Business as Usual?

Edward Akuffo on whether or not the upcoming elections in Ghana and Sierra Leone will mean fundamental change.
By: /
November 16, 2012

Sierra Leone and Ghana will hold national elections on Nov. 17 and Dec. 7, respectively, to elect new presidents and parliaments for the next four (Sierra Leone) and five (Ghana) years. The stakes couldn’t be higher, as both countries have recently discovered oil and joined the ranks of oil exporters. In other words, these countries have become strategically important in West Africa.

The leading political parties in Ghana’s election race are the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC), led by President John Mahama, and the New Patriotic Party (NPP), led by Nana Akufo-Addo, who served as an attorney general, and minister of foreign affairs under the Kufour administration.

In Sierra Leone, the front-runners are the All People’s Congress (APC), led by the current president, Ernest Bai Koroma, and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), led by candidate Julius Maada Bio.

The litmus test for these elections is whether the contesting political parties have policies and the political will to transform the economy and address issues related to human security in a way that would have a wider impact on security in West Africa and beyond. In other words, would these elections contribute to rewriting 21st-century African history as a democratically stable, secure, and economically prosperous continent? Can these states overcome the “resource curse” trap in Africa?

Ghana faces numerous political and economic challenges, yet its democratic credentials and recent political history stand in contrast to that of Sierra Leone. Ghana saw an end to brutal military dictatorships in 1992 that ushered in the fourth republican constitution. Since then, the country has witnessed peaceful democratic elections every four years. Ghana added to its democratic credentials when the vice-president, John Mahama, was sworn into office as the new president only a few hours after the death of president John Evans Atta Mills on July 24, 2012. This was the first time in history that a sitting president had died in Ghana, and the peaceful manner in which the transition was conducted has won a lot of respect for Ghana in Africa and beyond.

Sierra Leone, on the other hand, has not only experienced brutal military dictatorships, but also saw a civil war from 1991-2002 that claimed more than 50,000 lives, with several hundreds of thousands taking refuge in neighbouring countries. In view of their security interdependence, members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) did not stand idly by when Sierra Leone descended into anarchy. The Ghana military participated in the ECOWAS intervention force, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), which was the first to intervene in the conflict before the UN took over. Moreover, Ghana was a host to some Sierra Leonean refugees. This dark history lingers in Sierra Leoneans’ memories, even as they celebrate the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone’s April 2012 guilty verdict on former Liberian president Charles Taylor for aiding and abetting war crimes during the civil war.

Against this background, Ghanaians and Sierra Leoneans welcome democratic elections as a “gift” to prevent violent conflicts, protect human rights, and provide opportunities for improved living standards. Indeed, the UN Security Council sees the Sierra Leone elections as a “key benchmark” for the consolidation of peace in a country that returned to democratic rule in 2002. 

Aside from traditional political rallies, both countries have held presidential debates that have afforded electorates the opportunity to learn more about the proposed policies of the contesting parties. These presidential debates, if sustained, would help to deepen the democratic culture in Ghana and Sierra Leone. In their current form, however, the debates focus on the formally educated who can read, speak, and write English (though the general public is alternatively informed through the private media, especially FM radio stations, which broadcast in local languages). Yet, English speakers and foreign audiences would appreciate presidential debates that discuss the major security and development challenges that confront these countries, and their implications for the wider security of the West Africa sub-region. In fact, keen observers would agree that national elections in Africa are no longer domestic affairs, as they attract a wider international audience because of their global security implications.

Ironically, what is significantly missing in the run-up to the Ghana and Sierra Leone elections is any serious debate on foreign policy and its implications for security and development. In Ghana, for instance, when foreign policy issues have come up during the election campaigns, they have been limited to the showing on TV of violent images from civil wars in places such as Liberia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone. Noting that West Africa has a high incidence of intrastate violence and circulation of small arms and light weapons since the late 1980s, the images may serve educational purposes for the conduct of peaceful elections. Nonetheless, it may as well be a mischievous tactic to create fear and intimidation that can affect the voting behaviour of electorates to keep the ruling party in power. Indeed, foreign-policy discussions in domestic elections should focus on creative policies and innovative approaches that would project a positive image to the outside world for investment opportunities while building stronger partnerships with other African states for overall security and development.  

To be sure, Ghana and Sierra Leone have experienced GDP growths in the past 10 years. As these countries join the ranks of oil producers in addition to exporting other raw materials, it is expected that their respective GDPs will continue to grow over the long term. Indeed, the African Economic Outlook has forecast Ghana and Sierra Leone’s GDPs to grow at 7.7 per cent and 10.2 per cent, respectively, in 2013, despite the ongoing global financial crisis.

The growth in GDP, however, does not appear to have fundamentally transformed the economies of these countries from raw materials exporters into industrial producers. More importantly, the GDP growths have not led to significant improvements in the living conditions of the people. The UN Development Programme’s 2011 Human Development Index ranks Ghana and Sierra Leone at 135 and 180, respectively, out of 187 countries. The challenges of human security and development in these countries are diverse. Indeed, some reports on Sierra Leone indicate rising corruption, declining purchasing power since 2007, rising food prices, and rising youth unemployment. Similarly, a high cost of living, youth unemployment, and personal insecurity due to armed robberies have almost become a norm in Ghana. As well, Ghana’s NDC government is accused of paying controversial judgment debts to companies that sought remedies for what they alleged as wrongful abrogation of contracts by previous governments. It is expected that these issues will affect the choices of the electorates in the respective elections.

To avoid the so-called “resource curse” trap, politicians in Ghana and Sierra Leone should bear in mind that, despite their countries’ different political histories and levels of development, their general publics share the same aspirations, such as being able to have jobs, food, housing, and affordable health care – things that lie at the centre of human security. Moreover, their people want to see transparent and effective management of national resources, including improvements in infrastructure such as roads and electricity, and professional security forces that do not dabble in politics. As ECOWAS member states, political stability and economic prosperity in Ghana and Sierra Leone are not mutually independent. Thus, the security of Ghana and Sierra Leone is inextricably linked to the wider security in the West African sub-region and beyond. Peaceful elections would improve the overall security and perception of Africa in the international arena. 

History shows that it is rare for African states to go to war with each other. It is, rather, intrastate violence that is a major challenge for peace, security, and development in Africa. In some cases, governments have turned against their own people. In countries such as Kenya, democratic elections have turned violent, leading to the loss of thousands of lives. Yet, intrastate violence does not respect the boundaries of other states.

Democratic elections cannot solve the security and development challenges of African countries in the long term if the practice is reduced to business as usual, which only allows politicians to come to power without implementing radical policies that would fundamentally transform the economy and protect human rights, the rule of law, and access to jobs, education, and health care, among other things. Let us hope that the upcoming elections in Ghana and Sierra Leone are not only symbolic, but, more importantly, deepen the democratic culture. Let us also hope that the elected governments take the necessary steps to consolidate a foundation that will fundamentally transform their economies and living standards, and allow for the promotion of sustainable human security in these countries and beyond.

Also in the series


The Tipping Point

Damon van der Linde on whether the election will be a tipping point into established democracy or renewed violence.

Watermelon Politics

Christina Stevens on the green-versus-red politics of the Sierra Leone election.

Interesting but Risky

Martha Kargbo on what it's like to be a journalist covering the election.

Keeping Elections Free and Fair

JHR's Executive Director Rachel Pulfer on how her organization has helped promote balanced coverage of the election in Sierra Leone.

Sparkle and Splinters

Rosalind Raddatz on why Sierra Leone’s resource wealth has yet to change its people’s fortunes.

Brave Reporting

Bob Press on the key role journalists play in defending democracy and human rights in Africa.

One Eye on the Ballot

Ato Kwamena Dadzie reflects on experiences working on radio in Ghana.