12.01.2009 Feature Article

Ghana's democracy: Have we come of age?

Ghana's democracy: Have we come of age?
12.01.2009 LISTEN

For the past sixteen years the former British colony rode its luck in the democratic process - no more so than in the recently held elections. But time may soon be running out.

So what's so special about Ghana?
Several weeks after the country's so called electoral success this question has become pertinent in a continent where free and fair elections are often deemed implausible. In the days following Ghana's elections there has been no shortage of congratulatory messages from all over the world. France said it was “an example for African countries to emulate.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote that it was “an impressive endorsement” for democracy. The news media were not to be left out of the theatre. “Ghana: A sign of democracy” wrote Helena Selby from the Ghanaian Chronicle. had an op-ed piece with a witty title- “Ghana shames Nigeria” written by Sam Nda-isaiah. How cute.

In fact my Cameroonian friend from Iowa State who I hadn't heard from in a long while called to tell me how excited she was about developments in Ghana. She said she was so proud of Ghana because it has “shown Africa in a positive light.” She even mentioned that she was beginning to consider sending her kid sister in Yaoundé to the University of Ghana. Awesome. If we can ace elections that easily, our educational system better be good.

Indeed public opinion supports the view that Ghana's democracy - at worse is rising - and at best has matured. As some chose to put it “we have come of age.” Others even bet that there's no way power sharing or a Kenya-like situation can happen in Ghana. So I might sound like a cynic when I say Ghana's democracy is faulty. The silent question on the minds of many Ghanaians and democracy watchers is this: Have we really come of age?

It is an incontrovertible fact that Ghana has had a relatively stable democracy for the past fifteen years. It is also true that this is the second time we've had a peaceful transfer of power from one constitutionally elected government to the other from different parties. But that the country barely avoided a blood bath and the preponderance of violent acts meted out to citizens resulting in manslaughter, death, arson, forced ejections, is ample evidence that our scrappy escape from the world of mayhem cannot be founded on any time tested traditions.

Months before the election President Kufuor in a desperate plea to warring factions stated that: “Citizens of Ghana are being axed savagely and monies we need for development are going down the drain.” The fact that we didn't experience any massive genocidal acts - something which actually almost happened - should not blind us from the fact that our electoral system is shaky and beset with problems more dire than we realize. One death is a life too many.

Ask any Ghanaian today if the country's democratic system is as glamorous, water-tight or as free and fair as it is cracked up to be? If they're honest enough, they'll hesitate to answer in the affirmative. We can't be that peace loving -- otherwise how does one explain the overt acts of intimidation, the murder of Sully Alhassan - an NPP activist - at Agblogloshie market on the day election results were announced, Issa Mobila's death in 2004, the murder of the Ya-Na and over forty Ghanaians in Yendi, the attempted arson at a hotel in Ashiaman and the machete wielding demonstrators who forced businesses to close down as early as 1pm prior to the announcement of election results in Accra? Many have still not come to terms with the fact that Ghana is NOT immune to civil strife. If they did they will realize that our much touted peace is farcical. But the real danger is that a lack of honest introspection will deny us the chance to address these problems before they blow out of proportion.

First, Africa's problem was and is that it glorifies mediocrity way too much. Let's face it; the elections that were held in Ghana were anything but free and fair. There was an over indulgence of vote rigging from both of the major political parties, and secondly the over enthusiasm shown by many irate club-wielding-protesting party fanatics determined to visit mayhem on rival parties was deeply worrying. The scenes from Bawku, Gushegu, Tamale Central and Mion constituencies - just to mention a few- resulting from pre-election and post electoral related violence exposed the country's political frailties.

But perhaps even more upsetting is the Electoral Commission's (EC) willingness to pass up any credible investigation into allegations of vote rigging. Afari Gyan tried to address the issue but only succeeded in brushing it aside by saying the EC "did not find the evidence provided sufficient to invalidate the result". Are we now saying a small dose of rigging is good enough when it comes to Africa?

There is little more glaring evidence for a malfunctioning democracy than a questionable voting process.

Furthermore, some media houses were so willing to sacrifice their political appetite to the detriment of national stability that they sought to incense an already charged atmosphere by neglecting what Weber in his “Politics of Vocation” called the ethics of responsibility, focused on consequences. Simply put, they inflamed passions and behaved unprofessionally.

What is so interesting but dangerous at the same time is that in an attempt to pontificate Ghana as a success story we are willing to gloss over these serious mistakes by not looking past ourselves. That is not acceptable because it will amount to setting a bad example. While Ghana needs to be patted on the back, a defining proof of its maturity will be the ability to remain critical of ourselves if our electoral politics is not to go moribund.

Credit: Etse Sikanku - a graduate student in Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa. [Email: [email protected]]