4 December 2012

Ghana: The Nation Decides


I was an observer during the impressive December 2008 Ghanaian elections. The Nigerian media closely followed the elections and many were surprised that a ruling party lost so narrowly to the opposition.

Many of my fellow Nigerian observers were astonished at the transparency of election results which became public property and were announced on radio stations immediately they were counted and announced publicly by the presiding officer at the polling station. I am back in Ghana to observe the elections and I wish to start my reports with these reflections about how Ghanaians were able to develop their democracy.

Democracy involves scrupulous respect for the constitution, rule of law and norms of democratic practice. The acceptance of multiple political parties and the role of opposition as part of the democratic project is part of this commitment. One of the real tests of democracy is the acceptance by those in power that others who criticise them and are indeed trying to take over their exalted positions are legitimate players in the system. This has been a major challenge in most African countries. Former President, Olusegun Obasanjo who is currently heading the ECOWAS Observer Mission to Ghana once declared that: "In most African languages, the word opposition has the same meaning and connotation as the word enemy. Can we possibly conceive of a loyal enemy?"

The Ghanaian model is the ability to transform an authoritarian militarised state into a legitimate one. It is a narrative about the rebuilding of institutions, re-establishment of the rule of law, proper conduct of pluralist elections, the promotion of press freedom, reconstitution of effective local government, development of effective oversight functions and effective public probity in a state that had previously suffered considerable decay.

The lowest point in the history of Ghana's political development was the Ignatius Kuti Acheanpong regime of 1972-1978. The regime had taken over from the Busia elected regime, which it had accused of corruption and mismanagement. The Acheampong regime however, turned out to be even more corrupt than the preceding ones. In July 1978, a palace coup by General Fred Akuffo led to the removal of General Acheampong. The ban on politics was lifted and a Constituent Assembly was put in place but no serious punishment against the corruption and abuse of office of the previous regime was instituted. On the 5th of May 1979, an attempted coup by Jerry John Rawlings occurred, it was foiled and he was detained. On June 4th 1979, he was rescued from jail by junior ranks of the armed forces and he took over power in a "spontaneous revolution".

When Rawlings took over power, the economic crisis had reached a catastrophic level. The intake of calories per capita for example was only 68% of the minimum required. The Ghanaian people desperately needed a redeemer and Rawlings played that role because he was considered to be a man of the people. Rawlings started a crusade for moral discipline, for probity in social and economic life and for accountability. The initial targets of the corrective punitive measures were senior military officers and their civilian collaborators. The circle however quickly widened to include smugglers, hoarders, tax defaulters, lodge members and so on. The policies seemed to represent a profound critique of the existing social structure and a cry for transformation; this was the source of the Rawlings charisma. That charisma however had a thin veneer that covered a reign of terror.

In 1992, Rawlings movement - the PNDC transformed itself into a party, the National Democratic Congress and contested elections. Opposition parties were so upset at the irregularities during the presidential elections that they boycotted the parliamentary elections. The transition process was clearly an undemocratic one. The PNDC had monopolised political space and refused to allow other parties the possibility of operating freely. The state maintained all the repressive PNDC laws that had been enacted, appointed all the members of the electoral committee and maintained a tight control over the mass media. Although a Commonwealth Observer Team had pronounced the 1992 presidential election "free and fair", many observers were of the view that they were seriously flawed. Indeed, the New Patriotic Party issued a report that had detailed allegations of irregularities in 100 of the country's 200 constituencies. The Report was very influential and was entitled - The Stolen Verdict: Ghana November 1992 Presidential Election. The opposition political parties had therefore decided to boycott the parliamentary elections as a form of protest against the "stolen verdict".

The 1992 return to a liberal democratic constitution was a step towards democracy despite its numerous flaws. Political liberalisation, constitutionalism, the rule of law, judicial independence and press freedom were all placed on the political agenda. By 1996, the conditions under which elections were held had improved significantly. The subsequent elections in 2000 saw the exit of Rawlings from Presidential contest. He had served his two terms and he did not try to change the Constitution to continue in power. The elections were a straight contest between the ruling National Democratic Congress represented by the current President John Atta Mills and the opposition New Patriotic Party whose presidential candidate was John Kufuor. After the first run-off in Ghana's history, the NPP candidate emerged as Ghana's new President, thus initiating the transfer of power from the ruling to the opposition party. In improving the conditions to enhance political choice, the following measures were taken:

The Electoral Commission was reconstituted and given significant autonomy in the organisation of elections.

An Inter-Party Advisory Committee (IPAC) was established by the Electoral Commission to negotiate and propose modalities for the organisation of elections. They also drew up code of ethics for political parties.

The registration of voters was cleaned up and made more transparent and parties were empowered to monitor the registration process. In addition, all parties were provided the voter's register for their scrutiny before each election.

Ghana moved away from thump-print voter identity cards to cards with embossed photographs.

Party agents were allowed to be present at all levels of the process - polling stations, collation centres and even the strong room of the Electoral Commission where final results are compiled to monitor the voting process,

Transparent ballot boxes were introduced.

Significant role for civil society in civic education and election monitoring was encouraged.

The 2004 elections were also very successful. The voter turnout was 80% and the NPP retained power with 52% of the Presidential vote and 128 parliamentarians while the NDC got 45% of the Presidential vote and 94 seats in Parliament. Ghana has therefore matured into a polity with two dominant parties contesting in regular free, fair and credible elections. This has been confirmed by the 2008 elections and I am here to report on the 2012 elections and I will begin my reports tomorrow with a presentation of current measures and the famous Kumasi Declaration that was signed with fanfare a week ago.

Ibrahim, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Nigeria, and a Daily Trust columnist, is in Ghana's elections Situation Room in Accra.

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