At a campaign rally for John Dramani Mahama, Ghana's president, in Accra, December 2016.
Luc Gnago / REUTERS

Whether democracy will play a central role in Africa’s future has been an open question for most of the continent’s postcolonial history, and perhaps no events so vividly signify democratic progress as do elections. But by focusing on the details of the contests that define democratic transitions, it is easy to overlook the deeper roots of effective democratic governance, which lie in strong institutions and the political cultures that support them. 

Last month’s presidential election in Ghana—its seventh since its return to democracy in 1992—was a reminder that the country is a case study in both of those positive tendencies. The election, won by Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), was free, fair, and competitive, and the handling of the vote was praised abroad. What sets Ghana apart is a long-standing history of institutional strength and nation-building. Preserving those advantages will require the more equitable distribution of the gains of the country’s economic progress in the years ahead. 

WHAT HOLDS GHANA TOGETHER

In the years before European colonization, the territory that now constitutes Ghana was no stranger to strong government: it was controlled by several kingdoms, among which, in the late seventeenth century, emerged the Ashanti Empire. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Ashanti developed a robust central administration and army; at the empire’s peak, it occupied a large part of what is now modern Ghana. Over the course of the nineteenth century, its ambitions to control the region’s coastal kingdoms were checked by the colonial power of the United Kingdom. Yet after the Ashanti’s territory fell entirely under British control in 1902, its institutional foundations remained intact. London ruled indirectly, managing the territory through local political and administrative structures, as it did in many of its other colonies, in part to cut costs. The so-called native authorities enjoyed a degree of autonomy in the administration of day-to-day domestic affairs.

At the time of its independence in 1957, Ghana already had a centuries-long statist culture, and its new leaders were relatively well equipped to develop a strong government supported by sturdy institutions. Elites favoring a highly centralized state and traditional regional powers found a balance in a kind of dual system: Ghana’s leaders built the national administration necessary for modern governance, but they also allowed chieftaincies and traditional authorities to survive and play an important role in Ghanaian society. Today’s Ghanaians, for example, can still settle a number of civil matters in customary courts.

Supporters of Ghana's President-elect Nana Akufo-Addo celebrating his victory in Accra, December 2016.
Supporters of Ghana's President-elect Nana Akufo-Addo celebrating his victory in Accra, December 2016.
Luc Gnago / REUTERS

Like its neighbors, Ghana has experienced its share of communal violence—most notably, in 1994, when fighting in the country’s north left between 1,000 and 2,000 people dead—and is home to a wide array of ethnic groups. Yet the country has never seen the recurrent crises that have plagued Nigeria in recent decades, nor has it gone through the kind of brutal civil wars experienced by such countries as Liberia or (to a lesser extent) Ivory Coast. 

This stability is one result of Ghana’s success at safeguarding a widely held national identity from internal tensions. The tradition of promoting that identity began in the years after Ghana’s independence, when Kwame Nkrumah, the country’s first prime minister and president, banned regional, religious, and ethnic political parties and, fearing Ghana’s fragmentation, opposed any movement toward federalism. To strengthen society’s link to the state, Nkrumah promoted equal access to education through free schooling; he also sought to establish Ghana’s economic independence through massive infrastructure projects such as the Volta River Dam. Nkrumah’s preoccupation with Ghana’s cohesion outlasted his rule, surviving a succession of military regimes that governed Ghana between 1966 and 1992. As a result, when Ghana has seen major upheavals—as it did during the coups against him, in 1966, and against the military leader Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, in 1979—they have been driven primarily by grievances related to economic performance and heavy-handed governance rather than by secessionist forces.

Since Ghana’s return to democracy in 1992, sustained economic growth has limited the potential for instability. The economy has expanded by an average of more than 5.5 percent over the last 20 years, and over the same period, the number of Ghanaians living in poverty has fallen by more than half. This has helped build a middle class whose shared interests—improving living standards, educational opportunities, and official accountability, for example—favor voting along political lines rather than ethnic, religious, or regional ones. In the most recent election, four regions that voted for incumbent president John Mahama’s National Democratic Congress in 2012—Brong-Ahafo, Central, Western, and Greater Accra—swung dramatically toward the NPP in 2016.

Economic growth is not generating enough jobs, feeding into an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth.

More generally, Ghana’s institutions are broadly viewed as legitimate by the country’s citizens and leaders. That was demonstrated by the turnout in the most recent election—some 68 percent of eligible Ghanaians voted. Although Ghana had already experienced two peaceful transitions of power between competing parties, the most recent election was the first time that one had come before an incumbent president had met his term limit. Mahama’s willingness to accept the results showed that concerns about his willingness to accept the outcome were misplaced. Ghanaian politicians have showed restraint during a number of other recent turning points that, had they been mishandled, could have led to crises. After the death of President John Atta Mills in 2012, for example, Vice President John Dramani Mahama was sworn in without mishap and then won a presidential election a few months later. Akufo-Addo, who was Mahama’s opponent in that contest, legally challenged the results, but when Ghana’s Supreme Court ruled against Akufo-Addo, he accepted his defeat.

STATE POWER

Ghana’s biggest challenges are economic. 2016 brought the lowest GDP growth rate in years, at less than 3.5 percent (it is expected to recover to more than 7 percent in 2017 on the back of new oil production). What growth is occurring is not generating enough jobs, feeding into an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth. In 2013, more than 24 percent of Ghanaians lived in poverty. What is more, in recent years, the money produced by Ghana’s oil reserves (which the country began extracting at a large scale in 2010) has let the government postpone painful reforms, such as the elimination of costly energy subsidies, which it did not lift until last year, and has removed some incentives for budgetary discipline. Ghana’s debt-to-GDP ratio rose from 36 percent in 2009 to almost 71 percent in 2014, when oil prices collapsed. (It has since fallen to 65 percent.)

Processing cocoa pods in Akim Akooko, Ghana, September 2012.
Processing cocoa pods in Akim Akooko, Ghana, September 2012. 
Kwasi Kpodo / REUTERS

Recent natural gas discoveries off Ghana’s coast could increase the country’s supply of electricity when they come on-stream in 2018. The World Bank–backed Sankofa Gas Project, for example, could help support some 1,000 megawatts of additional power capacity over the next 14 years, allowing Ghana to replace some of the dirtier, more expensive fuel it now imports and enabling the construction of new power plants. The goal is to put an end to the electricity shortages that have impeded the country’s economic progress: according to the World Bank, shortages reduced Ghana’s GDP growth rate by at least two percent between 2014 and 2015. More power capacity would remove the bottlenecks that have constrained Ghanaian industry, benefitting, for instance, the country’s power-hungry aluminum sector.

Oil revenues account for only eight percent of Ghana’s GDP, but the stress that the recent plunge in oil prices put on Ghana’s economy has nevertheless highlighted the need for reform. The good news is that Ghana is well positioned to unleash the potential of its economy by investing in infrastructure; privatizing key areas, such as the electrical sector, to improve their efficiency and attract investors; and diversifying its industries. Ghana’s agricultural sector, for example, could benefit from the large-scale cultivation of crops beyond cocoa, such as coffee and cashew nuts; by developing agroprocessing capabilities, it could also move up the value chain. A stronger economy would help Ghana develop its service sector, where most of the job-creation potential lies, and make the most of its young workforce. Those steps could help Ghana produce more inclusive economic growth—and as recent votes in Western countries have shown, that is essential to maintaining public faith in democratic institutions. 

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • GUILLAUME ARDITTI is the Founder of Belvedere Advisory and a Lecturer in International Relations at Sciences Po.
  • More By Guillaume Arditti