A Looming Test for Ghana’s Democracy

Ghana is often hailed as one of African democracy’s success stories. For over 25 years there have been regular elections with peaceful transitions from one major political party to another. In a little over a month, however, Ghana’s democracy could face its most serious test in years.

Not long ago, we noted the comments of President John Mahama before the United Nations General Assembly in which he gently told the international community to back off from scrutiny of his country’s democracy. There are reasons for his apparent defensiveness.  There is mounting evidence that public discontent coupled with balloting procedure shortcomings could make for a tense and uncertain situation. 

An analysis in World Politics Review on October 11 noted a survey by the Ghana Center for Democratic Development that revealed that 70 percent of those polled think the country is going in the wrong direction. An Afrobaromater survey showed high levels of distrust for two institutions central to Ghana’s democratic stability, the country’s judiciary and independent electoral commission (EC). From 1999 to 2012, on average, 32 percent of the people reported having little or no trust in the electoral commission, while 39 percent held the same view of the nation’s courts.  By 2014, those numbers shot dramatically upward, with 59 percent expressing little or not trust in the EC and 54 percent expressing the same about the courts, according to an Afrobarometer survey released in October. Earlier this month, The 2016 Mo Ibrahim Index ranked Ghana the eighth most deteriorated country in terms of overall governance over the last decade and there has been a sharp rise in riots and protests over the last few years, mostly over basic needs such as electricity and jobs.

Ghana has long benefitted from leaders who were committed to democracy and yielded to the rule of law to settle close elections. Thanks to ample natural resources, such as minerals, Ghana’s GDP quadrupled, the poverty rate was cut in half, access to education expanded and free medical care was provided to citizens in the first decade of this century. The discovery of oil in 2010 was expected to enhance economic opportunities for the country’s citizens.

This year’s election will again pit Nana Akufo-Addo against Mahama. Their 2012 contest was very close and fueled tensions. This year it has again taken on a sharp tone. In a recent speech, Akufo-Addo charged Mahama had squandered oil wealth and was out of touch with people who have struggled economically.

“President Mahama might not recognize the suffering of the people of Ghana and might not be hearing their cries because he has sadly insulated himself from the reality on the ground,” he declared at large gathering in Accra.

To be sure, government officials and civil society groups want to avert any threat to the country’s democracy. The Voice of America noted that Ghanaian police officials plan to meet with leaders of the Muslim community to ensure peaceful and secure balloting. The police have launched a nationwide education campaign using mass and social media platforms to engage the public in support of peaceful elections.

If the elections are conducted peacefully and the results are accepted without incident, or adjudicated fairly (in the case of razor-thin victory by either side), the people of Ghana and the international community will be able to breathe a sigh of relief. But it should not be an invitation to complacency by those elected to serve as well as voters. The decline in public trust in institutions and skepticism about the responsiveness and accountability of government at levels will be a wake-up call. Democracy depends on transparency, citizen engagement, and evidence that the government is at least striving honestly to deliver what voters want.