I must start by expressing my gratitude to His Excellency President John Dramani Mahama, and the Planning Committee of the 3rd John Atta Mills Memorial Lecture, for the privilege of speaking to this distinguished gathering. It is an honour to be considered to speak at the 3rd John Atta Mills Annual Lecture as the first outsider, after the distinguished forerunners at the 1st and 2nd Annual Lectures. Our elder, Prof. Kwamena Ahwoi and my brother, Dr. Mohammed Ibn Chambas respectively, have established this series as one to look forward to, based on the relevance of their presentations to the cause of the unity, peace and progress of Africa.
As a Nigerian who has lived in Ghana on and off in the last fifteen years, working with colleagues mostly in the non-governmental sector and supporting the work of my wife – Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi who co-founded the Pan African grant making organization, African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) with headquarters in Accra in 2001 – I often wonder the extent to which I can truly consider myself an outsider in this country. Indeed, from closely observing both my country Nigeria and Ghana in the last four decades, I am often struck by the nature of our parallels and competitive sibling rivalry, and the manner in which we seem to take a cue from each other on many fronts.
This series is a most befitting honour for a great man, former President of the Republic of Ghana, Prof. John Evans Fifi Atta-Mills of blessed memory. President Atta-Mills was a man who inspired so many across the continent and beyond, and one about whom I will always thank God for the opportunity to have had close interaction with. Credit must go to his very worthy successor, President John Mahama, for continuing the uniquely intellectual tradition of Ghanaian politics with this very commendable initiative in commemorating his life and times.
I also bring you warm greetings from the President of Nigeria, Mr Mohammadu Buhari. When I informed President Buhari of this speaking engagement last week in the middle of a conversation about his on-going trip to the United States of America, I was curious when he became very quiet. A man of not too many words, when he eventually spoke, he said: “Governor, President Atta Mills was a good man; a very good man; one of the very best from our continent.”
Not aware that he had had any close interaction with the late President, I concurred that yes, indeed, President Mills was a good man but went on to ask, “Were you close to him, sir?” He replied warmly: “Not really, but I met him in 2011 when I came to rest in Ghana after the 2011 general election debacle in Nigeria, and he was gracious enough to allow me stay at the Peduase Lodge, the Presidential retreat at Aburi in the Eastern Region.”
“We spoke extensively during my stay in Ghana but two things he said to me during those conversations stuck in my memory. First, he was among the few, probably even the first to predict at a time that I had given up on contesting for the presidency, that I will win the next election in Nigeria if I persevered. He admonished me to take a cue from his example and remain calm but resolute. Second, he said to me at one point, ‘I came into this world with nothing. I shall leave it with nothing”. A statement that certainly reflected his humility and simplicity but was perhaps also an indication that he had a premonition he wasn’t going to live for much longer. Sadly, we lost President Mills the following year.
As you all know, Nigeria subsequently witnessed a wind of change, bringing to office President Muhammadu Buhari in a keenly contested election, and achieving the very first alternation of power between political parties in our fourth republic – peacefully. We borrowed from the light Ghanaians must be very proud to bear as one of the beacons of peaceful transitions and relative maturity of conduct by your political elite across partisan divides, in Africa, in ensuring electioneering and transitions don’t have to be a signpost for wanton bloodshed. You can also add to that Ghanaian gift to post-cold war democratization in Africa, the esteemed clairvoyance of President Atta Mills in predicting this was going to happen to us in Nigeria too.
When my big brother, Tsatsu Tsikata first discussed the possibility of delivering this lecture with me, I wondered what could be my qualification for such high honour; was it the fact that I knew President Mills? Well, there are several distinguished Africans who knew “the Prof” much more than I could lay claim to. Or did it have anything to do with the fact that my baptismal name is John, that recurrent and ubiquitous name in the Ghanaian presidential palace in the last 22 years. Nice coincidence but not convincing enough. Up till now, I still can’t fathom how the Planning Committee happened upon my name, but I wasn’t going to pass on the opportunity to be a witness to history. In accepting to speak though, I was also not clear in my mind what I was going to speak on. A number of topics clearly beckoned but I eventually oscillated between the Future of Democratisation in Africa and the place of Intellectuals in Politics and Governance in Africa. These were the two issues that dominated my discussions with Tsatsu Tsikata as we sat next to each other during Professor Mill’s funeral ceremony in Accra in 2012. Besides, as someone who recently lost an election in Nigeria, on the purported grounds of being too intellectual in my approach to politics and governance, I was more attracted to the idea of exploring the place of intellectuals in Politics a lot more critically. The above has informed the focus on: Intellectuals in Politics and Governance in Africa: The Lessons and Legacies of Professor John Evans Atta Mills.
The Greek philosopher Plato famously held that the rule of philosopher-kings was the best form of government for his ideal republic. In so doing, he proposed the unity of thought and might; and wisdom and power. The exercise of temporal power was best left to those who possessed the contemplative gifts of philosophers; those who possessed and were possessed by a hunger for truth, wisdom and knowledge; and by those interested in resolving such mysteries as the meaning of existence, what constitutes the pursuit of the good life and other questions of transcendence.
Plato’s prescriptive idealization of philosopher-kings may seem too abstract for our modern times. But in an epoch defined as the Information Age, and characterized by the ascent of the knowledge economy in which the most rewarding currencies are ideas and the capacity to innovate, the platonic concept of philosopher-kings seems as apt as it has ever been. “Knowledge is power,” said William Bacon, and this axiom has arguably never been truer than in the Information Age. The global geo-political and economic pecking order is a hierarchy predicated on access to knowledge. The hierarchy of the world economy consists of four classes. There are primary resource exporters who are rich in natural resources. Most African countries and those of the Persian Gulf are in this category. Following in ascending order are the exporters of manufactured goods; the exporters of capital; and finally, the exporters of knowledge. The U.S. is the world’s largest economy and is also the world’s largest exporter of knowledge.
In our contemporary context, the primary index of governmental capacity is intellectual capital. Governance is a knowledge-based, ideas-centred and data-driven enterprise with service to people as its sole motivation. Today, governments are expected to innovate, to generate creative solutions to the challenges they face. Our readiness to compete effectively in the 21st century global economy is measured by, among other factors, how much commitment we show to knowledge production and intellectual reflection in our political culture and leadership selection processes.
When we call for political campaigns to be conducted around ideas rather than personalities, we are harking back to the concept of philosopher-kings because we want to test how deeply those who aspire to lead us have thought about the issues confronting our societies. When a preference is expressed for technocrats in government as against simply lavishing public office on run-of-the-mill political jobbers, we are casting our vote for a knowledge-based, values-driven and ideas-oriented approach to managing our common aspirations. We want to see governance conducted as a science, yet rooted in a clear philosophy of running nations. We treat technocrats as people who are well-informed and far more than adequately knowledgeable about the problems confronting us.
It is significant that in our societies a profound perceptual gulf has opened between technocrats who are credited with a near shamanistic expertise in public policy and the mechanics of governance, and politicians who are often perceived merely as jobbers trawling through public life for position and power, and who are mainly motivated by the possibilities of self-aggrandizement. While a problem-solving ethic is attributed to technocrats, politicians are seen as Janus-faced, opportunistic and self-serving. The devaluation of public service and politics owes something to this perception.
The concepts of technocrats and technocracies have a somewhat controversial history in Africa though. In the early 1990s, technocrats supported by Western donors and the Bretton Woods institutions, came to power in a number of African nations. The belief in these financial institutions was that these technocrats in African governments, being impartial empiricists, would unsentimentally deliver sustained economic growth and development through trade liberalization and structural adjustment programmes thereby bringing about unprecedented political stability and economic growth. These technocrats had foreign backing but little local support because their liberalization policies and economic shock therapies under the aegis of structural adjustment programmes (as ordained by Bretton Woods’ institutions), were often demonstrably anti-people.
Technocrats in the sense in which we must understand them today are people whose prime qualification for office is their expertise; who have thought deeply about the needs of their people and have devoted their lives to crafting constructive solutions to these problems, not in the restricted sense they have often been used. What we are concerned with is a larger clan than the community of technocratic academics or scholars. We are concerned with the intellectual clan, and not every technocrat or academic is an intellectual dedicated to societal transformation.
Yet there exists a corollary perception in many quarters that the rough and tumble realm of politics is no place for intellectuals; that leadership is about action not reflection or contemplation. According to this perception, intellectuals being men of thought are not suited for the raw exercise of power. Indeed, the epitaph on Karl Marx’s grave in Highgate, London originally contained in his Eleven Theses of Feuerbach has become – albeit wrongly – the popular refrain of such proponents of action against thought: ‘Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it.’ Fashionable interpretations of this statement in Africa is wrong because Marx was both a quintessential philosopher and a classic revolutionary.
A contemporary rendition of Plato’s prescription of philosopher-kings not only discards this false dichotomy between the intellectual and the politician; but advocates a blending of both tendencies. Only as these two tendencies are approached as complementary rather than contradictory can we rejuvenate public service and engender transformative governance. In other words, good politicians may not need to be brilliant intellectuals but they also should not have a contemptuous disdain for the life of the mind. The subject of our recollection today embodied precisely such a hybrid.
This is why perhaps the issue for us should not be one of transition from intellection to politics, but the extent to which we are able to achieve fundamental synergy between the two in the quest to add value to our society and our democracy. To speak of the reign of philosopher-kings today is to, in a sense, advocate the marriage of politics and principle; and to yoke public policy to public intellection, it is to talk of the ‘organic intellectual’ in the sense that the Italian Marxist sociologist, Antonio Gramsci used it, one rooted in the challenges of his or her environment. It is a way of saying that we want governance to be defined as the manifestation of thought rather than the raw exercise of power. If a trustworthy axiom of the 21st century is that ‘ideas rule the world’, then we must see to it that men and women of ideas predominate in the political space.
Intellectuals in Politics: African Perspectives
There has always been a powerful intellectual tradition in the cosmology of African politics. In ancient Egypt, Imhotep established the foundations of the disciplines of architecture, medicine, politics and several other sciences. Some of the earliest intellectuals arose in river valleys such as the Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, and the Indus Basin. It was in these regions that these pioneers built the first cities and developed states with centralized administrations, specialized functions, the monopoly of legitimate coercion and the capacity to distribute surpluses. These intellectuals organized the building of pyramids, irrigation systems and housing estates and also developed numbers, languages, calendars, religions, myths, laws, and codes of governance. These civilizations emerged in Africa – in Nubia, Egypt and Abyssinia. Greek and Middle Eastern travellers and scholars later visited Egypt from where they learned mathematics, writing and theology as amply documented by Plato and Pythagoras.
The Sokoto Caliphate established by Uthman Dan Fodio in 1804 was a polity borne out of a revolution of values, and directed by scholar princes with a body of codified ethics rich in philosophical depth and substance. Dan Fodio was an ascetic scholar and wanted to replace the rule of materialistic rulers with that of scholars – a close rendition of Plato’s philosopher kings.
The anti-colonial movement which emerged in the early 20th century and instigated the groundswell of agitation that eventually led to de-colonization, was led by people we may justly refer to as philosopher-kings. The struggle for liberation across Africa was largely waged by intellectuals through pamphlets, books, newspapers, public speaking and campaigns to mobilize Africans to seek their freedom. Of significance to us is the fact that the early anti-colonial movement did not conceive of liberation as an episodic occurrence for different nation-states. Indeed, they did not think of Africa in terms of individual nation-states but as an undivided and undifferentiated whole.
This understanding inspired Nkrumah’s famous caveat upon Ghana’s attainment of independence in 1957 that Africa could not truly be free as long as any part of the continent remained under foreign rule. Pan-Africanism was the worldview of Africa’s liberation movements. It was a worldview that beheld not only a common political and economic destiny for the entire African continent but which also perceived the decolonization struggles in Africa as part of a broader global struggle of black people whether in the Caribbean or in the United States.
In the pantheon of Pan-Africanism, iconic figures such as W. E. B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Leopold Senghor, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Frantz Fanon, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Obafemi Awolowo, Aminu Kano and Abdulrahman Babu among others were fundamentally public intellectuals who understood liberation politics as being first the task of educating the masses, alerting them to their right of self-determination and to their inherent powers and possibilities as free people. Thus, Nyerere was revered by Tanzanians as “Mwalimu” meaning “teacher.” By 1937, Azikiwe had published Renascent Africa, his magnum opus, prescribing pathways to Africa’s political, economic, spiritual and psychological emancipation. It is no accident that he began his journalistic career in Ghana, the homeland of his friend and kindred spirit, Kwame Nkrumah.
Nkrumah marshalled a comprehensive critique of the machinations of colonialism and neo-colonialism on the continent. Senghor preached the philosophy of Negritude – a clarion call for the reclamation of African dignity and cultural pride. Frantz Fanon was espousing the liberating possibilities of nativist revolutionary anti-colonial violence as a necessary means of recovering African selfhood. Nyerere was articulating the virtues of “Ujamaa” – an ethic of familyhood and communal consciousness that he saw as a necessary moral and ideological foundation for not just Tanzania but for post-colonial Africa. Nyerere highlighted the contrast between the African sense of oneness and shared identity with western individualism.
A prominent strand of the tapestry of African political intellection was the freedom-fighter intellectual or the warrior-scholar tradition. Amilcar Cabral, Samora Machel, Eduardo Mondlane and Agostinho Neto belonged to this tradition. Such was the moral force and clarity of their agitation that it not only inspired liberation movements in Southern Africa but also uprising in the heart of the colonizing empire. Their writings were read by radical military officers in Portugal who then overthrew the Portuguese military junta – a development which spelt the end of the Portuguese imperial project in Africa.
The end point of Pan-African eschatology was the dissolution of colonial boundaries and the emergence of a United States of Africa. Thus, self-governance would open the gates for transformation on several planes – economic, social, cultural, technological and political. As Kwame Nkrumah put it in his well- known slogan, “Seek ye first the political kingdom, and the rest shall be added unto you.” Independence was only the beginning, Nkrumah promised, and would lead to “the new Jerusalem, the golden city of our heart’s desire.” Eight years before Ghana’s independence, he confidently declared, “If we get self-government, we will transform the Gold Coast into a paradise in ten years.” Such was the ferment of ideas that characterized African liberation politics in the era of decolonization. These exemplars fired the imagination of a continent with the sheer force of their intellect.
Decolonization took place in the context of the Cold War, in a world polarized along ideological lines, between Western Capitalism and Soviet Communism. Mineral-rich Africa was inevitably thrust into the vortex of superpower confrontation and she became a political prize of great consequence for the West and the East. Resource-rich African nations were born into a world that was deeply divided and were caught between the rival behemoths of communism and capitalism. Consequently, Africa’s liberation leaders had a necessarily ideological understanding of Africa’s place in world history within the context of the dialectical tug of war between east and west; as well as the challenges of neo-colonialism and imperialism. They saw their role as negotiating safe passage between both forces and charting an ideological middle course. As Nkrumah put it, “We face neither east nor west; we face forward.”
That intellectual tradition may have been overcome by the anti-intellectual fervour of the 1970s and 1980s elsewhere in Africa but Ghana never strictly departed from it and as we all wonder about the positive democratization journey in Ghana which has become Africa’s success story, the most useful explanation is that with the correct orientation and attitude on the part of political leaders, public institutions and the citizens, good governance can take root in any society. Indeed, the transformation of Ghanaian polity and politics may be partially attributable to the fact that over the years, your intellectuals have remained engaged at the highest level and category of competitive politics, thus establishing a vigorous tradition of intellectuals as political practitioners.
A cursory glance at the profiles of the civilian leadership of this country – Presidents and heads of governments since independence – remains very instructive. They have all been men of exceptional academic brilliance and intellectual rigour. Kwame Nkrumah, the Prime Minister and later President in Ghana’s First Republic, as we could recall, studied at Lincoln University, USA. He obtained BA (Arts) and BA (Theology in 1942). He graduated at the top of his class from the seminary of Lincoln with a Bachelor of Theology degree. He also received a Master of Science degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Edward Akuffo-Addo who served as the President of Ghana’s Second Republic had earlier been an outstanding Chief Justice. He was educated at St. Peter’s College Oxford University, UK where he studied Mathematics, Politics, Economics and Philosophy. Professor K. A. Busia, the Prime Minister in that Second Republic gained a first degree (with Hons) in Medieval Studies and History from the University of London. From Oxford University, he obtained another BA (Hons.) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, MA (Oxon) and DPhil in Social Anthropology. Whilst the credentials of these leaders did not guarantee the desired political maturity and stability for Ghana, they did establish the two historical ideological streams and tendencies that still define the politics of Ghana today, namely the Nkrumahist and Danquah-Busia political traditions.
Other Ghanaian leaders have shared this streak of intellectual leadership that I wish to commend. Dr. Hilla Liman, President in Ghana’s Third Republic, attended the London School of Economics (Political Science) and University of Paris (PhD. Political Science and Constitutional Law). Similarly, John Agyekum Kuffuor – the past President of Ghana obtained a Degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University and proceeded to Lincoln Inn in London where he was called to the bar. Of course, Professor John Atta-Mills paraded an equally sterling pedigree.
He graduated from the University of Ghana, Legon with a degree in Law; then proceeded to obtain a PhD from the prestigious School of Oriental and African studies (SOAS) in London at the age of 27 – specializing in taxation and economic development and, finally was a Fulbright post-doctoral scholar at Stanford Law School in the United States. The scholarship, pedigree and public service of his opponent in that election and current opposition leader are no less impressive. Nana Akufo-Addo holds a degree in Economics from the University of Ghana, Legon; and a Law degree from Lancing College, Sussex, England. Anyone who has been fortunate to read the engaging, eloquent and immensely enjoyable political memoir of the incumbent President, John Dramani Mahama, My First Coup D’etat and Other Stories, can confirm that this intellectual tradition is very much alive and well in Ghana, with degrees from Legon and Moscow, Russia and an excellent pedigree, he most certainly deserved the Honourary Doctorate in Public Administration awarded him by the Ekiti State University during my tenure as Governor of the state in 2012. I could go on and cite other leaders of outstanding intellect that did not become Presidents in Ghana, but have contributed to the intellectual tradition in the country and the deepening of an enviable political culture.
Even during the period of military incursion into governance, when it fell on the then Flt. Lt John Jerry Rawlings to refine the orientation and direction of Ghanaian politics, a circle of intellectuals including Professor Atta Mills numbered amongst his key advisers. Moreover, though a soldier and a maverick, Flt Lt. Jerry Rawlings somehow shared the intellectual tradition, and was credited as a man who is “widely read, acutely aware of the injustices in society…who discussed social and political issues with a wide circle of like-minded friends and colleagues”(New African, July 1998).
Of course, it would be wrong of me to suggest that the progress made to date in Ghana is solely traceable to the few men at the top and their coterie of advisers – ignoring the multiplicity of complex forces, historic and contemporary. It is nevertheless true that leaders, by the very nature of leadership, have the capacity to exert considerable influence with the decisions they take, the prism through which they view the world, the people they choose to work with them, the discourse they encourage and the vision they espouse.
I also do not, of course, mean to suggest that the mere possession of outstanding academic qualifications by a string of national leaders is the sole answer to any country’s challenge of deepening democracy and broadening development or search for a stable polity. My thesis is that the steady procession of Ghanaian leadership through such elite institutions of learning and their well-earned credentials as intellectuals must have had a cumulative impact on their nationalistic fervour and patriotic zeal and would have greatly contributed to the emergence of the highly competitive but accommodationist political culture that has now taken root in Ghana (Lijphart (1968): Adeniran, Mimeo).
And we saw evidence of this when Ghana came very close to political meltdown in the December 2008 presidential election. While party representatives bandied accusations of electoral malpractice and enraged politicians on both sides were trading threats about what they were willing to do if their own interpretation of the results failed to carry the day, the peaceful outcome of that election had its roots in the patriotic and statesmanlike behaviour of the leaders. The candour of former President John Kufuor, the extra-ordinary calm exhibited by both Professor Atta Mills and Nana Akuffo-Addo, and the credibility of Dr. Kojo Afari-Gyan, the recently retired elections chief, were all not unconnected to their intellectual pedigree. One only needs to compare this with Kenya’s violent 2007 election and its disintegrative portents and the difference in political maturity that promoted Ghana’s democratic consolidation will become very clear.
To treat the maturity and tolerance of the political actors as solely responsible for this growing democratic consolidation without due credit to the role played by the Ghanaian Civil Society leaders in furthering the tradition of profound intellection as the driver of Ghana’s nation building exertions will reflect an incomplete story. The Ghanaian civil society has contributed significantly to the re-introduction of democratic possibilities in the country whilst acting as a key driver of democratic consolidation in Ghana. And I should know.
Having been privileged to work with many of the leading lights in the Ghanaian civil society, I can authoritatively bear testimony to the interconnectedness between the progress witnessed on the political front and the insistence of civil society actors and the media to hold the feet of political actors to fire. I must pay particular respect in this regard to the work done by civil society leaders in deepening this democracy. Although the list is not exhaustive, I must not fail to commend the likes of Kwesi Pratt, Zaya Yeebo, Napoleon Abdulai, Kwame Kari-Kari, Yao Graham, Emmanuel Akwettey, Nana Oye-Lithur, Dorcas Coker-Appiah, Rose Mensah-Kutin, Angela Dwamena-Aboagye, Dzodzi Tsikata and my colleagues at Ghana-CDD led by Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi amongst many other leaders in civil society.
INTELLECTUAL LEGACIES OF JOHN ATTA MILLS
This historical excursion has been necessary in order to establish the ideological matrix within which to situate the life of John Atta Mills. It is clear from the foregoing that the late President Mills belonged to the finest traditions of politically responsible intellectuals in African governance. In that sense, he followed in the trail blazed by his illustrious compatriot, Kwame Nkrumah.
Although the politics of John Atta Mills placed him firmly on the left of centre domain of the ideological spectrum, he was no slave to dogma. A self-described social democrat who was a big believer in the virtues of personal ambition, hard work and achievement, he also recognized the duty of the state to create social safety nets for the most vulnerable and to serve as a helping hand to those who have the will to make something of their lives but simply lack the means. His political journey linked him inextricably to two of Ghana’s political giants – Nkrumah and Jerry Rawlings.
He was also part of the intellectual wing of the Rawlings revolution – a movement which included intellectuals like Emmanuel Hansen, Kwamena Ahwoi, Kwesi Botchwey who served as Finance Minister, Obed Asamoah, late PV Obeng and other scholars, a number of whom were of Legon University, the then hotbed of nationalist intellection in the 1980s. Although Mills can be regarded, in a sense, as the heir to both Nkrumah and Rawlings, many will agree that he was in tone and substance less abrasive. It is fair to say that Mills combined some of the best attributes of both men becoming a hybrid of the man of thought and the man of action.
Professor Mills was unmistakably a gentleman whose professorial mien often seemed to make him ill-suited for politics but he was personable and had a rare knack for making people feel at ease around him. Though calm and unflappable, Mills could be passionate about his convictions and occasionally emotional. However, he practised the politics of civility and was typically courteous to colleagues and rivals alike. He eschewed the intemperate jousting, discourtesy and ad hominem attacks that so many politicians favour these days, and preferred to dwell on issues rather than personalities.
It was his remarkable ability to stay calm and unruffled under pressure, in addition to his other formidable gifts that set him on the path to national leadership. When he was nominated to the vice presidency under President Rawlings, some watchers and friends were apprehensive about what might befall him. Mills was replacing Dr. Kow Nkensen Arkaah with whom Rawlings had had a famously tempestuous relationship that ultimately collapsed. Mills’ calm temperament, maturity and emotional intelligence swiftly defused such anxieties and introduced a radically different dynamic into the presidency. Mills shunned the limelight, preferring to work behind the scenes unobtrusively. He soon became the influential architect of official interventions in many areas but was always far more interested in getting results rather than milking his fame for political capital.
When eventually he was announced by Rawlings as his preferred successor and endorsed for the presidency, it was a fitting reward for his competence, integrity and loyalty. An indication of Mills’ character came to the fore in 2008. A keenly contested election came to a dramatic climax with the margin of victory not expected to exceed a few thousand votes. Ghana was wracked by anxiety, and rumours of potential unrest helped fuel a climate of anxiety and near panic. As an observer in that election, my own respect for President Mills and other key political players grew tremendously. It was clear that any unguarded statement or deed could have ignited an already combustible situation and plunge Ghana into the chaos of electoral violence and possibly, a sustained period of instability similar to what had been witnessed in Kenya the previous December. Mills weighed the situation and put Ghana first, surrendering what he believed was his victory and refusing to insist upon his mandate in order to release Ghana from the spectre of unrest that has devastated so much of Africa. If a man’s true character is revealed by adversity, that particular episode underscored late President Mills’ reputation as a gentleman.
As President, Mills deployed his understated but results-oriented style to both internal and regional affairs, often cultivating relationships with some of his fellow leaders as preferred channels of quiet personal diplomacy. He pursued his Better Ghana Agenda relentlessly but disdained flamboyant self-promoting photo opportunities, opting instead to work behind the scenes. It was an immensely successful approach as he mediated in the Ivorien conflict and helped to prevent the political impasse in that country stemming from disputed elections, from degenerating further and potentially spilling over to Ghana. He also put his penchant for quiet diplomacy to work in Nigeria. In 2009 to 2010, President Umaru Yar’Adua’s absence due to ill health threatened to trigger a constitutional crisis. On that occasion, Mills was one of the voices of reason that quietly nudged the Nigerian political authorities to permit an orderly succession in accordance with constitutional procedures and democratic norms.
At home, he ran a remarkably successful government but dwelt more on allowing the work to speak for him. Amongst his accomplishments as President was presiding over and initiating Ghana’s first ever foray into oil production. Under Mills, Ghana’s stable economy experienced sustained reduced inflation leading to the attainment of single digit inflation of about 8.4% (one of the lowest inflation rates Ghana had attained in 42 years i.e. period between 1970 and 2012 as well as the lowest since June 1992 just before the start of Ghana’s Fourth Republic) from a high of 18.1% in December 2008. This is indicative of prudent fiscal, monetary and other austerity policy measures that characterized his presidency, to put the economy in healthy shape.
In 2011, Ghana was the fastest growing economy in the world at 20.15% for the first half of the year and 14.4% at the end of the financial year according to the IMF. Moreover, Ghana’s budget deficit was reduced to 2% of the Gross Domestic Product during his tenure compared to 14.5% of GDP in 2008, just before he was elected as President. There was also a huge improvement in Ghana’s gross international reserves and foreign direct investments (FDI) highlighting exceptional macroeconomic performance. During Mills’ time in office, Ghana was adjudged the best place for doing business in West Africa and best West African performer in access to credit according to the 2011 World Bank Doing Business global rankings. Similar strides were attained in agriculture, education, infrastructure and healthcare.
Professor Mills was an optimist by nature and a man of deep faith. He was consistent in his belief that God reigns in the affairs of men. In the course of my protracted legal struggle to reclaim my electoral mandate which had been stolen in an electoral heist, he was a constant voice of encouragement urging me to persevere. As a lawyer himself, he had taken a keen personal and professional interest in my case and urged me to keep faith with the legal process and see the struggle to its logical conclusion. His support during my three and a half years of court proceedings was immensely encouraging. As a man of faith, ‘the Prof’ also believed in the ultimate triumph of the right and just over every evil. Furthermore, his constant admonitions to me to persevere and not to relent were rooted in his own personal experiences, for it had taken him three attempts to become the third President of Ghana’s Fourth Republic, and reminiscent of his admonitions to President Buhari as indicated in my introduction. Professor Mills was calm and dignified but he was also a man of iron-clad convictions and proved to be dogged and persistent in the pursuit of his goals.
Eventually, I prevailed in my legal case and was sworn in as Governor of Ekiti. My first trip outside Nigeria as Governor was a courtesy visit to President Mills. It seemed so very fitting to honour him in this way. My legal victory was as much a vindication of his abiding belief in the triumph of good over evil. Professor Mills could be self-effacing and was totally unaffected by the trappings of high office. Once asked to describe his political style, he said: “[I want to be seen as] someone who is trustful, humble, caring, hands-on and down-to-earth. I want to be seen as one of the people…I will not be in a 40-car convoy. I will be somebody simple, who follows the rules, who will not be vindictive, and somebody who eschews arrogance and who would be a unifier.” This was indeed the temperament that Mills brought to bear upon his administration.
When the famed investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas produced his documentary “Enemies of the Nation: The Dark Secrets of Tema Harbour” uncovering a murky world of graft and tax evasion involving security agents. Mills reaction was refreshingly instructive. Unlike other politicians who might have gone into defensive mode and accused the journalist of bad faith, Mills visited the Tema port and took ownership of the scandal and thereafter initiated the necessary official interventions. In doing so, he showcased the edifying possibilities of a politician secure enough to take criticism on board and an example of the synergy between a progressive government and an activist civil society.
By way of legacies as we summarize these reflections, what do all these teach us about the intellectual in politics? To start with, it teaches us that the solution to the current democratic deficit that our continent is experiencing cannot be by posing intellect as a counterpunch to politics. For autonomous institutions to play a positive role in mediating citizens’ choices, their organic development must be combined in a more nuanced manner and a more systematic way with the use of public and state power. Am I then suggesting that an intellectual necessarily belongs in politics?
Put that way, an impression is created that I consider it the duty of every intellectual to engage in politics at all cost. That is not my view. However, it is my profound conviction that Africa requires – today more than ever before – enlightened, thoughtful politicians with character and integrity who are bold and broad-minded enough to consider things which lie beyond the scope of their immediate influence and benefit. We need politicians willing and able to rise above their own power interests, or the particular interests of their political parties or states, and act in accord with the fundamental interests of today’s humanity – that is, to behave the way everyone should behave, even though most may fail to do so.
Never before has politics been so dependent on the moment, on the fleeting moods of public opinion or media. Never before have politicians been so impelled to pursue the short-lived and the short-sighted. It often seems to me that the lives of many politicians proceed from the soundbites on the evening news on television one night, to focus groups’ opinion poll the next morning, to their image on social media and newspapers the next day. I am not sure whether the present era of mass media encourages the emergence and the growth of politicians of the stature of, say, a Winston Churchill, a Kwame Nkrumah; I rather doubt it, though there can always be exceptions such as John Atta Mills.
In short, the less our time favours politicians who engage in long-term thinking, the more such politicians are needed, and thus the more intellectuals – at least those meeting my definition – should be welcomed in politics. Such support could come, among others, from those who – for whatever reason – never enter politics themselves, but who agree with those who do, or at least share the ethos underlying their actions.
Although I might have paid a heavy price for staying true to this conviction myself when I lost my election last year, I still hold strongly to the view that if someone wants to make progress in politics, he must pay attention to the general condition of the human mind. I am convinced that the purpose of politics does not consist of fulfilling short-term wishes alone. A politician should also seek to win people over to his own ideas even when unpopular. For politics must entail convincing voters that there are things which the politician recognizes or comprehends better than they do, and that it is for this reason that they should vote for him and place their fate in his hands. People can thus delegate to a politician certain issues which they – for a variety of reasons – do not sense themselves, or do not want to worry about, but which someone has to take up on their behalf.
Of course, all seducers of the masses, demagogues, potential tyrants or fanatics, have used this argument to make their case; the Nazis and the Apartheid intellectuals did the same when they declared themselves the most enlightened sector of the population and, by virtue of this alleged enlightenment, arrogated to themselves the right to rule arbitrarily. It must be said that there are intellectuals who possess a very special ability for committing this evil. They elevate their intellect above everyone else’s, and themselves above all human beings. They tell their fellow citizens that if they do not want to understand the brilliance of the intellectual project offered to them, it is because they are of dull mind, and have not yet risen to the heights inhabited by the proponent of the project. With John Atta Mills’ cultivation of the virtues of modesty and humility, it is not very difficult to recognize how dangerous this intellectual, or rather quasi- intellectual attitude.
A good politician need not be an intellectual but he should be able to explain without seeking to seduce; he should humbly look for the truth of this world without claiming to be its professional owner; character and integrity should be more important to him than academic brilliance; he should alert people to the good qualities in themselves, including a sense of the values and interests which transcend the personal, without giving himself an air of superiority and imposing anything on his fellow humans; he should not yield to the dictate of public moods or of the mass media, while never hindering a constant scrutiny of his actions.
In the realm of such politics, intellectuals should make their presence felt in many ways. They could – without finding it shameful or demeaning – accept political office and use that position to do what they deem right, not just to hold on to power. Or they could be the ones who hold up a mirror to those in authority, making sure that the latter serve a good thing and that they do not begin to use fine words as a cloak for evil deeds, as happened to so many intellectuals in politics in our continent and elsewhere.
One idea that we strenuously reject is the notion that intellectuals are so unsuited for the rough and tumble of politics that it ought to be off-limits to them, which has come to be taken as license for separating politics from intellection. To address this impression, intellectuals need to continuously ground their work in the concrete and material conditions of the people and eschew abstraction and aloofness – the two traits for which we are most criticized. The challenge is significantly one of communication. The purpose of public intellection is to translate rarefied ideas into the vernacular and non-verbal communication of the masses; to bring these ideas into the mainstream without being condescending. As political actors, intellectuals must take ideological arguments and translate them into tangible policy options that demonstrably have an impact on the lives of ordinary people, and as I say ever so often, work with the people, not just for them.
Intellectuals are sometimes derided for being idealistic and contemporary public discourse entertains a dichotomy between the ideal and the practical, with intellectuals frequently lampooned for being unrealistic dreamers. This dichotomy is false. Where conventional wisdom insists that the ideal and the practical are at odds, Nkrumah urged us to “think as men of action and act as men of thought” thereby postulating the complementarity of the ideal and praxis. In reality, truly transformative politics such as Africa needs requires a rebirth of idealism. Pan-Africanism carried a strain of idealism that fired the early nationalists. We must recover that capacity to capture the political imagination and passion of the multitudes. These are energies that can only be induced by idealism.
Another clear lesson that Professor Mills taught us in his typical self-effacing manner is that for Africa to progress, historical pan-African intellectualism needs to be revisited. We cannot afford to have African leaders who are not schooled in the inter-connectedness of the history, economy and political evolution of other African states. Kwame Nkrumah was a pioneer in this regard and most Ghanaian leaders have continued to promote this pan-African internationalism in their own way but it has also suffered some reversals. A lack of this appreciation renders regional integration futile, fans the embers of xenophobia, and inhibits African internal self-reliance. I am glad to note that the current President, John Mahama has consistently demonstrated his own passion for pan-Africanism and regional integration. The new administration of President Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria similarly has a duty to take ownership of this agenda.
Right to the end, ‘the Prof’, stayed true to himself and departed this world as he had lived in it. Like Saint Francis of Assisi, he displayed love in hateful circumstances; faith where there was doubt, hope in times of despair; light in darkness and joy in sadness. He was indeed an instrument of peace – the great Asomdweehene, the King of peace. He was a public intellectual par excellence, advocate, guardian, leviathan, mentor, scholar teacher, servant-leader, incorruptible exemplar; a great son of Africa. Remembering John Atta Mills is not an exercise in nostalgia, it is an opportunity to bear witness to an exemplar of progressive politics, decency and decorum, and to hold up an image of the sort of leadership that Africa needs and which younger African politicians should emulate. Remembering him imposes on us a duty of deep reflection on his legacy. We must not forget him. We will not forget him.
Dr. Kayode Fayemi
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
Being the text of the paper by His Excellency, Dr. John Kayode Fayemi, former Governor of Ekiti State, Nigeria, at the 3rd Annual John Atta Mills Memorial Lecture, Accra, Ghana, Tuesday, July 21, 2015.
 Chris Ngwodo, Revolution By Other Means: The Challenge of Nigeria’s Emerging Generation (Afriscope Publishing 2009)
 Wilmot, Nigeria: The Nightmare Scenario pp.100 – 102
 John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent (Vintage Books 1997) p.666
 Wilmot, Nigeria: The Nightmare Scenario p.66
 Quoted in Tunde Obadina, “Why Governments Fail in Africa,” Africa Today, December/January 2008
 Interview, The African Report No.13 October – November 2008
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