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‘Every Prime Minister Needs A Willie’ Indeed

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‘Every Prime Minister Needs A Willie’ Indeed

“Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments” – Malcolm Rifkind, former British cabinet minister.

Where shall we be without the Brits? “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.” Sweet, isn’t it? Another of their number, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, had a slightly longer version: “Defence industries are important to our effectiveness as a military force, and therefore as a diplomatic force.” Are you listening Africa?

Love or loathe them, the Brits have one strong point: they are pragmatists. Even the Queen knows that: “We are a pragmatic people, more comfortable with practice than theory,” Queen Elizabeth II once said. To which, Stuart Jeffries, writing in The Guardian on 16 May 2002, interpreted it thus: “The implication was clear: We are temperamentally incapable of abstract thought, and thus unlikely to embrace extreme political ideologies.”

Well, this month, it is to my adopted country, Britain, that I draw inspiration from for, not an extreme ideology, but something Africa, and even the world, will find novel. Ghana’s recent presidential election, won by the man who used to be vice-president only six months ago, has brought to the fore the question of Africa and much of the developing world paying attention to the quality of who becomes their vice-president and how he or she becomes so.

It was Mrs Thatcher, the woman who had (briefly) only one woman in her cabinet, who once said “every prime minister needs a Willie”. Being Britain’s first, and so far only, female prime minister, she knew what she was talking about. In British folk parlance, a “willie” is … er … you know what I mean. It symbolises virility, strength, power, life even. Some might even add joy, ecstasy, joie de vivre. Well, what a great thing!

Which reminds me, continuing the line of metaphor, what Rupert Murdoch, the media baron, said in May 2004: “The trouble with Piers [Morgan] is that his balls are bigger than his brains.” Where else, tell me, except in Britain that an opposition manager is allowed to say such a thing about an opposing player? For, Piers Morgan, recently sacked as editor of The Mirror, was not in Murdoch’s team. The Mirror’s opponent was, and still is, the Murdoch-owned tabloid, The Sun. But never mind.

In fact, the “willie” that Mrs Thatcher was talking about was her deputy prime minister, Willie Whitelaw (real name: William Whitelaw, who in later life became Viscount Whitelaw). An experienced statesman who entered Parliament in 1955 and served in various high positions until becoming deputy prime minister in 1979, Whitelaw (born 28 June 1918, died 1 July 1999) was an anchor for Mrs Thatcher in the first tumultuous years of her life at No.10 Downing Street. It was him who said: “I always feel it is quite wrong to prejudge the past.” Well, how does one prejudge the past? You must have a philosophy degree to decipher that, isn’t it?

According to our old friend Malcolm Rifkind (who served in the same cabinet as Whitelaw, from 1995-97): “One of the best descriptions of Whitelaw was by one of his former servants, who referred to him as ‘that large, emotional, sometimes irascible, apparently spontaneous but infinitely cunning man’.”

Rifkind goes on to recount that: “In 1970, when [Prime Minister] Edward Heath was considering inviting Margaret Thatcher to join his cabinet, Whitelaw warned that ‘once she is there, we will never get rid of her’. And “that large, spontaneous but infinitely cunning man” was right. They could not get rid of Thatcher once she got in.

To Rifkind, “the historic importance of Whitelaw was his relationship with Margaret Thatcher, and the crucial support he gave her in the difficult early years of her prime ministership, when she was cordially loathed by most of her cabinet colleagues. Every prime minister may not need a Willie, but she did.”

Rifkind goes on: “It would be highly desirable to have at least one Whitelaw in every British cabinet. Consider the advantage of a senior minister, no longer with personal ambition, able to tell the prime minister, without fear or favour, when he or she was acting foolishly, improperly, or in a manner that would do the government serious damage. That is the only justification for having a deputy prime minister…”

So what am I pushing at? Simply put, I am saying every prime minister or president needs an able deputy, preferably in the shape of a Willie Whitelaw if we can. What has happened in Ghana, Ethiopia and Malawi in the recent past, and in Nigeria and Zambia a few years ago, goes to reinforce Mrs Thatcher’s philosophy that nothing but a Willie is needed as No.2 in every State House.

The criticality of this philosophy was so apparent in Ghana’s example. President John Atta Mills suddenly died on 24 July, and just four hours later, his body still fresh in the morgue, the ceremony to turn his vice-president, John Mahama, into the president of the republic, had begun. Two more hours later, the shaken vice-president had become president – with all the onerous task of running the country now resting on his unprepared shoulders.

From an interview Mahama granted to Africawatch magazine in September, one can clearly discern how ill prepared, even how frightened, he was when duty called. “No vice-president can ever be prepared for this kind of eventuality even though our constitution makes provision for it. But you never, ever dream or expect that something like this will happen,” he said. “It was a very difficult moment, I must admit. When I received the news of the president’s passing, I broke down and my emotional state was not one in which I could go through a transition like that,” Mahama revealed.

“The chief justice, the speaker of Parliament, the attorney general, and the leadership of Parliament came to me, in the office, to go through a proper interpretation of the constitution. So they determined that the transition of power must be held on the same day before midnight. But I told them that the state in which I was in, I could not go through any such ceremony, and if at all possible we should do it the next day. But they insisted and said that it had to be done that day, and that they were going to reconvene Parliament at 6 o’clock that evening, but the actual process would start at 7.30pm.

“So I had to leave the office, come home and take a shower, and lie down and compose myself. It took a few hours, you know. I read a bit of the Bible and prayed to God and asked him to give me the strength to go through the ceremony, and I must say God did. Even though I was in an emotional state, I managed to eventually sleepwalk through the ceremony, I will call it that because it was like a daze, it was all a blur but God helped me to compose myself, and I didn’t emotionally break down during the ceremony.”

Mahama then talked about the task ahead of him as (an unelected) president: “I miss the fact that now I do not have anyone to look up to. Hitherto, I knew there was the president in front of me and if things really got bad, there was somebody to look up to. But now the buck stops with me. There is only God to look up to, and so I will miss him [Mills] in that regard.” Thankfully, Mahama has recovered quickly enough to win an election on his own merits. He beat his challenger 50.7% to 47.7% on 7 December.

The great unanswered question, therefore, is: If vice-presidents automatically become presidents on the death, incapacitation, and resignation of their bosses, why is their selection as “running mates” left to the whims of only one man, the presidential candidate, or at best in consultation with the party? Shouldn’t the people of the country, the eternal voters, who are said to be the repository of power in a democracy, have a say in the choice of that man or woman?

Even more so, when, in Africa presidential candidates tend to choose people they think would be pliable as their running mates. And these “mates” may not necessarily be competent people who can step into the shoes of the presidents in an emergency, yet they are chosen because the presidents want yes men and women who will not rock the boat as vice-presidents.

Imagine the impact such a yes man will have on the country when suddenly thrust into power. The current situation in Ethiopia where the powers that be took weeks to allow the deputy prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, to be sworn in as prime minister after the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in August, shows that the country, sorry the powers that be, did not have enough confidence in the deputy prime minister to take over. You can tell it by how they have now put three deputy prime ministers under Desalegn, something that never happened under Meles.

Which reminds me of what a young lady told me in 1991: Her father had told her of how parachutists never go up in the air without having two parachutes. If one fails, the second is sure to bring them safely down to earth.

I am inclined to think that a nation is more important than a parachutist, and that a nation needs a better insurance policy in the shape of a competent “president-in-waiting” who is ever ready to step in when the incumbent dies or is unable to continue. Let’s not leave the selection of such a man or woman to the whims of one man or party. It must be a collective effort via an election of that man on his own merits, not hiding behind the presidential candidate as a running mate.

  • Japhet Mwaya

    Baffour, your suggestion of having an able man or woman for vice president is praiseworthy. The business should not be left to one man only. It is not a personal issue but rather a national issue. Thus more seriousness is required.Experience has shown us some of these guys end up wearing the presidential shoes. So if such shoes are won by an idiot, the country will end up suffering. To avoid such miseries, let the systems of recruiting such individuals be more rational and democratic.

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