Friday, December 5, 2008

Komla Dumor: Can Ghana trounce the bad news?

Considering all the bad news about recent elections in Africa - rigging, violence and bogus power-sharing agreements - one may be tempted to expect more of the same from Ghana.

The West African nation is going to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president and 240 members of the parliament.

Its western neighbour Ivory Coast has yet again postponed its election to 2009 because of difficulties in compiling a national register.

Nigeria, to the east, held one of the continent's most badly flawed elections in April last year.

Rigging was rife and the legitimacy of President Umaru Yar'Adua and several governors is still being challenged in court.

Violence ripped through Kenya after the ruling party proclaimed a dubious electoral victory last December.

And Zimbabwe continues to spiral into an abyss of poverty and disease as the ruling party refuses to relinquish its grip on the state in spite of a power-sharing arrangement.

Highly contentious

So why should Ghana be any different?

The capacity for violence and electoral malpractice exists in Ghana, as it does in any country in the world.

But democracy is still making progress in Africa and there have been successful elections in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Senegal and Zambia to name a few.

That is not to say the run-up to this election in Ghana has not been contentious.

Ghana has recently discovered oil: a mouth-watering windfall of billions of dollars awaits the next administration.

Though not on the scale of Nigeria or Angola, oil has the potential to transform this nation of 20 million people.

But there is good reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Ghana was sub-Saharan Africa's first nation to achieve independence from the UK in 1957.

In post-independent Ghana, civilian rule was truncated repeatedly by a series of military coups until a return to democracy in 1992.

For the past 16 years, things seem to have gone well for Ghana's democracy.

'Skirt and blouse voting'

There are multiple political parties and the two main ones have both held the reigns of government.

The ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) has been in power for the past eight years under the leadership of President John Kufuor.

The NPP has chosen former Foreign Minister Akufo-Addo for its ticket.

Before he became president in 2000 and won re-election in 2004, Mr Kufuor's NPP lost two polls - in 1992 and 1996 - to Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawling's National Democratic Congress (NDC) which is fielding his former Vice-President John Atta Mills as its flagbearer.

Both parties have tasted victory and defeat at the feet of the Ghanaian electorate.

Unlike the case of Kenya, for example, both parties have considerable support that cuts across ethnic divisions in all 10 regions of the nation.

Though it is true that the ruling NPP dominates in the Ashanti Region of the country and the NDC has massive support in the Volta Region, Ghanaians have been known to vote against candidates who share their ethnicity but do not share their political values.

A phenomenon Ghanaians themselves call "skirt and blouse voting".


In fact, one factor attributed to the defeat of Mr Atta Mills in 2000 and 2004 was the refusal of voters from the Central Region, from where he hails, to vote for him.

Several members of parliament in Ghana have been elected by constituencies who voted for a different party in the presidential race.

Years of intermarriage have lessened the impact of ethnicity, even though it still plays a role in the politics of Ghana.

Another factor that suggests that Ghana democracy is sustainable is the Electoral Commission of Ghana.

It has been under the leadership of Kwadwo Afari-Djan for the past four elections.

He was appointed by the then-incumbent NDC government and oversaw two of their electoral victories.

He was retained by the current NPP administration and has supervised electoral victories and defeats under their incumbency.

Thus the electoral commission has both the appearance and credibility of an organisation that is able to conduct free and fair elections.

Free media

Perhaps of equal importance is the media. Ghana has one of the freest medias in Africa.

There are scores of radio stations dotted around the country.

During elections radio stations like the capital's Joy FM dispatch staff armed with mobile phones around the country.

The correspondent gives continuous live updates and reports by mobile phone to their media "election headquarters".

Once results are collated at the constituency, in the presence of party officials and electoral officers, the radio stations rapidly compile the results, broadcast them and a clear picture of the outcome is available within 24 hours.

The process has become too fast for old-fashioned election shenanigans.

Joy FM takes this a step further and publishes the results on the internet, thereby making it virtually impossible for a government to fiddle with results during a deliberate delay in their release by a government-controlled electoral commission as is the case elsewhere in Africa.

Politically aware

The only difference between the coverage on Ghanaian radio stations and those in first-world countries is the technology but in this case a simple mobile phone and basic web publishing software arguable works even better.

This not to say problems do not exist.

There have been cases of some individuals attempting to register more than once.

And it is clear that both the ruling NPP and NDC exploit any advantage they have to win.

But Ghanaians have clearly become too politically aware to be taken for a ride.

All the presidential candidates participated in a number of nationally telecast debates, fielding questions on healthcare, education and the economy.

The political process is not foolproof and democracies can disintegrate under the pressure of politics but Sunday may be the final consolidation of the basic structures of democracy for Ghana.

Ghanaians have made it clear that they prefer democracy with all its flaws to military rule or anarchy.

Ghana has hosted refugees from civil crises in Liberia and Sierra Leone and Ghanaians do not want to end up as unwanted guests in neighbouring countries.

However more work needs to be done for ordinary citizens to feel the impact of democracy's dividends where it counts most.

Any improvement in their living standards?

Credit: Komla Dumor

The BBC's World Today's Komla Dumor is travelling across West Africa to look at the challenges facing democracy in the region.

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