Democracy in Ghana: The Rawlings Mystique Endures
Onadipe, Abiodun, Contemporary Review
Last December marked a major milestone for the fledgling democracy in Ghana. For the first time in its political history, a civilian administration was able to complete its term in office and also secure a renewed mandate democratically. The Rawlings mystique that has enraptured Ghana for the past 15 years was still potent enough to make this happen. Ghana has returned from the precipice, Ghanaian pride has been restored through hard work; it is now a respected member of the international community - the appointment of Kofi Annan as the first black African to head the United Nations, speaks volumes.
It can be said that Ghana has left the ranks of African countries wracked by military coups and repressive dictatorships and has joined the field of countries with civilised, responsible and representative government - in effect, a democracy that actually works in Africa. The fact that the Rawlings administration took on the opposition in a free contest is heartening because democratic role was not tampered with during its first term in which Jerry Rawlings's National Democratic Party (NDC) had an overwhelming parliamentary majority. In other words, Ghana is miles ahead of Nigeria when talk turns to democracy in Africa. Rawlings who will lead Ghana into the next millennium has been given a chance to consolidate his accomplishments which he began 15 years ago as a fire-brand air-force officer. This article will review the twists and turns of the historic election, while contemplating the future of the Rawlings rule based on its tempestuous past.
Ghana's election proved, among other things, that there are still some sporting losers around in Africa's burgeoning democratic milieu, as the defeated candidates - both in the presidential and parliamentary races, which were held simultaneously - congratulated the victors without rancour and accepted the election results. Also surprising were the accolades heaped on the chairman of the Electoral Commission, Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, from all quarters for carrying out his tasks dutifully. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) election monitoring delegation noted in its report the 'remarkable preparation made by the Electoral Commission to improve on its performance of 1992.' In the presidential race, Rawlings, aged 49, leading the Progressive Alliance comprising his own NDC, the Eagle Party and the Democratic Peoples' Party (DPP), won 57.2 per cent of the votes; his main rival John Agyekum Kufuor, aged 56, of the National Peoples' Party (NPP) - the senior partner in the Great Alliance - won 39 per cent while the third candidate, Edward Nazigrie Mahama, aged 51, of the Peoples' Convention Party (PCP, the other opposition alliance party) won three per cent. (Mahama was a compromise candidate chosen 10 weeks before the elections due to the divisive activities of its leader, ex-president Hilla Liman.) And in the contest for the 200 parliamentary seats, NDC won 132, NPP 62, PCP five and a single seat was won by the Peoples' National Congress.
The elections were reported to have been free, fair, peaceful and keenly contested - there were no boycotts that had marred the 1992 edition - with the use of transparent ballot boxes being used for the first time in Ghana. The Commonwealth Observer Group reported that: 'These elections mark an important advance in the democratic process in Ghana. Overall, they have been well planned, organised and conducted. It is significant that all parties were determined to contest the election and they did so vigorously. The people of Ghana have demonstrated their commitment to the democratic future of their country.' The voter turn-out was impressively high: 7.03 million voted out of the eligible 9.3 million electorate.
That Rawlings won was not a forgone conclusion, despite the incumbency factor and the limitless resources at his disposal even though early indications were that Rawlings would win because the opposition had no 'Rawlings-beater'. The results showed that it was not an easy victory as the opposition alliance, despite its many limitations, gave Rawlings a good run for his money. Although the incumbency factor played a significant part in Rawlings' re-election (he milked the advantage for all it was worth: uninterrupted media coverage, use of government facilities and transport for his campaign) his popularity was probably the most crucial factor. He had assiduously courted the voters through populist projects: re-building Ghana's crumbling social structures including roads, hospitals and providing electricity for rural areas. This should be an excellent case study for Africa's growing ranks of democratic leaders.
Although it is typical for incumbents in Africa to be re-elected (a few cases stand out: Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia and Matthieu Kerekou in the Republic of Benin, who had both lost out in 1991. Kerekou staged an electoral comeback last year while Kaunda was barred from contesting by a dubious constitutional amendment) the Rawlings victory left no obvious after taste. His lengthy stay at the top appears to have been an advantage in other less obvious ways. For one, the younger voters, who have known only Rawlings as head of state, seem impressed enough to vote for him rather than an unknown opposition figure. Also, there appears to be some kind of affinity between him and younger Ghanaians who see him as one of them because of his age - often referring to him as JJ or Jerry. His dashing good looks did not do him any harm, either.
Rawlings was also able to claim victory because the coalition of opposition parties (the Great Alliance, comprising NPP and PCP) could not agree on a joint candidate early enough to run creditably against Rawlings. 'If we, the opposition groups, had worked together to provide one presidential candidate and fielded joint candidates in the 200 parliamentary constituencies, we would have easily defeated Rawlings and won a majority in parliament', an NPP official lamented after the elections.
Curiously, the NDC lost all but one of the ten regional capitals, but won heavily in the rural areas, where the majority of Ghanaians live. Rawlings had strategically targeted rural areas for development, providing roads, water, electricity and other facilities that usually encouraged urban drift and he was amply rewarded with a second term. Despite the fact that he has been at the helm for the last 15 years, Rawlings blamed the opposition for the neglect of these areas, charging during the campaign, that: 'The opposition finds it painful to see the roads, the electricity, the safe water. . . They have even said in moments of despair and envy that we should take our roads away, that providing electricity is cheap vote catching. . . In saying such things they reveal their lack of concern for the people especially those deprived sectors who were for so long taken for granted.'
The issue of provision of rural services in the end decided the election. The NDC ran its campaign on a pithy slogan: '"Let there be light" for rural people for they are Ghanaians too.' The election, largely fought on issues rather than personalities, saw the opposition trying to use the dismal economic figures unsuccessfully, even though it was the soft under-belly of the Rawlings government. For instance, the rate of economic growth had slowed considerably since 1992 with a correlating sharp rise in the rate of inflation and fall in the standard of living, prompting accusations of insensitivity being levelled against Rawlings, especially because of the ostentation in which the presidential household was said to live. The opposition, which had planned to perform well enough to force a second ballot but were thwarted by Rawlings securing a simple majority, believed that their electoral performance was not disgraceful in view of the resource-strapped environment within which they had operated. Kufuor, who had complained about lack of funds and logistical facilities to prosecute the campaign properly, was content that despite these handicaps they had given their best and promised that they would be better prepared for the next election at the turn of the century.
This time, the opposition Great Alliance was a marriage of convenience of two irreconcilable partners who had one thing in common - getting Rawlings out of Osu Castle, the seat of government. (The alliance of Nkrumaist PCP and its arch rival NPP of Kofi Busia was unprecedented and shocked followers of Kwame Nkrumah who had led Ghana to independence in 1957.) The PCP and the NPP are opposing blocs in Ghana's politics, which found tentative agreement at the leadership level but not at the grassroots. It is conventional wisdom that an alliance against a common enemy is bound to unravel when the target is removed; this alliance was unable to defeat its target. It must, however, be recognised that the ability of both parties to form an alliance, no matter how ineffective, can be seen in a positive light: it showed that politicians were capable of setting aside ideological differences in the 'national interest', implicitly demonstrating the essential give and take which characterise democracy - a heartening sign for a young democracy like Ghana's.
The idea was for a joint presidential candidate for the alliance (Kufuor was eventually selected) whilst the parties presented candidates in parliamentary constituencies in which they were strongest. Initially, the alliance could not agree on a joint list of candidates for the 200 parliamentary seats. This disagreement did irreparable damage to the coalition's electoral prospects and almost destroyed the alliance itself as its vice presidential candidate, Kow Arkaah (the erstwhile vice president in the Rawlings government) threatened to resign. Eventually a compromise was reached: 112 seats were ceded to the NPP while the PCP got 86; though in many constituencies other members of the coalition still presented candidates against the official aspirant, further undermining the pact.
To compound its disarray, during the campaign the opposition alliance came up with a bizarre strategy: to use Rawlings's popularity against his party. They planned to encourage Ghanaians to re-elect Rawlings (explicitly admitting defeat) in the presidential race, and entice them to vote for the opposition in the parliamentary race in order to overturn the massive NDC majority. For a while, this game plan caused NDC strategists many sleepless nights because they feared that the unenlightened electorate (given the limited exposure to elections in the country) could let the opposition dominate parliament, thus making it difficult for Rawlings to get his policies through easily. In fact their fear was hinged on the impact such an arrangement would have on the fledgling democratic experiment in Ghana, arguing that it was all right for mature democracies like the US to have an opposition-controlled legislature. In the end, it was much ado about nothing; probably the fact that they had voiced their fears in such an alarmist way, helped defuse this potential threat. The PCP's deputy secretary, in a press interview, admitted that the stratagem was not well worked out: 'We shot ourselves in the foot by being too sectional and selfish'.
Although Rawlings was returned to Osu Castle, many of his cabinet ministers did not make it back. Prominent among these were Mohammed Ibn Chambas, the deputy foreign minister and a member of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (formed to monitor democratic progress in Nigeria following the execution of playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa by Nigeria's military junta in November 1995), David Boateng, minister for social welfare and employment, Samuel Dankor, deputy health minister, Owuraku Amofa, deputy tourism minister and Albert Bosumtori-Sam, government chief whip. Whilst all the candidates (except Mahama) played the regions to their advantage, Rawlings had a good electoral spread in the 10 regions. For instance in the Ashanti region, Kufuor's stronghold, Rawlings secured 32.7 per cent against Kufuor's 65.8 per cent (Mahama, 1.4 per cent), while in Rawlings's backyard, the Volta region, there was a virtual electoral shut-out with Kufuor only managing to amass five per cent, Mahama (0.8 per cent) and Rawlings 94.3 per cent. In the Northern region where Mahama was expected to perform creditably, Rawlings received 62.1 per cent, Kufuor 32 per cent and Mahama 5.9 per cent.
It is true that the opposition operated on very tight budgets thus making the NDC virtually the only party on the ground with its massive presence around the country. The opposition boycott of the 1992 parliamentary election also made this possible as the NDC held sway at all levels of government. As a result, the pre-election view was that Rawlings would be re-elected (since no 'Rawlings-beater' had emerged), but that the opposition would control parliament, which was what they tried unsuccessfully to achieve. It was even more surprising that the opposition could not even take advantage of the waning of Rawlings's popularity during this period prompted by widespread disillusionment with his government which was consistently rocked by a series of corruption scandals within his cabinet. Also, his economic reforms were deeply unpopular. For instance, there was popular reaction against the introduction of value-added tax that the government quickly reversed itself. More damaging was the fact that the much advertised welfare reforms were not forthcoming; the promise of eldorado did not materialise. Rawlings's popularity rating was at its lowest ebb in years as his mystique took a severe battering during that period. This nose-dived further when he had to resort to fisticuffs with his vice president in December 1995 after a long period of mutual antagonism.
It all began in 1992 when Rawlings appointed Nkanson Kow Arkaah, leader of the National Convention Party (NCP) as vice president in, what then appeared to be, a strategic alliance between the NDC, NCP and the Eagle parties. This marriage of convenience turned out to be Rawlings's poison chalice as his government got bruised several times by the acerbic and consistently critical views of its vice president. Arkaah, who was regularly sidelined in decision making, grew impatient with this major political slight. Public rows ensued between the two leaders and eventually came to a head after the VP denounced Rawlings at the NCP convention alleging marginalisation and insensitivity. The president lost his cool and physically assaulted the older man, further tarnishing his officer-gentleman image. He, nevertheless, was not made to pay for it at the polls. The Rawlings mystique saw him through the bad patch.
This incident, which invariably ended the coalition government, provided Rawlings with the opportunity to answer his critics who doubted that his government could weather the storm, especially in an election year. December's resounding victory showed that the NDC has learned to go it alone, highlighting the government's resilience and the determination of Rawlings, who had been given up for dead especially in view of the seemingly strong alliance that was being ranged against him. Rawlings was more circumspect in choosing a running mate this time around, so much so that the expected announcement at the party's congress in September was not forthcoming. A case of once bitten twice shy.
Rawlings, however, revealed other reasons for the caution in selecting the right running mate: someone who would carry on the Rawlings 'revolution' and keep the party together since this would be his last term in office. 'Since the June 4 (1979) uprising through the December 31 (1981) revolution to the present life has been strenuous for my wife, Nana, and I, and the party must be looking forward to the year 2000 and beyond. Others have to assume the mantle so that some of us can play other roles,' he told the NDC faithful at the pre-election party congress in Sunyani last September. In the end, the Rawlings choice was a surprise and uncontroversial: a politically unknown 52 year-old University of Ghana law lecturer, Professor John Evans Mills, who was then serving as Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. 'Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would one day be asked to serve as a running mate to President Rawlings,' the surprised choice said, according to West Africa Magazine.
Now that Rawlings has earned his second term the hard way (in comparison with the 1992 effort), reconciliation and change are being demanded by Ghanaians. National reconciliation is essential because it is believed that Rawlings has alienated himself from the general populace through the execution of many politicians and former leaders, the imprisonment and confiscation of peoples' property. 'Rawlings's AFRC (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council) and the PNDC (Provisional National Defence Council) created many wounds and polarised the society. Since he became president in 1992, he never met the opposition or the private press. . . There is a need to build bridges. All Ghanaians should be made to feel they belong to Ghana,' declared Kabrah Blay-Amihere, the Ghanaian president of the West African Journalists' Association, in a newspaper interview after the elections. Clarification of these assertions requires a brief examination of Rawlings's ascendancy.
For many years, there was high level corruption in government, the economy was moribund and social life precarious. In short, the once glittering Gold Coast of Africa was but a tarnished relic waiting for a saviour. Rawlings became that saviour, which is why his initials earned him the sobriquet - 'Junior Jesus', blazing his way to power in 1979 as a feisty flight lieutenant in a coup that toppled General Fred Akuffo. In a vengeful 90-odd day rule (between June and September) Rawlings executed Akuffo and two former heads of state - Generals Afriffa and Acheampong for sundry 'crimes against the people' in his manic bid to sanitise the country. Dramatically Rawlings handed over to an elected government headed by Hilla Liman (on the day he relinquished power, Rawlings joined the guard of honour inspected by the newly inaugurated president, endearing himself to the Ghanaian populace) whom he returned to overthrow in 1981.
For Rawlings, the Liman administration was a total disaster; being incompetent and corrupt, it had invariably turned the hands of the 'revolutionary' clock back that as a result Rawlings had no confidence in experimenting anymore by handing over power to anyone else. And he set about the task of cleansing the society with vigour and considerable brutality during the first six years of his dictatorship. He, however, showed he was only human when he resigned his military position and entered partisan politics while still head of state 'due to the popular wish of Ghanaians'. Thus setting the trend in the sub-region: political transfiguration.
Although it can be argued that Rawlings's re-election only proves that the political malaise of sit-tight leaders in Africa still exists, it should be noted that his was a popular choice (which cannot be said of the stage-managed reelection of Frederick Chiluba in Zambia) and also this is his last term in office, with no possibility of a reversal. In any case, he would have ruled Ghana for 19 years - a lot less than many other incumbents in Africa; but unlike them, he would have a lot of positive things to show for the time spent at the top. In this respect, Rawlings needs to bring about effective change if his legacy is to endure. His first term, which saw many cabinet ministers embroiled in corruption scandals and, because of the longevity in power, the presidential household was guilty of ostentatious consumption in a poor society, Rawlings should use his second term to straighten things out and leave a strong democratic legacy so that the Rawlings mystique would survive in Ghana for the right reasons.
[Dr Abiodun Onadipe, a specialist in International Relations and Conflict Analysis, is a Programme Associate with Conciliation Resources in London.]…
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Publication information: Article title: Democracy in Ghana: The Rawlings Mystique Endures. Contributors: Onadipe, Abiodun - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 270. Issue: 1575 Publication date: April 1997. Page number: 190+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.
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