African viewpoint: Skinning cats

John Atta Mills on the day he was inaugurated as Ghana's president in January 2009 John Atta Mills, a former academic who was sworn in as Ghana's president more than 18 months ago, has been nicknamed "Prof Dolittle" by the opposition

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, Elizabeth Ohene, a minister in Ghana's former NPP government, considers how political jibes can get lost in translation.

We have been having some interesting times here in Ghana recently with language.

It started with the leader of the main opposition National Patriotic Party (NPP), who has a way with words, calling the president of the republic: "Professor Dolittle".

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The word 'purge' evokes images of unpleasant or nasty medicines for bodily functions”

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The president - former university professor John Atta Mills - was not in town and his spokespersons reacted as though he had been called an obscene or vulgar name.

And yet the professor Dolittles or Doolittles that come up when you Google the name are not people that anybody should mind being compared with.

They tend to be famous scientists or interesting characters from English literature, like the doctor who speaks to animals.

Now I can imagine being called, and indeed I have been called worse, names than Dolittle.

But for a week, the full machinery of the state was deployed to convince all Ghanaians that our professor president was not a "professor Dolittle".

In the middle of all that, an even greater row broke out when the chairman of Mr Atta Mills' National Democratic Congress (NDC), called a press conference to complain about the judiciary.

Purgative alarm

A little background is required here: The attorney-general has been having a torrid time in the courts recently - as has been the habit in Ghana every time we are under constitutional rule - and has lost a number of high profile cases.

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There are many ways of killing a cat”

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The NDC chairman claimed that the courts and the judges were biased against his party. He asked the chief justice to "purge the judiciary" or the party would do it for her.

This, in a country where the word "purge" evokes images of unpleasant or nasty medicines for bodily functions.

People do like taking purgatives here but it remains essentially a very private and not public undertaking.

The idea of the ruling party officials lining up the judges and forcing purgatives down their throats or rectums to empty their stomach contents sounded repulsive and tensions went up all round.

A helpful journalist asked the NDC how he intended to do the purging and he, being in his previous life a university psychology lecturer, thought he would employ some fancy language to explain.

"There are many ways of killing a cat," he said.

Two sand cat kittens Cats are a culinary delicacy in some parts of Ghana

In other words they might administer enema to the judges, or give them castor oil or mist alba or a very hot chilli meal or whatever the current popular purgative is that people use.

Not surprisingly all hell broke loose: The party chairman was not only going to administer enema to the judges, he was going to kill them as well!

The problem is that the word "kill" in whatever idiomatic phrase cannot be used in conjunction with judges in this country.

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He was happy his opponent referred to him as 'Professor Dolittle' rather than 'Professor Do Nothing'”

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We have a history and this ruling party has a history of their antecedents abducting judges who gave rulings they disagreed with and killing them.

And then the NDC chairman also happens to come from a region where people are not cat lovers or to put it less delicately, they eat cats; in other words, they kill cats and they would obviously know all the various ways of killing a cat.

Then the professor president came back into town and told the nation he had no intention of interfering with the judiciary.

No journalist asked him which method of killing a cat he preferred. But then the president comes from a part of the country where cats are not a culinary delicacy.

And as for administering enemas to judges, it might well be that since we have a female chief justice, the delicate operation of giving her an enema was to be left to the attorney-general who is also female.

And the president said he was happy his opponent referred to him as "Professor Dolittle" rather than "Professor Do-Nothing".

It would seem purging would be outside the scope of work of the professor.

Here is a selection of your comments about this story:

The president is the head of state of our dear country. Any nickname given to him to ridicule him to the outside world backfires on us all. Please let us treat our elders with dignity.

K. Afriyie, Konongo, Ghana

Ghana is a mature nation in Africa and for that matter we should stop these silly things and focus on governance. Bringing prosperity is and should be top priority. Miss Ohene, you know better than this. You are a good journalist, continue with educating and enlightening the people as you have been doing in the past. Thank you beloved daughter of a beloved country. God bless you.

Dr Kwaku Ahatsi, USA

Elizabeth Ohene's condescending tone and derogatorily enforced interpretations reflect an obvious bitterness at being on the outside in Ghanaian politics. The Ghanaian parliament and judiciary are filled with highly educated and progressive officials. Ms Ohene's inclination to manufacture parallels between their political wrangling and the mere banter of a village brawl, only serves to reinforce the imagery of uncivil Africans unable to run a country.

Orieji, Edinburgh, UK

I think we all have nicknames for our presidents. The former Nigerian president was called "Baba-go-slow". He was considered a very sluggish man when it comes to taking decisions. Thabo Mbeki of SA used to have his own nickname. Ghananians should stop being myopic about topics like this. If this writer had talked about other African leaders' nicknames, Ghanaians would be quick to pass comments. Thanks for this educative piece!

Ade, Portugal

What Elizabeth is saying is a true reflection of the situation in Ghana. The NDC administration has lost touch with reality and only employ threat and violence in an attempt to udermine the constitution. Seperation of powers and checks and balances has become a thing of the past with the advent of the Mills led administration in 2009. Unemployment in Ghana has increased to a whopping 38% from 21% in 2008 before the NDC assumed leadership of the country.

Denyo, Richmong, USA

Good job, Madam Ohene. African politicians remind me of 'Clowns in a circus', it takes a good journalist like yourself to bring out the sattire in African leadership, because sometimes am too sad to even laugh at what they do to their countries. We are tired of this clowns, and I hope for the day Africa will experience true leadership and governance.

Pamela, Nairobi, Kenya

Laughable how our political divisions shrouds our intellect and shame how these divisions are causing our dear country. Given the history of our country and the success of our democratic strides in the context of Africa it is quite worrying when I read about unguarded, irresponsible utterances of blatant attempts to influence the judiciary. Regardsless of which political spectrum we align ourselves, it is imperative that we all unilaterally condemn this and treat it with the disdain that it deserves. We have come too far, and should not allow ourselves to be taken back to the dark old days.

Andrew Martins, UK

Nicknames are normal for all public figures like presidents because there are people who always commit mistakes during there terms in office. Keep it up Madam for this!

Pires Capeio, Luanda, Angola

The leaders in Africa especially Ghana are so much concentrated in maintaining power,so they try every means of destroying the set up laws. The start by nullifying the judiciary as in the case here. We should unite in Africa and not live like cats and dogs.

Coffie Mensah, Ghana

That is politics for us. Of course the President cannot do everything! He has to be doing it little by little which will be successful.This is better than nothing because we know little drops of water makes a mighty ocean!

Elizabeth Kuranchie-Mensah, Accra, Ghana

K.Afriyie, I disagree with you. In many free countries, political satirists and comics cruelly mock their leaders. Let us not even get started on Bushisms. Blair was called Bambi for his toothpaste smile, etc. 'Spitting image' programme was feared by British politicians.

R. Boateng, London, UK

Nicknames will niether solve our beloved country's recent or present problems,what will help us is, our eaders should put politice aside and come together to find solution which will transform the whole nation to affect her citizens in peacefull manner. People of Ghana are expecting our heads to reason together and bring devolepments which every citizen will benefit from.Party defferences will only bring distroytion to our beloved country. All this selfish ambitions between the politicals partys is creating havoc for the country to stan still,one thing they should know is that, Ghana is not for only NPP or NDC, it belongs to all Ghanaians they should come together and care for all calling names will not help us.

K.Opoku, London, UK

I think we all have nicknames for our presidents. The currrent Tanzanian president is called "handsome boy". He is considered a very smile man when it comes to taking decisions. Thabo Mbeki of SA used to have his own nickname. Ghananians should stop being myopic about topics like this. If this writer had talked about other African leaders' nicknames, Ghanaians would be quick to pass comments. Thanks for this educative piece!

Emmanuel Hyera, Ruvuma, Tanzania

Elizabeth surely is still going strong. Impressive satire. Problem is, amidst these humorous impressions are rather seriously laden circumstances of governance in the Ghanaian context, and the extent to which our state machinery becomes publicly vocal with such incongruous and petty banter beats my mind. It is no news that the euphoria and exuberance of Kuffuor's administration has been lost to a bunch of hapless cohorts who are at sea with the issues confronting Ghana. African leadership is the most complex aspect of our history. What's more, we are helpless. Maybe such facetious perspectives help to reduce the frustration we endlessly endure.

Kwesi, London, UK

Madam Ohene's piece makes a fine reading but her political colouration is evidently seen in the piece and that makes her comments quite interesting.she was a part of Kuffuor's government and when in those days people nicknamed Kuffuor names like 'sexy-eyed president' I'm sure she wasn't comfortable with such names.she should spare us her lectures.what president Mills stands for is 'prosperity for all'. If you are out of the scene,be comfortable with your newfound homes and stop these name-calling politics!

Eric Amesimeku, Accra, Ghana

I think Ghanaian politicians have reached the stage where they don't have anything better to use to convince us rather resulting to insults to gain popularity. I don't blame them, because we queue to get them a job for living.

Sampson Gorni, Tema, Ghana

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