Sunday, 08 December

Ask and ye shall receive

Feature Article
Elizabeth Ohene

For someone who is so keen to be seen as a deliverer, our President is running late with one promise.

President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo said he would try and give two press conferences every year.

Here we are, almost at the end of September, and he has not yet given one press conference this year.

The question of the missing press conferences came to my mind when I heard and read complaints about the President answering questions on critical issues when he is outside the country.

Two recent issues, in particular, have been raised.

We all knew what his government thought and said about the PDS brouhaha because his Minister of Information, Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, kept us abreast of the details.

But when Mr President went to Angola, he spoke publicly about the PDS and we heard from the horse’s own mouth what his thoughts were on the subject.

The PDS controversy had been raging for almost a fortnight before the President went to Angola.

Then this past week at an event in Princeton in the USA, the President spoke about Aisha Huang aka, Chinese Galamsey Queen.

This controversy has been raging for over a year and this was the first time we heard the President talk about it.

Now both these two subjects are contentious, to say the least, and the question is being asked, quite justifiably, that why has the President chosen to make his views known outside Ghana when he has not said anything about them at home.

Why are foreign audiences chosen to hear the President’s views on difficult subjects?

Press conferences

It is in the pursuit of these questions that I started thinking of the President not having held any press conference this year and the phenomenon of press conferences as a whole.

Difficult moments at press conferences come for Presidents and other high officials when they are asked questions they have not prepared for and they try to talk their way out of it and end up in a corner.

This President of ours unnerved everybody at a press conference last year when he answered a question put to him by simply saying he did not know.

That certainly was not part of the normal script. Presidents don’t usually say they don’t know something, they are supposed to know or pretend they do even when they don’t.

In this current situation, whereas we can blame the President for not holding a press conference in Ghana at which our journalists can ask him questions on our behalf, I wonder if we shouldn’t look further into the subject.

Why should the President talk about things or answer questions that are agitating the minds of the people only at press conferences?

We have a presidential press corps that works from the Jubilee House.

I can lay some claim to the institution of the presidential press corps back in 2001 when I was appointed Minister of State, Media Relations.

(I was not very successful at it, but that is a different story to be told at a different time.)

I decided then that we needed a presidential press corps who would operate from the presidency, get daily briefings from the spokesperson or director of communications or whatever name the relevant person is called.

They would cultivate contacts at the presidency and find out what is going on behind closed doors and they would get to meet the President in between functions and ask him questions if need be.

For reasons which I cannot understand, the presidential press corps has ended up nothing like the animal I had anticipated.

The President goes to a function somewhere, at the Jubilee House or somewhere in Accra, or around the country or some other place in the world.

The Director of Communications Eugene Arhin and his team issue a report and photos and the report we get in the newspapers and radio, television and other outlets are no different from this report.

I have not heard any member of the press corps question the President or Mr Arhin on or off the record on any subject unless it is at an official press conference.

I should state that my comments do not refer to only this current crop of presidential press corps.

I am referring to the original group that covered the Kufuor presidency, those that covered the Atta Mills presidency, those that covered the Mahama presidency and those that are now covering the Akufo-Addo presidency.

I remember President Kufuor arriving from an overseas trip when there had been some difficult events during his absence.

I held my breath at the airport as the journalists were led into the lounge and I was expecting questions on what had been going on whilst he was away to be thrown at the President and none came. After a while, I gave up worrying.

I can testify that during my time, I never gave any indication to anybody that certain questions were out of bounds.

Questions

Then now we have Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, who has spent a lifetime in the rough and tumble of courtroom drama and the even rougher field of competitive politics, I can’t imagine that he would shy away from difficult or inconvenient questions.

What is more, he has already made things easier for himself by stating he is able to say he does not know and does not have an answer when he doesn’t.

Which is why I am unimpressed with the incident that took place at the entrance to the President’s speech at Rutgers last Saturday when a Ghanaian young man said he was denied entry to the event and has posted a video of his complaints.

I am not quite sure how the young man imagined he alone could ask 10 questions at the event, especially if he had asked a question the previous day.

The President seems to be making these comments at townhall meetings that are organised for him when he travels outside Ghana.

I have, therefore, wondered if the President is expected to hold townhall meetings around Ghana, so Ghanaians will be able to ask him questions directly.

Would it be deemed satisfactory if our President went the way of President Donald Trump and sent tweets at 5 a.m. every day to indicate to us what his thinking is on any and every subject?

Or should our journalists adopt the ways of the American journalists and as the President is walking to his car or the dais for some event, shout questions at him, for him to stop to give a 20-second soundbite answer?

The important thing seems to be that if we want answers, we must ask questions. As it says in the Good Book, ask, and it shall be given to you.

I am not persuaded about the set-to dramatic press conference format, but if that is the only way to get the President to answer questions, then he must have them.

If it is the staged drama we crave, let’s have the press conferences.

Until that happens, the presidential press corps must ask the questions and get answers for us all.

Source: Elizabeth Ohene