On Friday December 7th, Ghana held its Presidential and Parliamentary elections with voting extended into Saturday due to technical glitches with new biometric voting machines that required voters to ID themselves by their fingerprints. This was the sixth election held since the military regime of Flight Lieutenant Jerry John Rawlings transitioned into a democratic one in 1992.
As with the international coverage of the last four to five Ghanaian elections, the same basic phrases have been repeated ad nauseam across multiple outlets:
“Ghana, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, is regarded as one of Africa’s most stable democracies.” (Thank you, BBC.)
“Ghana has one of the longest traditions of democracy in this troubled corner of Africa…” (Props [?] from the Washington Post)
Now, I don’t take Ghana’s relative peace for granted—particularly in the wake of challenges to this weekend’s election results by the opposition party. It was less than 50 years ago that soldiers overthrew Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, and in the years that followed, four more coups. Many of Ghana’s neighbors share a similar history, and in some African nations the recent history has been marred with election related unrest. The violence that followed the 2007 elections in Kenya, and Zimbabwe’s tense 2008 elections are two cases in point.
The international press jumps on these negative stories, and coupled with images of war, abject poverty, continues to caricaturize Africa. I think that’s what pisses me off about the effusive “compliments” about Ghana’s relative peace.
I’m proud Ghana is recognized for evolving from an era of coups to democracy. I love that President Obama chose to visit Ghana for his first trip to the continent as President, citing the country’s restored history of peaceful power transitions. But I think this focus on basically not acting the fool during an election is not only insulting, but obscures other important issues the nation’s leadership needs to deal with.
I was living in Ghana in 1992 when the country held its first democratic election since 1981, and many of the same problems that plagued the nation then—regular electricity power outages, and lack of access to a consistent supply of clean drinking water among them—still challenge Ghana.
Just this past October when I was in Accra covering the inaugural Ghana Fashion & Design Week, the electricity company shut the power off almost daily as part of its load-shedding program. Those of us impacted by Hurricane Sandy-related outages can imagine the inconvenience, and for companies unable to afford a generator, business regularly grinds to a halt. In many neighborhoods across Ghana—poor and middle-class—the water company regularly shuts off water, forcing residents to invest in water tanks.
Don’t get me wrong. Ghana is an amazing, and yes, peaceful nation. The history is incredibly rich with far more to tell than the coups and resulting instability that sent over two million Ghanaians packing for more stable countries.
Today, visitors to the nation will find traditional Ashanti buildings from the 12th and 13th Centuries still standing, while the slave castles from which many Africans would leave the continent in chains at the height of the Transatlantic Slave Trade have been chillingly preserved.
Ghana boasts acres of rain forest, miles of beach, and many breathtaking waterfalls. The nation is chockablock with talented artisans that daily turn out genius, one-of-a-kind embroidery, Kente cloth, sculptures, and more.
The country formerly known as “the Gold Coast” is still rich in resources from gold to aluminum, diamonds, and oil. Chocolate lovers already know Ghana is one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of cocoa.
Like most countries in Africa, Ghana doesn’t fit into the negative picture many news outlets and even well-meaning charities paint. In between the poles of incredible wealth and heartbreaking poverty, lots are doing exactly what many of us do in the States everyday: go to work, drop their kids off at school, and try to make a cedi out of 15 pesewas.
Ghanaians know how to vote and accept the result, even if their preferred candidate didn’t win. For this reason—and for these peace-loving citizens—Ghana’s elected leadership needs to be held accountable for more than maintaining peaceful democracy. That’s what they are supposed to do. They need to raise the standard of living for all of the people; and the standard of governance for themselves. Peace and democracy are the starting point, but we cannot end there.