The Best Worst Country in Africa
Take note, Obama: Ghana's gains are great -- but by no means irreversible.
For keen observers of Africa, U.S. President Barack Obama's choice of Ghana for his maiden presidential voyage to sub-Saharan Africa does not come as a much of a surprise. Ghana is one of the better-governed countries in Africa, and its December presidential race confirmed that the country's multiparty elections are highly competitive and mostly clean. Ghana boasts a decidedly vibrant media and active civil society, of which I am a part. In addition to impressive economic growth rates in recent years, Ghana has made significant progress in reducing poverty, halving its number of poor people during the past decade. The country even qualified for the 2006 World Cup -- one of just five countries in Africa to do so. It has done all this despite significant religious and ethnic diversity.
For keen observers of Africa, U.S. President Barack Obama’s choice of Ghana for his maiden presidential voyage to sub-Saharan Africa does not come as a much of a surprise. Ghana is one of the better-governed countries in Africa, and its December presidential race confirmed that the country’s multiparty elections are highly competitive and mostly clean. Ghana boasts a decidedly vibrant media and active civil society, of which I am a part. In addition to impressive economic growth rates in recent years, Ghana has made significant progress in reducing poverty, halving its number of poor people during the past decade. The country even qualified for the 2006 World Cup — one of just five countries in Africa to do so. It has done all this despite significant religious and ethnic diversity.
Compared with some of the countries Obama won’t be visiting this week, the differences are stark. One "obvious" choice for his first foray on the continent might have been Nigeria, for example, with its large population and petroleum resources — but with an awful record of suspicious elections and endemic corruption. Or, Obama could have gone to South Africa, which has no peer as Africa’s economic powerhouse. Instead, Obama passed up other African countries whose geopolitical relevance dwarfs Ghana’s to send a clear message: Good governance and democracy are the route to prosperity and stability.
Yet even if Ghana is an example by comparison, I worry about holding the country up as a model for other sub-Saharan African countries to emulate. Ghana has significant hurdles to clear and institutional gaps to close in order to secure the democratic and developmental gains it has made. Failure to acknowledge those remaining challenges puts the Ghanaian experiment at risk — and raises the possibility that its entire premise will be discredited.
Of primary concern is the very nature of the state itself. Ghana is overly centralized, and some of the institutions and practices inherited from the country’s authoritarian past remain as they did half a century ago. The national security apparatus, for example, was built for a police state. The executive branch is too dominant and includes vast discretionary powers. Ministers and other executive appointees remain poorly regulated at best, entrenching opportunities for political patronage. It is no wonder then that presidents in the past decades have taken the chance to appoint a plethora of ministers, with Jerry Rawlings boasting more than 80 ministers, John Kufuor with 88, and current President John Atta Mills so far naming 75 — and still counting.
Transparency and accountability are weak, largely as a result of this executive power glut. The legislative and judicial branches have relatively little clout in comparison. The salaries and perks offered to the president and his ministers are shrouded in secrecy; public officeholder asset disclosure rules are inadequate and hardly enforced; and successive governments have stalled on passing any "right to information" legislation that would bring about change. The previous administration is said to have spent more than $70 million — a princely sum in West Africa — on 2007’s 50th-anniversary celebration of Ghana’s independence. Eighteen months later, that government has still failed to present financial reports on the program.
Aside from intrinsic threats to the system, there are also a number of new challenges ahead that could stall Ghana’s democratic progress. Mills won by a sliver of a margin in December’s election, and his approach to politics has been highly partisan. Already, the administration seems to be devolving into a system that plays to the party in government rather than the people, with party activists chasing after spoils to the exclusion of others. The president’s partisan appointments to state boards and national councils have not been encouraging. Ruling-party activists have also taken matters into their own hands, unilaterally seizing control of public toilets, taxis, and local councils as political spoils.
In Ghana, Obama should see a country that is neither wholly backward nor assuredly on the right track. Of course, he should commend Ghanaians for exceptional progress in successful change of government through peaceful, competitive elections; free speech and free press; poverty reduction; and other achievements. But he must also use the occasion to strongly urge Ghana to address gaps in the integrity of election administration and stress the need to build up the now-short tradition of free and fair elections. Putting in place institutional checks and balances, entrenching transparency, and prosecuting corruption will prove even more important as Ghana becomes an oil-producing country, thanks to a massive offshore field discovered in 2007.
There are also regional conversations to be had on the occasion of Obama’s visit. Just last week, the African Union decided to resist the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is accused of various war crimes. Ghana is a member of — and, Obama hopes, an example to — the African Union. With that role comes great responsibility. So, celebrate Ghana’s successes? Yes. But the U.S. president also should make clear that he expects much more.
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