Ghana votes to a background of election goodwill

This country's leadership has been exemplary when it comes to democractic handovers

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When Ghanaians go to the polls today, it will affect far more than the 24 million who live in the former British colony. It will determine whether the beacon of African democracy remains an example for the continent. 

Ghana’s 2012 election will be the country’s sixth presidential election since it democratised in 1992. So far it has passed the famous ‘two turnover test’ for established democracies, with peaceful transitions of power occurring in 2001 and 2009. In 2008/09, the country faced its equivalent of the Bush-Gore election, with the margin of victory just 40,000 out of over nine million cast. The losers accepted the results and all suggestions of ‘military involvement’ were rejected. 

The image of this increasingly mature democracy is not in keeping with the West’s traditional depiction of sub-Saharan Africa. Ghana, which had five military coups between 1966 and 1981 alone, was once the embodiment of the political instability that ravaged post-independence Africa. Now tangible progress has accompanied its stability - primary school enrollment rates increased from 61 per cent to 84 per cent between 1999 and 2010, while economic growth was 13.6 per cent in 2011.

Responsible

Perhaps above all, Ghana has benefited from responsible leadership. In 2000 and 2008, the incumbent Presidents respected the two-term limits and retired. They also admitted to the possibility of their parties losing the subsequent elections, helping create the environment whereby a peaceful political transition could occur.

Electoral commissions may sound tedious, but they are central to Ghana’s success. Jarreth Merz, the director of An African Election, a documentary about the 2008 Ghanaian election, described the Chairman of the Electoral Commission, Dr Afari-Gyan, as “the secret star of the film”. Without his calmness and scrutiny of the electoral process, a situation akin to what occurred in Kenya in 2007/08 – when the losers refused to accept the result, and murderous chaos ensued – may have occurred. In 2012, the Electoral Commission helped created the ‘Ghana Peace Campaign’, using religious and political leaders to promote a message of peace during election time.

Presidential debates have also helped to create an environment in which policy differences can be constructively debated, encouraging people to vote for positive policy reasons rather than negative ethnic ones. It was just a shame that, with this year’s first Ghanaian presidential debate nearly five hours long, it was hard to imagine viewers staying the course.

Work to do

A lack of natural resources may also have helped Ghana. The most war-torn African countries – including Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone – are often those with the most profitable natural resources. Ghana has discovered significant oil reserves in the last five years but it may be that, as a relatively mature democracy, it is better placed than other countries to use the proceeds to generate economic growth to help the country-at-large.

And there is much work to do. Education is currently free until the age of 15, and the opposition New Patriotic Party want to extend this until 18. More urgent, however, is perhaps increasing the quality of earlier education – too often, especially in rural areas, class sizes are 70 or more. Ghanaian state healthcare is very affordable (around £10 a year) but requires further investment; almost half the population still lives on under $2 a day. An absence of infrastructure and difficulties doing business – Ghana is ranked the 64th easiest country to do business in – also deters foreign direct investment.

The elections have not been without tension. But vigorous campaigning, and controversy over the redrawing of parliamentary constituency boundaries, has not resulted in violence. Over 20 years, Ghana has shown that democracy can bring substantive gains to African countries – and, for all the difficulties, it should continue to do so.

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