The country considered one of Africa's biggest recent successes is going to the polls. The handling of the election matters for the whole continent
LAST year oil was found off the coast of Ghana. There was rejoicing, of course. But the mood was tempered by the knowledge of how oil has polluted the nearby Niger Delta and corrupted Nigeria. More than anything, Ghanaians were seized by a determination to avoid the "resource curse" of Nigeria.
Now, with a general election on December 7th, it is the curse of the ballot box that Ghanaians want to avoid. After electoral disasters in Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe in the past 18 months, everyone is hoping, and many are praying, that Ghana will avoid the bloodshed, chicanery and political warring of its African peers.
Even more so as Ghana, with annual growth rates of about 6% during the past few years, is one of Africa's few undisputed successes of the past decade. It plunged the depths of despotism and kleptocracy in the 1970s and 1980s, but has fostered an enviable reputation for individual freedom and political stability since democracy was restored in 1991. This has attracted a lot of financial and diplomatic investment. For the sake of African democracy as much as of Ghana itself, nobody wants to jeopardise all of that with the sort of chaos that hurt Kenya earlier this year.
In this respect, Ghana has several advantages over Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. It has a highly competent electoral commission, whose independence is respected by all Ghana's politicians. Above all, ordinary Ghanaians are acutely aware of the eyes of Africa and the world upon them. Foreign-aid and human-rights bodies, diplomats and church people all hold daily meetings and workshops with titles such as "Elections: Lessons from Zimbabwe and Kenya for Ghana". A sense of pan-African responsibility prevails.
Ever since Ghana became the first sub-Saharan country to win independence (from Britain) in 1957, Ghanaians have been conscious of being in the vanguard of African history. Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi of the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development says it is still the case. "There is a popular desire to maintain a record of not behaving like others on the continent in these elections. It is a point of pride."
So an electoral disaster might be avoided. But Mr Gyimah-Boadi says that the dangers are still real. For a start, as in Kenya, the two main parties, the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC), are very evenly matched. This gives them every incentive to cheat, knowing that just a few votes either way could tip the balance. The parties both claim they will win the presidential ballot on the first round. Yet it is thought they are both a few percentage points shy of the 51% they need to win outright and avoid a second round.
There is also a lot of ill-feeling between the two parties. It has already provoked violence in the north. In one incident the NDC says two of its organisers were shot dead. The opposition resents the way the NPP has used its time in government to jail several NDC former ministers on charges from the time the NDC was in office in the 1990s, while taking no action against present government ministers who have been accused of corruption. NDC members talk of a political vendetta against them; many want vengeance.
On top of this, the oil discovery has raised the stakes. The winner, after all, will be looking at a bonanza of about $3 billion a year in oil revenues from as early as 2010. Never will there have been a better time to be in government in Ghana.
So it is an irony, given the charged atmosphere, that the policies of the NPP on the centre-right and the NDC on the centre-left are not that far apart. Both pledge largely to continue the more-or-less orthodox free-market policies that have served Ghana well for the past few years.
The NPP's presidential candidate, the energetic Nana Akufo-Addo, is happy to campaign on the present government's record. He trades on the popularity of the outgoing president, John Kufuor, in office since 2001. Mr Akufo-Addo, who was foreign minister and attorney-general in Mr Kufuor's two governments, hopes his experience and a pedigree as the son of a former president will help him to victory.
The NDC is led by the quieter John Atta Mills. A lawyer, academic and former vice-president, he has lost the last two elections to Mr Kufuor, so this is probably his last tilt at the presidency. His NDC talks more about social justice than the NPP does. It also has its former leader, the extrovert and populist Jerry Rawlings, on the campaign trail to stir up support. Mr Rawlings can still wow a crowd but he repels as many people as he attracts. Many recall his thuggish ways as president in the 1980s; he is as much a liability as an asset to the NDC.
In the end, the two parties' differences have come to be encapsulated in the saga of the new presidential palace. Now almost finished, this huge building is shaped like an Ashanti stool to symbolise that ancient source of authority. It is bold and showy but also hugely expensive. Nobody knows for sure, but the bill could be as high as $50m. The NDC argues that this, as well as new presidential jets, is a wasteful extravagance in a country where many people are still miserably poor. The NDC also says the haziness of the accounts points to corruption and a lack of accountability.
The NPP ripostes that such a building was long overdue. Until now, the presidential offices have been in a former Danish slaving castle by the port of Accra. "If ever there was an inappropriate symbol of the new Ghana, that was it," snaps Mr Akufo-Addo. The new building represents the nation's growing self-confidence and dignity. And anyway, the would-be president adds, it was built with Indian money—a sign of global interest in the new Ghana.