The inauguration of Ghana’s president, John Dramani Mahama, on Monday was packed with visiting heads of state and foreign dignitaries, but perhaps the most important guests to take a seat in Accra’s expansive Independence Square were the robed judges of the country’s Supreme Court.
They have been tasked with deciding if the 54-year-old president really won last month’s election or if the voting was marred by fraud, as the country’s largest opposition party alleges in a lawsuit filed after the results were announced.
President Mahama – a former vice president who took over in July after President John Atta Mills died in office – was elected to a full term with 51.7 percent of the vote to the 47.7 percent garnered by New Patriotic Party (NPP) candidate Nana Akufo-Addo. International observers call the vote free and fair.
Soon after the votes were announced, the NPP emerged with allegations that the vote had been stolen by Mahama’s National Democratic Congress, and promised to take both the president and the electoral commission to court to prove it. Until the court rules, the challenge will hang over Ghana's regionally respected track record in elections and the rule of law.
“It is not an easy decision for us to tell the people of Ghana that we will not accept the results of the election as declared by the chairman of the electoral commission,” Mr. Akufo-Addo told a press conference late last month. “But we had to accept the responsibility of righting what in our view was the wrong of an invalid election.”
Mahama’s inauguration speech called for unity in the West African nation – home to a fast-growing economy and a stable democracy that’s seen three peaceful transitions between presidents.
But before that unity can be achieved, the 13 judges in the whitewashed colonial building down the street from Independence Square will have to figure out what, if anything, went wrong with last month’s polls, and what to do about it.
Akufo-Addo’s lawsuit alleges that 1.3 million votes were improperly cast, and asks the judges to reverse the outcome of the election to give him the victory.
The lawsuit claims foul-ups ranging from unsigned ballots to ballots cast without use of the new biometric verification system. The system scans voters’ fingerprints to prevent fraud, but ended up breaking down in some polling places.
A study released last year by the World Justice Project ranked Ghana as one of the most steadfast in the region when it comes to rule of law, and with a court composed of jurors appointed by different presidents, how they’ll rule on Akufo-Addo’s challenge is anyone’s guess.
Isaac Owusu-Mensah, a political science lecturer at the University of Ghana, said the case is a chance for the court to rise above the country’s often-feisty partisan politics.
“Now [the court] has an opportunity to show their [independence], that the judiciary is not in bed with the opposition or the government,” says Mr. Owusu-Mensah in a phone interview.
Owusu-Mensah questions how well the court would receive some of the evidence brought forth by the NPP, but says the party’s claim that people voted without verification may prove decisive when the justices consider the case.
“The law says in a polling station, if there’s no verification, there’s no voting. The votes will not be counted,” says Owusu-Mensah. “It means that Mahama wouldn’t have gotten 50 percent and Akufo-Addo wouldn’t have gotten 50 percent.”
That would force a runoff vote, which would send Ghanaians back to the polls.