Ghana was thrown into the international spotlight just months ago with the sudden death of President John Evans Atta Mills. The nation’s peaceful handover of leadership to the former vice president, John Dramani Mahama, underlined why the nation has long been regarded as an exemplar of democracy in the region. While the official mourning period has ended, campaigning is underway in what is expected to be one of the closest election races of the year between the two main contenders, the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the rival New Patriotic Party (NPP).
Social welfare provision and economic policy, coupled with the traditional emphasis on party politics and personalities will define the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in December.
Boasting one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa and having achieved (low) middle income status last year according to Word Bank figures, the continent’s newest oil producer is among the few Sub-Saharan African countries likely to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals by 2015, according to leading economist Jeffrey Sachs.
“[The government] has been investing for a long time in health and education, gender equality, and it has made a lot of progress. But there are parts of Ghana that are extremely poor and really need a lot of accelerated investments,” said Sachs in an interview earlier this year.
This is the challenge that lies ahead of presidential candidates Mahama and opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo: managing the economy in a way, which ensures that growth stimulated by oil, mining and cocoa production, benefit all Ghanaians.
But with oil production far lower than projected, Ghana’s economic growth rate, which skyrocketed last year, is expected to halve to 8.2% this year, slowing further to 7% next year, according to a Reuters poll. This coupled with the sharp depreciation of the Ghana cedi against the greenback by 18% over the past year; a failed multi-billion dollar government housing project deal and millions of cedis paid in judgment debts, will mean the NDC government will have to work hard to prove it can drive the economy forward.
The 58-year-old incumbent Mahama, fares from Ghana’s northern region, served as the minister of communications for the government of Jerry John Rawlings and has supported development initiatives in Ghana’s poor and deeply underdeveloped northern region. Mahama will come up against opposition leader Akufo-Addo, 68, a British-educated lawyer turned politician who served briefly as the attorney general and the minister of foreign affairs under the NPP government of John Kufuor. Both candidates have picked senior officials in Ghana’s central bank as running mates for the vice presidency to bolster their credibility.
Akufo-Addo was defeated in 2008 in the second round vote by less than 1%. While tensions were high during the run-off, Ghanaians accepted the results and there was a peaceful handover of government. But civil society groups have expressed concern that acrimonious debate between rival candidates—for which Ghana’s political culture is notorious—could flare up conflicts, particularly in the north of the country where tribal, ethnic and land disputes persist.
“My biggest concerns are the politics of insults and vindictive language, at all levels. We are afraid that might influence people to act violently,” says Justin Bayor, the national coordinator for the Ghana Network for Peacebuilding.
While the distinctions between the major political parties are minor—the NDC is generally regarded as more social democratic, placing a greater emphasis on the role of state institutions, than its counterpart, that is regarded as more “business friendly”. Both parties have the goal of lifting Ghana out of its economic dependency on revenues generated by natural resource concessions and creating a middle-class industrialized society through using oil revenues to jumpstart the manufacturing sector.
The NPP has kicked off campaigning throughout the country and has outlined its goals for industrialization and trade policies that will encourage the growth of domestic business and industry. Mahama just finished a tour of the region and has hit the campaign trail, but the NDC is yet to release its policy document. With only two months left it is either party’s election.
“We are expecting a very close race. At this stage it’s difficult to know who will win,” says Selorm Branttie, a researcher at the Accra-based policy think tank IMANI.
Clair MacDougall is a journalist who is based in Monrovia and covers West Africa.