Ghana's new president: Africa's symbol of a working democracy

John Atta Mills took the oath of office Wednesday after a closely contested race.

Rich Clabaugh/STAFF
Luc Gnago/Reuters
NEW LEADER: John Atta Mills was sworn in as Ghana's new president Wednesday.

Thousands of Ghanaians packed Independence Square in the capital Wednesday to welcome their new president after an election so close that one small rural constituency held the key to victory for opposition candidate John Atta Mills.

Ghana's orderly transition of power is a bright spot after a dismal year for democracy in Africa. More than 1,000 Kenyans died in violent attacks that followed a disputed election 12 months ago. Kenya's crisis was followed by Zimbabwe's flawed elections, which resulted in a power-sharing agreement that has yet to be implemented. In Mauritania and Guinea, the military seized power from the elected governments.

"The election in Ghana is very important because the year started so badly with the violence in Kenya," says analyst Tom Cargill, assistant head of the Africa Program at the Chatham House, a research group in London. He points out that successful elections were held in Zambia last year, and in Sierra Leone in 2007. "The general trend is in a positive direction and Ghana is a continuation of that," he says.

Ghana has been embraced as an example to the continent's fledgling democracies. Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga, described Ghana as "a rare example of democracy at work in Africa." United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon called Ghana "an admirable example."

That the election was peaceful and transparent is all the more remarkable because the stakes were so high – revenue from reserves of 1.8 billion barrels of oil is expected to flow in 2010 – and the margin of victory was wafer-thin. Nine million votes were cast yet, only 41,000 – less than half a percent – separated Mr. Mills of the center-left National Democratic Congress (NDC) from his opponent Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling center-right New Patriotic Party (NPP).

The winner was conciliatory in victory. "There is no NDC Ghana, there is no NPP Ghana .... There is one Ghana," Atta Mills told cheering supporters after official results were announced this past weekend. "I assure Ghanaians that I will be president for all," he added.

One Western diplomat in Accra pointed out that a close election does not have to be violent. "This is [more like] Florida, not Kenya," he said.

America's 2008 presidential election loomed large over Ghana's poll. Supporters of the two main parties talked of their dreams for an "Obama" – here meaning a first-round win – and analysts hoped that the loser would follow Sen. John McCain's example by conceding quickly and graciously. This Mr. Akufo-Addo did.

Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi of the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development described the "mutual loathing and distrust" between the political rivals, yet it did not erupt into violence.

So why has Ghana succeeded where others so spectacularly fail?

Ghana's multiparty democracy is youthful but entrenched. Its unlikely progenitor was Jerry Rawlings, a serial coup organizer and military ruler. But in 1992 Mr. Rawlings reestablished multiparty democracy and there have been four elections since.

In 2000, Ghanaians voted for a change of government when Atta Mills, hand-picked by Rawlings, lost to John Kufuor, the outgoing president who handed over power Wednesday. That showed Ghanaians that their votes count and their politicians can be held accountable as Rawlings was, booted out for running a corrupt regime and a disastrous economy.

This time Mr. Kufuor's party was punished, say analysts, for failing to improve the lives of poor Ghanaians even as the economy grew at around 6 percent a year.

Also significant is Kufuor's willingness to abide by the law and leave office after two terms as demanded by the Constitution. Often in Africa, leaders are tempted to change the Constitution in order to stay in power.

Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, for example, changed the law rather than give up power as did Chad's Idriss Deby and Cameroon's Paul Biya. Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe shows no sign of giving up power after 28 years. Africa's longest-serving head of state is Omar Bongo of Gabon: 41 years in power, the country's only ruler since independence.

Unlike Kenya's electoral campaign, Ghana's politicians eschewed stoking ethnic divisions: they exist but remain in the background.

Ghanaians will tell visitors that they are proudly Ghanaian first; they are Ashanti, Fanti, Ga, or Ewé second. And they are aware that the continent was watching this election. "Here, we cannot be like in Kenya," said businessman John Ewusu, expressing a common sentiment during the elections.

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