GHANA goes to the polls Wednesday, with President John Mahama facing a steep challenge.
Mahama is seeking a second and final four-year term in what is expected to be a close race between him and main opposition leader Nana Akufo-Addo.
Voters will choose among seven presidential candidates and elect members of parliament for 275 constituencies.
Ghana experienced a slump in global commodity prices and economic turbulence, forcing the government in Accra to adopt a three-year aid deal with the International Monetary Fund in April 2015.
Mahama has said that despite the challenges, the country made modest gains in stabilising the economy.
Mahama was elected in 2012 after serving six months as president to complete the term of John Atta Mills, who died in office.
Akufo-Addo has said re-electing Mahama would threaten the nation’s future, accusing the president’s government of mismanaging the economy and unleashing hardship.
Ghana has held five successful democratic elections since 1992 and Mahama said he was hopeful the election would pass off peacefully.
THE WEST AFRICAN WAY
If Mahama loses, it wouldn’t be the first time a ruling party candidate is beaten by the opposition in Ghana.
For West Africa, though, for a long time that was rare.
However, in March 2015, Nigeria tore up the book when Muhammadu Buhari became the only candidate to ever beat an incumbent in the country’s history, giving Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy its first democratic transition of power from one party to another.
But even with that, nothing could have prepared most people for the dramatic events in The Gambia last Friday.
The eccentric and repressive Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a coup 22 years ago, was trounced in the election and quickly conceded defeat to the opposition’s Adama Barrow.
If there was a leader in Africa who was unlikely to do that, let alone allow a free election, it was Jammeh.
Ahead of the vote the Jammeh government had arrested, tortured, and killed opposition activists. Hours before polling stations opened, the government also shut down the internet and blocked international calls.
NO FUSS, AND REGRESSION
Yet, it was over rather quickly and without much fuss. Jammeh became the first president in Africa of recent times who came to power in a coup or at the head of a victorious guerrilla movement, to accept an election defeat.
Barrow’s victory means that the west African elbow of Africa now has the highest concentration of countries on the continent where the opposition has won presidential or parliamentary elections at least once – Cape Verde, Principe and Sao Tome, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, and Nigeria.
Nigeria too became the first post-independence big African country to have a democratic transfer of power.
Until recent years, these democratic transitions at the polls happened mostly in southern Africa (Mauritius, Malawi and Zambia).
Now there are signs of regression in southern Africa. In Zambia’s election in August, after incumbent President Edgar Lungu was declared the winner of a closely fought presidential contest, the result was immediately challenged by his main opponent Hakainde Hichilema.
The opposition, not without some justification, alleged that the electoral commission had colluded to rig the vote against its candidate. It was also Zambia’s most violent election, and the government’s harassment of the free press unprecedented.
Zambian politics has historically been mild, and commentators noted that the change in tone was worrying.
THE MEANING OF IT
It would take a few more years before it’s definitely clear that there has been an enduring shift in the democratic centre of the continent, but some early conclusions can be drawn.
For starters, West Africa is the Africa’s second most urbanised region, and is set to overtake North Africa by 2032 as the continent’s most urbanised region. The change in its politics could be following this trajectory.
Secondly, it would seem, that when the “Big Brothers” of a region have some form of functioning democracy and free elections, they infect the neighbourhood with good political habits. Likewise, when they are less than exemplary, they stink them up.
The backsliding in Zambia, and the inability of the increasingly robust democracy movement in Zimbabwe to ease out the failed and abusive 36-year-old rule of its 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe, might or might not be partly related to the fact that South Africa has faltered, especially in the last seven years of President Jacob Zuma.
Thirdly, terrorism has been a greater problem to West Africa than either southern or east Africa. Honestly elected and legitimate governments might be emerging as a tool against the existential threat posed by extremist violent organisations.
However, the terrorism threat hasn’t had the same beneficial effect in political behavior in the Maghreb or North Africa, outside of Tunisia. This could suggest that it works mostly in countries where there is some kind of diverse divide between Christian, Muslim, and traditional religious groups in the population, and the political class wants to take it away as a means of sectarian mobilisation.
If Akufo-Addo were to win, and Mahama also conducted himself as Jammeh did, then the conclusion that West Africa has become a fertile new ground for democracy would become inescapable.