Ghana and the Double-Edged Sword of Democracy

The late President may have helped deepen Ghana's roots of democracy, but the economy has been uneven, and polls in December may reflect middle-class discontent

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signs the guest book at the funeral of Ghana's President John Atta Mills, seen in the framed photograph, in Accra, Ghana, on Aug. 10, 2012

Ghana bid farewell to its late President John Atta Mills on Friday in a funeral every bit as boisterous as the noisy democracy for which this West African nation has become famous. Three brass bands marched the perimeter of the national stadium by the sea in the capital, Accra, while thousands of mourners sang hymns accompanied by a chorus of drummers and motorcade sirens. Mills, who died of throat cancer last month at 68, drew some heavyweight foreign backers in life: U.S. President Barack Obama was among foreign dignitaries who made a point of visiting to endorse Ghana’s adoption of democracy in a region notorious for military coups and strongmen. So it was in death: in the stadium bleachers, Hillary Clinton, on a last Africa tour as U.S. Secretary of State, could be seen chatting to ex-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. And while the funeral was a last hurrah for Mills, the system he helped build has already moved on. At the time of his death, Mills had been gearing up for another general election, due in December. With former Vice President John Mahama swiftly installed as both President and incumbent candidate of the ruling National Democratic Congress party, and the formalities of remembrance concluded, Ghana’s national election now begins in earnest.

In many ways, the role of democrat came accidentally to Mills. When military ruler Flight Lieut. Jerry Rawlings swapped camo fatigues for a suit in 1992 after 11 years at the head of a military junta, he plucked Mills from obscurity, making him Ghana’s Vice President, then ruling-party presidential candidate. Mills ran twice for the presidency unsuccessfully before eventually winning in 2008. By then Ghana boasted shopping malls, movie theaters and one of Africa’s fastest-growing consumer classes. Mills’ 2008 campaign borrowed unashamedly from Obama’s appeal-for-change campaign across the Atlantic. But his appeal also hinged on the idea that by unseating the ruling party, Ghana’s robust growth might finally lift its poorest into that class.

(MORE: A Sudden Death in Ghana: President John Atta Mills (1944–2012))

How well Ghana and the National Democratic Congress have succeeded in that endeavor is a question that will dominate the coming campaign. Taken as a nation, Ghana has never had it so good. Expected to grow by 8.8% this year, it is one of the hottest economies on the continent. Last year, Ghana’s was the world’s second fastest-growing economy. A flood of foreign money has turned the capital’s skyline into a chessboard of hotels: 400 have opened in the past 10 years. The number of refrigerator owners has doubled in the same decade. The number of motorcycles has tripled.

And yet inside that national picture of rocketing prosperity, there is disappointment. Though Ghanaians have enjoyed a shopping spree of late, their country exports still very little. Oil was discovered offshore in 2006, but production has fallen short of popular expectations. Meanwhile, manufacturing has fallen from 26% of the economy in 1996 to just 3% today, and Ghana’s currency, the cedi, is one of the world’s worst performing, down 25% since Mills took office.

That national mood of deflation may be symptomatic of a modern democracy, but it promises a close poll in December. “It’s not going to be an easy race,” said Ben Ephson, the country’s leading independent pollster, who said around a third of the electorate can be considered floating. Bright Simons, director of development research at Imani, a local think tank, added: “If they lose the election, it will be a middle-class revolt.”

One effect of the transition to democracy, said Simons, is that Ghanaians have reduced their expectations of what a government can deliver. “The whole revolutionary let’s-change-everything-overnight attitude — it doesn’t resonate as well as it did.” Rebellious fervor — so familiar in other West African states — has instead been replaced by a more modest belief: that government can, at best, bring about modest improvements.

That does nothing to dim the volume or passion of the rhetoric, however. Personality trumps issues. On Ghana’s talk radio, call-in diehards scream invective at one another. Said director Kwame Karikari of the Media Foundation for West Africa: “We said we wanted democracy. But we didn’t think it would be this rancorous.”

MORE: Photos: Traveling with Ghana’s Kayayo Girls