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