Monday, 8 December 2008

Don't forget about Africa's big vote

After Somali pirates, Congolese warlords and Zimbabwe in the time of cholera, Ghana’s elections just don’t cut it. Or that’s the verdict of the international news organisations, which have studiously ignored election campaigning in a country that has some of the best democratic credentials in the developing world.

Only the hardened band of Africa correspondents, of which this writer is one, bothered to troop around the polling stations on Sunday 7 December and bash out our stories for the papers and the radio. Most of the international television networks are missing the Ghana election – with the honourable exception of the BBC.

If the vote is well organised, generally peaceful and delivers a widely accepted verdict, then expect Ghana’s vote to fall even further down the totem pole of news rankings. Small election, not many dead will be the verdict

My journalistic instincts point me in the opposite direction. This is an election in a country of 24 million that matters hugely for Africa and beyond. In so many ways – good and bad – Ghana has been a pathfinder for Africa. Ghana was the first African country to win independence from Britain; under Kwame Nkrumah it blazed a trial for pan-Africanism only to be derailed by one of Africa’s first military coups.

After over two decades of military rule, Ghana re-established civil rule and multiparty elections and stabilised an imploding economy. Long established as one of Africa’s best performing economies, Ghana can now develop manufacturing and services to sustain two decades of growth and it has substantial reserves of oil and gas to help. So the electoral stakes in Ghana are as high as they’ve ever been.

The lengthy campaign has been full of all the usual razamatazz – garish campaign posters everywhere, giveaway tee-shirts and baseball caps – but this election is also about policies and living standards. It is a real political contest about serious issues, and most emphatically not the ethnic census that drives elections in too much of the developing world.

The ruling New Patriotic Party is centre-right and the main opposition National Democratic Congress is centre-left. They disagree on policy, personnel and how the country’s newly found oil wealth should be spent. And for good measure, there are another half-dozen parties in contention led by the heirs to founding President Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party.

The recent influx of foreign investment and the discovery of three billion barrels of oil offer the prospect of sustained economic growth and widespread social development in a country that remains poor by global standards. The oil will start flowing in 2010 and the investment dollars and cedis are already flooding in from China and India, as well as the traditional Western companies.

There is too an increasingly nasty underbelly of organised criminals and drug smugglers that any incoming government will have to tackle. Failure to do so will start to unravel the already shaky judiciary and encourage a blatantly arbitrary and corrupt police service.

So the election is really about who is best placed to manage these economic opportunities and uphold Ghana’s spirit of relatively open and liberal politics. The NPP’s presidential candidate Nana Dankwa Akufo Addo started his political life as a Marxist and has moved rightwards; and the NDC’s candidate John Evans Atta Mills started his career as a tax lawyer and has moved to the left.

Both men are in their mid-sixties; their nearest rival, Paa Kwesi Nduom of the Nkrumahist-CPP, is a decade younger. All of them see the chance for Ghana to make a leap forward; all of them are certain that it is their party that can take the country to the promised land.

The two leading parties – NPP and NDC – are running a very close race with the CPP, perhaps holding sway over a critical minority cluster of votes. It looks like being a close result. Many seasoned observers predict it will go to a second round because neither Akufo-Addo nor Atta-Mills will win more than 50% of the votes in the first round.

That leaves a critical role for Kwesi Nduom, the CPP and the smaller parties. Nduom’s personal instincts and associations steer him towards the ruling NPP; he served as Energy Minister in incumbent President John Kufuor’s administration. Yet his party has a more natural affiliation with the opposition NDC.

Running a government in Ghana that could transform the country’s progress from a struggling economy into a middle-income state is an alluring prize for any politician. But the bigger prize for the country is ensuring there are credible elections and the tradition of free and relatively peaceable elections is sustained. Political legitimacy will help make those economic ambitions possible.

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