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Opinion: Ghana's peaceful elections mask a weak democracy

Manasseh Azure Awuni
December 9, 2020

Nana Akufo-Addo has won Ghana's presidential election in a relatively peaceful campaign. But the tranquility hides a morass of corruption and bad governance, says Ghanaian journalist Manasseh Azure Awuni.

Man carries a ballot box through a crowd in Ghana
Image: Francis Kokoroko/REUTERS

President Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) has emerged victorious after winning 51.59% of votes cast. 

The elections are also being celebrated as a victory for Ghana. That's because the country has, once again, successfully held relatively peaceful elections without the burning of houses and the breaking of limbs and skulls that often characterize elections in Africa.

Read more: 5 people killed in Ghana election violence

Or, to be more accurate, the death and destruction in Ghana was insignificant compared to other countries on the continent.

As such, Ghana continues to hold the pride of place as Africa's beacon of democracy. But this accolade is increasingly undeserved when Ghana is subjected to the litmus test of good governance and true tenets of democracy.

Peaceful elections should be the norm

As a Ghanaian, of course I feel proud when my country is called the democratic trailblazer on this turbulent continent. But that pride doesn't go deeper than the outer layer of my skin.

Because there is more to democracy than holding peaceful elections. And holding elections without killing or maiming or burning houses shouldn't be a monumental achievement in a society of sane people.

Vote for Nana Akufo-Addo posters
Nana Akufo-Addo will serve a second four-year time after winning Ghana's 2020 electionImage: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

When Germans go to the polls, we don't hear about fears of violence. When the British, French, Danish or Dutch vote, it is taken for granted that power will be transferred peacefully.

Even when America's President Donald Trump helped us to realize the worst in American politics and elections, we didn't see violence and deaths and rapes and torture.

So why should peaceful elections be considered an exceptional feat in Africa?

Elections overshadow the quality of those elected

I believe it is what happens between these peaceful elections that is worrying. For the average Ghanaian, there is no means of holding the elected accountable besides waiting for another four years to do that through a vote.

That's because voting is increasingly failing to be an accountability tool in a country where both sides of the political duopoly presiding over Ghana's destiny appear to operate with the same slogan: "Have your say and let me have my way."

The NDC and NPP are like two sides of the same calabash. They're strikingly identical twins who are only differentiated by name and that they only truly care while in opposition.

A man casts his ballot in Ghana's 2020 election
More than 17 million people were eligible to vote in this year's electionImage: Christian Thompson/AA/picture alliance

Same old parties, same old faces

The problems of Ghana's politics come from its entrenched power structures. Akufo-Addo's win for the NPP evens out the score in the electoral game played every four years by Ghana's two main parties.

The 2020 results mean the NDC and NPP have each won the elections four times since 1992, when Ghana returned to multiparty democracy.

Read more: Ghana: President Nana Akufo-Addo wins election

The NDC won in 1992 and 1996, losing to the NPP in 2000 and 2004. In 2008, the NDC returned to power and in 2012, defended their victory. In 2016, it was the NPP's turn to come back. Now it has gone on to win in 2020 for another four-year term.

And it's not just the parties that remain the same. It's also the third time that John Mahama and Akufo-Addo have battled it out for presidency.

John Mahama was vice president under President John Evans Atta Mills, who died in office in July 2012. With barely five months to the next election, Mahama became president for the rest of the term and was retained by the NDC to lead the party in the 2012 election.

Mahama's main opponent in the 2012 election was Akufo-Addo, who had led the NPP in 2008 and lost to the late President Atta Mills.

Mahama beat Akufo-Addo in 2012 and Akufo-Addo beat John Mahama in 2016 and now again, in 2020.

Presidential candidate John Mahama casts his vote in Ghana's 2020 election
Presidential candidate John Mahama casts his vote in Ghana's 2020 electionImage: Nipah Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy fails to grow in Ghana

A critical look at the indicators of good governance means even though our democracy is growing, it is not maturing. In a number of ways, it’s getting worse.

When I completed journalism school ten years ago, I didn't fear being hurt for holding the government accountable. In 2016, I rejected police protection when I published a story about President John Mahama because I felt Ghana was a safe place for journalists like myself.

Today it is different story. I drive with armed police escort because of threats against my life.

The police are still yet to find those responsible for the killing of investigative journalist Ahmed Hussein-Suale, who was threatened by a leading member of President Akufo-Addo's party and shot dead in Accra in 2019. Nobody has yet been held responsible even though the member of parliament, Kennedy Agyapong, put Suale's photograph on national television and asked whoever saw him to attack him.

The state has also failed to find evidence to justify the arrest, detention and alleged torture of journalists from Modern Ghana, an online news site, by operatives of the National Security Secretariat in 2019.

Groping in the dark between Election 2020 and Election 2024

I don't have much hope for Ghana between now and the next election in 2024. That's because, as in many African countries, corruption and wastage are the main setbacks to Ghana's development.

President Akufo-Addo won convincingly in 2016 because John Mahama's government was strongly accused of corruption.

Read more: Ghana election 2020: Checking President Akufo-Addo's promises

Akufo-Addo's government has also been plagued by corruption scandals. In fact, corruption was the main reason his party struggled in the 2020 election despite abolishing fees for senior secondary school, providing free water and electricity in 2020, and implementing many more populist programs.

Losing hope of holding Ghana's government to account

What makes the current situation worse — almost hopeless even — is that accountability institutions are being targeted and undermined.

In July this year, President Akufo-Addo forced the auditor general, Daniel Domelevo, to take involuntary leave, despite the hue and cry of civil society, labor experts and some prominent lawyers.

This came as Domelevo was doing an audit against a senior minister, Yaw Osafo-Maafo, an influential member of Akufo-Addo's cabinet.

Portrait photograph of Ghanaian journalist Manasseh Azure Awuni
Manasseh Azure Awuni is an award-winning Ghanaian journalist known for his investigations into government corruptionImage: Manasseh Azure Awuni/DW

Osafo-Maafo has been asked, together with others, to refund $1 million (€826,000) spent in a questionable procurement of service. While the case was in court, the auditor-general was supposed to inspect evidence of work done, which was crucial to the outcome of the court case.

A day after Domelovo was forced on leave, the person acting in the auditor-general's stead said Osafo-Maafo's evidence was satisfactory and the court proceeded to rule in minister's favor.

Three weeks ago, the special prosecutor appointed by Akufo-Addo to head Ghana's newly-formed anti-corruption agency resigned and accused the President of interference in the agency's work.

Martin Amidu described the president as the "mother corruption serpent" who wasn't committed to fighting graft.

Corruption makes serious economic challenges worse

Akufo-Addo's government is said to have borrowed more money in his first term than the total borrowings of all of Ghana's presidents since independence.

The International Monetary Fund is projecting that Ghana's debt to GDP ratio will hit 74.7% in 2021.

With taxes and other domestic sources of revenue continuing to leak badly, the country is up against serious economic challenges worsened by unbridled expenditure in the election year and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, it's probably easier to swim across the Atlantic Ocean with a 50kg cement bag around your neck than secure a job in Ghana. For young graduates, the outlook is even bleaker.

Ours is a system that creates an opportunity for some to become millionaires overnight while potable drinking water, decent classrooms and hospitals, electricity, and bearable road networks remain luxuries beyond the wildest imagination of some Ghanaians.

Bloated government contrasts with poor public services

No, I don't begrudge Ghanaians when they bask in the glory of our peaceful elections. Have our elders not said that the one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind.

But let me give you some figures to show how wasteful our politics really are.

A nurse checks a patient's blood pressure in Tamale hospital, northern Ghana
Within 1 in 5 living in poverty in Ghana, many lack access to basic services such as health careImage: DW/M. Suuk

In his first term, Akufo-Addo had 125 ministers and deputy ministers at his disposal to run a relatively small country of 30 million. That's not only the highest number of ministers of any country in the world, it's almost double the number of ventilators (67) available in Ghana's public hospitals when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

When President Akufo-Addo starts his second term next month, he should start by cutting the number of ministers, reducing governance for 'family and friends' and go beyond the rhetoric to truly fight corruption.

Then my pride in my country's peaceful politics may run more than skin deep.