Ghana Hopes for Losers Gracious as Dole

Voters want post-election stability to continue an African success story

"Congratulations to America!" said a Ghanaian friend, shaking my hand vigorously. "Well done to President Clinton and congratulations to Dole for conceding," said another.

Ghana's fervent hope is that its politicians and their ardent supporters will display similar magnanimity after Dec. 7. That's when Ghanaians go to the polls for the second time since their new constitution was drafted by a Constituent Assembly five years ago. They will elect a president and 200 members of parliament.

President Jerry John Rawlings is eligible to serve one more term. He is a former Air Force flight lieutenant who took the country by force in 1979, quickly handed it over to an elected government, then took control again in 1981 after apparently concluding that an elected government just wasn't up to the challenge of turning Ghana around after years of mismanagement and chaos.

Mr. Rawlings ran the country with an iron hand for 11 years until the democratic wave in the wake of a crumbled Berlin Wall and a collapsed Soviet Union forced him to steer a new course. In 1992 he formed a coalition political party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), and won election over candidates of three old-line, cash-strapped opposition parties.

International observers declared the election "free and fair." The opposition cried "a stolen verdict" and boycotted parliamentary elections a month later. Rawlings/NDC swept practically every seat.

No one thinks it will happen that way this time. The president's opponents are much better financed and organized - though their resources are still dwarfed by the Rawlings/NDC incumbency machine. And parliamentary races are being vigorously contested all over the country.

Opposing President Rawlings

Rawlings's main opposition is the Great Alliance, a coalition of the pro-business New Patriotic Party, with businessman J.A. Kufuor running for president, and the Peoples Convention Party, a traditionally liberal party with K.N. Arkaah as vice presidential candidate. Mr. Arkaah, the current vice president, finally broke away from his boss - though he did not resign - following an alleged "scuffle" with Rawlings at a Cabinet meeting last summer.

Everyone has a lot at stake Dec. 7. Many African nations are desperately urging the international business community to be more discerning in its African analyses. If that community can invest in Germany when Bosnia is falling apart, they argue, it should be able to apply the same logic in Africa.

This is a crucial test for Ghana, a rapidly emerging free-enterprise democracy. Americans, Canadians, and Europeans have provided significant financial support to the electoral process as part of their campaign for African "democratization." So they care. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund point to Ghana as a great success story as they extol their much-heralded - and much-maligned - structural adjustment programs in the developing world.

But it is the Ghanaians themselves - 17 million in a country of 92,000 square miles, about the size of the American state of Oregon - who have the most to gain and lose. Since becoming the first African nation to win independence (from the British) in 1957, Ghanaians feel as if they have literally been through hell. There have been a series of short-lived constitutional governments and military interventions, an exodus of millions of Ghana's best and brightest to Europe and North America, and an ensuing breakdown of systems in the public and private sector as uncertainty and fear reigned. No wonder that in this deeply religious nation the rise of independent and charismatic Christian church groups has been meteoric.

For some years Ghana has been on a patient, unswerving road toward a very different future. New small businesses focus on such things as tourism, export-products like pineapples and African ethnic foods for London and New York markets, and African handicrafts, home furnishings, and clothing for the US Afrocentric market. Joint ventures mine Ghana's gold reserves, build housing subdivisions, and construct processing plants to can the catch from rich off-shore tuna grounds.

Some expatriate Ghanaians have begun to return. Many more send money home - much of it funneled into the current real estate boom. The financial sector has been restructured and liberalized. Public enterprises - including two prestigious state-owned banks - have been divested, their shares sold to the public. And, in the run-up to elections, the pace of roadbuilding and new electrical service commissionings - a priority for Rawlings - has reached a high pitch.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad recently brought 80 officials and 120 business leaders on a four-day state visit in which five government-to-government trade agreements were signed and four business ventures were formally launched. Since the late 1960s - when race riots almost destroyed Malaysia - hard-nosed public policies, long-range state planning, and vigorous investment in infrastructure and education have propelled Malaysia into the forefront of the "Asian Miracle."

'Vision 2020' from Malaysia

For years Rawlings and his top strategists have studied and courted the Malaysians. The Mahathir visit just four weeks before the election was a major boost for Rawlings and for Ghana's goal of becoming a middle-income nation by 2020. This "Vision 2020" - to which Rawlings and others, including Great Alliance candidate Kufuor, often refer - comes straight from the Malaysians' planning book!

So, yes, if this election goes badly all Ghanaians stand to lose hugely: to lose money, lose faith, and lose their dream of emulating the Asian Tigers and becoming an African Lion. But if the election goes well, the future seems very bright indeed.

Ghanaians watched carefully as American candidates flung mud at each other, each other's spouses, and each other's friends and colleagues. Then, one day, it was all over - a predictable stability. In a new democracy people are nervous to the point where political functionaries are rumored to have booked foreign flights after the election.

In the final days of campaigning, things are, as the Ghanaians say, getting "hot, oh!" Rallies draw large crowds. Loudspeakers blare from campaign vehicles. Front pages exhort: "What you, the public, must do: 1. Pray. 2. Be Tolerant 3. Vote, come hell or high water." "Your opponent is not your enemy!" "Elections without violence guarantee development."

The five new independent FM radio stations organized a Peace and Reconciliation Concert. The weekend editorial of The Mirror said: "The quest for peace during the crucial moments before and after the Dec. 7 general elections has become the prayer of every Ghanaian. This is because any little ugly incident will not only breach the peace but may also trigger off other incidents which may ultimately put this country in a chaotic mess."

Ghanaians are painfully aware of African crises in Liberia, Zaire-Burundi-Rwanda, and Somalia. They know it must not happen here. As for me, I've put my faith, and a small piece of my retirement savings, behind the peaceful, persevering Ghanaians. I will also pray.

Nate Bowditch has lived and worked in Ghana for most of the past six years as an economic development project manager and Fulbright Senior Research Scholar.

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