The campaign trail for Ghana's general election in December is taking a detour through South Africa this week, with the visit of opposition leader John Evans Atta Mills.
Addressing journalists in the country's commercial centre of Johannesburg Tuesday, Aug. 3, the head of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) sounded upbeat about his prospects in the poll.
"I'm sure I'm going to win the elections," said Mills, who previously served as vice-president for four years under former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings. "When I travel around the country, I feel it that we're going to win."
Mills told reporters that the central issue around which the poll will be fought is the state of Ghana's economy. Ordinary Ghanaians, he claimed, were battling to make ends meet in a climate of joblessness and spiraling prices.
"Ghana is facing serious economic problems. People are suffering and they want change," Mills said, adding that "living (costs) have doubled, tripled and quadrupled" since President John Kufour took power three years ago.
Mills' press director, former Ghanaian communications minister John Mahama, told IPS that "Poverty is rampant in the three northern regions (of Ghana) - with seven out of every ten people living below the poverty line of one dollar a day."
"In the south, where there are more economic activities, four out of ten people live below the poverty line," he added. "Generally, half of Ghana's population lives in poverty."
According to the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report for 2004, about 44.8 percent of Ghanaians live below the poverty threshold - while 78.5 percent exist on less than two dollars a day.
Mahama said Ghana's minimum monthly wage of 11,000 cedis (just over a dollar) is hardly enough to live on.
"For example, if you buy a bottle of beer for 6,500 cedis (about 60 cents) and, on your way home, grab a loaf of bread for 5,000 cedis (around 50 cents) then the whole of your salary is gone," he noted.
Asked by IPS how the poor coped in such a situation, Mahama replied "We even ask ourselves the same question."
These claims form a stark contrast to statements by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which have described Ghana as a model for Africa.
Official statistics from the country indicate that its economy grew by 5.2 percent last year, while inflation dropped from 41 percent four years ago to 11.2 percent at the end of 2003. The ruling New Patriotic Party has used statistics like these to trumpet its success in the economic sphere as campaigning gathers momentum.
Quoted by the official Ghana News Agency over the weekend, the minister for regional co-operation and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), Kofi Konadu Apraku, said the ruling party was rebuilding a foundation for economic growth that "it took the NDC 20 years to destroy." He cited ongoing efforts to improve roads, build schools and hospitals, and improve national security.
Parliamentary affairs minister Felix Owusu Agyepong was also quoted as saying that the ruling party had fulfilled every pledge in its 2000 Election Manifesto, in the key areas of agriculture reform, good governance, private sector development, the provision of social services and economic development.
Ghana is ranked 131st in the latest Human Development Report - down from 128th position in last year's index. The West African nation is grouped with South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Kenya as being amongst the countries with the poorest income redistribution rate in Africa.
Mills arrived in South Africa on Tuesday for a four-day visit. During his stay, he will meet a range of business and political leaders to discuss ways of promoting peace and democracy in Africa - and highlight what he calls the "striking similarities" between South Africa and Ghana.
"Ghana shares many common ideals with South Africa," he said. "They are both examples of hard-won democracy in action. South Africa is the litmus test for peace and democracy in the sub-continent, while Ghana is determined to pave the way in turbulent West Africa."
Mills noted that each of the two countries was juggling the need to bolster its "fledgling" democratic institutions with addressing social ills.
"Both have gone through a TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) process and both countries face enormous challenges in terms of poverty alleviation and job creation," said the NDC leader. "This cannot be achieved in isolation and, should my party be successful (in the December elections), I intend working closely with South Africa to realize NEPAD objectives throughout the continent."
Following the advent of democracy in 1994, South Africa established the TRC in a bid to make perpetrators of human rights abuses under apartheid take responsibility for their actions. Those guilty of abuses were offered the possibility of amnesty in exchange for full disclosure of their crimes.
Ghana set up a National Reconciliation Commission in 2002 to investigate abuses that were carried out under previous military regimes - including that of Jerry Rawlings.
NEPAD is a blueprint to pull Africa out of poverty by attracting increased foreign investment of 64 billion dollars a year through good governance. Mills also sees the plan as a vehicle for public-private partnerships that will "marry the efficiency of markets with the compassion of the state to uplift the most vulnerable among us."
"It is high time we as Africans stopped running to the international donor community to solve our problems," Mills noted. "With NEPAD, African leaders for the first time admitted that they were part of the problem as much as they could be part of the solution. Only Africans can develop Africa."
Ghana is the first African country to subject itself to NEPAD's peer review mechanism, which will allow a panel of eminent Africans to examine standards of governance in the countries that allow its presence.
During Tuesday's news conference, Mills rejected claims that the legacy of Rawlings - a previous leader of the NDC - could work against his election.
"In the 1970s Ghana was in a state of hopelessness when Rawlings came to power. Ghanaians were queuing for everything. They would join a queue and find out later what the queue was all about," Mills observed.
"It was Rawlings who laid the current economic foundation. He must be commended for that. He also empowered women, he gave them a voice."
Whoever the winner of the December poll is, they will find themselves grappling with regional as well as national problems - notably the conflict in neighbouring Ivory Coast.
Last week about 16 African leaders, including South African President Thabo Mbeki, met in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, to try to resolve this conflict - which has split the West African country in two. Government presently controls the south of the Ivory Coast, and rebels the north.
"I must confess that many of us were taken by surprise by the events in Cote d'Ivoire," observed Mills.
"For a long time, Cote d'Ivoire had been regarded as an oasis of peace, democracy and tranquility in West Africa. Then suddenly there was war. We want an end to the conflict in Cote d'Ivoire," he added, calling for an early warning system to detect conflicts in Africa.
Added Mahama: "'In fact, we were very scared when the Ivorian conflict erupted. We thought it would spread across the border as did the Sierra Leone and Liberia wars. We also feared that small arms would find their way into Ghana."