The rest of Africa has one thing or two to learn from Ghana’s democracy, writes Paddy Ezeala

The presidential and parliamentary elections in Ghana have been won and lost against the backdrop of the rising profile of the country’s democracy. Mr. Nana Addo Danquah Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) has been sworn in as the fifth President of Ghana since the return of democracy in 1992. Too close to call, the greater period of the counting process created a tense atmosphere reminiscent of the previous presidential election of 2012. The final results however revealed a shellacking – by Ghana standards- of the ruling party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) by a gap of 10% of the votes cast. Presidential elections in Ghana in recent times have been defined by extremely narrow victories.

The immediate past President John Dramani Mahama had boasted that he would win in the first round of voting or what he called ‘one-touch’ victory. Some presidential elections in West Africa including the last one in Ghana and in Senegal the same year went into second round of voting when there was no clear winner in the first round. The result of 2012 election went into dispute and was even followed by an eight-month legal tussle, generating an air of suspense and tension that many agree negatively affected governance.

The high stakes in the quest for power in Ghana have been deeply underscored by the constitutional winner-takes-all nature of Ghanaian politics. This does not however erase the positive lessons that should be learned from the entire process by other countries especially in West Africa.

“The president appoints everybody here,” says Jean Mensa, a lawyer and the executive director of a Ghanaian public policy think-tank, The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), supported by the Ford Foundation. The 27 years old organisation works to promote good governance, democracy and a fair market economy in Ghana, and Africa as a whole. “Recommendations that the constitution be amended to allow important positions be appointed by an independent institution working for the Public Service Commission have over the years been rebuffed by the authorities,” she said. “This is why the institutions are weak.”

A major lesson that should be learned from the democratic process in Ghana is the visibility of the civil society. For example, IEA introduced presidential debates in the year 2000 and it has been held since then every election year before voting. “With technical assistance from Ford Foundation, the presidential debates have been successful in providing the platform for presidential aspirants to interface with the electorate,” said Mensa. “It enables the aspirants understand the concerns of the electorate.”

Many observers are of the opinion that the political transition just witnessed in Ghana has been the smoothest since independence in 1957. “This transition has been regulated by the Presidential Transition Act (2012) which was single-handedly prepared by the IEA as part of its commitment to deepen democracy and promote a depolarised country,” said Professor Ransford Gyampo, a research fellow at the IEA. “Previous transitions had no law to regulate them and so were fraught with acrimony, tension and rancour.” Apart from that, the IEA fostered interparty dialogue and collaboration through its IEA-Ghana political parties programme. “This programme brings together the leadership of political parties with representation from the parliament once every month,” said Gyampo. “As you may have seen, the mood of party supporters and their officials after the election has this time been less antagonistic.”

Another policy think-tank, IMANI Ghana, in the run up to the election organised a forum to advocate for increased participation of women in governance and decision-making. The forum called on ‘the parliament, political parties and policy makers to prioritise the issue of women empowerment in the development process as a measure to reduce poverty.’

The founder and President of IMANI, Mr. Franklin Cudjoe observed that inadequate participation of women at the various levels of governance is the root cause of gender disparity in the country. “The parliament is the focal point from where laws and policies on poverty eradication and women empowerment should emanate. But parliamentarians have not done enough to remove all barriers to inequalities,” he said. “It is not only about the executive because it is the parliament that must lead the process of empowering women.”

This advocacy seems to be yielding results as the last parliamentary elections witnessed the election of more women than ever in the history of the country. The number of elected women increased from 29 to 37 out of a total of 230 members with the NPP having 24 as against NDC’s 13. Some 133 women contested in 2012 and 29 were elected, while 136 contested in 2016 and 37 elected. Even with this increase, some gender activists still insist that the number is unimpressive since it falls short of the minimum of 30% representation recommended by activists at the Beijing Conference of 1995.

The lesson for West Africa from the Ghana experience in raising the level of women participation in governance is that advocacy works in this regard. While Senegal has achieved 42.7% in membership of women in the parliament with another parliamentary election just a few months away, it is actually the determination, commitment and drive of Ghanaian women and advocacy groups to break barriers that should be made to cascade through the region. It is unfortunate that majority of the countries in West Africa are recording below 10% with the most populous country, Nigeria averaging 6% women membership in the country’s bicameral national legislature. A Ghanaian adage says: “The family is a garden and the woman is the fence that holds it together.” When the word ‘family’ is substituted for ‘country’, then the centrality of women to development becomes clearer.

Ghana has over the years striven to safeguard the integrity of her democratic institutions. For example, during the waiting period for the announcement of the last presidential election results in Ghana, the electoral commission was under severe pressure to immediately release the results. The chairperson of the electoral commission, Mrs Charlotte Kesson-Smith Osei was quick to make it clear that accuracy of election results was more important than the speed with which they are released. “We want to exercise prudence to ensure that the results are accurate and properly signed,” she said. It is easy to perceive the sacrosanctity of democratic institutions in Ghana and the efforts being made by the custodians to safeguard it.

Ghana’s democracy is all-inclusive. There has been no perceptible penchant toward the exclusion of any segment of society. It is noteworthy that even those who lost their voters’ registration cards were allowed to vote as long as they presented any other recognised identification document indicating that they are the ones captured in the voters’ register. Elections are usually preceded by voter education and civil society groups like IEA and Imani Ghana have contributed immensely to the sensitisation of the electorate. Some 68.6% turnout of voters as recorded in the last elections in Ghana can be said to be impressive by African standards even when there is still room for improvement.

Effective communication is very important in a democratic process. It promotes mutual understanding and continuity and also contributes in no small measure to dousing tension. In the case of Ghana it has enhanced the magnanimity of the victorious party and the grace and dignity with which the immediate-past government conceded defeat. “Indeed politics could be described as a sport; the one it would most closely resemble is a relay. It is a sport that relies as much on individual achievement as it does on teamwork and cooperative effort. The true test of that competition is in the passing of the baton. So, too, with politics” said outgone President John Dramani Mahama during his last State-of-the Nation address delivered to the Parliament on Thursday, January 5, 2017 as provided in article 67 of the 1992 Constitution.”…I stand here today …holding the baton of leadership prepared to pass it on with pride, goodwill and determination, to Nana Addo Danquah Akufo-Addo and ask all Ghanaians to cheer him on as he runs his portion of this relay for Ghana.”

This gracious acceptance of defeat was visibly acknowledged by President Akufo-Addo. “His elegant, dignified acceptance of the verdict of the people on December 7, 2016, will, without doubt, receive the approval of history, for it has contributed significantly to the process of democratic consolidation in Ghana,” he said during the inauguration ceremony in Accra on Saturday, January 5, 2017.

The story of modern democracy in West Africa is mixed bag of successes and hitches. While some countries have been demonstrating the desire to consolidate democratic ethos and widen the public space, there have been cases of palpable disregard or even disdain for democratic norms in some countries. It is against these contradictions that the import of the recent successes in Ghana would be appreciated; especially the need for its replication across the region. Even at that, Gyampo insists that Ghana is a transitional democracy and there still exists some level of mistrust between the government and the civil society. “We are still climbing the ladder,” he said. “We have to continue keeping the government on its toes and providing the link between the government and the governed.”

Ezeala is a communication and development specialist,