The latest proof of Ghana’s democratic maturity came on Monday. John Mahama was inaugurated as president after a violence-free election victory that was widely applauded by international observers.
Since democratisation in 1992, Ghana has emerged as a political model for the rest of the continent. Despite a traumatic history that included five military coups between 1966 and 1981 alone, the country has shown itself to be capable of withstanding the toughest political tests. Wider benefits have accompanied Ghana’s stability: life expectancy at birth is now 65; primary school attendance rates have risen from 61 per cent in 1999 to 83 per cent last year; economic growth was 14.4 per cent in 2011.
Ghana’s story reveals much about what other African nations require to be successful. Most fundamental is responsible leadership. Two previous presidents have honoured term limits and stood down after two terms, helping foster respect for democratic norms. When Mahama’s predecessor, John Atta Mills, died suddenly last July, as vice president Mahama ascended to the presidency in the constitutionally enshrined manner, without fuss or protest. The presence of John Kufuor, former president and former candidate of the opposition New Patriotic Party, at Mahama’s inauguration can be seen as an endorsement of last year’s elections—although the NPP boycotted the ceremony and claim that Mahama won through fraudulent means.
But such leadership can only thrive within a political system that has strong and stable institutions. Unlike many African countries, Ghana’s electoral commission and Supreme Court have integrity. Even as the NPP challenges the election results, its trust in the legal system ensures it has no need to resort to violent means. In the previous general election of 2008-09, the winning margin was just 40,000 votes, yet there was little confrontation between the different sides. Presidential debates have also helped create an environment in which political differences can be constructively argued over, encouraging people to vote for policies rather than by ethnicity.
Ethnicity is important in Ghana—the National Democratic Congress party regularly polls close to 90 per cent of the vote from the Ewe ethnic group, for instance. But a history of inter-tribal violence is mercifully lacking and rates of inter-marriage between different ethnic and religious groups are high. The size of the different ethnic voting blocs is such that neither of the two main parties, the NDC and NPP, can achieve victory simply by mobilising their main ethnic constituencies, and accordingly they must reach out to other communities.
Ghana has also avoided the “resource curse.” Significant oil reserves have been discovered since 2007 but as a relatively mature democracy it is better placed than other countries—like Angola or Nigeria—to share the economic gains across the population.
Ensuring the benefits of oil production extend well beyond the elite is just one of the challenges facing Mahama. State educational provision is inconsistent, with class sizes in rural schools often exceeding 70. Basic infrastructure requires major improvement: the road between Accra and Kumasi, the country’s two largest cities, is notoriously hazardous. This is one reason why much-needed foreign direct investment is lacking—Ghana is only ranked the 64th easiest country to do business in. And even though it has recently been reclassified as a middle-income country, 52 per cent of the population still lives on under $2 a day. But Mahama should approach his first full term with optimism. With more responsible governance, Ghana’s commendable success is set to continue.