Will Ghana's judges turn the West African democracy on its head?

Ghana's political opposition says the December 2012 presidential election was stolen from them. Now, the country braces for the Supreme Court's ruling.

By , Correspondent

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    Ghana's President John Dramani Mahama arrives for a meeting with France's President at the Elysee Palace in Paris May 28. Ghana's largest opposition party is pressing on with a legal challenge to Mahama’s presidency, making the nation look more like a laboratory for democracy than a settled model.
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Six months after national elections, the question of who is authorized to lead GhanaWest Africa's oft-cited beacon of democracy – is far from settled.

The nation's largest opposition party is pressing on with a legal challenge to John Dramani Mahama’s presidency, making Ghana look more like a laboratory for democracy than a settled model.

The opposition New Patriotic Party claims that elections last December were marred by voting irregularities, and that their candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo, was the true winner.

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Since the NPP filed its case at the end of 2012, Ghanaians have watched enthralled as the Supreme Court opened a high-profile examination of the country’s justice and political systems, all broadcast live on television and radio from the capital’s stately Supreme Court building.

By and large, the country has taken the challenge in stride. The petition has progressed through the Supreme Court with no outside fighting.

But with the highest court in the land perhaps weeks away from deciding the fate of the country’s highest elected official, many worry that the ruling could turn Ghana’s democracy on its head, and disrupt one of West Africa’s most promising economies.

“The successful party must overcome the temptation to gloat, and the other side must avoid the urge to cast doubt on the court and its decision,” wrote former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a widely respected Ghanaian elder statesman, in an op-ed published last week in Ghana’s largest newspaper.

 “Succumbing to either impulse would be reckless and unworthy of responsible democratic leaders, and indeed of the people of Ghana, whose prospects depend on continued political stability,” Mr. Annan added. 

Along with the gold in its soil and the cocoa in its fields, stability has been one of Ghana’s chief attractions. While much of West Africa has struggled with wars and coups, Ghana has been steadily democratic since 1992.

And a feisty democracy it is. When the NPP announced that it would contest the results of the election, it did so amid barbed shouts of “thieves,” and “stealers” directed at Mr. Mahama’s National Democratic Congress.

The NDC, meanwhile, has denigrated the NPP’s case as nothing more than sour grapes.

“If these things are looked into critically, John Dramani Mahama would not be the winner of this election,” Perry Okudzeto, a spokesman for the NPP, says. “We are positive that [our challenge] will turn out right.”

The case itself has sparked a similar war of words. Ever since the black-robed lawyers began trekking into the Supreme Court, they’ve been met by a vigil of journalists, who pack newspaper front pages with the latest comment by this judge or that barrister.

Meanwhile, both the eyes and ears of the nation are on the court, thanks to its decision allowing the state broadcaster to put the proceedings on television and radio.

When the judges sit, practically every television or radio in every taxicab, office, and home is tuned in, to the point that some are grumbling for the Supreme Court to be yanked from the airwaves so people will stop watching and get back to work.

While the NPP continues to hold out hope that the court will rule in their favor, analysts have their doubts.

In February, the Economist Intelligence Unit said the opposition had failed to prove that the misconduct in the case amounted to anything more than sloppiness on the part of local polling agents, and predicted the petition wouldn’t pose a threat to Mahama’s rule.

“I think the NPP has people thinking the country is standing still,” says Ben Ephson, a pollster and publisher of the Daily Dispatch newspaper. “They are entitled to their opinion.”

The court has wide leeway to rule, but it’s likely the justices will either uphold Mahama’s victory, overturn it in favor of Mr. Akufo-Addo, or change the votes enough to affect a run-off vote between the two candidates.

Any verdict would likely come with recommendations to improve the voting process to ensure that the sloppiness the NPP alleges doesn’t happen again, says Kwaku Boafoh Agyeman, president of the Association of Ghanaian Lawyers of America.

What would happen on the streets then is anyone’s guess. An overturning of Mahama’s victory would be unprecedented and perhaps incendiary, Mr. Agyeman says; so too would be the court rejecting the petition outright.

“If Ghana comes through this unfazed, this is going down in the history books,” Agyeman says. “You would not expect this to happen in Africa. [In] many other countries in Africa this would be some kind of civil war.”

War was not on Joseph Asmah’s mind as he stood listening over his radio to the deliberations in a business district just blocks away from the Supreme Court. He was alone among his coworkers at their electronics business, the only one who thought that perhaps the NPP had a case.

“I have my party, my friend has his party,” Mr. Asmah says. “We are practicing our democracy. So there are no rumors of war.”

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