Ghana's Elections: Why Atta Mills Lost
Ghanaians are voting as I write.
They are at the polls to elect the sixth democratically chosen President and legislature in the country's 51 year post-colonial history. Of the 11 regimes that have ruled the former British colony in that period, 5 have been military insurrectionists.
Most of the streets are deserted, but not from any fear of violence. This is a majority Christian country, and Sundays are normally observed as a Sabbath by many of the 70% of the population who profess adherence to the Christian faith. Moreover, the tail-end of this year's election season has been amazingly calm due to loud clarion calls for peace by the Clergy, eminent members of Ghana's large Diaspora, and most of the country's political heavyweights.
As I walked through a peri-urban suburb of the capital, I was struck by the wide observance of the much-emphasized proscription against the overt display of partisan affiliation near any of the 21,000 polling stations across this West African nation of 22 million.
While most of the pre-election polls have seemed to favour the ruling NPP of sitting President John Agyekum Kuffuor and its flagbearer, Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo-Addo, scion of a ruling dynasty that stretches back before the time of his father, Ghana's second democratically elected Head of State, many pundits still say the contest is too close to call.
The opposition NDC has campaigned on a platform of change, though the tone has been angrier and grittier than the genial flavour that coloured the Obama revolution of recent times. That has however not stopped the NDC from insisting, sometimes even brashly, that their mission resonates with that of their Democratic counterparts across the Atlantic.
For the record, the NDC, whose track record is largely centrist and compliant with the Washington Consensus, professes to be a Social Democratic party, and to the chagrin of some Socialists, likes to trace its lineage to Ghana's first president, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah's CPP party. The CPP has in fact re-emerged in Ghana since the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1992, 26 years after Kwame Nkrumah was removed from power by an alliance of the police and the military, ostensibly for attempting to tamper with the military command structure, and for bringing the armed forces into disrepute by virtue of his foreign policy in the Congo (then Zaire).
'Re-emerge' only in the sense that the name 'CPP' had been proscribed by successive judicial orders since its overthrow, but not in the sense that 'Nkrumahists' – followers of Nkrumah's eclectic pan-African Socialist ideology – have been dormant in Ghana's politics. The Opposition NDC's founder, Jerry John Rawlings, in one of his three political incarnations, as 'Chairman of the PNDC', a civil-military junta, actually came to power in 1981 in a coup d'etat against a constitutional regime led by the Nkrumahist career diplomat, Hilla Limann. This year, the CPP's re-emergence promised to blossom into a renaissance under the leadership of Paa Kwesi Nduom, a US-educated business/economic consultant who served in three different capacities for almost the entirety of outgoing President Kuffuor's cabinet.
We should thus have had three grand political traditions in contention during this election: the CPP formed by Ghana's first president and pan-Africanist hero, Nkrumah; the NPP, the oldest political movement in Ghana, which traces its ancestry to 5 of the country's 6 founding fathers who were prominent in the 1940s, or even earlier to the coastal-based anti-colonial elite of the 19th century; and the NDC whose leader is unique for having ruled the country the longest and in both constitutional and military garb. However, the CPP's long exile from power means that much of its base has crumbled and its financial muscle seriously atrophied. Nduom's personal resourcefulness has only gone so far. Nonetheless, the party claims 300,000 registered members, a respectable figure anywhere in Africa (the ANC of South Africa, for instance, has 600,000).
The remaining 4 political parties are midgets by comparison. In the case of the PNC the preceding statement is perhaps a bit unfair, as it won the most parliamentary seats in the last election after the ruling NPP and opposition NDC, and is the party of the last democratic leader forcibly removed by the military (by Rawlings in fact). But my sense is that its fortunes have drastically reduced in the past year, especially after a botched merger with the CPP. Dr. Mahama, its leader, is a politician of impeccable integrity but sadly of little means. A respected medical doctor, he has failed to build the connections to business and dominant political interests that would have helped bankroll his campaign. Unlike elsewhere, most African elections are marked by politicians donating to the electorate under various guises, not the other way round.
The DFP and RPD are kindred spirits. One is a breakaway faction of the ruling party and other is in a similar orientation with respect to the Opposition party. Neither party has a representation in parliament. The DPP is a more curious creature. It used to recline in perpetual alliance with the opposition NDC until very recently when its leader, T. Nuamah Ward Brew, perhaps peeved by perceived slight, announced his intention to go it alone. None of the three parties stand a squirrel's chance. There is an independent candidate too, and two aspiring candidates were disqualified for farcical errors during the registration process (one brought only half the required $5000 dollar fee and claimed that the remaining half was held up in traffic), who all seemed to have entered the race merely to enliven it.
My view is that the NPP run a more professional, focused, on-message campaign than either of its main challengers, not excepting even the redoubtable CPP's campaign team, who were impressive with their meager resources.
Someone more familiar with elections in the West and other wealthier climes will have felt more at home with the NPP's spin-heavy tactics, complete with pop-stars and television ads that reinforced each previous message. Some of the documentaries, particularly those masterminded by the brilliant Jefferson Sackey, Akuffo Addo's PR whizkid, were almost compelling. They portrayed the multi-lingual Akuffo-Addo as a sophisticated Cosmopolitan at home in the gilded halls of international diplomacy. A ruthless focus on health and education (the NPP-christened National Health Insurance Scheme and Akuffo-Addo's promise of free secondary education, to wit) gave the whole campaign a sharp and mercilessly well-targeted appearance.
But at a stage in the campaign, it begun to seem as if the NPP's style was exuding complacency rather than the 'urgency' Paa Kwesi Nduom's CPP, which in actual fact begun the 'Change' message, was successfully positioning as the required political approach to getting Ghana out of her doldrums. Several NDC accusations, not all of them groundless, were left unanswered as the NPP blasted the airwaves with glitzy visuals of scantily dressed young women and silky melodies by the country's biggest-selling music stars. It risked giving credence to the NDC's charge that a few Ghanaians have grown so fat on the produce of the land that they have gone blind to the glaring poverty.
On the other hand, when the NPP, especially in the early days, began drowning the electorate with a flood of self-glorifying statistics and policy pronouncements, they came up against the same charge of insensitivity, this time that they were accused of pandering to elite concerns and ignoring the masses of Ghanaians for whom a GDP growth graph is useless for being inedible.
All the above notwithstanding, I am convinced the NDC's campaign flaws exceeded those of the NPP.
Their strategists calculated that since they were blessed with three highly recognisable politicians, their best interests were served by devising a three-pronged electoral strategy to be co-led by this triumvirate.
The flagbearer himself, Atta Mills, a two-time, albeit unsuccessful, presidential candidate has built a national reputation as a grime-free, down-to-earth, yet highly intelligent technocrat, and so was tasked with selling the message of the NDC as the Cherubic opposite to the NPP's grabbing, slimy, and incompetent administration. His running-mate, John Mahama, as the genial, rather handsome, long-serving legislator was asked to connect to floating voters by banking on his cross-divide appeal, especially amongst youth and women. The charismatic, if also brimstone-breathing, former President and one-time military ruler, Rawlings, seemed to have been burdened with the grimier job of dealing the dirt on the NPP. He seemed to enjoy it too much, drawing the ire of the sizable core of the upper and upper-middle class that brutally suffered at his hands during his one-man-rule heydays.
The strategy descended into semi-farce at too many points for comfort.
It created a widely-shared feeling that the NDC 'had no coherent message'. Some voters expressed frustration that while the party seemed to have developed a specialty for pointing out the ills of the Kuffuor regime, and thus successfully exploiting Akuffo Addo's decision not to distance himself from the Kuffuor record, they seemed incapable of offering alternatives, except to say vaguely that they would be 'better'.
Their greatest mistake in my view is that they failed to seize the opportunity to shake off them longstanding slur of being an anti-Akan party.
The word 'Akan' (literally 'first', presumably 'first-settlers') refers to a scattering of ethnic groupings with mutually intelligible languages and native customs stretching from the forest middle-belt to the coast of Ghana. They include the historically dominant Asantes, the Adansis, the Akyems, the Asante-Akyems, the Akwamus, the Kwahus, the Ahantas, the Bonos, the Fantes, the Agonas, and the Awapims among other smaller dialect-groups.
As far back as oral history can go these groupings have exhibited strong cultural autonomy, and internecine rivalry. But now a certain aggregation of identity appears to be emerging that corresponds to the NPP's electoral base. The NDC has done little to discourage this, and in my view has done much to foster it by continually referring to the NPP as an 'Akan' party in a bizarre self-fulfilling castigation.
The NPP once held sway only in the Ashanti Region (largely correspondent to the homeland of the Asantes) and parts of the Eastern (mainly among the Akyems and Kwahus), and so was consequently marginalized by the NDC with the charge of being an Asante party. The truth though is that the NPP has historically enjoyed strong affection from the middle and merchant classes, which merely around the independence struggle era appeared to coincide with certain parts of the 'Akan' geography.
By allowing the NPP to consolidate this coincidence the NDC has created a 'cesspool effect' that will continually blight its electoral chances.
The Akans collectively constitute at least 60% of the population of Ghana. An 'Akan party' would thus necessarily start every election with a numerical advantage that would be its to lose.
The notion of course that ethnocentrism should not play any role in African politics is a useless one insofar as it expresses a future ideal as a contemporary norm. Ethnic affiliation as a geographical subset plays a factor, regrettably, in most political dispensations around the world. Phrases like 'Scottish Labour', 'New York Jews', 'Basque Separatists', 'Saudi Shiites', 'Turkish Kurds', and 'Corsican Mob' all have immediate recognition in the context of a hundred political geographies around the world.
To lament ethnocentricity is not the same thing as refusing to recognize its salience where it is a factor.
I suspect very much that a kind of crude alliance between the NPP's Akan strongholds and its other bastions amongst the upper Middle Classes, who find the Rawlings military era most vexatious, will conspire to give about 51% of the vote to Akuffo Addo, beyond the 50% plus 1 vote he needs to win. If Mills concedes, Ghana would have justified the accolade of being the 'most stable country in democratic Africa'.
But hey folks, I have been wrong before – numerous times actually.
Bright B. Simons is affiliated with IMANI, which does not endorse the analysis herein.
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."