Ghanaians are voting for the next president of the longest-lived republic in their country's history.
Despite nostalgia in some quarters for the country's first republic, under the charismatic Pan-Africanist leader, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the truth is that it is only this fourth republic that has seen one civilian administration pass on the baton of leadership to another without military interruption.
In fact, both key contending parties in today's elections have tasted defeat at the polls, smoothly handed power to the other, and survived a confinement in opposition. Ghana is virtually unique in Africa in this regard.
Many who have observed Ghana closely believe that these shiny accolades have gotten into the country's head.
Five successful democratic elections in a row do not a democratic civilisation make, they say. Modern India, not that much older than Ghana, has had 15 or so general elections without any significant hiccups. The standards have been set much too low for Ghana. It is about time Ghana stopped believing its own PR, they add.
There is some truth in this cynical view. While there is no doubt that two decades of fourth republican democracy have seen some impressive strides in the development of a democratic culture, some say that in the area of economic transformation and social progress not enough has been done.
True, over that period the number of people living in officially defined poverty has fallen from over half of the population, at the onset of the fourth republic, to nearly a quarter of the population today. While a third of children then were clinically underweight, the corresponding figure today is less than 14 percent. While a quarter of children of primary school going age then were not in school, today less than a tenth are not. Whereas a fifth of pregnant women had no access to a health professional in those days, the situation has changed now: nearly every woman sees a professional in the course of pregnancy.
But the pessimists insist that these are but modest gains. Once again, it is a question of standards and benchmarks, they argue. The seeming improvements are based on comparisons drawn against the deep stagnation and decay of the decade between the mid-seventies and the mid-eighties when military rule sunk the country into the abyss of hopelessness. Gauged by these depths the climb back up appears more spectacular than it actually is.
Once again, there is some truth in the pessimists' view. Four percent and a bit of annual growth over the course of the fourth republic has seen Ghana's per capita income move full circle back to the level it was at independence. High population growth has wiped away much of the gain. In fact, were GDP measurements sensitive enough to infrastructure and environmental depreciation, per capita income could easily have tipped into negative territory.
No wonder then that many of the country's boldest dreams have remained unrealised for nearly a hundred years. The goal of creating a dynamic industrial sector to absorb the country's hapless semi-skilled labour appears moribund.
Nearly every government from the mid-colonial period to the present has pinned its hopes on the country's supposed advantage in refining bauxite to aluminium, yet movement towards this goal has not so much stalled as retrogressed. The smelter that Nkrumah built to drive the idea is now only a little more than a relic kept alive by a life support system of unsustainable subsidies and political hot air.
The country's fruit processors have gone through a pruning process in which only the most resilient have survived but so uncompetitive has local agriculture become that this lush tropical country must import fruits to feed them. A lack of appreciation of sound fishing policy is dangerously driving the country's coastal economies into ruin.
Despite a new-found enthusiasm for thermal power plants ran on gas and sometimes diesel and crude oil, the country has failed to fix a serious problem of rolling blackouts that have lasted over the past decade and half. It has been discovered that a weak tariff system undermines the official policy of promoting the private sector to build more power plants. If those plants can't be run profitably, they stop producing power at reasonable capacity.
The country has discovered oil, but two years of production has see disappointing results in terms of the actual output, as well as in terms of 'local content' opportunities. It is looking like the oil industry will join the rest of the extractives sector in the camp of anaemic contributions to genuine economic transformation.
The services sector is generally doing fine, and many believe that it is here that the country is finding its true comparative advantage.
The problem is one of polarisation. There is a large bottom-hull of the sector that is highly informalised and a tiny upper layer that is too high-end for its own good.
In tourism (particularly hotels and other hospitality businesses), aviation, and the social services (education and healthcare), there are swanky offerings for the very well-off and abject crap for the bottom-feeders, with virtually nothing in the middle for the growth market.
Simply put, Ghana has no reason to be complacent.
While the country is certainly showing promising signs in a number of areas, especially when compared to some of its struggling neighbours, the pace of change is somewhat unhurried, and many of the most critical areas, have been touched too little. It is these areas though that will lead to an actual 'structural transformation' of the country's fundamental situation.
Some tough strategic choices face the country: how to attract large quantities of foreign and domestic investment and diversify these inflows away from speculative activity in building construction sprinkled across a few urban enclaves, and some half-hearted mineral prospecting. How to push these inbound funds into specialised infrastructure like ports and railways, design-level global supply chain contributions, and other sectors that will boost the nation's overall capacity to benefit from the worldwide search for efficiencies by international business?
There are also the long-awaited public sector reforms that are needed to reduce the overall number of government workers, so the government can pay them credible wages, and at the same time demand superior performance from them.
Since some of these workers are in critical areas like health, education and sanitation, the only way to resize the public workforce without causing more harm than good is to invite private sector participation at a price-point that favours the middle class, while at the same time decentralising taxation for effective management in order to better fund social services for the vulnerable. Both tasks require some competence in discriminating among the citizenry based on objective income data, something successive governments have failed to address properly.
Sadly, today's elections are not really over these strategic choices.
Some say that these elections saw greater attention paid to policy, and by inference less dabbling in silly personality and ego spats, than previous ones. That view is debatable.
One could argue that the 2000 elections were centred largely on the question of "living conditions". The then and now main opposition party, the NPP (new patriotic party) argued persuasively that the out-of-control inflation, local currency depreciation and epileptic energy supply were as a result of mismanagement. They attacked the policy of fees at government health facilities and public universities and promised superior financial administration to stem what they said was rampant corruption.
What has set these elections apart, admittedly, has been the near-focus on ONE major policy issue - education.
The NPP is promising to abolish all fees, not just tuition fees - which are essentially already free - from all public secondary and technical/vocational schools in its first year of office should the electorate give it the mandate.
The ruling NDC argues that this is nonsense as there is no infrastructure available to admit the more than one-third of Junior high students (those in the last three years of basic school) who do not proceed to senior high school, and therefore that quality will tank in response to the NPP's promised policy. The leader of the NDC, the sitting president, professes an agreement with the view that secondary education ought to be free but he insists on certain preparatory activities. A more realistic 'free SHS' implementation timeline as far as the NDC is concerned will be 2016.
On the face of it there does not appear to be much difference between the policy positions of the two parties. So why has there been so much attention and rancour over this issue? Political brinkmanship, that's why.
Despite its official concurrence with the policy of free secondary education in principle, the NDC has nevertheless sought to promote the view that the NPP is not to be trusted on the matter.
They have fished for audio recordings made several years ago by eminent persons perceived to be friendlier to the NPP than the NDC and highlighted anti - 'free secondary school' sound-bites from these clips to discredit the NPP. Their core argument appears to be that the NPP has no genuine commitment to the policy but has latched on to it as a populist gimmick for votes.
Though the NPP's base has rallied around the promise, thus giving it a buzz, the downside of the NPP's strategy to make the free SHS policy the centrepiece of the election has deflected focus away from an examination of the NDC's record and made the election about the credibility of the NPP.
Perhaps, the NDC sees the credibility question as tying seamlessly into their longstanding strategy of questioning the personal qualities of the NPP's veteran candidate (this is the NPP's Nana Akufo-Addo's second attempt at the presidency). There are some political observers in Ghana, like the ubiquitous Ben Ephson, who believe that more than 50 percent of the Ghanaian voters make up their minds solely on the basis of their personal affection or disaffection for the candidate him/herself.
So, when one looks at the situation more closely, despite all the media hullabaloo over the contrived controversy in the education debate, these elections are not really about that issue.
So what really are these elections about, and who will carry the vote after the final tally?
Firstly, we can look at the polls. A slight majority of them, including those by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Bureau of National Investigations (Ghana's main domestic intelligence agency) favour the incumbent, the NDC's John Dramani Mahama, who, as then Vice President, took over from the late John Evans Atta Mills in July of this year. And as go the polls so go the pundits.
Given the patchy record of pollsters like Mr Ephson (a sardonic question that has gained popularity is: 'do you know any Ghanaian that has ever been polled in any of these surveys before?'), we reckon that the main opposition candidate can take solace from the fact that the more seasoned and, some would even say, more qualified watchers favour his NPP party.
DaMina Advisors, founded by a former Eurasia Analyst, who was one of the very few watchers to accurately call the 2008 presidential elections, has predicted a comfortable win for the opposition leader. They base their conclusions on census data and extrapolations from the 2008 electoral results. On the analytical side they cite low public familiarity with the NDC's presidential ticket, compared with the NPP's, which is being presented to the electorate for the second time.
Ato Kwamena Dadzie, the colourful former news editor of the powerful and influential Joy FM radio station has also predicted a win, albeit by a much narrower margin, for the NPP's Nana Akufo-Addo.
Though we believe the race is fairly tight, we are inclined to hold with those who believe that the main opposition party has an edge over the ruling party.
We base our conclusions on a variation of the 'geographic' theme.
Every country has an electoral map defined by historical geographic factors that very often align with ethnic, ideological and material factors. In Ghana, our observation is that it is not the overall geographic collage that matter most but the Akan geographic spread, and consolidation.
The Akan is a motley collection of ethnic groups with mutually intelligible languages spread across the coastal, southern and middle-forest and parts of the Eastern Savannah belts of Ghana. Collectively they constitute just under half of Ghana's population of 25 million.
We have observed that the evolving voting patterns of the Akan are the most reliably predictive determinant or trend-driver in Ghanaian elections. This trend has nothing to do with ethnocentrism per se. Just as, for example, the Cuban-American vote in the United States is historical-political rather than ethnocentric, the Akan vote in Ghana is driven by a wide range of factors of which ethno-centrism may be the least important.
There are class, historical, ideological and socio-dynamic elements in the behaviour of the Akan polity. In our view, the primary trend as far as Ghanaian elections are concerned is the growing conflation of the Akan identity into a kind of meta-identity. Whereas the Akan were in the past wracked by fierce sibling rivalry, the last few decades have seen a slow amalgamation of Akan identity in Ghana as a result of socio-economic class dynamics.
The notion of being 'Akan' is steadily becoming a more trendy and less emotionally laden but geographically accurate marker of self-identity than, say, being 'Adanse', 'Akwamu', 'Wassaw', or even 'Bono', which are sub-Akan identities that in the past belonged to separate, competing, kingdoms.
The fusion of Akan attitudes, perspectives, and ultimately voting patterns, is a process of 'modernisation' and not of ethnocentrism.
The Akan are locked into the most intense vortices of Ghanaian urbanisation: charismatic Christianity (very much an Akan phenomenon); hip-life (a kind of local hip hop); a highly aspirational white-collar underclass; rapid westernisation in material tastes etc. This has compressed the Akan geography. It however also suggests that the intense identification of the Akan per se with this evolution is merely a quirk of history that will dissipate over time as sociology supersedes history, the process decouples from Akan-fusion, and spreads uniformly over Ghana.
Even the exceptions to the patterns go merely to prove the point. The coastal Fante and Agona have tended to be the least engaged in this process of Akan-fusion. Being the prime beneficiaries of the colonial process, urbanisation has always been a feature of life for these Akan sub-groups. Thus aloof, they have managed to preserve somewhat the semblance of an enclave of their own, so far, but the cracks are showing.
Since the onset of the fourth republic, the transformation of the NPP into a national party has followed the contours of Akan-fusion, with the party improving its performance in the broad Akan geography in each successive general election. The NDC's strategy to resist this has been premised as much on keeping a stranglehold over non-Akan votes as on splintering the Akan vote along its line of fracture: the Fante (which shares increasingly porous boundaries with the Wassaws, Agonas and other South-Western groups), and to a limited extent the Bono. Not surprisingly, the NDC has never gone into an election without a Fante on the ticket.
In our view, until the elections in Ghana truly become a matter of competing policies, the Akan-fusion process, as a proxy for the evolving cultural attitudes in an urbanising Ghana, shall remain the most formidable predictive factor. And for now, the NPP is the party which, for historical and conscious marketing reasons, appears most aligned with that trend, while the NDC often comes across as feeling antagonised by it. When the trend plateaued in 2000, the party obtained a slight numerical edge over the NDC.
The now ruling NDC won the 2008 elections by a whisker (about 40,000 votes) simply because Nkrumahists (socialist-leaning clingers to the nostalgia of the first republic), a small but permanent independent block in Ghanaian politics, swung more that year for the NDC, which espouses socialist rhetoric, than for the NPP, due to the NDC's successful campaign to brand the NPP as elitist, out-of-touch and property-grabbing. This has not been a strategy the NDC has managed with the same dexterity this time around.
Based on a simple extrapolation from the 2008 results, the NPP's Nana Akufo-Addo looks likely to win the elections with about 50.5 percent of the vote. That should be enough to avoid a run-off under Ghana's constitution, which stipulates that a fresh election between the two leading candidates be held if in any presidential election should the winner fail to obtain 'more than 50 percent of the vote'.
But then again, the Nkrumahists may prove less easy to sway than we think, and Ghana shall, once again, have to wait for weeks after the initial round of elections for the winner to be determined in a run-off.
Whoever prevails in the end must, according to the constitution, be sworn into office on 7th January 2013.
If the urgent yet long list of reforms is anything to go by, there shall be no honeymoon.
Franklin Cudjoe, Bright Simons, Selorm Branttie and Kofi Bentil are all Executives of IMANI Center for Policy & Education, a public policy research & advocacy organisation based in Accra, Ghana