Obama in Ghana
U.S. President Barack Obama after speaking to the Parliament of Ghana in Accra in 2009. Chuck Kennedy

The presidential election in Ghana bears an intriguing resemblance to the just-completed U.S. contest for the White House.

There are several parties on the ballot, but only two stand a chance of winning. The incumbent is taking credit for economic growth, but he admits there is still much more to be done. The challenger, who tried and failed to win the presidency four years ago, is a wealthy man with powerful connections -- some say he’s out of touch. It’s late in the game as Election Day draws near, but the polls show both contenders neck in neck.

Indeed, when Ghanaians cast their votes on Dec. 7, the Nov. 6 re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama will be fresh in their minds.

The race pits President John Dramani Mahama, of the National Democratic Congress, or NDC, against challenger Nana Akufo-Addo, a longtime political heavyweight representing the New Patriotic Party, or NPP.

In this West African country of 25 million, the stakes are high. Ghana is a remarkable success story whose stability and growth are often celebrated, but today, years of progress are in danger of coming undone.


There is no shortage of concerns that could potentially influence the Ghanaian election: climate change, public education, income inequality, national debt -- voters can pick their poison.

But Kwadwo Fordjour, a Ghanaian-American who heads up the Environmental and Community Development Consultancy in Seattle, says that one issue is paramount and must be dealt with before anything else can be tackled.

“The real issue that dominates the election is corruption,” he said.

That dreaded c-word is tossed around freely in Ghana these days, and the candidates regularly accuse each other of putting self-interest ahead of the public good. Yet, Ghana is a relatively scrupulous country.

Since 1992, when Ghana adopted a multi-party democratic system, two major anti-corruption organizations -- the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice, or CHRAJ, and the Economic and Organized Crime Office, or ECCO -- have kept watch over the activities of Ghana’s politicians. Over time, several high-ranking government officials have been charged with offenses, usually involving the diversion of government funds allotted to construction projects, but these crimes have not been huge in scale.

Moreover, the latest report from global watchdog Transparency International ranked Ghana the fifth most corruption-free society on the African mainland. Ghana is viewed as more transparent than economic heavyweights like China, Brazil and Italy. Indeed, elections are competitive, dissent is widely tolerated and the press is independent.

Neither of Ghana’s presidential candidates has been accused of any wrongdoing by either of the country’s anti-corruption groups. And on the campaign trail, Mahama and Akufo-Addo promise to take corruption seriously. Mahama has said he will submit himself to any investigations in order prove his openness and integrity. And Akufo-Addo has vowed to make political corruption, now a misdemeanor, into a felony.

Yet, Ghanaians are nonetheless fearful that corruption and power grabs will destroy the gains that the country has made recently. Evidence that this can and will happen in Africa is all around them. The continent is full of success stories gone bad -- places where wealth was squandered, pilfered or used to fund violence. For example, oil profits have been woefully mismanaged and stolen in places like Nigeria and Angola. Diamonds have financed dictators like President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and warlords like Charles Taylor in Liberia.

Ghana’s next president will have the weight of this history on his shoulders as he tries to lead Ghana through its trickiest phase of development.

'We Need a Real Recovery'

Ghana has always been rich in natural resources; it is Africa’s second-largest producer of both cocoa and gold.

But everything changed in 2007, when a massive oil deposit was found in the Atlantic Ocean just off the Ghanaian coast. The Jubilee oil field began production in 2010 and is currently generating an average of 85,000 barrels a day.

The National Democratic Congress has run the country during Ghana’s oil boom, and things have gone swimmingly -- until recently. In 2011, while much of the developed world was in recession or just about, Ghana’s economy grew by 14.4 percent, more than any other African country.

Revenues were by and large put to good use. Poverty rates are falling, school enrollment is on the rise and environmental protection initiatives are making slow but steady progress. The NDC’s tight monetary policies kept inflation in check, and a well-managed tax collection system is given credit for minimal deficits.

But among the positive signs, there are clear dangers. Ghana’s economy is now heavily dependent on oil and lacks diversification. It has no real firewall against a plunge in crude prices. In addition, as a result of the oil jackpot, more and more Ghanaians are migrating to cities, and farm dwellers are increasingly feeling left behind. Income disparities between the rural north and more developed south are becoming increasingly apparent. Food production is down, and manufacturing has never been Ghana’s strong suit; as the population grows, demand for foreign imports is surging.

And as this era of feverish economic expansion comes to an end, Ghanaians complain that the cost of living is rising as their currency depreciates. GDP growth in 2012 is projected to be around 7.5 percent, according to the World Bank -- not bad, but a far cry from 2011.

Ghanaian voters now face a question that Americans should be very familiar with: Is the incumbent government to blame for the recent economic downturn, or did it soften the blow?

Dealing With Tragedy

This isn’t the first time Akufo-Addo has had his name on the presidential ballot; he also ran four years ago as the New Patriotic Party standard bearer. A former Foreign Minister, Akufo-Addo ran a spirited and by all accounts honest campaign against John Atta-Mills, who had been Vice President of the country in the late 1990s. Atta-Mills was a smart and gifted politician with a long record in academia as an expert in law and economic development.

The 2008 Ghanaian election was incredibly close, with Atta-Mills outlasting his opponent by a mere .5 percent. But the results were widely accepted. It was Ghana’s fourth peaceful presidential election since 1992.

And now, round five.

When Ghanaians go the polls in early December, they will be carrying the weight of tragedy with them. In July, Mills died of throat cancer, three days after his 68th birthday. He was the first Ghanaian president to die in office and a pall was cast over the country.

Vice President Mahama quickly assumed the presidency, bemoaning the “saddest day in our nation’s history.”

“In Ghanaian culture, when somebody dies, it is a huge tragedy,” explained the environmentalist Fordjour. “Death brings people together in Ghana.”

Fordjour, who backs the NPP, and other Ghanaians opposed to the incumbent NDC government say that Mahama and his party are exploiting Atta-Mills’ death to gain an advantage with voters who are still stunned by it.

In an attempt to prove his bona fides as a global player, Mahama was among the first world leaders to congratulate Obama on his re-election this month and publicly establish a link between the two administrations.

“I look forward to continuing to work with you and your government, to strengthen and deepen the excellent partnership between Ghana and the United States of America over the next four years, for the realization of fruitful programs that will inure to our mutual benefit,” said the letter, according to Modern Ghana.

But NPP General Secretary Kwadwo Owusu-Afriyie is fighting hard to dispel that narrative. He argued forcefully that Mahama is nothing like Obama and will not enjoy an incumbent’s advantage.

“John Mahama is not up for re-election as he has never been elected to the high office of President, and so he cannot compare himself to President Obama who was up for re-election,” said Owusu-Afriyie on Thursday, according to The Statesman. “John Mahama should rather compare himself to President Gerald Ford who finished the unexpired term of President Nixon only to lose his own election.”

'You Didn’t Build That'

Much of the campaign has revolved around a high-minded discussion of the differences between the two major parties. Akufo-Addo’s NPP is more supportive of the private sector and free market capitalism than the NDC, which favors more government involvement in economic development.

But despite its laissez-faire leanings, the NPP’s biggest idea in the campaign is to provide free high school education for all Ghanaian children, claiming that this step will in time create a younger generation that is more entrepreneurial and idea-driven -- and that will redound to the benefit of Ghana’s economy. The NDC also supports expanding educational opportunities but believes that sending extremely poor children who live in homes without water or electricity to school by itself is not a solution; first, the government must deal with the problems of poverty in the rural communities before additional schooling will be viable.

But this debate took a back seat this week as a disaster in the capital city of Accra made international headlines and highlighted the government’s most pressing challenges. A four-story shopping center collapsed on Wednesday, trapping dozens of people. At least 69 survivors have been found so far, but nine dead bodies have been pulled from the rubble.

On that day there was no flooding, no gale force winds and no earthquake -- the collapse was a result of faulty construction, and reports suggest that this tragedy could have been prevented. The building was situated within the constituency of Ghanaian parliament member Elizabeth Sackey, who told The Daily Guide, a local newspaper, that the structure had not been granted a building permit.

“I spoke to the building inspector; to my surprise he is telling me they never gave a permit for this building. And I asked him, if they didn’t, how come the building was put up until now, and they have not done anything about it?” she said.

Fordjour isn’t surprised by these reports.

“If you want to build something in Ghana, it can take years to get a permit, so people just go without one,” he said.

In general, he added, governmental regulation is simply not a part of everyday life: “Most people don’t depend on the government for their livelihoods.”

These suspicions surrounding the building collapse have brought again to the fore the fears that corruption will harm Ghana’s future the way it has hurt the African continent as a whole. In Ghana, few are concerned about corruption with a capital “C” -- such as embezzlement of tax revenues or diversion of international aid. Instead, there is the gnawing perception that without adequate regulation, the system will corrupt itself in a million little ways that, ultimately, will endanger economic growth.

Recognizing this, Mahama responded to the tragedy by vowing to prosecute those responsible. “Drastic action will be taken and the city authorities are going to be held responsible," he said, according to Reuters. "Anyone found culpable will face the full rigors of the law."

Afuko-Addo was less confrontational.

“There will be time to find the causes of this tragedy, responsible for the loss of life and injury to so many people, but at this time, I would like to express my heartfelt sympathy to those who have been affected by this tragedy,” he said, according to the Statesman.

The race between these two men is extraordinarily close. Polls differ on which party will win, but not on the conclusion that the margin of victory will be extremely slim.

At such a pivotal time in Ghana’s history -- when the economy is fragile but growing and questions of poverty, education, private market liberalism and environmentalism bedevil the country -- Ghanaians have plenty of reason to worry about their future, and about how the outcome of this election will affect it.

But the country can also take some consolation in the fact that one person who knows something about running a country is more sanguine.

"There's sometimes a tendency to focus on the challenges that exist in Africa -- and rightfully so,” Obama said earlier this year. “But I think it’s important for us to also focus on the good news that’s coming out of Africa, and I think Ghana continues to be a good-news story."