The significance of the State of the Nation Address (Part 1)

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The idea of a nation-state is a new reality in Afrika, and most of the things we do today under the rubric of nations are copied from older entities that evolved over long periods as states. It is thus important to understand the origin, purpose, usefulness and even uselessness of the things that we copy from others in order to be sanguine, and especially if we wish to improve on them for or at least remain as close as possible to the purpose for which they were intended.

Like most things in modern constitutional and democratic states, the origin of a state of the nation address (SONA) is the United States of America.

In America the State of the Nation Address is called the State of the Union Address, signifying the essence of the unitedness of autonomous states that are by agreement parts of a union or a federal government system. In individual states the address is given annually by elected governors as the State of the State Address. In Iowa State it is called the Condition of the State Address, yet in states such as Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, the speech is called the State of the Commonwealth Address.

Historically the American State of the Union Address is a speech presented by the President to a joint session of the United States Congress, in compliance with rules in Article II, Section 3 of the American Constitution, which requires that the President periodically gives Congress information on the “state of the union” and to recommend necessary measures that are necessary and expedient to enhance the national interests of the nation.

The first State of the Union Address was given by George Washington on 8 January 1790, in New York City, the then provisional capital. The speech was handwritten and only seven pages long. In essence it was a report about how he was governing the affairs of the nation. The State of the Union Address was referred to as the President’s Annual Message to the nation’s lawmakers until President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the term “State of the Union” on January 6, 1941.

Namibia’s recent illustrious visitor, George W. Bush, in his 2002 State of the Union Address identified North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as major threats to America, and declared: “States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” In this speech, he outlined the objectives for the War on Terror.

It would appear that Afrikan leaders do not understand the purpose of a SONA. One Afrikan leader who understood and used a SONA for its purpose was Nelson Mandela. His first SONA lasted for about 30 minutes, and simply summarised the most important features of his administration under extremely difficult circumstances of that time. His focus was to build a nation wherein everybody felt at home, despite the divisions of the past.

Like the crafters of such addresses, Mandela understood that a SONA was not to self-serve or pretend to have solutions to all problems, but as a pithy inspirational statement to turn the eyes of the nation to look to the future with confidence, and to give the nation faith that the Government cares and has compassion for all.
Most Afrikan leaders use SONAS as a power-dangling instrument to self-congratulate, intimidate and cannibalise the public space for personal glory and to countenance family wealth acquisition.

For instance, as we have seen recently, our leaders use SONAs to pronounce on all the things they have done and have not done to serve principally their public relations exercises and to bully and fix their opponents whom they label as lesser citizens than themselves. In the end they become so defensive that they leave their citizens more bewildered and uninspired.

On the positive side, it must be said Namibia has not done badly with SONAs. The first three SONAs by the Founding President were five/six pages long, and the quality was very high. They lifted the national spirit to optimism and hope for a better future. The second President’s SONAs were less than 15 pages long. President Hage Geingob’s SONA of 2017 is more than 60 pages long!

Geingob has definitely not found a style to reach his audiences with his heart. He comes across as angry. Maybe we are all to blame here in that we are not serving the Head of State to craft a style that could assist him to reach the nation.

He does not communicate the very important messages he certainly has. By the time he finishes, even his voice is tired, his captive audience, the members of the two legislative houses, are left exhausted. The rule of thumb in public speaking is that once you lose your audience, they will never come back, unless by order. The worst part is that people now expect nothing new than what they heard before, such as the family declaration of assets, the Harambee story which now sounds like a stuck record. To his credit, Geingob’s ideals are noble and progressive, but there is a serious dissonance between what he says and what people experience on his watch.

For Geingob to awaken what he started with his first SONA in April 2015, he has to reinvent himself as a leader of all Namibians, with tangible consistent actions. The low-hanging fruit is for him to focus on the nation, not the Swapo congress. He will do well to demonstrate that he understands the financial constraints through frugality and bold action, such as cutting the state bureaucracy to fit the small population that we are, and staying true to his original promise of appointing people on merit to assist him drive his vision. The state of the nation is about all citizens and inhabitants of the land, not only sycophants and opportunistic comrades who are incapable of amplifying the President’s national agenda. The President needs competent citizens around him to assist him to build a nation that is self-confident and more knowledgeable to fear less. In this President Geingob would be best aided by a sense of a fierce urgency of now. (To be continued)

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