Besieged in Accra

January 2, 2009 Topic: ElectionsPolitics

Besieged in Accra

Ghana is on the verge of electoral crisis. Will one of Africa’s few success stories collapse into chaos?

In recent years Ghana has been held up as a model for other African countries. Sound macroeconomic policy combined with high prices for gold and cocoa have delivered a consistently strong growth rate averaging 6 percent over the last decade and a half, in the process reducing the proportion of the population living in poverty from 52 percent in 1991 to 29 percent in 2006. Once production begins next year on the country's hitherto untapped 3 billion barrel petroleum offshore reserve, Ghana could easily be propelled into the ranks of middle-income countries. According to Freedom House, Ghana has also enjoyed the distinction of being the second freest country in Africa (the tiny island republic of Cape Verde beats it by a fraction) since constitutional order and multiparty democratic politics were restored in 1992. Not surprisingly, the West African nation is the recipient of a five-year, $547 million grant from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which links assistance to demonstrated commitment to reform, and its incumbent president, John Agyekum Kufuor, is one of only half a dozen foreign dignitaries honored with a state dinner during the Bush administration. At that event in September, the U.S. president toasted his Ghanaian counterpart for having "helped your people build a thriving democracy, where the rule of law is respected and taken a leadership role on the continent of Africa," referring perhaps to the more than three thousand peacekeepers Ghana has deployed on nearly a dozen United Nations missions. This solid record, however, may well be critically undermined before this weekend is over.


President Kufuor's second and final term of office expires next Wednesday. Ghanaians went to the polls on December 7 to choose his successor. The clear front runners in the pool of eight candidates were former-Attorney General and Foreign Minister Nana Akufo-Addo of the governing New Patriotic Party (NPP) and former-Vice President John Atta-Mills of the National Democratic Congress (NDC). Akufo-Addo won 49.13 percent of the vote to Atta-Mills 47.92. Because neither candidate reached the 50 percent threshold required for an outright win, the race was forced into a second round. (In the parliamentary poll held the same day as the presidential vote, the NDC won 114 seats to the NPP's 108, with two other parties and independents taking the other seven other seats.)

The presidential runoff took place Sunday in 229 of Ghana's 230 constituencies. The results gave the NDC a slight edge with 50.13 percent of the vote to the NPP's 49.87, with the gap between the two candidates just around twenty-three thousand votes out of more than 9 million cast. In a real-life dilemma reminiscent of the one posed to Bud Johnson, the character played by Kevin Costner in last summer's Swing Vote, the outcome of the election now rides on the fifty-three thousand voters in the tiny remote district of Tain, who were unable to vote because an insufficient number of ballots had been shipped to their polling places ahead of the December 28 poll. They go to the polls today.

Considering that Atta-Mills won that western constituency by 16,211 votes to Akufo-Addo's 14,935 during the first round, most analysts deem it unlikely that the latter can win enough votes in Friday's final contest to overcome the former's narrow advantage nationwide. The NPP admitted as much this week when it tried to get a court injunction to delay the vote. Having failed in that attempt, the NPP announced on New Year's Day that it was boycotting the poll, citing ill-defined security concerns. For its part, NDC supporters have voiced concern that the chairman of the electoral commission, Kwado Afari-Gyan, might use the failure of NPP poll watchers to show up for the vote in Tain and irregularities already alleged elsewhere to either somehow declare a win for the ruling party's candidate the winner or to simply refuse to certify a win by the opposition standard-bearer. Others worry that Afari-Gyan might be subject to intimidation, pointing out that just hours before the polls opened in Tain, his home in Accra was "visited" by as-yet unidentified thugs.

While a smooth conclusion to the contest, including a graceful concession by the loser and restraint and magnanimity by the victor, would be a tremendous example for all Africa, given both the tightness of the race and the passions which have been inflamed, some observers fear that what is likelier is a repeat of the sort of violence that followed Kenya's contested election results this time last year. While, unlike many African countries, Ghana does not have a history of significant ethnic conflict, some very worrisome indicators emerge when one closely examines the regional breakdown of votes won by the candidates. And tensions are only heightened by the extremely short time left before President Kufuor's mandate runs out completely.

Hence anything but a peaceful and lawful transition would not only be a tragedy for Ghana, but also a challenge for the international community. With Ghana's three immediate neighbors to the west-Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, and Sierra Leone-barely recovering from civil wars; the next country over, Guinea, just coming to terms with the death of its longtime despot last week and a subsequent military takeover; and Nigeria struggling to cope with continued violence in its oil-rich Delta region, the last thing west Africa needs is another failed state. Having one of its rare successes go bad would be a significant blow to Africa-and certainly would not be in the interests of the United States to have one of its most important diplomatic, economic and security partners on an increasingly strategic continent simply descend into chaos.

If there is ever a time, in America's national interests as well as in conformity with her ideals, for President Bush to redeem some of the capital he has built up from his administration's extensive engagement with Africa and/or for President-elect Barack Obama to make use of his extraordinary popularity among Africans (both contenders featured Obama's image on their campaign posters), it is now, as Ghana dangles at the edge of the precipice and its leaders seem in need of a reminder about what will happen if they lose their balance. Ultimately, however, it will be the decisions made in the next hours and days by Ghanaians-including the lame duck President Kufuor, whose very legacy is at stake-which will determine whether the country which led Africa down the path of independence half a century ago continues to blaze a trail for others by demonstrating the benefits of peaceful democratic politics and vibrant free markets, or whether Africa's showpiece is exposed as really a Potemkin village.


J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.