Ghana: Africa's Rising Star

A peaceful and well-conducted national election bodes well for democracy in Ghana and the rest of Africa

Elections are intensely public events in Africa in a way that they rarely are in the U.S. (except, perhaps, the street celebrations in several American cities following Obama’s recent victory). Take Ghana’s December 7 presidential contest: Because few Ghanaians have TVs in their homes, large groups gathered to wait for results around radios and televisions, or, more often, outside the polling stations where votes were being counted.  Pictures published last week by the BBC reminded me of the clogged streets that I walked through on the country’s 50th birthday in March 2007, when boys in full-body paint in the design of the Ghanaian flag danced in the streets. Last week, men with party slogans on their chests did the same.  Such crowds help explain some of the anxiety about electoral violence in Africa, but those in Ghana have been peaceful.

The presidential race on December 7 was so close that it is, in fact, not yet over.  Since neither of the two leading presidential candidates won more than 50 percent of the vote (six other candidates also competed), the electoral commission will hold a run-off Dec. 28 between the ruling New Patriotic Party’s Nana Akufo-Addo, who won 49.3 percent of the vote, and John Atta Mills of the opposition party, National Democratic Congress, who took 47.8 percent.  But the clean, credible, and peaceful nature of this election may be more important than the winner, and it bodes well for Ghana and the continent as a whole.

Online media reports from Ghana on election day would sound rather familiar to American voters: Ghanaians stood patiently in long lines, exit polls were too close to call, and people waited anxiously for results to come in. In fact in many ways Ghana’s political culture is healthier than America’s.  A regional observer group estimated voter turnout this year at 70 percent.  Dozens of radio stations and independent newspapers create a diverse and lively media environment, and average Ghanaians are quite vocal about politics. During the tumultuous Nigerian election in April 2007, I was studying at a small college in Accra, and endured political harangues from my fellow students, taxi drivers, and the occasional passerby.

Ghana lacks many of the problems that keep other African countries in the international news.  Though certain Ghanaian politicians occasionally appeal to ethnic identity, ethnicity and political constituencies are not fused the way they are in countries like Kenya and Nigeria that have seen such violent bouts of electoral conflict.  In a phenomenon known as “skirt and blouse” voting, some regions voted against candidates of their own ethnicity this year.  Until recently Ghana has also avoided the high-stakes politics of oil – one iteration of the “resource curse” that afflicts parts of the continent.  But many Ghanaians and outside observers have worried that the discovery of oil off the west coast last year would raise the stakes of this year’s election and increase the incentive to cheat or incite violence.  The new administration will get to decide how to spend oil revenues which may materialize as early as 2010.  So it is encouraging that things have gone as smoothly as they have so far.

With the departure of two-term President John Kufuor, this election marks the second time that power at the national level has changed hands democratically (the first was eight years ago when Kufuor and the NPP defeated the would-be successor of dictator-turned-democrat Lt. Jerry Rawlings).  Some political science scholars consider this event the defining threshold for “democratic consolidation,” or the point at which all stakeholders accept democratic methods as the only legitimate path to power.

This is good news for Ghana, of course, but also for the rest of Africa.  Ghana has been a poster country for stability and economic growth for several years, and the commendable handling of this high-stakes, high-profile election reinforces that image.  This success story of African democracy stands in contrast to the string of deeply flawed elections in Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe, and it could prompt an influx of aid and investment to other African countries. The existence of a stable Anglophone country (i.e. a potential ally) in an oil-rich and volatile region is also a clear plus for the United States, which, judging from the size of the new American embassy complex that I saw under construction in Accra, recognizes its strategic importance.

Of course, violence following the December 28 run-off could undo this election’s stabilizing effect, but I’m hopeful that this won’t happen.  NDC supporters, who make up the majority in some of Accra’s biggest slums, are probably the group more likely to riot if their candidate loses; their party, however, won a narrow majority in parliament, which may temper the disappointment.  Regardless of who wins, the closely divided parliament will be a challenge to the new president. For one thing, it means that both parties will have some say over the spending of any newfound oil revenues, a decision process that may ultimately provide the sternest test to date of Ghana’s democracy and the hopes that it embodies for Africa’s future.