GHANA Political expediency or competent leadership?

Sally Osei-Appiah

Political context

When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, Ghana was yet to confirm any cases. The next day, the Ministers of Health and Information announced the first two cases, both of which were imported cases from Norway and Turkey. By then, Ghanaians had already witnessed the pandemic’s slow but sure progress across the world and the increasing death toll that accompanied its journey. About 80 countries had confirmed cases. China had recorded over 80,000 cases with approximately 3,000 deaths, while other countries like Italy, where many Ghanaians live, were fast approaching 15,000 cases and over 1,000 deaths. In Africa, 137 cases had already been recorded across 12 countries.

Before March 12, there had been some apprehension about how the country would fare against the pandemic. It is true that many consider Ghana a shining example in Africa (Bawa & Sanyare, 2013) given its relatively stable political history and growing economy. However, like other African countries, Ghana’s healthcare infrastructure has many challenges including shortage of healthcare workers, facilities and medical supplies, weak health information systems and governance, and inadequate financial investment in healthcare (Adua et al., 2017; Nyarko et al., 2015). The fact that wealthier, Western countries like Italy and Spain seemed overwhelmed by the pandemic gave cause for grave concern. Besides that, the Ghanaian culture is deeply communal with much interpersonal interaction occurring at festivals, weddings, funerals, church services and other cultural events. Thus, the onset of a virus that transcends borders and demands social distancing was going to pose a challenge not just to the country’s porous borders, relatively weak healthcare system and growing but still very young economy, but also its socio-cultural lifestyle. This is the challenge that

Nana Akufo-Addo faced as president and head of government. Since assuming office in December 2016, he has enjoyed much public support due to his policies. Notably, he had introduced Free Senior High School education which allowed many poor parents to educate their children beyond Junior High, as well as starting a local industrialisation drive dubbed ‘One District One Factory,’ a plan to build one factory in every district in Ghana.

As an incumbent working towards re-election in December 2020, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic complicated Akufo-Addo’s re-election ambitions. Ansell et al. (2014) note that leaders are defined according to how they perform in times of crises. How Akufo-Addo managed the pandemic in the country, or was perceived to manage it, would not only significantly impact public confidence in his leadership but also, consequently, impact his electoral goals. Leading a country through a crisis of such proportion as a global pandemic presents its own hurdles. When that is coupled with campaigning for re-election, the pressure to perform and gain legitimacy as a worthy candidate in the eyes of the electorate increases considerably. Ghana’s case therefore presents a study on how political leaders can navigate the murky waters of campaigning during a crisis in ways that ensure public support. This chapter thus explores Nana Akufo-Addo’s response to COVID-19 in the first few months of its occurrence in Ghana, focusing on his communication approach and its likely impact on his candidature.

Chronology

Before Ghana’s first confirmed case, media coverage of the pandemic was minimal, comprising mainly general updates from China and other affected countries. Regionally, only Kenya, Algeria, Nigeria and Senegal had cases. The lack of importance was reflected in the sometimes-humorous reporting such as the attention given to the ‘Wuhan shake,’ an alternative way of shaking hands which involved elbow or foot taps. The government stance, however, was necessarily serious, aimed primarily at reassuring citizens of the president’s capability to adequately handle the pandemic. Consequently, government communication at this time focused on preparation and education. For example, Ghana was among the first countries to start screening inbound travellers at airports from January 24 when China’s death toll was only 9 and before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Besides screening, travellers were also required to complete a health card to enable subsequent contact tracing if necessary. After the first case was confirmed, the government moved swiftly to contain its spread by initiating several interventions which mainly focused on social mobility regulations.

Arguably, Akufo-Addo’s swift and decisive response might have been facilitated by the country’s prior experience with the 2015 Ebola scare in which three close West African countries had been affected, making Ghana highly vulnerable. Many of the stakeholder recommendations at the time mirrored Akufo-Addo’s COVID-19 directives: investment in healthcare infrastructure, border closure, coherent messaging from government, provision of securities for frontline workers and engagement with local religious and community leaders to develop contextually informed solutions (Nyarko et al., 2015; Oleribe et al., 2015). While all COVID-19 measures were generally well received, the main opposition party, the National Democratic Party (NDC) did raise questions about whether Akufo-Addo was exploiting the crisis for his re-election ambitions. Already, government had secured loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the NDC sought accountability for how funds were disbursed. However, these issues did not gain much traction in the media. There were some criticisms of the media for their fawning coverage of the government’s COVID-19 policies (Mensah, 2020), as it seemed that journalists were too eager to sanction government actions rather than critically assess their feasibility or sustainability for the period of the pandemic which was yet unknown. See Table 26.1.

Pre-emptive communication and its benefits

According to Ansell et al. (2014: 419), ‘crisis leadership differs from leadership in routine times. Its stakes are much higher, the public is much more attentive, its mood more volatile, and institutional constraints on elite decision making are considerably lower.’ As president, Akufo-Addo became the key focus of attention as Ghanaians looked to him for direction. However, COVID-19 presented a disruption to normalcy. Not only did he have to lead the country through a crisis, but he also had to campaign for his re-election. Faced with this challenge, Akufo-Addo adopted a communication strategy that was politically expedient as well as being contextually informed, relevant and impactful. As Aelst and Walgrave (2017: 4) argue, politicians are ‘strategic actors with specific goals and ambitions that try to pursue those goals as good as they can.’ Even during a global pandemic, Akufo-Addo managed to exploit the situation in ways that benefited his political ambitions.

The communication approach adopted by Akufo-Addo was highly coordinated. He sought to control the national narrative on COVID-19 from the onset. The day before the first cases were announced on March 12, Akufo-Addo gave his first national update across all broadcast media and his Facebook account, in which he emphasised three key things: none of the 57 suspected cases had tested positive so Ghana was still COVID-19 free so far; several measures were in place to ensure public safety and security; and the nation needed to unite to ‘defeat the spread of the virus’ (Akufo-Addo, 2020a). In using this pre-emptive tactic to foreground what government was already doing even before any cases were confirmed, Akufo-Addo cleverly took control of the narrative by filling the information void the crisis will likely create (Coombs, 1999). By the time the confirmed cases were announced the next day, the public discussion that ensued could be situated within what government was doing. This was a clever manoeuvre that significantly reduced the likely negative impact of the confirmed

TABLE 26.1 Ghana chronology

Date Diffusion of CO VID-19

Key official actions

Key communication events

January

  • 12
  • 22
  • 24

Airport screening of inbound travellers from China begins.

WHO confirms COVID-19 cases in Wuhan China as a respiratory disease.

Ministry of Health (MoH) announces airport screening of inbound travellers from China.

25

  • 27
  • 28

Airport screening of inbound travellers extended to all countries.

MoH designates 2 main hospitals as COVID-19 centres.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs sets up dedicated phone lines for families with wards in China.

Deputy Ambassador to China advises suspension of all travel to China.

31

COVID-19 sensitisation programme begins at the national port in Tema.

Ghanaian students in China appeal to government in 7-page statement to be evacuated as other countries begin evacuations of their citizens.

February

5

Health Minister tours international airport in Accra with journalists to evidence government’s preparedness for the pandemic.

  • 12
  • 16
  • 19

Minority party leaders in parliament call on government to evacuate Ghanaian students in Wuhan.

Upper East region put on high alert due to its many travel entry points.

Health Minster announces that all 15 suspected COVID-19 cases test negative.

Foreign Affairs Minister announces it will not be evacuating Ghanaian students from China.

Ghana 295

(Continued)

TABLE 26.1 (Continued)

Date

Diffusion of COVID-19

Key official actions

Key communication events

28

Consular services in Italy suspended following high COVID-19 infection and mortality.

29

Health Minister asks Ghanaians not to panic as Nigeria records first case; reaffirms government’s preparedness.

March

  • 11
  • 12

13

First case confirmed.

2 more infections confirmed.

President gives 1st national COVID-19 update.

  • 15
  • 19

Total confirmed infections 9.

President institutes 4-week ban on all social gatherings; schools and universities closed except for final year Junior and Senior secondary students.

Passport services suspended.

President gives 2nd national COVID-19 update.

21

23

  • 25
  • 26

Infections rise to 21;

1 death recorded.

Infected cases rise to 52;

2 deaths recorded.

First COVID-19 recovery.

  • 2-week closure of border and beaches begins;
  • 137 markets to be disinfected in Accra.

President organises a national day of prayer and fasting; Electoral Commission suspends nationwide voter registration amidst fears of facilitating COVID-19 spread.

President gives 3rd national COVID-19 update.

296 Sally Osei-Appiah

Total infected cases rise tol37; 2 deaths and 1 recovery.

Infections rise to 141 with 5 deaths.

Death toll rises to 6.

Confirmed infections rise to 378.

President announces partial lockdown in COV1D-19 epicentres Accra, Tema and Kumasi.

President gives 4th national COVID-19 update.

MoH announces special life cover for frontline health workers.

Government sets up quarantine centres in Tamale following rapid rise in area infections; COV1D-19 Trust Fund inaugurated.

Partial lockdown in Accra, Tema and Kumasi begins; presidential appointees donate 50% of salary to COVID-19 Trust Fund.

Education Ministry begins virtual learning for secondary students on dedicated state TV channel; Parliament passes COVID-19 National Trust Fund bill.

Border closure extended for 2 weeks; government to absorb citizen’s water bills for 3 months.

Gender Minister announces provision of free meals for vulnerable groups.

Government announces absorption of citizen’s electricity bills for lifeline consumers for 3 months; movement restrictions extended for a further 1 week; border closure to remain indefinitely.

Ban on social gatherings extended for 2 weeks.

Information Ministry begins ‘stay-at home’ campaign.

President gives 5th national COVID-19 update.

President gives 6th national COVID-19 update.

(Continued)

Ghana 297

TABLE 26.1 (Continued)

Date

Diffusion of COVID-19

Key official actions

Key communication events

May

16

19

26

  • 30
  • 1

Infections rise to 641 with 83 recoveries and 8 deaths.

Total infections 2,074 with 17 deaths and 212 recoveries.

Government implements tax reliefs for health workers.

Partial lockdown in Accra, Tema and Kumasi lifted; nose mask wearing in public made mandatory.

Ban on social gatherings extended for further 2 weeks.

Ban on social gatherings extended further to end

President gives 7th national COVID-19 update.

President gives 8th national COVID-19 update.

President gives 9th national COVID-19 update.

June

  • 11
  • 31
  • 14

Total infections reach 7,881 with 36 deaths and 2,841 recoveries.

of May.

Hotels, bars and restaurants allowed to open under strict social distancing procedures.

Schools reopen partially.

President gives 10th national COVID-19 update.

President gives 11th national COVID-19 update.

  • 21
  • 28

Total infections 7,351;

12,994 recovered and 112 deaths.

Incentive package for health workers extended for 3 months.

President gives 12th national COVID-19 update.

President gives 13th national COVID-19 update

298 Sally Osei-Appiah cases on news reports. An examination of the March 13 newspapers headlines revealed only five of 15 newspapers led with COVID-19. Even then, almost all the headlines were tempered in tone, devoid of the emotive language one would have expected to accompany the arrival of a virus that had caused much havoc in countries with better healthcare systems. These headlines ranged from ‘Stop Spreading COVID-19 Fake News - GTA’ (Ghanaian Tinies), ‘COVID-19: Ghana Combat-Ready - Akufo-Addo Assures’ (The Informer), ‘Ghana Confirms First Cases of COVID-19’ to ‘Judgement Day; Deadly Virus Finally Arrives in Ghana... As Government Faces Accusation of Hiding Facts on Disease’ (The Herald) (MyJoyOnline.com, 2020). Thus, from the onset, President Akufo-Addo was able to deploy a pre-emptive communication strategy to portray himself as both decisive and competent.

Because Akufo-Addo framed COVID-19 as a fight in his first national update, it allowed him to justify the swift, proactive and decisive approach that he seemed to be taking to ensure public safety. This approach aligns with Strdmback and Nord’s (2006) argument that prompt and forceful response to a crisis helps leaders shape the way the crisis is framed. Brewer et al. (2003) also suggest that despite any criticisms, the media and citizens tend to rally around their leaders in times of crisis. By framing the pandemic as something that needed a united national effort in order to defeat it, Akufo-Addo sought to suppress criticisms, to position critics as national enemies pursuing their own interests and not the country’s. This way, he could more likely elicit the support of people rather than their criticism while also strategically projecting himself as a leader who cared for his people.

Disseminating information during a crisis

Akufo-Addo’s national updates became the big headliners. These regular updates - a total of 13 between March 11 to June 28 - were as dramatic as they were unusual. They were all broadcast late in the evening, always began with ‘Fellow Ghanaians.’ a greeting that soon became synonymous with Akufo-Addo, and in a format rarely used by presidents to address the nation directly. Presented at key points of the ongoing crisis, the updates covered major measures the president had taken such as the partial lockdown and ban on international travel. This approach seemed less tedious but more dramatic than the daily updates that other countries opted for. Through these updates, Akufo-Addo positioned himself as the manager of the pandemic and focused public attention on him.

The presidential updates were complemented by more regular updates from the Information Minister often accompanied by the Health Minister. The communication strategy established was as follows: after each presidential update, the Information Minister was then responsible for extrapolating and clarifying key issues raised by the president as well as answering questions from journalists. To complement the updates, infographics of key updates were circulated on the social media accounts of the president and Information Minister. In fact, besides the president, the Information Minister was regarded as the face of COVID-19 as he became the key government source. Through his ministerial press briefings, ‘Ask the minister’ sessions on both traditional and social media as well as several other media interviews, the Information Minister further amplified Akufo-Addo’s directives. In keeping with Coombs’s (1999) model of crisis response, communication was quick and consistent, seeking to provide clear information about what measures the government was taking. However, the government did not just provide information about measures but also addressed public concerns raised on social media or through phone-in segments during live programmes, particularly on radio. For instance, before the partial lockdown in the three main cities was announced, several prominent people suggested the resulting media attention led to mass panic buying. Both the president and Information Minister responded, directly denying such a decision had been taken while also reassuring the public of prior consultation and warning before any lockdown is announced.

Akufo-Addo also projected himself as a trustworthy leader by ensuring that his ‘talk’ was backed by actions. Stromback and Nord (2006) argue confidence in political leaders is affected not just by how they manage a crisis but the perception of crisis management. If the public thinks the crisis is being managed well, political confidence is increased. However, if they think the contrary, then confidence drops. Therefore, to appeal to the public’s cognitive consciousness, Akufo-Addo visually demonstrated some of the measures he mentioned in his updates. To prove that his decisions were supported by science as well as expert advice from relevant stakeholders, accounts of him consulting with various groups including leadership of parliament, medical and media professionals, religious leaders and heads of markets and local industries were circulated on his and the Information Minister’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to complement news reports. Images of the president observing social distancing in his meetings where all wore face masks served as visual evidence that he was observing the rules himself to encourage citizens to do the same. Research shows that media images shape evaluations of politicians while influencing voter decisions (Coleman, 2010). In fact, information processing research suggests that the human brain prefers to process visual information over the verbal (Esser, 2008). By combining verbal and visual elements in his communication, Akufo-Addo maximised the effects of his political communication while also presenting himself as an authentic leader.

National and international acclaim

The success of Akufo-Addo’s handling of the pandemic during the first months can perhaps be measured by the national and international acclaim he received. Nationally, he received public support across traditional and social media (Donkor, 2020; Nyavor, 2020; Pulejo & Querubin, 2020). During a briefing with the president on April 21 to discuss the government’s COVID-19 strategy, the Chairperson of the Council of State, Nana Otuo Sriboe II, was quoted as saying ‘We are lucky, as a country, to have you as President at such a time as this’ (Daily Graphic, 2020). This level of commendation, coming from the leader of the council of state, the highest advisory body to the president, was a good endorsement for the president which he used to his advantage to signal his popularity during campaign messages. Beyond the country, Akufo-Addo received praise from dignitaries and media personnel. Notably, one of the quotes from his March T1 national address, ‘we know how to bring the economy back to life. What we don’t know is how to bring people back to life’ (Akufo-Addo, 2020b) which was posted on his social media accounts received international affirmation. WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, described the quote as ‘powerful,’ while the Chairperson of Global Public Health, Devi Sridhar, similarly tweeted her commendations for Akufo-Addo’s leadership. In the UK, host of ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Piers Morgan, both tweeted and discussed the quote during one of the shows. Perhaps the most significant acclaim was a viral video by a British Airways cabin crew member who praised Ghana’s, a supposed third world country, preparedness as much more effective than Britain’s, a so-called developed country. Having gone through the international airport in Accra and Heathrow, he noted the screening taking place in the former which was conspicuously absent in the latter. Whether as a consequence of his leadership or not, The United Nations selected Ghana together with Egypt and South Africa as regional humanitarian hubs for the pandemic. Together, these further legitimised Akufo-Addo’s leadership, providing (unintended) support for his re-election ambitions.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted normalcy. For political leaders due for reelection the same year, its emergence presented a double challenge that required strategic manoeuvring if they were to emerge victorious. Being in such a position, Akufo-Addo’s response to the pandemic presents a useful case study on how politicians can strategically navigate considerably challenging situations to their advantage. His contextually relevant communication approach, coupled with his swift, pre-emptive and decisive measures helped him establish his leadership in handling the pandemic, ensure public safety and endear himself not only to Ghanaians but also to the rest of the world. Given the country’s economic, socio-cultural and health vulnerabilities compared to more established, wealthier Western countries, Akufo-Addo’s ability to quickly contain the virus seemed commendable. As to whether he can sustain and maximise the national goodwill he has garnered so far to get re-elected in December 2020 remains to be seen.

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