Ghana’s elections: Rawlings and after
Posted on 4th December, 2020 in Director's Blog
Jerry Rawlings passed away on 12 November this year, peacefully in Korle Bu Hospital. He was Ghana’s longest serving president and, if the current constitution is respected and his successors resist the temptation to change it to hang on longer, will remain so for the foreseeable future.
Ghana has several great figures in its modern history. Nkrumah certainly brought freedom to Ghana, but it was Rawlings that brought democracy and economic growth. He started, it is true, as a revolutionary, using methods that were both blunt and bloody. Former heads of state, judges and generals were executed; state control was extended over the economy; many of the middle class fled into exile. But he was smart enough to recognise when things were not working, open enough to explore and implement alternative ways forward, and honest enough to step down when voted out by the Ghanaian people in 2000.
Rawlings’ U-turns, first on the economy (with the help of Kwesi Botchwey) and then on restoring multi-party democracy, under pressure from home as much as abroad, paved the way for the Ghana that exists today. The economy was dragged out of the hole it had dug itself into and has been growing ever since, while elections, after a rocky start, have led to robust but predominantly peaceful campaigns, and a rough alternation in power between the two main parties. Though Rawlings was a man with a powerful ego – as anyone who met him would recognise – when put to the test he did put the Ghanaian people first and himself second.
His party, the NDC, is another matter. Political parties have lives of their own, and the NDC was never purely a creature of Rawlings’ invention or subservient to his will. His deputy and then successor, John Atta Mills, was an honest man and a democrat, but the same could not be said for all those who wielded power and influence within the party under him, which retained some of its revolutionary roots. His own deputy and then successor, John Mahama, is more complicated. It is too soon and too close to judge – though the Ghanaian people have an opportunity to do so in the coming election – but his first term did not go as well as expected. Reputedly corruption grew even though the economy didn’t (much). The NDC, with its strongest support amongst the Ewe-speaking people of the south-east, nevertheless retains a reputation, like Rawlings, as a ‘friend of the people’.
The NPP, by contrast, has a reputation for business-friendly economic competence and liberal principles, though it too has been dogged by (sometimes unsupported) accusations of cronyism and corruption. It too has a core base of support amongst the Akan-speaking people of Ashanti and Akyem.
But a striking feature of Ghanaian politics is that neither party’s ethnic base is sufficient for it to secure a majority in parliament or for the presidency. The minority groups, particularly in the north, the south-west and around Accra, therefore have a critical role as swing voters. Both parties woo them, politically and financially, and voters seem as much influenced by the character of the flag-bearers on either side as by the activities of each parties’ ‘foot soldiers’, often little more than gangs of partisan young thugs, whose ‘campaigning’ feels a lot more like intimidation (as African Arguments recently revealed).
The second striking feature Ghana’s democracy has been the relative robustness and impartiality of its democratic institutions, above all the Electoral Commission and the judiciary, but also the media, which has both partisan and independent elements. A new Electoral Commission was only appointed in 2018 and this will be its first real test. Its head, Jean Adukwei Mensah, is widely respected and considered broadly impartial, but levels of suspicion are high and maximum transparency will be vital for its credibility.
So when Ghana goes to the polls again on 7 December, for the 8th time since multi-party elections were restored in 1992, the outcome is uncertain. Nana Akufo Addo (the first President in 35 years not to have a first name John) is standing for a second term having defeated Mahama in 2016, and is the bookies’ favourite to win again. But it will not be easy.
Ghana’s elections, like all others around the globe, takes place in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic. Compared to European countries or the US, Ghana has escaped lightly in terms of infections and mortality, with over 51,000 cases but only 323 recorded deaths. But it has been badly hit economically, as the price of oil and cocoa fell even if gold held up. Akufo Addo’s government has actively supported the banking sector to keep credit flowing; but 10,000 companies have gone bust and unemployment has soared. Ghana’s debt is set to increase to 70% of GDP and the IMF regards the country as at risk of ‘debt distress’. So economic stress will play into the campaign as well as government competence and political reputations.
My hunch though is that Rawlings’ legacy of peaceful change and economic pragmatism will survive this election, and the next government keep Ghana as a standard-bearer of moderation, rationality and peace in Africa. Long may it last.
Nicholas Westcott is the Director of the Royal African Society.