The Second Coming Of Mahama, Political Masterstroke Or Gamble?

When we hear about the second coming of somebody, our minds first go to the long-held hope and belief of Christians that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, will come back a second time for all those who have kept the faith. However, it is not in all instances that a second coming may be religious.

These days, it could be political too. The successful NDC congress over the weekend produced historic scenes and a comeback kid, John Dramani Mahama, as flagbearer of a party he led to defeat in the last election. Historic because, it was the first time such a large electoral college participated in the election of a flagbearer of a party in the sub-region.

Former President Mahama who predictably won the elections with such a huge margin is the first former president to want to stage a comeback for the presidency using democratic means in Ghana. It is also the first time he has really competed to lead the NDC as its flagbearer. On previous occasions, he got the party’s top job on a silver platter. First, through a constitutional transfer of power when his boss, and the nation’s president, Professor John Mills died in office. As vice president, he was quickly sworn in as president in fulfillment of the Ghanaian republican constitution and in order to avoid any leadership crisis.

The NDC had gone to Congress to elect the late president as its flagbearer for the 2012 elections. At the time of his death, the elections were some four months away. The party quickly at a congress in Kumasi rallied around Mr Mahama and endorsed him as the flagbearer. He had barely three months to campaign. He was to face the politically experienced Nana Akufo-Addo of the NPP, who was making a second attempt at the presidency, and a few others from the so-called smaller parties. Mr Mahama won.

The second time he had the flagbearership was when as president he had no challenger at congress, and received the party’s endorsement. Never mind that one George Boateng identified as the youth organizer of the party in Oyarifa picked up forms to contest the slot. He was disqualified for some reason.

My point is, this is the first time Mr Mahama has been involved in real competition for the NDC flagbearership. He came up against six other stalwarts of the party who had their own qualities and experience. He was seen as the favourite right from the day he tossed his hat in the ring, political connoisseurs called it for him.

At some stage in the race fraught with petitions and lawsuits, it appeared things were going to get difficult for Mr Mahama. Not that he was going to lose, but his projected victory margin could be disturbed. It turned out that though the other candidates put up a fight of their lives, they were too feeble for the Mahama wave sweeping through the NDC. He polled 95.23% of the votes, leaving the six to scramble for the measly under 5%.

Dominance of Mahama in NDC Politics

Mahama’s popularity in the NDC was never in doubt and it will continue to be so for some time. This is because, the current structure of influence in the party owes allegiance to his magnanimity as former president. Many of the party elite were his appointees and many of them sponsored quite a lot of the people into executive positions at various levels of the party. These executives [at the branch, constituency, regional and national levels] became delegates.

Mr Mahama though not aggressively, has over the years cut a dominant figure in the NDC and the party currently is defined by him. Right from his days as deputy minister of communications, he has had this likeable personality, affable posture and a moderate politician outlook that appeared attractive to many undecided voters. His popularity grew through the years as he became a substantive minister. In opposition, he was the darling boy of many because of his urbane nature and cross-cutting appeal. He could reach across the aisle and people believe he won over a lot of the so-called floating voters.

He missed out on becoming running mate to Prof Mills in 2004 and just when he was about to hang his political boots, the good old Prof chose him as his running mate for 2008. The Mills-Mahama ticket won that election and John Mahama who was the sensation of that campaign, became the vice president of Ghana. As fate would have it, Prof Mills died in office and Mr Mahama became the President of the Republic. He became the first vice president to transition immediately to become president. He was also the first Ghanaian president born after independence.

Very few politicians are able to stay in the public eye for long and still remain relevant. President Akufo-Addo is one of those few people and it takes a lot of strategy and political acumen to have such longevity in the public space and still be relevant. I think it is fair to say that Mr Mahama though sometimes appears politically coy has managed to keep his relevance and get NDC people [if not Ghanaians] to crave for him. His naturally affable nature, if you will remember earned him the ‘Ahobrasehene’ accolade.

One may compare his influence and dominance in the NDC to that of founder Rawlings. While I think it is not a fair comparison to make given that the two represent different eras and constituencies, it is appropriate to say that the two remain the most influential in the party. While Mahama’s popularity is among the younger generation and first-time voters in the party, Rawlings’ appeal is with the ideologues and those who tasted his revolutionary charisma.

The recent result of the NDC congress is quite reflective of his [Mahama] appeal. He garnered 95.23%. This is however not a novelty. In 2015, he made 95.1% though that was not a competitive race. At his maiden congress for flagbearer in Kumasi in 2012, he was endorsed by 99.5% of party delegates. He has always been popular in his party. The question is whether he will be able this time to translate that popularity to the national election and get rewarded for it.

Also, Mr Mahama is the only person to have won the presidency at his first attempt under the 4th republic. He also remains the only one to have lost an election as a sitting president and with an embarrassing margin.

Masterstroke or gamble?

I approach this using a framework of electability, resourcefulness and experience. As a former president, Mahama certainly crosses the electability hurdle. However, the fact that he lost in his second term bid suggests a challenge that he must pay attention to. An introspection into his style and connection with the party grassroots first and Ghanaians generally is an imperative exercise Mr Mahama must do if he wants his second coming to be victorious. Mahama suffers a baggage partly borne out of his conduct as president.

This baggage is also the result of a good job done on him by his opponents in framing him as a corrupt and incompetent president. How he deals with the tag of corruption on him and even his administration, will prove important in his quest to recapture power for the NDC. He is naturally gifted with an ability to connect with people. He is able to make light of serious matters and this is necessary to keep the stress levels down in a system where socio-economic situations have been historically harsh and where social support is almost non-existent. However, this quality has been seen by some as he being too playful. As a colleague puts it, “agorodey his eye top.”

His experience as a former president and one who has seen it all in politics, comes in handy. In justifying their endorsement for Mr Mahama few days to the NDC congress, the Netherlands chapter of the party placed a lot of value on his experience and readiness to hit the ground running. They said, “we looked at the candidate’s steadiness and responsiveness to political crashes, and we observed that Mr. John Mahama is stable, somber and sagacious. In terms of political experiences, Mr. John Mahama happened to stand tall among other candidates.

He has served as Deputy Minister and Minister, MP for 12 years, a Vice-President and a President of the Nation, a record unmatched in the annals of Ghanaian politics. He has an impeccable record for economic development and his vision for infrastructure-driven development is a match to Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.”

As an immediate past president, Mr Mahama certainly has resources or is able to marshal resources to see the NDC through the elections. His networks with the business community will prove useful in raising funds to support the party’s campaign. Political campaigning is an expensive venture and an opposition party which has started crying for lack of cash will be helped so much by the financial relief Mahama brings.

But all these must be tested against the strength of his most formidable opponent. It is likely to be Nana Akufo-Addo, the sitting president who is also an experienced politician. When Mahama had the advantage of incumbency, he gave it out quite easily due to poor decisions he made as president; some appointments, certain utterances, conduct etc.

Mr Mahama did not do a good job as president in managing the experience of party elders and the creativity and energy of the younger generation. For many, he chose to hang out with the latter at the expense of the party lords. The party old guards felt alienated while the young ‘boys and girls’ ran the show, sometimes even deciding which of the elders had access to the president. He simply could have managed those two constituencies better.

The KwesiBotchwey report which happens to be one of the most furtive documents of the past year, is understood to have captured that disaffection suffered by the elders of the party. Indeed, it has even been suggested that many of these elders who would normally send word [and resources] to their villages and home regions on how to vote, could not be bothered this time. For Mahama to be successful at his second coming, he surely must be seen to be respectful to the elders who felt estranged by his style, and find a way of building bridges.

It has also been said that he lost touch with the grassroots when he ascended the throne. The grassroots members are those who actually hold the votes as they are the footsoldiers who embark on the door-to-door campaigns in their communities. If they are disillusioned because they do not feel wanted and appreciated, the campaign for power will only remain in the air. He must find a way to ensure that resources that he himself admitted were diverted, get to the right people for the job. Prior to the Congress, I have heard him outline a plan to reach out to this segment of the party’s support.

He must work on his messaging and the party must engage its research arm to get down to the people to understand what their most pressing needs are and weave that into a campaign message. Not ‘edey bee keke’ or Usain Bolt’s signature victory sign [accompanied by a JM whistle]. The race for the presidency is a more serious venture than just gesturing Usain Bolt or saying ‘edey bee keke’. I am not naïve to recognize that sloganeering plays a part in electoral campaigns and victory but same must seek to communicate a message.

Mr Mahama must also convince Ghanaians what his real intentions for the comeback is, as it has been said that it is a venture to take his own pound of flesh or restore his pride. Others have said he is eager to come back because of his unfinished agenda of social and economic transformation. Ghanaians must be clear about his true motive for his second coming.

Congress and significance

The outcome of the just ended NDC congress reflects a party with a purpose which has spoken with one voice. The winner must extend an olive branch and get his colleagues on board. It was however disappointing that the other candidates did not show up at Mahama’s coronation as flagbearer, the night of the elections, except Nurudeen Iddrisu. A stronger message would have been sent if the other contestants were there to congratulate the winner and pledge their support. Even though, they called the winner to congratulate him, the party missed out on an opportunity to portray themselves as more united than perceived.

The congress ultimately ended contests at the national level of the party as it followed the election of national executives. The party must now rally itself around and perform its role as the check on government with more determination and purpose.

The Rawlings factor, Mahama and 2020

We all know Rawlings is not happy with his party [both now and in government]. He claims the party he founded has lost its values and moral high ground, and is up for the taking by a few people. Though, it is easy to argue that his influence in the party has waned over the years, partly due to actions of his wife and himself, the changing demographics, and even his new found love with Nana Akufo-Addo, he still remains an important stakeholder in the scheme of things in the NDC. Mahama must be seen making frantic overtures to the founder and getting him onboard more actively this time. He must mute the voices in the party that lampoon the founder and seek to portray him as no more relevant to the electoral fortunes of the NDC. Attempts should be made to get him back on the campaign trail and deploy him to the rural areas where his appeal is still high. Mr Mahama must simply be in charge.

2020 is the real test

2020 will be an interesting race as both leading contenders [assuming President Akufo-Addo contests] would have beaten each other once and the elections will provide a final opportunity to settle who is more politically invincible. I have read comments from people who have said that because Mahama was beaten in 2016 by the NPP, he will be a walkover. Anybody who thinks the election of Mahama and the overwhelming endorsement he received from his party mean little for the NPP has no business in political analysis and punditry. When Nana Addo lost to the NDC in 2008, in 2012 it was said that he would be easily beaten. The results of that election were challenged at the Supreme Court. In 2016, the 2-time defeated candidate came back and humiliated a candidate who had never lost an election.

A former President coming back to take power after losing to the opponent is not particularly novel. In the mid-90s, Matthew Kerekou of Benin lost the Presidency to a younger Nicephore Soglo, but came back later in the next election to defeat the incumbent.

2020 will see two persons compare their four-year records and seek to convince Ghanaians why one record should be placed above the other.

In conclusion, as a student of democracy, I am excited at the 2020 contest as both parties know what their opponents’ candidates can do. For the ruling party, it provides the opportunity to work hard and deliver on promises they made to the people of Ghana to merit another term. This will make the electorate the winner as competition will force better performance from government for the fear of losing an election.

Whether the election of Mahama makes 2020 more difficult for the NDC and easier for the NPP or vice versa is a matter of how both sides conduct themselves, sell their messages and walk the talk. The NDC in Mahama has an opportunity to leverage on his appeal and work on his excesses so he is packaged as an experienced person who has been there, seen it and done it before, who has taken lessons from his past, made amends and is ready to get to the next level.