President's 'Ghana Maybe Time' and Coded Attack on Political Enemies

Marc Wadsworth

New Ghanaian President John Atta Mills kept supporters waiting for more than two hours at a London hotel because he was delayed by BBC World Service who interviewed him for an international audience on Thursday night. He then made a coded attack on political opponents whom some commentators - including former President Jerry Rawlings - have accused of corruption.

The president's deputy chief of staff Alex Segbefia apologised to the audience of more than 400 people gathered at Mayfair's Marriott Hotel. He said Atta Mills, who is on a British government organised official visit to Britain, had been on time for every other meeting including with prime minister Gordon Brown and heir to the throne Prince Charles.

Ghana Maybe Time (GMT) is something Ghanaians themselves laugh about, but Segbefia said Atta-Mills was known for his good time-keeping. Atta-Mills was inaugurated as president on January 8 after narrowly winning a hotly contested poll.

His visit to the UK this week included a lunch at the UK parliament hosted by former Liberal Democratic Party leader Lord David Steel and paid for by Cadbury, the chocolate company. Ghana is the world's leading exporter of cocoa. Atta Mills was accompanied by his ministers of finance, trade and industry and foreign affairs.

His 20-minute Marriott Hotel speech was unremarkable, apart from a section dealing with government sleaze, sticking to stock thanks to UK-based Ghanaians for their political and financial support - remittances sent home from the estimated three million ex-patriots based abroad amount to around  £50m a year.

Atta-Mills said: "This is an important source of foreign exchange. I know many of you are facing hardship in the current economic recession but God will provide."

The most controversial part of his speech was a coded reference to the political debate in Ghana about whether or not leading members of former President John Kufuor's government should be probed for corruption by the Bureau of National Investigations.

Atta Mills said: "I believe in fairplay and justice. I believe that anyone who breaks the law must be brought to justice."

He added: "I will do whatever my conscience tells me is right. I have a responsibility to ensure that the sovereignty and integrity of Ghana is jealousy guarded - that no one takes us for a ride."

To understand Atta Mills's speech I turned for advice to Ghanaian journalists. One of them, columnist Kweku Afful, writing on Ghanaweb, said that Atta Mills had allayed concerns that his election amounted to a third term for Jerry Rawlings, founder of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), and an outspoken critic of government sleaze.

Rawlings has publicly cricised Atta Mills, leader of the NDC, for allegedly surrounding himself with "jokers" and the slow pace of change from the old administration. Afull says: "I must commend President Mills for his promise not to witch-hunt and pursue political vendetta but to be a President for all. He also stated that the rule of law would be used to govern the nation. In spite of the fact that political vendetta would not take centre stage in his government, he has promised to deal with any one in government either before or during his government who embezzles state funds."

Atta-Mill said his government would be based on "four thematic pillars" which were the creation of jobs, economic investment, expanding the country's infrastructure and open and honest government.

"Ghana has always been a leader; a trailblazer. We believe that the path to democracy is the path to success," he declared.

Journalist Afull, said: "I am strongly in favour of  'probity and accountably' or  'zero tolerance' to corruption and indiscipline in society but our current democracy suggests that you can't just go on and throw people out of offices or jail them just because they are political opponents but it must be based on hard evidence and properly followed constitutional guidelines. I am sorry Mr Rawlings that these processes takes a bit of time but that is democracy for you."

Atta Mills acknowledged, to loud applause: "At the end of my term I will be held to account for whether I have upgraded or downgraded the lives of Ghanaians. And the Day of Reckoning cannot be postponed."