Ghana-ing votes


Elections of one sort or another have taken place in all 48 sub-Saharan African countries in the past decade. On a continent that has also experienced some 83 successful coups in half a century, this is often cited as a mark of progress.

Many elections, however, have not in themselves translated into greater stability or social justice. In most countries, voting has merely added trappings to a new form of one-party rule, where incumbent regimes control electoral machinery and use patronage and oppression to maintain power. A slew of election setbacks have, meanwhile, revived doubts as to whether a continent riven by ethnic discord and beset by development challenges is yet suited to western democracy.

Nigeria’s 2007 polls were marred by fraud of every kind. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe is still in power nine months after he and his party were beaten at the ballot box. Kenya is struggling to overcome the traumatic aftermath of its own hotly disputed elections. Overall, the evidence suggests Africans still tend to vote along ethnic lines – rather than for what they believe in – and that their leaders rarely miss an opportunity to cling to power. The combination can be deadly.

In this context, Ghana’s elections, culminating in victory at the weekend for John Atta Mills, the opposition candidate, are cause for celebration. On Wednesday Ghanaians witnessed the second constitutional transfer of power in a decade. Only Benin, on the mainland continent, has experienced alternating political power of this kind.

The peaceful outcome was the more remarkable for following such a tight contest with so much at stake. Only 40,000 out of 9m votes separated the ruling party candidate and his victorious opponent, to whose government the first drops of Ghanaian oil will accrue.

Ghana was the first African country to win independence and among the first to be ravaged by coups and counter coups. It is now blazing a trail towards more democratic rule.

Yet Ghanaians, like many other Africans, are divided along ethnic lines in who they vote for. They face the same daunting development challenges as their peers.

What has made the difference is that successive leaders have allowed an independent media to flourish and an autonomous electoral commission to gain strength as an institution, and with it public trust. In the process, Ghanaians are becoming increasingly demanding of performance from their politicians. Their example is particularly welcome at a time when real democracy in Africa is otherwise under threat.

Source: The Financial times

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