Ghanaian Opposition Leader Fears Election Fraud Could Create ‘Combustible Cocktail’
Ghana has long been considered Africa's most stable democracy. Now, opposition leaders say they have reason to fear those days are over.
When President Barack Obama made his first official trip to the African continent in 2009, it was no surprise that he chose to visit Ghana — the first African country to liberate itself from the holds of European colonization and a nation that has long been touted by the West as one of Africa’s best models for a free and fair democracy.
But despite Ghana’s relative success in hosting largely transparent elections and maintaining rule of law, opposition leaders from the country’s New Patriotic Party are now increasingly worried the ruling party has slipped into a pattern of corruption and malfeasance that could threaten the progress of Ghana’s young and fragile political institutions.
In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy in Washington this week, NPP presidential candidate Nana Akufo-Addo blasted what he deemed dangerous interference in the electoral process by the federal government, which is led by President John Mahama.
In August, the NPP claimed at least 76,000 people registered to vote in Ghana are not citizens but from neighboring countries, including Togo, and are attempting to skew next year’s election. Akufo-Addo pins the blame for those illegal registrations directly on Mahama’s administration.
“I think it’s pretty obvious…. It was the ruling party that was responsible for it,” Akufo-Addo told FP with a laugh. “Ghanaian elections should not be a West African election with Togolese and Burkanibés and Ivoirians and the rest participating.”
An extra 76,000 voters may not seem like enough to sway a vote one way or the other. But in 2008, Akufo-Addo lost the presidential bid by roughly 40,000 votes. In 2012, the election was not as close but still a tightly contested race: He lost by fewer than 326,000 ballots.
Akufo-Addo challenged the 2012 election but lost in September 2013 when Ghana’s Supreme Court declared in a 5-4 ruling that Mahama was “validly elected.”
The upcoming 2016 election is expected to be close as well, and once again it will pit Akufo-Addo against Mahama. But it comes at a far tenser time for Ghana’s flailing economy, which has suffered a massive setback under Mahama’s administration.
Akufo-Addo said the cocoa industry, which as Ghana’s largest export accounts for more than 8.2 percent of the country’s GDP, has been politicized under Mahama. That, he said, has led to the weakening of Ghana’s economy on a larger scale. The West African nation’s debt is now over 70 percent of the GDP, signaling a danger point in the developing economy.
“For cocoa farmers, if you are not thought to be politically on the right side, you are victimized by your farms not being sprayed,” Akufo-Addo said. “Those are not ways to help the growth of the industry.”
Meanwhile, Akufo-Addo is not the only one calling for election reform. In September, demands for a new electoral commission turned violent after pro-NPP protesters clashed with anti-riot police in the capital of Accra. And earlier this month, a nonpartisan conference of Ghana’s top bishops called for further investigation into claims that foreigners were illegally registered in the electoral poll.
A lawyer by training, Akufo-Addo was adamant in his conversation with FP that he accepted the 2013 decision to stand by Mahama’s win and does not plan to dwell on the past.
But he remains concerned that if the voting process is not reformed, post-election protests could turn violent or threaten Ghanaian stability next year. Much of that threat would be exacerbated, he said, if the economy is still spiraling downward. “Add to that political uncertainties and wrangling, and it becomes quite a combustible cocktail,” he said with a wave of his hand, showing off his white handkerchief tucked neatly under the sleeve of his navy blue suit jacket. “We don’t need it. We just don’t need it.”
Akufo-Addo, himself the son of former Ghanaian President Edward Akufo-Addo, declined to comment on whether or not he would refuse to participate in the election if the balloting is not reformed. But he said complaints from Ghana about the electoral process have been placed on the back burner by world leaders, like those in the United States, who see the complaints as secondary to different crises, including wars and famines, that terrorize other parts of the continent.
“Crying out for electoral reforms and a new register may not have the same resonance that it may have in some parts of the continent because we’ve had this very favorable background,” he said. “But it’s all the more reason that we should be listened to. We don’t want a situation where the stability and the progress that has been made [are] compromised.”
Ballot-stuffing, double-registering voters, and paying foreigners to illegally register is standard fare in many African elections. Nigeria’s election in March was largely considered the first fair election the country had ever seen. In Mali’s 2013 election, opposition leaders claimed the ballot boxes had been so heavily stuffed with illegal votes that the minister responsible for the polls should resign. In Burundi this year, the president’s bid for a third term that many saw as unconstitutional prompted a refugee crisis in the region.
But J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., told FP that in terms of the lack of international attention to a more stable country like Ghana, Akufo-Addo has a point.
The United States, for example, provides roughly $6 billion to Africa in foreign aid each year. But that money is divvied up to address a wide range of needs in various sectors, including humanitarian assistance, electoral monitoring, and public health. Countries like Ghana, which have managed to build their own institutions and require far less hand-holding than war zones like Somalia and South Sudan, are rarely prioritized.
“Even though the pie isn’t shrinking, it isn’t getting bigger either,” Pham said. “So when it comes to the funding for democratization in Africa, the absolute pool has shrunk, and in that we tend to prioritize cases that are particularly egregious.”
At the same time, Akufo-Addo said he hopes the United States and other international allies will not just focus on sending observers for Ghana’s election in 2016, but will also invest interest in the entire process leading up to it. He planned to raise those concerns with members of African subcommittees in the Senate and House this week.
“We don’t want a democratic process where the appearance of formalities [is] there, but at the end of the day the whole thing is skewed by money and incumbency to generate a predictable response each time,” he said.
Photo credit: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images