The uses of protocol-diplomacy: what did President Barack Obama tell president John Atta Mills of Ghana when the Ghanaian visited Washington DC in early March? Welcome to protocol-diplomacy!Diplomacy is one of the most fascinating aspects of modern life. My late wife, Beryl, who was for a time, one of the executives at the Ambassador Hotel in Accra, once told me this story: As she was waiting for a lift to go to the fourth floor, she saw the Spanish and Mexican ambassadors to Ghana also waiting for the lift. As a staff member, she elected not to go up with them, but pretended interest in the offerings of a boutique nearby.
When the lift came down, neither man would go in first! "After you, Your Excellency!", one bowed to the other. "No, after you, Your Excellency!", the other ambassador said, returning the bow. They did this about three times, only to hear the lift door close and the lift shoot up to another floor. My wife, doubled up with laughter, used the stairs. She confessed that because of the funny scene she had just witnessed, she reached the fourth floor without noticing that she had had to climb four flights of stairs.
Diplomacy, then, is all about artificial politeness, sometimes codified into an all-embracing word called "protocol". Protocol requires, for instance, that when a head of state is leaving his own country, members of the diplomatic corps should line up at the airport, to say farewell to him and be there to greet him on his return. Irrespective of what an ungodly hour it may be.
Protocol also demands that if an ambassador holds a cocktail party to celebrate his country's national day, all other diplomats must attend, unless there is a rota system in existence, agreed beforehand, which exempts some diplomats from certain functions, and vice versa. But the worst part of diplomacy is that it encourages its practitioners to lie openly to one another. Only they don't accept that they do lie. They can be "economical with the truth"; they can engage in "plausible deniability"; they can "asseverate the official version of events". But they never actually "lie"!
My mind played with the possibilities for diplomatic double-talk that would occur as President John Atta Mills of Ghana went to the USA in early March to meet his counterpart, President Barack Obama, at a time when Mills was being snowed under at home by a scandal called "Woyomegate".
This concerned the payment of a huge amount of Ghanaian taxpayers' money - 51 million cedis or about US$40m - as a "judgement debt settlement" to a man who claimed that the Ghana government (under former President John Kufuor) had abrogated a contract it had given to him. The members of the government at the time of the alleged contract say the man (called Alfred Woyome) never had any contract with them and that the whole matter is a hoax by which some members of the current government under President Atta Mills arranged the "settlement" with the chap, so that they could share the proceeds with him.
President Obama would, of course, have been briefed about all this before meeting Mills. (We know from the Wikileaks cables !s that American diplomats widely consult the informed sections of the local populations amongst whom they serve, before sending their extremely candid reports back home to brief their bosses.) Which means that Obama would have had the "Woyomegate" is scandal at the back of his mind, even as he cracked jokes to put r, President Mills at ease. For, of course, both Obama and his family would have fond memories of the pleasant visit they paid to Ghana in 2009, and they, on their part, would wish to pull all the t! stops out to show their guest that they reciprocated the affection showered upon them on their visit to Ghana.
One version of Obama (the secret one or OBAMA 2) would w be saying, even as he smiled that charming smile at Mills: "Hey, p so a guy just got up, mentioned the names of some companies, issued some writs in your court and was able to walk away with h 40 million dollars? And you want me to go ask Congress to give s. you American money?" Meanwhile, the Diplomatic Obama, (or OBAMA 1) would be slapping President Mills heartily on the back and practising how to say "Akwaaba!" (Welcome).
Obama 1: We trust you had a pleasant journey, Mr President?"
Mills: Yes, Mr President. It was very nice indeed.
Obama 2: So what's with you guys and judgement debts? Didn't you learn from the British legal system you inherited, and which I il taught at Harvard, that since the smartest lawyers often decline to work in the public sector, the UK attorney-general is empowered d to constitute a panel of counsel from whose ranks he can pick and choose renowned lawyers with particular areas of competence, it to handle cases for the Crown that fall within their purview? y How can Ghana lose as much as six hundred million dollars by negotiating uncontested settlements of judgement debts? Does that make sense?
Mills: Mr President, we were so happy to hear that the conversations between my Ministry of Transport and its US counterpart have gone so well. I am sure you had something to do with it personally. My gratitude is unbounded.
Obama 1: Well, to be frank, we've had our difficulties with the US Congress -hahaha -but Ghana has such a fund of goodwill with everyone that unlike some African countries, as soon as your name comes up, everyone becomes relaxed. Even those in the Congress who don't like to listen to me seem disarmed when they see programmes earmarked for Ghana. Your strong democracy is a very good advertisement for you!
Mills: We have pledged to make it even stronger, Mr President...
Obama 2: I wish you would delve a little more into political economy, though, my good friend. A formal democracy is as weak as a house built on sand if all it does is to give people the freedom to insult those in government and be insulted in their turn by those in government. Over here, my back is to the wall. I am spending sleepless nights trying to create jobs without setting up new bodies to do it because I know asking Congress for money to set up any new thing would be an exercise in futility. And I'm talking about a democracy that's a good 236 years old. Did you not see the riots in the United Kingdom, which is supposed to be the mother of democracy, recently? Unemployment amongst the youth is fatal. And you're doing nothing about yours!
Mills: Regional security is something that's been occupying our attention recently, Mr President. This Al Qaeda business in Nigeria and Niger and Mauritania is worrying us, for we now have oil -something to envy.
Obama 1: Don't worry about that, Mr President. The United States will, if asked, assist you in every aspect of security that you need assistance with. I believe discussions have already been taking place between your security people and our people in Africom. We stand with you.
Mills: It is reassuring to hear that, Mr President. I knew we could rely on you and that you would be with us.
Obama 2: But you too, why did you go and flex your muscles, showing off your "Special Forces" at your Independence Day parade like that? Some Ghanaians are saying that you are setting up a force like our Marines or our Seals or our feared Rangers. Some think we're already helping you with that force, and that you will use it to rig the forthcoming elections. I wish I could show you the latest classified cables from Accra. Disquiet all over the political spectrum in Ghana, the cables say. Quite unnecessary, really. We don't want the human rights people locking onto it and coming after us to disrupt the useful agreements we've just signed with you. The Ambassador will be seeing you about all that when you get back and you'd better listen real good.
Mills: Thanks for the advice, Mr President.
Obama 2: Go back and get your act together, man. Set up a commission of enquiry to look into how you came to pay so much of your meagre revenue to individuals and companies, in judgement debt settlements. Do you realise that any hint of corruption that is raised against you affects me indirectly? Imagine if Romney wins the Republican nomination and some kind soul briefs him about what he will no doubt call "Wyoming-gate" and he begins to talk about it on nationwide television? And Rush Limbaugh takes it up and begins to talk about corruption in countries run by black people? Huh?
Mills: Thanks, Mr President.
Obama 1: You bet!
Obama 2: You just don't get it, do you?