Once again Ghana set the bar higher for the future of the democratic process in Africa. Much has been written about the past, present and the future of democracy in Africa and most of the literature and political analysis point to the many ills that hinder African democracy. However, the December 28, 2008 presidential elections in Ghana are a statement to the contrary, a statement of hope for democracy in Africa.
In a close run-off election, John Atta Mills of the opposition party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC), defeated Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) with 50.23% of the votes against 49.77%.   The outgoing Ghanaian President John Agyekum Kufuor served two terms (January 7, 2001-January 7, 2008), the maximum according to Ghana’s constitution.  During the elections there were a few incidents of violence and complaints by the opposition of irregularities in some areas, but nothing major happened to question the validity of the ballots.  Also, Ghanaians credit the success of the elections to Dr. Afari Djan for effectively running the electoral commission, with the help of a credible and responsible police force.
The birth of democracy in Ghana was in April 1992 with a referendum that approved the multi-party system.  Compared to many other African countries, Ghana is a well administered nation.  It has been relatively peaceful since its independence, with the exception of the 1994-95 ethnic violence over land in the North.  Like many nations in Africa, Ghana has suffered from corruption and has a record of four military coups, the most historic of which was the 1966 overthrow of Kwame Nkrumah, the first Ghanaian president.  He was a well known activist for the pan-African movement whose goal was and still is to capture and preserve African heritage, promote African values, end slavery, racism, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Ghana is named after the medieval empire in West Africa and it means “Warrior King.”  It is a former British colony that achieved its independence in 1957, but did not have an African president until 1960.
Ghana’s success stands out as an example for many African nations.  It contradicts the post-colonial trend of manipulating and imposing constitutional referendums by African heads of states to accommodate their ambitions for re-election beyond constitutional mandates.  Among the many examples are Chadian President Idriss Déby who has been in power since February 1991, and Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni who rose to power in 1985 and remains today.  They both took the office by force and are serving their third terms as a result of forced constitutional referendums that qualify them to run over and over for the office of presidency.
Additionally, in 2008 there were two military coups-to-power.  First, the democratically elected president of Mauritania, Mr. Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi, was overthrown on August 6th by a team of his military officers led by General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who now serves as President.  Interestingly, the United States has engaged in train and equip programs in Mauritania for years, funding the very forces who overthrew President Abdallahi.  Second, on December 23, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara proclaimed himself President of Guinea after the death of its longtime ruler President Lansana Conte who also rose to power by military coup.  Ghana’s successful elections are contrary to the ritual of military coup that has dominated African politics for a long time.
Furthermore, Ghana’s example calls for a change against the practice of rigging elections.  This was the case in the 2007 presidential elections in Kenya which, after being contested by the opposition, led to violence and claimed about 1000 lives and displaced approximately 1500 people.  The 2008 election in Zimbabwe is another example.  The two cases were bloody and settled by a power sharing deal facilitated by the international community.
Who is to blame for the failure of the democratic process in Africa? Some analysts point to poverty instead of greed; colonialism and neo-colonialism instead of corruption, mismanagement of resources, lack of strong democratic institutions, and lack political will to implement the aspirations of the people.  To have a democratic, peaceful and prosperous nation, it takes good governance, the rule of law, transparency, an active civil society, sense of common good, freedom of speech, respect for human rights, and all these in concert with a strong and genuine desire for a bright present and a brighter future.
If democracy is the government by the people and for the people, many African nations have a long way to go. However, Ghana is one of the few nations where the government has created channels for the civil society to influence policy through grassroots advocacy, freedom of speech in the media, and parliamentary lobbying.  Their work during the 2008 presidential elections bears witness to their strength.  Ghanaian civil society tirelessly called upon the political leaders, the people, the media, and the army to stay calm and allow the electoral commission to do its work.
On December 30th, a coalition of civil society composed of the Christian Council; the Catholic Bishops Conference; Civic Forum Initiative, and other eminent persons such as Maulvi Wahab Adams, Head of the Ammadiyya Mission in Ghana, contacted the Chief of Defense Staff as the tension grew when the run off got tighter.  In turn, he assured them “of the neutrality of the military and their loyalty to protect the State.”  Today, after a successful presidential election, Ghana stands out as a regional and international model of an emerging democratic nation.
By Bahati Ntama Jacques
(This article originally appeared in the January/February edition of Around Africa)