The other day, I asked a rhetorical question in these columns: “How old must you be to
write for a president?” The question had been inspired by John Favreau, the 26 year old
young man who wrote President Barack Obama’s speeches. Favreau was 22 years when
he started crafting presidential speeches. Do you remember ‘Yes we can’? Favreau was
part of a group of young speechwriters (the oldest being 32) who were behind Obama’s
oratorical fireworks and rhetorical brilliance. Favreau reports that a typical Obama
speech went through several stages of writing and rewriting until the big idea was sold.
In one instance when President Obama was to deliver a speech abroad, Favreau
recounts the pressure of fine-tuning the President’s speech on Air Force 1 minutes
before the President would start reading it to an expectant audience.
I am not sure who writes President John Mahama’s speeches. With a team of
government and party communications people who appear to have wide latitude to
speak and spin the government’s position on any issue, and a Communications Ministry
that is mandated to handle government communication, it is difficult to determine who
decides what the President should say. A presidential speechwriter need not be any of
these officials; it may be a quiet and unassuming fellow hiding in a small corner in
Ashalley Botwe. Usually there would more than one person writing speeches for the
President’s many speaking engagements. Some Valerie Sackey is one of them. Others
trace the good grammar to Ben Clement Eghan. Whoever they are, I say Mazaltov for
the brilliant words they have been crafting for a man who has incredible capacity to
write without the gobbledygook of journalese or the tired clichés of Ghanaian English.
I have been listening to a few of John Mahama’s speeches, at least the ones he delivers
on important national occasions. His State of the Nation was a good one. It was a
three hour speech but you didn’t feel tired listening to him. We looked forward to the
next paragraph just when he finished the last one. It was serious business but there
was room for gentle humour to keep us alive and hearty. Our newspapers (all of them)
did well to have published the entire speech in different editions for our consumption.
The President’s speech on Ghana’s 58th Anniversary on 06 March was a very well-crafted
account that seemed to give the bland independence narrative a more positive
character (not blind optimism). Coming after Prof Atukwei Okai’s scholastic rendition of
linguistic sorcery, we were waiting for a Presidential address that had to be read
because it had already been written to mark the day, except that this was a much nicer
and shorter one. Like most good speeches, it was not too difficult to take away
memorable phrases and sentences. “58 years as our country, we have made mistakes,
and we have chalked some successes. Notwithstanding the mistakes we may have
made, our nation is celebrated for our democracy, human rights, and religious
tolerance.” From where we sat, the President seemed to believe the words he poured
forth when he warned that there was “no need to plough into purposeless lamentation,”
and that failing to take definitive steps to prosper Ghana will “amount to great injustice
to all those who sacrificed their lives” to secure independence for the Gold Coast.
Of course, the speech will not be countered among the greatest Ghana has heard or
read, but it served a great purpose for a great occasion. Even then it did not succeed
in answering why this economy is struggling or why our economic independence is not
linked with our political independence. My former proofreader used to say that brilliant
speeches do not work for her; brilliant actions do. Every year, we ask ourselves the
same questions on 6 March and run through the economic misadventures that have
kept us our poor people sedated on dry hope. We question the historical anachronism
that has seen the rich nations of the world dictate the pace of our development after
political independence. The answers have always eluded us. We wait for the next year.
I have stopped worrying about the whys and wherefores of our many problems as a
country. I have refused to join the chorus of blame while singing from the lyrics of
redemption. From politicians who joke with their mandate, to chewing gum and mobile
phone voucher sellers who can only look forward to the Youth Enterprise Support with
half a slice of hope, the country is begging for basic answers. And especially on historic
celebrations such as the independence of your country, you want to see and feel
possibilities of growth and development in your immediate surroundings. You want to
sing your national anthem with pride on this day, like the Americans and the Canadians
do on national occasions. Every independence anniversary celebration must bring
Ghanaians something better to look forward to before the next anniversary.
Why are we not like Malaysia or South Korea? Here too, the person who wrote the 58th
Anniversary independence speech may have succeeded in ploughing away the despair
that usually greets us when these questions are asked. Instead, he energized our minds
to search for the answers in a simple parable: Two Ghanaians were asked what the
independence of Ghana meant to them. Like the Biblical parable of the servant who hid
his talent in the ground, one simply refused to diagnose the tyranny of his present and
spoke hopelessness into the future. The other resolved to part from the depressing
narrative of failure and spoke hope for his country. The parable is a metaphor for two
types of Ghanaians who represent these two positions. The President made a choice.
The question is for every other Ghanaian, particularly the President’s wife, whose
birthday falls on Ghana’s Independence Day. As the President thinks of the best gift to
give to the First Lady every 06 March, he should think of a bigger present for Ghana.
Source: Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin
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