Ghana: A democratic anomaly

Unlike many sub-Saharan states, Ghana saw a peaceful transition of power last week after President Mills died.

Ghana's President John Atta Mills died in office on July 24, and was succeeded by his vice-president [EPA]

“The power is fragile like an egg:
When you hold too tightly, it breaks.
When you hold too loosely, it falls.” – Akan proverb

In the second half of the 17th century a city-state called Notse, located in present-day Togo, collapsed following an internal war. The fall of Notse is attributed to the behaviour of its king, Togbe Agokoli, who – becoming despotic and tyrannical – violated his city’s democratic political institutions, which included elections.

Some of the nations that populated the western part of the Gulf of Guinea once had political institutions of a democratic nature. If the death of Ghana’s President John Atta Mills on July 24 has not generated any political drama, it is perhaps because, unlike its neighbours, Ghana consolidated its democratic institutions after its independence in 1957 by linking them to its institutional habits and customs.

The presidency of the late Mills has been praised as one during which Ghana’s democratic achievements were consolidated even further.

The result of Ghana’s last presidential election in 2008, however, reminded one of the 2000 Bush/Al Gore election in the US. John Atta Mills won with 50.23 per cent of the vote, against 49.77 per cent for Nana Akufo-Addo. But the loser accepted the result, and the election’s organisation even became a case study for other African governments. The next presidential election, scheduled for December 7, 2012, will be Ghana’s fifth since 1992. These elections’ transparency and organisation are among the least contested in the entire continent. Since then, Ghana has experienced two peaceful changes of power.

The presidency of the late Mills has been praised as one during which Ghana’s democratic achievements were consolidated even further.

Balance of power

The survival and the constitutionalisation of traditional councils in the Ghanaian judicial system has enabled the country to better and more efficiently manage land conflicts. Land-related conflicts are among the leading causes of ethnic strife in sub-Saharan Africa, as has been seen in Ghana’s neighbour, Côte d’Ivoire, for more than a decade.

The apathetic reaction of the people of Ghana’s capital, Accra, after a military coup deposed President Kwame Nkrumah, the country’s first post-independence leader, may be explained by Nkrumah’s centralisation of power. The Chieftancy Act of 1961 substantially reduced traditional leaders’ powers, part of a process that began in 1957. Nicknamed “Osagyefo“, a word in the Twi language meaning “redeemer”, Nkrumah was also one of the fathers of Pan-Africanism. In a move of excessive centralisation of power, Nkrumah believed the conservatism of traditional authorities was an obstacle to the unification of African states.

Aside from the balance between traditional and modern institutions, other political and historical factors have made Ghana a state where democratic performance is praised.

Another factor in Ghana’s unique democratic stability has been its symbols, which anchor Ghanaians’ identity and consciousness. Ghanaian children are very knowledgeable of the tragic history of their country’s struggle for independence from the United Kingdom. The cedi, Ghana’s national currency, displays the faces of the Big Six: considered heroes of free Ghana, they were imprisoned after the riots that kicked off the struggle for independence.

In contrast, the CFA franc – the currency used in 14 other countries in western and central Africa – is managed thousands of kilometres away in France, and is printed in a town in central France practically unknown to those who use the currency.

Coming out of their classes in the streets of Accra, Ghana’s capital, young children also internalise national history by contemplating the monuments and the names of the boulevards dedicated to famous elders. The Big Six, including two former presidents and two foreign ministers, were all thrown in prison in the 1950s and early 60s, receiving the nickname PG: “Prison Graduate”. Unlike Ivorian or Togolese children, for instance, Ghanaian children know that independence was not a concession of the former coloniser, but a hard-won victory, and therefore that their future more than ever belongs to them.

Civil society

Last year, I submitted a proposal in response to an expression of interest published by the World Bank, on the use of information and communications technology to help citizens and civil society organisations monitor whether revenues generated by the oil industry benefit the people. In preparing the proposal I travelled to Ghana, where I observed the vitality of the country’s civil society.

Ghana’s civil society is much more vibrant than those of other oil states in the Gulf of Guinea. Numerous organisations safeguarding the social rights of citizens – and feared for their expertise in the field of oil and gas – were established since the mid-2000s. They ensure that the government implements and executes laws that will allow oil wealth to benefit the people of Ghana, thus avoiding the “resource curse” so common in other oil-rich African countries.

Among these groups is the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition, which engages the public in reducing corruption. In 2009, the organisation was awarded by the World Bank Institute for its innovative approaches in fighting corruption. The Ghana Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas has been doing a tremendous job working for transparency and accountability in the oil and gas sector, and working for the government to respect the Local Content and Local Participation In Petroleum principles. NGOs involved in the sector are now calling for a review of most oil contracts signed by Ghana.

The constitution of Ghana’s fourth republic, written in 1992, has transformed the political environment by enabling Ghanaian civil society organisations to influence government policies. The way in which this constitution was adopted was also unique. Of the 43 countries that have engaged in a process of democratic liberalisation since the early 1990s, only a tiny handful, one of which was Ghana, adopted constitutions anointed by a direct referendum of the people. The people of Ghana adopted their constitution, which guarantees judicial and media independence, with more than 92 per cent voting in favour.

Away from neopatrimonialism

 Ghana’s Mahama sworn in as president

Before political liberalisation in the 1990s, Ghana was considered to be a “neopatrimonialist” state, in which patrons secured the loyalty of a country’s population by providing them with resources.

This system is still common in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Under this type of system, no distinction is made between public and private goods, and it often leads to situations in which a “big man” and an oligarchy will appropriate the fruits of the economy – a state of affairs that even fair elections may not be able to limit. The implementation of strong counter powers guaranteed by a constitution seems to have enabled Ghana to consolidate the rule of law.

As Ghana shows, authoritarianism is not inevitable in sub-Saharan Africa. There is no need to “tropicalise” universal principles such as allowing the political participation of all and the respect of their rights. Ghana is there to prove it. But a constitution, however well written it may be, is not enough either. It must also be executed.

By observing the political state of Ghana I thought of other countries in sub-Saharan Africa and especially of mine, Cameroon. In the event of a vacancy of power, Cameroon would be in a political hell: the current constitution provides that in case of vacancy of the Presidency of the Republic, the president of the Senate takes over temporarily until a new election is organised and a new president inaugurated. But although the Cameroonian Senate is mentioned in the constitution and its functioning organised by laws, you will not find a building in Cameroon where it usually meets – because neither it nor senators even exist in the country.

Ghana’s example reminds us that it is not elections that make a democracy or a liberal nation, but a historical and political continuum. And when fundamental laws reflect ancient democratic or participative traditions, they guarantee better institutions accepted by a large majority of citizens.

Julie Owono is a Cameroonian freelance journalist and international relations consultant based in Paris.