Democratic Governance in Africa: Ghana as a Beacon of Hope and Success

Above: John Atta Mills was inaugurated 3rd President of
Ghana (4th Republic) on 7 January 2009 after a cliff-hanger
election victory.

Tadias Magazine
By Ayele Bekerie

Published: Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New York (Tadias) – Elections in Africa are often preceded or followed by violence. On December 2007, over 300 people were killed and thousands were internally displaced in Kenya following the belated announcement of election results, which were rejected by the opposition parties and their constituencies. Even though the violence subsided, its root cause has not been addressed. Kenya may draw a lesson or two from the thriving democratic culture of Ghana. For that matter, Ghana is setting an example with regard to peaceful, transparent, and efficient system of democratic elections.

One of the great Ghanaian novelists Ayi kwei Armah in the February 2009 edition of New Africa, writes: “Violence and bloodletting are now regular features of the electoral process in Africa. The sequence of news-making events, from constitution-changing maneuvers of incumbent presidents to dodgy vote-counting followed by riots and massacres, has become so predictable that the electoral cycle now resembles a religious ritual climaxing in the sacrifice of human lives.” The lengthening list of states where elections have degenerated into death dances, according to Ayi Kwei Armah, includes Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Nigeria, Togo, Ethiopia (my addition), and Zimbabwe.

“The electoral process in Africa today is increasingly violent because it has turned into a desperate fight between ambitious elites in an impoverished population for control over scarce resources.” For instance, after the recent bloody elections, in Kenya and Zimbabwe, the violence subsided or temporarily halted as a result of external diplomatic intervention, which resulted in power-sharing agreements between the ruling and opposition parties.

To Armah, “Power-sharing, without addressing the issue of resource scarcity, without expanding the local economy by developing value-added industries and jobs, proposes to allocate the small percentage of local wealth left to the ruling elite, not to one strong party, but to two or three. Instead of 20 ministers, power sharing proposes 40. Instead of one president, power-sharing proposes a president and two or more vice-presidents.”

What needs to be done in order to advance democratic governance in Africa? It seems to me Ghana; to be precise the Fourth Republic of Ghana is showing the way. Ghana is often hailed as a model for political and economic reform. It is a model because Ghana has conducted fair, free, efficient and transparent elections uninterruptedly since 1996 with full participations of political parties and the vast majority of its citizens. Ghana’s exemplary electoral achievements were a product of visionary leadership, independent and active civic movements and organizations, strong and progressive traditional institutions, particularly at local and regional levels, absolutely independent electoral commission, free media and, most importantly, an awakened citizenry. As one observer puts it, “Ghana is a changed place and the people can no longer be taken for a ride by any politician.”

Of course, Ghana has had some glorifying and troubling moments since its independence in 1957. 1957, in fact, marked the historic transition of the continental Africa from colonialism to independence. Kwame Nkrumah, who contributed immensely to the idea and practice of African unity, led Ghana’s independence. He was a consummate Pan-Africanist, who advanced the cause of Africa globally through his books and speeches. He played a key role in the establishment of the Organization of African Unity in 1963 with its headquarter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Nkrumah pioneered the continent’s collective expression and renewed positive image in the international arena. These were the glorifying moments in Ghana’s history in the context of Pan-African movements.

On the other hand, Ghana has had some troubling moments. It has gone through a one-party state, a non-party state, a military rule, before it settled for multi-party state. In 1960, Ghana rejected the constitutional monarchy with Elizabeth II as head of state and declared itself a republic with a president as a head of state. In 1964, President Kwame Nkrumah imposed a one-party state, supposedly with 99.91 percent of the votes with his Convention People’s Party (CPP) as the sole legal party in the country. Two years later, he was overthrown in a coup d’etat. Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings’ rise to power was accompanied by executions of eight senior officers, including three former heads of state.

“And the current 1992 constitution – written during his time as head of state – also contains a clause which prevents anyone being charged for executions which took place under military regimes.” As the former president John Kufuor observes, Ghana had a chequered history and it has taken them a while to come back to the original aspirations, aspirations for prosperous, peaceful, united and democratic Ghana. The 1992 constitution established the fourth republic of Ghana.

It is true that, as Professor Ali Mazrui likes to say, the founding father of independent Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah started as a democrat and left office, by force, as an authoritarian ruler. Jerry Rawlings, on the other and, started as a military strongman and left office, by peacefully transferring power to an opposition party leader, as a democrat. The December 2008 presidential election winner, President John Atta Mills, is a member of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), which was founded by Rawlings in 1992.

The December 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections in Ghana were remarkable for many reasons. Even though the presidential election was “the closest election ever conducted and the most keenly contested elections in the history of Ghana, it was carried out without violence, in a free, fair and transparent manner as testified by both domestic and international observers.

According to Kenya’s Daily Nation, the December 2008 presidential election of Ghana is “ a triumph for Africa.” An observe from Zimbabwe dubbed the election process “impressive.” A Nigerian journalist admiringly writes: “I doff my cap to Ghanaians for doing what my countrymen have been unable to do – organize a transparently credible election.” He further writes, “I hope that a day will come in Nigeria when an opposition party will defeat the ruling party and they respect the wish of the people enough to quit the place without tying to cause mayhem by falsifying the election results.”

Dr. Salim Ahmed Salim, the head of the African Union observer mission, praised the election as a “consolidation of democracy” and “a good example to Africa.”

Two rounds of presidential elections, first round and runoff were conducted on December 7 and December 28, 2008. In the first round the candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo from the ruling party, New Patriotic Party (NPP) won the election by 49.13 percent, 0.87 percent shy of to win the election out right. On December 28, 2008, a runoff election was conducted and the candidate John Atta Mills from the opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) won the election and the presidency by 50.23 percent. According to Ghana’s constitution, a candidate has to get “more than 50 percent of the total number of votes cast at the election.” As President Johan Atta Mills succinctly puts it, “Ghana’s democracy has been tested to the utmost limit and thanks to the steadfastness of the good people of Ghana, sovereign will has prevailed.”

One of the reasons for the successful outcome of the December 2008 elections is the Electoral Commission of Ghana. It is a commission established by the constitutional order to independently execute the electoral process, such as voter registrations, establishing voting districts, polling stations, vote counts, certifications and reporting of voting results. The Electoral Commission has seven permanent members with administrative and regulatory powers. It is totally independent in the performance of its functions. Its task is to deliver transparent, free and incontrovertible election as a contribution to good governance.

In Ghana, voting results are tabulated and reported, in the presence of various stakeholders including opposition party representatives and invited international observers, at the polling stations.

The Electoral Commission of Ghana considered the period between the casting of votes and declaration of results as very critical in the process. The results are publicly announced immediately, in less than 48 hours.

In the 2008 election, the voter turnout was 69.52 percent. The voter turnout in 2004 was 80 percent. The low turnout in 2008 was not for lack of interest in the process, it was, in fact, a result of voters from certain district deciding to withhold their votes as an expression of their dissatisfaction with the ruling party, NPP. Valid votes in 2008 were 97.60 percent of votes cast and invalid votes were 2.40 percent.

Another reason for Ghana’s election success is the media. The media, which is an integral part of the democratic governance, played, as a whole, a commendable role. “The media in Ghana is fully independent, although like most countries in the world where democracy has flourished there are media houses that lean towards one ideology or political party, generally the rest forma team which is independent of the government. They criticize the government without fear of intimidation from anyone, not even the government itself.” For instance, the media covered the election extensively but professionally without inflaming passions.

“The military is independent of the government. In the last elections, the military made its position clear that it would not interfere in the affairs of the state and that it would allow laws of the land to take their natural course. This made it clear to the government that unlike other African countries, the government could not rely on the military to steal the mandate of the people.”

The traditional rulers and their constituencies acted responsibly. Traditional leaders, such as Asanthene Otumfuo Osei Tutu II and Omanhene Daasbere Oti Boateng encouraged their constituencies to vote and to vote wisely. They have also shown the importance of integrating modernity to tradition. Democratic governance thrives when local traditions and institutions are taken seriously. The Electoral Commission consults with traditional authorities, who “as the custodians of the lands which make up the territory of Ghana, are the sources of information used by the commission to determine the boundaries of the electoral districts.”

The major drawback of the December 2008 election was the decline of women members of parliament. In 2008 only 20 women won seats in the 230-member house, down from 25 in the elections in 2004. Given the entrenched nature of male-dominance in modern political systems, it might be necessary to propose and implement affirmative action laws on female representation in parliament. In this regard Ghana may learn a lesson from Rwanda where 48.8 percent of its parliamentarians are women.

The real test of Ghana’s democracy is perhaps critically linked to the recently discovered oil in the western region of the country. The oil and its revenue management may strengthen or weaken the democratic governance. The democratic culture would thrive if the oil funds were used to build schools; health centers transportation systems accessible to all Ghanaians. On the other hand, the oil would undermine democracy if the managers of the revenue follow corrupt practices. I would hope that Ghana would adopt a model like the Norwegian model with regard to the establishment of oil funds and their distributions.

According to Baffour Ankomah, Ghana has an important lesson for Africa. “Ghana came close to violence after the second round, but African wisdom prevailed because the Ghanaians knew when to stop back from the precipice. Instead of lashing out at each other, people began to talk peace when it mattered most, the churches, opinion leaders, chiefs and queens, the Council of elders, NGOs, all weighed in to talk in unison about peace. It is something other African countries would do well to emulate if the continent is to do away with violent elections of recent years.”

Ghana is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democratic nation-state. Liberty and democracy, guided by the people-centered constitution, define and empower the citizenry. In the last twelve years, political power has been transferred from the ruling party to the opposition party peacefully through elections that have been characterized by local and international observers as peaceful, transparent, fair and efficient. Ghana indeed is a beacon of hope and success in Africa. African countries such as Kenya ought to learn from Ghana’s democratic experience.

Publisher’s Note: This article – which was delivered by the author as a keynote address at the 52nd Ghana’s Independence Day Banquet at Cornell university on April 11, 2009 – is well-referenced and those who seek the references should contact Professor Ayele Bekerie directly at:

About the Author:
Ayele Bekerie, an Assistant Professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center of Cornell University, is the author of the award-winning book “Ethiopic, An African Writing System: Its History and Principles” (The Red Sea Press, 1997). Bekerie’s papers have been published in scholarly journals, such as ANKH: Journal of Egyptology and African Civilizations, Journal of the Horn of Africa, Journal of Black Studies, the International Journal of Africana Studies, and the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies. Bekerie is also the creator of the African Writing System web site and a contributing author in the highly acclaimed book, “ONE HOUSE: The Battle of Adwa 1896-100 Years.” Bekerie’s most recent published work includes “The Idea of Ethiopia: Ancient Roots, Modern African Diaspora Thoughts,” in Power and Nationalism in Modern Africa, published by Carolina Academic Press in 2008 and “The Ancient African Past and Africana Studies” in the Journal of Black Studies in 2007. Bekerie appears frequently on the Amharic Service of Voice of America and Radio Germany. He is a regular contributor to Tadias Magazine and other Ethiopian American electronic publications. His current book project is on the “Idea of Ethiopia.”













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