Politics is basically about persuasion. And as such, politicians depend very much on rhetoric to influence the public and establish a relationship with them. As a disciple of presidential rhetoric, I know for a fact that every political speech becomes lively and interesting when the speaker employs persuasive strategies to get the attention of the people and to win their hearts. It is said that the ‘majority of the people are moved by the power of speech’.
The State of the Nation Address (SONA) is a constitutional requirement, which a sitting president may use as a platform to inform the people on the current state of the nation. The aim of this write-up is to analyse the rhetoric employed by President Akufo-Addo in his latest SONA, which he delivered on the 5th of January, 2021.
Rhetorical Argument of Audience
An effective SONA ought to address the concerns of all diverse groups and be unifying, but also concise. However, the SONAs delivered by the President in previous years sounded a little convoluted. The lengthening of his speech with rewording and numerous examples just in an attempt to appeal to various distinct audiences was problematic in my view. Nonetheless, his latest SONA was as brief as necessary, to the admiration of many of us who cannot endure long speeches.
Characteristically, SONA focuses on past accomplishments and policy direction, and this was evident in the President’s address. For example, the President highlighted one of the significant achievements of his administration, which is restoring peace in Dagbon, an achievement that eluded past governments. The President could not have put it better than to say, “I admit freely that it was one of the highlights of the past four years for me as President of the Republic.” The president also underscored other achievements chalked under his first term, which included the One District, One Factory (1D1F), Planting for Food and Jobs, modernization of the economy through the implementation of a digitization policy, Free SHS, TVET among others.
In essence, SONA is not supposed to be a partisan speech. As much as possible, it is supposed to be bipartisan, which distinguishes it from other types of presidential addresses or rhetoric, and appropriately so, especially when speaking in front of all Ghanaians through their elected members of Parliament. President Akufo-Addo referred to the Seventh Parliament of the Fourth Republic as arguably the most productive in the history of Ghana. In this regard, he provided facts and figures saying his administration passed fifty (50) different legislative instruments such as the Right to Information Act, Special Prosecutor Act, the Witness Protection Act, the Lands Act, and the Private Members Bill, The president used a powerful tool of rhetorical appeal – logos – to reach out to his audience. His acknowledgment of both sides of Parliament for their collective roles in passing these bills was a tactical and rational way to convince or persuade the masses that he is a unifier, ready to work together with those on the other side of the political divide for the common good of the country. Generally, people value rationality and logic greatly, and to a very large extent, audiences appreciate rationality and appeals by a speaker, and I am convinced the president used this persuasive strategy ‘beautifully’ in this situation.
Rhetoric of Togetherness
Understanding the tradition of SONA and its importance, President Akufo-Addo’s consistent use of the first person plural pronoun “We” in almost every paragraph of his address has the effect of giving his audience a sense of belonging. The use of the unifier “We” diminishes the unequal social relations between the presidency and the people. The ‘We’ makes the average Ghanaian feel that the policies implemented were actually for the whole nation and involved the efforts of all. It must be noted that ever since COVID-19 surfaced in Ghana, every speech of the president has been laced with the unifier “We”, a clear departure from his earlier rhetoric which was laced with phrases such as ‘My government, ‘the NPP government’, ‘My administration’ etc.
Rhetoric of Hope and Optimism
SONA is usually full of optimism. No matter how terrible the crisis facing a country, presidents always try to inspire hope in the people by being optimistic in their speeches. President Akufo-Addo did just that in the 2021 SONA he delivered. Even with the devastating effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, the president did not mince words by recounting some policies the government implemented to revitalize and transform the economy. He mentioned the one-hundred-billion-cedi CARES ‘Obaatampa’ Programme among others.
Rhetoric of Charisma
Names that quickly come to mind when we talk of charismatic leaders in Ghanaian politics include the late former Presidents Kwame Nkrumah and Jerry John Rawlings. These two former leaders, during their tenures in office, met the needs and aspirations of their followers by focusing on the collective interest, rather than self-interest. It is said that rhetoric of charisma usually becomes useful in times of crisis. In other words, a leader’s charisma can be noticed when there is crisis. President Akufo-Addo cannot be placed in the same charismatic category as Nkrumah or Rawlings. However, since the President started his Coronavirus updates, some months ago, he has come to be associated with the refrain ‘Fellow Ghanaians’, ‘This Too Shall Pass’, and he made use of it quite well in his latest SONA address.
Possible Rhetorical Weakness
The conspicuous silence of the president on electoral and post-election violence, which resulted in the death of about 7 people, was a low point in the President’s latest SONA. A father figure persona of the president would have been boosted if he had commiserated with the families of those who lost their lives in the election violence. The shooting and maiming of journalists who were covering the election should have been captured at least in a paragraph of the President’s address. That sadly was missing.
Also on Galamsey, the President failed to explain what led to the failure of the intended clamping down on illegal mining and its attendant pollution of water bodies. He only said we should all come together to fight the menace, without providing any direction.
In conclusion, a good State of the Nation Address, especially one that ends a President’s tenure of office must attempt to capture most aspects of the people’s lives. It should be as patriotic, barrier-crossing, bridge-building and unifying as possible. I cannot, from where I stand, classify President Akufo-Addo’s 2021 SONA as great, but I can describe it as his best speech ever, from the lens of rhetorical analysis.
Written by: Pearlvis Atsu Kuadey
The Writer is a Media Monitor with research interests in Presidential Rhetoric, Development Communication and New Media technology.