Opinions Mon, 20 Jul 2009

Is Ghana’s Democratic Experiment worth Celebrating?

Godwin J. Y. Agboka

The visit by Barack Obama, America’s first black president, to Ghana is now history—as his much talked about and long-awaited trip has ended. That said, questions have been asked about his choice of Ghana over (say) Kenya, his father’s place of birth, where he (Obama) also traces his direct roots, or even Nigeria, one of Africa’s economic and political powerhouses.

The primary reason Barack Obama gave, in all his interviews, for choosing Ghana over other African countries (for his visit) was to reward and celebrate solid democratic credentials, at the heart which is good governance. These are attributes which, in his view, are a function of Ghana’s political and economic environment. Such steady and healthy attributes have also been acknowledged by many other scholars, writers, commentators, politicians, and even cynics. Nevertheless, a debate still rages on that has put under the microscope Ghana’s democratic credentials and that questions whether Ghana was worth the choice for Obama’s visit, given that it was the foremost reason for Obama’s choice. I have read some analyses on this subject that have cast doubt on the democratic achievements of Ghana—negating Obama’s reason and choice. Some have called Ghana’s current environment, “shaky”; others have called it a “charade,” while others have rightly pointed to the many negative developments that characterized the 2008 elections as evidence of a political system that is bleeding. One writer even pointed to voting along tribal lines, and questioned why people in a truly democratic nation will do that.

Yet, others even say that electoral successes are not a good yardstick for assessing the success of a country’s democracy, a view I share. Indeed, democracy is such an abstract, vague, and, at the same time, a huge concept, that chalking successes in elections will all but satisfy only one condition. Even more so, elections in Africa—and, in some cases, all over the world—tend to favor the bully, the financially powerful, and the strong men.

There is little doubt that on a continent where many countries take the opposite direction when discussions of democracy surface, the bar for assessing good governance is often lowered. Thus, currently, the bar for good governance particularly has been lowered to such a level that anything mediocre by and from any country will be hailed as a success story. Prior to President Obama’s election, I did say that President Obama couldn’t perform any worse, considering the political and economic failures of the Bush administration. Thus, it is not entirely untrue that Ghana might be reaping the benefits of being part of a continent whose democratic achievements are so poor.

Nevertheless, to argue that Ghana’s democratic journey has been fraught with or still has had problems, so it should not be celebrated smacks of hypocrisy. Such a viewpoint is the work of a group of cynics and narrow thinkers, who think that democracy or good governance is a product—not a process. Does a country need to have a perfect democratic record to be considered a success story? What is the yardstick for determining success, anyway, within the context of the discussions of good governance and democracy? Is Ghana’s current political environment not a function of a historical process whose beginnings were a far-cry from what is happening today?

Didn’t the USA have its fair share of problems in the 2000 elections? Were there not registration-related problems in America’s 2008 elections? Do such developments make their system any less democratic? The argument can be made that the US has lost some shine as the democratic standard bearer of the world, because of the events of the past eight years, but, surely, other pioneers and torch bearers have had their own share of problems. Perhaps, what President Obama shouldn’t have done was to have been calculated in his praise-singing mission that painted a rosy picture about the Ghanaian situation, and, therefore, fogged up the teething problems in Ghana’s political system. His speech almost fell into the trap of valorizing a fledging democratic nation, which is still tottering, but he was not wrong in his choice of Ghana, that is if good governance was his real reason. The events of the last seventeen (17) years have put Ghana on the map of nations that have made calculated attempts at respecting the rights of their citizenry through freedom of speech, respect for human rights, right to choice, and economic growth. It is important to mention that even though Africa gets all the bad coverage for its poor democratic record, it is only young in terms of when it had the right to control its own destiny; more so, the concept of democracy is new to Africans. More specifically to my argument, Ghana is ONLY 50 years in this journey towards democratic stability and maturation, compared to other advanced nations that have been in this business for more than 200 years. Yet, throughout this process, Ghana has successfully organized five democratic elections since 1992, two of which have seen the transfer of power from one government to the other, including many other relatively healthy developments. Viewed on a continuum, the case can be made that the media landscape has also improved throughout Ghana’s political process—there are many developments I can point to.

The cynics soon forget that the 1992 in Ghana elections were almost a one-party affair, because the New Patriotic Party (NPP) justifiably argued that conditions were not ripe for it to contest the parliamentary elections. Fortunately, though, the 1996 elections were better, even though there were many malpractices in many areas. More significantly, whether it was a result of some external pressure or through his own doing, Jerry Rawlings handed over power to the NPP, after concerns had been raised earlier about whether he would leave office after his party lost power. More recently in 2008, Nana Akufo Addo was almost seen as the de facto president by his peers, but having contested in the most closely contested elections in the country’s history, and coming off concerns of potential harassment from National Democratic Congress (NDC) officials, he and the NPP handed over power. Definitely, one can make the case of rigging and violence in these elections, but the cases that characterized the events of 2008 are nowhere near those of (say) 2000, 1996, or 1992.

Democracy is a work-in-progress that is always under constant revision. Thus, Ghana’s achievements—that is, if cynics will call them so—should be analyzed and discussed within a broader historical, political, and developmental context. Such a broader view will acknowledge that the events of 1996 were better than those of 2000, or the events of 2008 were better than those of 2000. Societies learn from history and progress is measured by the level of changes that have taken place today (building on yesterday’s). It is retrogression if the events of yesterday are better than today’s. Surely, media freedom, a primary tenet of democratic development, was better under the NPP than it was under the NDC (1992-2000). That is because the NPP learned from history and improved upon events under the NDC. While democracy is not judged by the level of noise that people can make about a government without fear of being hounded, it is surely a mark of the progress a society has made (or is making). Such developments, however, do not suggest that Ghana has an impeccable political system; there is no such thing as a faultless political process. Ask the pioneers of democracy! Definitely, the events of the last elections where people were hounded and killed are negative spots that leave a bad taste. The media landscape still suffers from political influences, not to mention shameful assaults on media personnel, including discrimination on gender lines. That rigging still characterizes our electoral process, while people still vote on tribal lines is a huge indictment of and a cause for concern in Ghana’s journey to political maturation.

What Obama should have said was that in spite of the healthy political and economic developments taking place in Ghana, there are many issues begging for attention. That said, he didn’t necessarily have to say that, because Ghanaians knew. Perhaps, Ghanaian leaders needed some motivation or encouragement that they were on the right path—as if to say that they don’t know what is happening in Ghana, but that is a subject for another write-up!

Democracy is akin to a manuscript that is always being reviewed and revised. No country needs to have a perfect system to warrant its celebration—in fact, there is no such thing as a “perfect system.” Ghanaians have a choice, though. They can go back to the days when they lived in a culture of silence. I am not sure anyone wants that. It is not Ghana’s fault that it is sandwiched by countries that have such a poor democratic record! Let’s not be cynical!

Columnist: Agboka, Godwin Yaw