Ghana’s image is glowing abroad, but beginning to show a few blemishes at home

Just a few years ago, democracy’s march across Africa seemed unstoppable. These days, it seems stalled: vote rigging in Nigeria, a convulsion of ethnic violence after disputed elections in Kenya and outright theft at the polls in Zimbabwe are among the most recent signs.

That may be why those looking for reasons to be hopeful about democracy in Africa have their sights set on Ghana, the first sub-Saharan country to wrest independence from colonial power, and now a nation that appears to be bucking the antidemocratic trend. Elections to choose a new president and Parliament on Dec. 7 went smoothly and without violence. A runoff will be held Sunday between the two top presidential contenders.

“In Ghana, we know how to have a democracy,” said Doris Quartey, a teacher who planned to vote for the governing party. “We are an example for the whole continent.”

Ghana has long been a favorite of foreign donors and Western governments in a region often known for brutal civil wars, corruption and tyranny. With its growing economy and squeaky-clean image, Ghana is a frequently cited success story.

Yet roiling just below the surface are tensions over how the country has been governed, who is benefiting from economic growth and whether corruption is on the rise. Some people here worry that the country’s image as a bastion of peace and democracy is merely a sign of the low expectations outsiders have for Africa.

“Let’s allow that Ghana has achieved some things,” said Yao Graham, a writer and activist who leads the Third World Network, a research and advocacy institution with a regional office here. “But for this to be the yardstick of a continent is to set very low expectations for a billion people across Africa.”

The transfer of power from one party to another is almost a humdrum affair here, having already happened once since the country made the transition from military rule to democracy in 1992. If everything goes without a hitch, two elected presidents will have left office peacefully and willingly after serving out their constitutionally allotted maximum terms.

The first round of voting was largely free of violence, and there were only a handful of complaints of irregularities, according to international observers.

The governing, center-right New Patriotic Party nominated Nana Akufo-Addo, the country’s former foreign minister, as its candidate. The opposition National Democratic Congress nominated John Atta Mills, a lawyer and professor who has twice run unsuccessfully for president.

The opposition has already won a plurality of seats in the parliamentary election, which was held along with the first round of the presidential balloting, though several seats remain contested.

If Mr. Akufo-Addo wins, he will seek to extend Ghana’s impressive economic growth and ensure that a greater number of people share in the country’s prosperity, said Jake Obetsebi-Lamptey, a senior official with the governing party.

“We can take the progress we have made and turn it into real gains in the standard of living of all Ghanaians,” he said.

The opposition said that the governing party’s record looked impressive on paper, but that in reality many Ghanaians found themselves worse off than before.

“This has been a period of increasing corruption and a broadening gap between rich and poor,” said James Gbeho, a senior opposition official who has served in many top government posts over the years. “For most people, progress has been an illusion.”

Ghana has long been a symbol of Africa’s vast promise, but also of the many pitfalls that have plagued the continent in the postcolonial era. After it won independence in 1957, the Pan-African ideas of Ghana’s founding leader, Kwame Nkrumah, helped inspire a generation of liberation struggles.

But the dream soon soured. His ideas forged a strong national identity that helped Ghana escape the ethnic strife of many of its neighbors. Still, Mr. Nkrumah’s poorly planned efforts to quickly build an industrial economy drained the country’s treasury and hobbled its growth, historians say. Multiparty democracy gave way to single-party rule. The economy collapsed.

Mr. Nkrumah, once seen as a hero for all of Africa, was overthrown by the military in 1966, and few here mourned his departure. He was exiled to Guinea, and in 1972 he died an angry, bitter man.

Ghana’s slide was emblematic of the continent’s slumping fortunes, especially when compared to booming Asian nations. Ghana won its independence the same year as Malaysia, another former British colony. But 50 years later, Ghana remains among the poorest nations of the world, while Malaysia is far ahead of it in many measures of development, including per capita income, life expectancy, literacy and school enrollment. This African giant, it seemed, had feet of clay.

Like many countries on the continent, Ghana stumbled through seasons of shaky civilian government and iron-fisted military rule, only to emerge in 1992 as a multiparty democracy once again.

Jerry Rawlings, the dashing and sometimes ruthless air force flight lieutenant who had first seized power in a coup in 1979, voluntarily gave up his military uniform and ran in elections. He won two four-year terms and stepped aside in 2000 when constitutional term limits barred him from running again.

Ghana again became a bellwether of African progress, helping usher in an era of hope for peace and prosperity across the continent. But lately there have been signs of trouble.

The country has become a hub of the growing cocaine trade between Latin America and Europe, and there have been indications from investigators that some government officials may have been involved. Corruption is widely perceived to be on the rise. Despite the economic growth, many people here say the wealth is not shared.

“This government has only been looking out for itself,” said Taikoo Aiyte, a 35-year-old fisherman at the edge of Jamestown, this city’s oldest quarter. “The government lets big foreign trawlers take all the fish, and we are left with almost nothing. They raise the price of fuel so we make less money. We need change.”

Indeed, the success of the opposition in the parliamentary elections was a surprising blow to the governing party. Across Accra, the capital, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and laborers exchange a finger-rolling gesture that is the universally acknowledged shorthand for the opposition’s slogan: change.

But in Accra’s sleek new shopping mall, where the country’s small but growing middle class can buy flat-screen TVs, brand-name sneakers and plush imported furniture to a jangling soundtrack of Christmas carols, voters were more optimistic about the country’s current state.

“Ghana’s future is very bright,” said Larry Oppong-Attah, a 19-year-old student. As he tapped out text messages on a shiny Samsung cellphone, he said he hoped for a career in marketing. The current government, he said, was on the right track.

“Things have been going well,” Mr. Oppong-Attah said. “Why change what is working?”

Whoever wins, there are reasons to worry that Ghana’s star will dim even more. Both parties have promised a raft of public spending, paid for by recent offshore oil discoveries. But the low price of oil may scuttle plans to drill. Gold is also essential to the country’s economy, and as with all commodities, its price has experienced some steep drops in recent months.

“If you look at democracy as what a country offers its people, there are many questions to be asked,” said Mr. Graham, the writer. “In Ghana we have growing inequality, an economy that is not creating jobs, and young people do not see a future here. By that standard, prospects for the future are not necessarily so bright.”

Credit: Lydia Polgreen
Source: New York Times

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