Farooq Kperogi recalls how the Ghanaian president, John Mahama, awed a United States audience at a lecture in Atlanta Georgia
On September 30 this year, Ghana’s President John Dramani Mahama was a guest at Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta where I teach. He came here to deliver a public lecture to crown the “Year of Ghana” country program, a year-long exploration of the history, culture, and peoples of Ghana through lectures, exhibitions, visits, etc. at KSU.
When I got an invitation to attend the public lecture (which also featured a Question and Answer session), I was reluctant to go.
I’d frankly grown tired of listening to witless buffoons from Africa coming to make a fool of themselves and their countries before Western audiences in the name of delivering public lectures. I didn’t know what to expect of the Ghanaian president because I had no familiarity with his pedigree, so I chose to err on the side of cynicism.
But a friend dragged me to the event at the last minute. I’m glad I attended it. President Mahama turned out to be one of the most inspiring and knowledgeable presidents one can ever wish to meet. He was a superb orator who was also thoughtful, incisive, insightful and supremely self-assured.
His speech was about the “role of democratic governance in sustainable economic development in Ghana,” but he veered off on high-minded intellectual excursions, on the discourses of Afro-pessimism; on the perniciousness of alterity; on the role of dominant historical narratives in the construction and reconstruction of the consciousness and image of a people, etc. The speech was certainly conscious of its audience because it read like a paper at an academic conference. Its profundity and high-flown, intellectually fashionable phraseology impressed students and professors alike.
Well, you might say he didn’t deserve much credit for the speech because it was written for him by his speech writers, but one couldn’t help but admire the smoothness, naturalness, and rhetorical dexterity of his delivery. He was earnest, eloquent, and confident. But his true brilliance came out even more boldly during the question and answer session. He answered questions from professors and students with ease, grace, panache, depth, conviction, and creative humour.
Everyone in the hall was bowled over by his brilliance, humility, and intellectual agility. This was evident from the rapturous applauses and good-hearted guffaws that greeted his responses to questions. I came away from the lecture proud of and overawed by the alertness and fecundity of the Ghanaian president’s mind. All of us Africans in the lecture hall raised our heads high.
While basking in the euphoric afterglow of the Ghanaian president’s brilliant performance, I couldn’t help recalling Nigeria’s then Acting President Goodluck Jonathan’s first official visit to America, which I wrote about in an April 17, 2010 article titled: “Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was Embarrassing.”
Among other things, I observed that in his speech and during the question and answer session at the Council on Foreign Relations, President Jonathan “couldn’t articulate a coherent thought, hardly made a complete sentence, went off on inconsequential and puerile tangents, murdered basic grammar with reckless abandon, repeated trifles ad nauseam, was embarrassingly stilted, and generally looked and talked like a timid high school student struggling to remember his memorised lines in a school debate.” I concluded that Jonathan “came across as unfathomably clueless.”
I certainly would never have attended the public lecture at my school—or anywhere else for that matter— if President Jonathan was the guest. I would never be able to survive the embarrassment of listening to a barely literate president who can’t even read a speech much less answer unscripted questions from students and professors.
President Mahama of Ghana has only a bachelor’s degree while Nigeria’s president claims to have a Ph.D. Nigerians like to describe ignorant people with grandiose paper qualifications as “educated illiterates.” I’ve heard that phrase used several times to describe President Jonathan. Well, I think it is more appropriate to call him a highly credentialed ignoramus—if he indeed has a Ph.D.—than to call him an “educated illiterate; it is unfair to mention “educated” in the same sentence with “President Goodluck Jonathan.” I know this sounds harsh, but it’s true.
I’m aware that the usual line of counter-attack from defenders of mediocrity in Nigeria would be that I am hung up on appearance at the expense of substance. Beautiful, confident verbal delivery is not a good measure of leaders’ effectiveness. That is certainly true, except that President Jonathan, apart from being an inconceivably uninspiring and colorless president, is also notoriously ineffective.
I would have been one of the staunchest defenders of his seeming illiteracy and depthlessness if he had a clue what governance entails. Alas, he does not; he has not the vaguest idea what it means to truly govern—much, to be fair to him, like many of his predecessors. So we have the tragedy of being burdened with a leader who neither inspires confidence nor knows what it means to lead.
For inexplicable reasons, while Nigeria’s elites have a habit of choosing the worst in their ranks to lead the country, Ghanaian elites are infinitely more discriminatory in their choice of leaders. I know of no Ghanaian leader in recent memory who isn’t intelligent, inspiring, confident, and well-spoken. That’s why Ghana has always been a far more progressive society than Nigeria.
However much we might wish it weren’t true; the reality is that there is a link between inspirational leadership and national growth. When will modern Nigeria produce an inspirational president, a president we all can be proud of anywhere?