were multiple lessons learned as a citizen via this Encounter.

The most important and my particular focus: the art, the power, the need for Presidential Communications101.

The speech raised more questions for me than it gave answers. Resolution, comprehension and clarification were the President’s task. Did he succeed?

Let’s explore. But the quick answer?  Frankly, no.

The first issue. His speech felt more Party politicized than Presidential. At this point, President Akufo-Addo is the president of a nation and not leader of a party. The party politicized behaviour of the Opposition is indicative of an inability to lead; so frankly they belong in the Opposition. They maximized moments of national vulnerability to score party political points. That does not endear you to citizens – only to those who already support you. For citizens, it alienates you from potential entry to the office you so passionately seek; and from which you were democratically evicted.

LACK of REASSURANCE: The President failed to reassure a nation or recognize that he alone was the voice, held the stature and had the status to soothe a nation’s outrage and fear with specific, simple articulated reality.

PRESIDENTIAL COMMUNICATIONS 101 vs ACADEMIC CONFUSION: I wanted Presidential Communications101. I got a party politicized poorly worded thesis. It was a session of difficult to fully comprehend language that obfuscated on the issue at hand. It revealed a President’s anger and outrage at the suggestion he would sell Ghana’s sovereignty – but no actual specifics regarding the detail of the document’s contents.

As a global media communications expert, I wanted to talk with the speech writer and ask: what were you thinking? Who approved this? And how do you manifest transparency in such a speech?

This US Military Agreement – or more accurately this Defence Co-Operation Agreement – was handled badly. The right phrase? a communications debacle.

Now certainly, there was some nifty positioning. The President did manage to wrest some magic from this mayhem, when he turned this disaster into a triumph of freedom and transparency. That is a people rightly expressing their myriad views freely and without fear of retribution or intimidation by the government.

QUOTES and SAY WHAT-ISMS?: President Akufo-Addo talked about the past few weeks as symptomatic of an open democracy, the value of openness in governance and a fulfillment of his promise to practice transparency and not the secrecy – that he argued – was prevalent in previous administrations.

The President said there was: “the crucial need for the people to be fully and accurately informed” and that “there is no way that my government would keep hidden from you the people Agreements of such a nature”.

Both those points are powerful and much appreciated.

Yes – I appreciate not keeping such an Agreement hidden. The trouble is when it came to this Agreement the former did not happen. We the people were not accurately informed. We were profoundly misinformed. That misinformation continues to spiral around our national heads due to our President’s still unanswered questions.

Here are other examples of problematic issues: “I believe that the fallout from this decision only shows the growing maturation of our democracy”

Really? Is that what it shows? Or does it reveal that actually, this administration has failed to learn the significance of presidential communications101. That is: drive the narrative, don’t be driven by it. Frame the focus; don’t react to someone else’s focus.

The president was reactive and deeply political when he said that the reaction: “exposed the unspeakable hypocrisy of the fraternity of some frontline politicians who make a habit of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds who secretly wallow in the largesse of the United States of America, while at the same time promote anti-American sentiments”

Identifying the hare-running and hound-hunting opposition MPs was unnecessary – more importantly in this moment it was unpresidential. The President’s palpable anger at the Opposition’s languaging of this issue was misplaced during this address. Political hypocrisy is nothing new – and it would be simply inaccurate to say that the Opposition is the only ones guilty of such shenanigans.

THE GHANA-US RELATIONS PART: The President also said: “Submitting this Agreement to open scrutiny now allows us to clear the unhealthy fog that has clouded our relations with the United States of America”.  Unfortunately the President did not clear the fog, he instead muddied the waters.

This is a challenging moment for Ghana-US relations. The fact of submitting the Agreement to open scrutiny was indeed important. However the communications handling of this Agreement was problematic. Indeed the President’s silence as the US Ambassador sought to respond to questions regarding the Agreement did not strike me as that of two friendly nations, but rather one throwing the other under the bus.  If that was not the intent, then there is some more handling to do.

He also said: “it is worth pointing out that, almost since independence, Ghana has had fruitful relations with a range of foreign embassies…..”  that is problematic given the February 1966 military coup which history revealed included US participation.

WHAT IS ACTUALLY IN THE AGREEMENT: Here is one of the major issues for me. The President said: “It is important to state that the conditions of this Agreement mirror closely the conditions under which Ghana participates in peace-keeping operations under the United Nations. When our troops go on most peace keeping duties, they do not carry their national passports; they carry their military identity”.

“mirror closely” is unspecific. I am still unclear about what is in the Agreement. When the President roundly and soundly denied that the US was building a Military base in Ghana; that was great. Now he had explained what this was not, I was waiting for a clear, detailed explanation of what it was.

We now know it is called a DCA (Defence Co-operation Agreement); we know previous governments have previously signed such Agreements. What exactly does that entail? How long is it for? What does it entitle the US too? Can he confirm the amount Ghana receives – is $20 million – as first articulated by the US Ambassador Mr. Jackson?

More Questions.  And that is the result of the President’s Address.

It was not a controversy resolved, nor was it much asked questions answered. No. Instead, I was frustrated at the President using a national platform to indulge party political outrage and most importantly failing to do what was necessary.

When you have the bully pulpit as you do Mr. President – silence the Opposition by ignoring them. Reduce their rage to nothingness by demonstrating in this moment of a national need to come together, Opposition party politics, are not the focus of Presidential power. Address the people. Answer our questions; in clear, simple, direct language.

My Two Pesewas.

And since it is an Agreement between the US and Ghana.

My Two Cents.

Call it Presidential Communications101.

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