– As Ghanaians prepare to go to the polls this weekend to choose a new president, there are concerns that the enormous and growing quantities of cocaine trafficked through the country pose a threat to one of Africa's rare success stories.
The sweltering, coastal West African state has, since the 1990s, been an oasis of stability in a notoriously volatile region. While its neighbors suffered civil wars and unrest, Ghana replaced military rule with multiparty democracy, and its economy – based largely on the export of gold and cocoa – has been growing steadily in recent years, at around 6 percent annually.
Ghana might be among the best-governed states in West Africa, but according to a recent United Nations report, it's also one of the two leading shipping points for drugs trafficked between South America and Europe (the other is Guinea-Bissau). International drug enforcement officials estimate that as much as $2 billion worth of cocaine is trafficked via West Africa each year, which represents roughly a quarter of all the cocaine imported into Europe.
Officials at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime talk of West Africa as being "under attack" and facing "a crisis of epic proportions."
The drug trade is international, but analysts warn that the impact is local. "The greatest threat to Ghana's democracy is from the drugs trade," says Kwesi Aning, a crime expert at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center in Ghana's capital, Accra.
"It would be naive to suppose that in a country that is a hub for cocaine trafficking in the region some of that money does not trickle down into politics just like it trickles down into policing, customs, and the judiciary," he adds.
All of these institutions – already weak in the developing nations of West Africa – have been undermined by the drugs trade and the vast sums of money that come with it.
"The cocaine threat highlights institutional weaknesses," explains Professor Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development. "The top leadership of the police has been implicated in ... the drug trade, yet investigations are inconclusive and there is failure to bring people to book."
Observers point to the case of the MV Benjamin, a ship carrying two tons of cocaine, almost all of which simply disappeared in 2006. The 30 kilograms that were seized later vanished from a locked storage room at police headquarters, yet no officials have been prosecuted.
Alleged traffickers frequently jump bail or their cases collapse due to lack of evidence, even when they are caught red-handed.
A member of parliament for the ruling center-right New Patriotic Party (NPP), Eric Amoateng, was jailed in the United States last year after being convicted of attempting to smuggle $6 million worth of heroin. Mr. Aning says that Mr. Amoateng is just one example of politicians whose wealth is questionable.
"People are raising some very tough questions about how this little man from a very small town, who was a school teacher and totally broke, initially even won the party primaries and how his excessive wealth was never questioned by the people in his town or his party," says Aning.
In Amoateng's hometown he is still regarded by many as a generous philanthropist – where his fortune came from is unimportant. Aning says this shows that the threat of the drugs trade is not limited to government and its institutions. "These excessive funds are beginning to undermine our sense of community and our societal values," he warns.
In the run-up to this weekend's election, opposition activists have accused the NPP of using cocaine funds to fuel its campaign – allegations strenuously denied by party officials and its presidential candidate, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, who has promised to crack down on the traffickers.
Yet the mud has stuck. "I cannot vote for Nana because he is taking that cocaine money," declares Francis Soja, a taxi driver in the capital who says he will vote for the opposition.
Sunday's vote – the fifth since multiparty democracy was established in 1992 – is expected to be close. President John Kufuor's chosen successor, Mr. Akufo-Addo, and his main opponent, Professor John Evans Atta Mills of the center-left National Democratic Convention, are running neck and neck.
Prof. Atta Mills has twice lost to Mr. Kufuor, but it has always been close. After both parties failed to win outright in the first round in 2000, the NPP won the run-off with 57 percent. And in 2000, its first-round victory was a narrow 52 percent. Analysts say there may have to be a second-round runoff vote before Christmas.
Whoever wins will inherit a country with an enviable reputation for democracy, where newly discovered oil reserves of up to 1.8 billion barrels could further boost the thriving economy. The first oil is expected to be pumped in 2010, bringing in billions in petrodollars. As Akufo-Addo said in a recent interview, "You're playing for probably more than one election.... You're playing for power for a generation."
There is a lot at stake, but Aning has no doubt where the new president's priorities must lie. "My argument is that we can only celebrate this election if the new government is bold enough to tackle the drugs crisis," he says. "That should be at the top of its agenda. I don't think the battle is lost, no, [but] we need concerted political will with the resources and the manpower. Then we can win the battle."