Nana or Mahama? Ghanaians choose between present and past in Africa’s “dullest” election

When former President Jerry Rawlings died exactly one month ago, the world paid its respect to a leader whom they described as “visionary, statesman and democratic.”

For such praise to be showered upon a person who took power through a military coup (something that the African Union is at odds with through its policy of not recognizing leaders who subvert the democratic process) speaks volume of Ghana.

The West African country has been one of the most stable democracies over the last three decades, something that Rawlings played a crucial role in ushering.

Ghanaians go to the polls on Monday to choose for a third time whether they will grant incumbent President Nana Akufo-Addo another term in office or revert to the polices of his predecessor John Mahama. Monday’s vote will be the eighth since Ghana’s first step towards multiparty democracy in 1992.

This election, unlike most in Africa, will not be littered by accusations of vote rigging, use of state machinery to intimidate voters, and a media/internet blackout.

On Friday, the two leading candidates signed a pact for good conduct and peaceful elections at a ceremony in the capital, Accra that was attended by traditional and religious leaders, as well as international observers.

With democracy deteriorating across Africa over the last five years, after the highs of the 1990s period, Ghana is standing firm against the tide. In fact, democracy has matured with power regularly changing hands between the two main parties, the ruling National Patriotic Party and the opposition National Democratic Congress.

“Here in Ghana, who wins, wins,” said Mavis Nai, a 23-year-old working in a snack bar in Ghana’s capital, Accra. Contrasting her country’s electoral process with disputed polls in Africa and the recent US election, where President Donald Trump has persisted with claims of vote-rigging, she said: “Nobody is like, ‘I’m not accepting it.’ Anybody that wins accepts it. And anybody that loses accepts it.”

President Nana Akufo-Addo is likely to win the elections if polls are to be believed and his record stacks up nicely.

According to a report from the Ministry of Finance, the country became a middle income economy in June. In 2018, Ghana became the largest recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) in West Africa, attracting more than $3 billion and raising its FDI inward stock to $36 billion, up from just $10 billion in 2010.

Earlier this year, Ghana also became the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve the Millennium Development Goal 1, which is the target of halving extreme poverty.

Last year, Ghana’s economy was the fastest growing in the world, at a rate of 6.7% compared to a regional average of 2.1%.

President Nana Akufo-Addo addresses a conference. Courtesy: BBC

Nana’s government has also won praise for its relatively strong response to the COVID-19 pandemic and for implementing free secondary school education, in spite of issues over quality, capacity and underfunding.

Former President Mahama’s campaign has been hampered by allegations of corruption during his previous administration and memories of persistent power cuts. But his party is backed by about 40% of the electorate, meaning he only needs to win in two of three swing regions, covering 20% of the 17 million eligible voters, to stand a chance.

“Ghana’s economy is not working for the people,” Mahama said recently, tapping into popular discontent at what many describe as stagnant living standards.

Kenyans also have fond memories of John Mahama, whom as the head of the Commonwealth Elections Observers team, spoke in glowing terms about President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory in the 2017 presidential elections saying “The election of President Kenyatta was free and fair. Kenya has the potential to become the most vibrant democracy in Africa.” The Supreme Court later nullified the election, in a historic first for the continent.

John Mahama himself won a challenge in the Ghanaian Supreme Court over his 2012 victory against Nana Akufo-Addo.  He garnered 50.7% of the vote against Nana’s 47.7%, though the opposition claimed the vote was rigged. Tables turned five years later.

Ghana’s election is also notable due to the presence of a woman in a leading presidential ticket. Mahama’s running mate is Jane Naana Opoku-Agyeman, seeking to become the country’s fist female vice president. Naana, 69, is a former education minister and university professor. She became the first female vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Coast in 2008, and her sturdiness jiggles up the already tested Mahama ticket.

But all is not rosy in Ghana. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which monitors governance, ranked Ghana eighth out of 54 countries in Africa on its overall index, a broad measure of the provision of political, social and economic public goods. However, it said Ghana’s score had been slipping since 2015.

Only weeks before Monday’s poll, Ghana’s special prosecutor, Martin Amidu, resigned after accusing the government of obstructing his probe into a controversial scheme to secure future gold revenues.

Wunpini Mohammed, assistant professor at the University of Georgia, cautioned that Ghana’s democracy looked better than it actually was.

“When we talk about democracy, it should not be limited to holding peaceful elections but how the most marginalised in society benefit,” she said. By that score, democracy had failed many Ghanaians, she said.

“Africans have a tendency to put Ghana’s democracy on a pedestal,” Ms Mohammed said. “But that’s not necessarily how us, Ghanaians, see it.”

Moreover, corruption has been increasing in Ghana over the presidency of Nana Akufo-Addo, with the fatal shooting of whistle blower reporter Ahmed Hussein Suale Divale in 2019, marking a new low.

The NPP and the NDC have peacefully exchanged power several times during the past decades but friction is high this year amid opposition allegations over the independence of the electoral commission. Last month, Mahama alleged that the body set out to organise “a flawed election” and threatened to reject the results.

Former President John Mahama at a campaign rally. Courtesy: DW

“Recent events under the current administration have given many anxious moments of doubt about this administration’s ability to deliver a peaceful, violence-free election,” Mahama, 62, said at his speech during Friday’s peace pact-signing ceremony.

Electoral officials have dismissed the opposition’s accusations of attempting to rig the elections. For his part, Akufo-Addo, 76, promised that the will of the electorate will be respected.

“We believe in elections, and I am happy to give my word that we shall accept the verdict of the people of Ghana,” he said at the ceremony. “Above all, I pledge that the peace, unity and safety of Ghana will be our primary consideration.”

Some 63,000 military and paramilitary officers have been deployed across the country to maintain peace during the electoral process and respond to any potential unrest echoing similar moves in other countries like Tanzania, Burundi and Guinea that held flawed elections this year.

The whole continent is holding its breath to see if Africa’s dullest election will retain its moniker.

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