Friday, October 31, 2008

A Platform for Platitudes…?

by Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng,


For nearly three hours, the four presidential candidates representing the four parliamentary parties endured the heat from the TV spotlight and the questioning from the two experienced quizmasters – Prof. Kwame Karikari and Mr. Cyril Acolatse in a "debate" that was more a triumph of the IEA's organisational ability than an illumination of the choices available to Ghanaians on December 7th.


The debate was organised by the Institute for Economic Affairs, IEA, for Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo-Addo, NPP; Dr. Paa Kwesi Nduom, CPP; Prof John Atta Mills, NDC; and Dr Edward Mahama, PNC.


There was no knockout punch, and very little scintillating footwork; to continue with the sports analogy, it was a victory for stolid plodding in a defensive midfield instead of making any dazzling forward runs. The candidates displayed massive staying power, and even appeared to enjoy themselves in the final third of the debate.


Let us get this debate out of the way, was it a debate? There has been protest from some quarters about the use of the word "debate" to describe what happened at the Ghana-India Kofi Annan ICT Centre of Excellence. Their point is that there was very little opportunity for the punch and counter punch that must of necessity define debate in this sedate affair between four reasonable gentlemen.


They have a point, but it misses the context of this encounter (which was the word used by one seasoned commentator). One of the overriding objectives of this debate was to demonstrate to the electorate that there is no rancour and bitterness between the candidates. This is important in the ongoing campaign for peace during and after the elections. A power charged atmosphere in which the candidates tear into one another would not be a responsible spectacle at this point.


Even so, the tranquil encounter probably owed more to unintended consequences than anything else. The physical arrangement of the candidates SEATED in a slightly curved line was a major restraint to excitability; it is also difficult to exhibit excitement while sitting. For example, if the candidates had been standing at separate lecterns facing one another the story could have been different.


The next restraining factor was time. Every candidate was allowed two minutes to answer a main question and 30 minutes for rebuttals. All public performers know that two minutes is a lot of time when you don't know what to say but slips away like a nanosecond when you have a lot to say. With the best will in the world, there is not a lot you can say, when a presidency depends on it, in two minutes.


As a consequence, the candidates resorted to platitudes and banal generalities that shed little light on what they stood for or proposed to do if elected. One had to pity the NPP's Nana Akuffo-Addo who had to defend the current government as well as speak for the future as he intends it for Ghanaians. Quite clearly, the evening belonged to Dr Paa Kwesi Nduom of the CPP, who has liberated himself through a distance from the government in which he served for seven years.


Having seated the candidates in that gentle line from which it was well nigh impossible to raise emotion, there was no way the inquisitors were going to embarrass them with anything but serious but unthreatening questioning. There was no question to Prof Mills about how he would fob off the rumoured post-presidential ambitions of Rawlings to control a Mills presidency; nor a question to Dr Nduom about the Serious Fraud Squad; nor to Nana about rumours of corruption in the government or to Dr. Mahama about allegations of his personal dictatorship.


There were no probes into personal lives and lifestyles. Indeed, the candidates were not even taken through their CVs. In the end we knew no more about the candidates at the end of the debate than we did at the start. However, these restraints did not subtract substantially from what was a very important political and media event and a significant contribution to the forward movement of the country towards its self-declared democratic destiny.

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