What more can be said of Ghana’s cliff-hanging but entirely correctly managed election experience which concluded with the swearing in of President John Atta Mills on January 9? African and international comment have all concurred this was an exemplary exercise, confirming that real democracy through an election process is perfectly possible in Africa. Not only was this a classic example of what the French call l alternance “a change of the party in power by ballot box – but it happened in circumstances in which the very narrowness of the second round polling could have set up intolerable tensions. That nearly five weeks of uncertainty was thus handled is the measure of how far Ghanaians have come on their road to nationhood.
Three weeks ago I observed that because in over fifty years of independence Ghana had known every kind of disheartening political and economic experience, there is a feeling that the country has finally arrived at a model of maturity. Ghana has had long-term benefit from the original vision of the nation-building philosophy of its first President Kwame Nkrumah. Some years ago, after Nkrumah died in exile, after having been ignominiously overthrown, a percipient Ghanaian explaining Nkrumah’s historical importance told me he made us feel like Ghanaians’.
This strong nationalism helped put ethnic divisions on the back burner. Although these still exist and surface in political parties, a strong feeling remains of being Ghanaian first. Even Nkrumah’s advocates recognised his many political mistakes. Also, some of the economic problems Ghana subsequently faced were because he tried to go too fast, not just spending but wasting money, without sufficient judgment of people. His defects, however, were dwarfed by his contribution to nation-building and his vision of what the country could become. Although at the time some Ghanaians felt discomfort at the scale of his ambition, especially for independence and liberation in Africa, the national pride engendered in the 1950s still burns in the idea of Ghana as a model for Africa. This desire to be once again a pioneer may well have helped produce the political will to shape a functional electoral system.
The other specific feature of Ghanaian politics in the nationalist era was a class polarisation unusual elsewhere in Africa at the time. There was a divide perceived between the veranda and the lounge, with the mass politics of Nkruma’s CPP pitched victoriously against the middle-class suits and ties of the Busia-Danquah group. It was a simplification, but the left-right division has been a recurrent theme in Ghanaian politics, and the Jerry Rawlings revolutions’ of 1979 and 1981 marked a certain return of veranda boys. Although Rawlings differed markedly from Nkrumah, they represent two faces of the same tradition, while the Kufuor election victory of 2000 brought the lounge decisively to power.
Does the victory of Atta Mills after his third attempt mark a return to what one might still call the veranda? For a number of reasons this is now unlikely. Although Mills NDC still has a strong leftist/nationalist element, their previous period in power was marked by the disguised free market policies, such as devaluation of the currency and privatisation (euphemistically called divestiture) implemented under the guidance of western donors, carried out in a manner that Kufuor and his people could only have done with great difficulty. Ironically the golden age of business proclaimed by Kufuor was built on foundations laid by Rawlings.
If in the Kufuor years the lounge finally played its part in welding the country together by its very attachment to democratic practices, the sometimes chaotically uncomfortable presence of Rawlings in the wings of the NDC may yet have its uses in the likely coming austerity. Much has been made of the coming oil revenues in 2010, but the present low world oil price may cause Ghana’s new rulers to further downplay its significance, especially in view of all the warnings about what the curse of oil has done to Nigeria. And if being run by a rather uncharismatic academic expert on tax may not appeal to Ghanaians’ sense of show, it may be the best way of ensuring good management in difficult times.
However, all the Nigerians who look to Ghana as an electoral model may wish to bear in mind the unusual conditions that have helped Ghana retrieve its exemplary status “a strong founding father who helped create a national idea and consciousness, and a tradition, at least, that a politics of ideas can exist alongside interest politics.