Ghana Politics 101 – Elections Contextualized

On Wednesday, December 7th, Ghana will once again celebrate democratic elections.  Ghana is usually hailed as the star of Africa or Africa’s most peaceful and stable country. Since 1992, the country has enjoyed substantial levels of political peace and stability. Yet as elections approach, tensions arise and there is a sense of uncertainty in the air.

There is no dearth of skeptical Ghanaians. On many occasions, I have been told something along the lines of “Ghana is hot,”  “this time, the stakes are even higher,” or “tensions are really high.” Incidentally, often these sentences do not come from “ordinary” citizens but from people who work in the NGO, policy, or peacebuilding space. Incendiary language abounds, pundits usually cite the role of the media as concerning, and amidst accusations of stolen policies (for example, here, NPP accused NDC of stealing its policies) or electoral rigging, it is hard to discern what the actual policies are. Even international media is painting a grim picture (see this article from The Economist).

Why this skepticism? In order to understand Ghana’s current political and economic environment, one needs to contextualize it. A broader historical frame helps to avoid overestimating the strength of Ghana’s democracy but also to value the institutions, mechanisms, and people that have allowed for peace to prevail. An understanding of the political economy of the country, helps elucidate how the electoral campaign has unfolded.

Ghana’s political history

In 1957, under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah and the Convention People’s Party (CPP), Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to attain independence. Unlike the surrounding countries in the region, Ghana has not suffered widespread violence, yet the country’s political history has also been convoluted (for those interested, though, I recommend to delve even deeper; the history of the Gold Coast at large is fascinating).

Nkrumah’s rule can be divided in two periods. From 1957 to 1960 and from 1960 to February 1966. The first period was characterized by a more laissez-faire policy in the economic domain (including vis-à-vis the expatriates that dominated the economy), and a series of political measures that promoted peace and stability but also aimed at strengthening Nkrumah’s position as well as that of the CPP. Notable among these measures were the “Avoidance of Discrimination Act” that banned organizations, parties, and societies which were confined only to “particular tribal, racial, religious groups, which were used for political purposes” and the “Preventive Detention Act.” During the first period, however, these acts were not excessively used. Nkrumah, throughout his life, was also one of the main proponents of an African Union and worked actively to promote Pan-Africanism. In 1960, Nkrumah’s position shifted more toward socialism (he had always been a socialist but had not promoted it once in government) and he became increasingly more authoritative. In 1966, he was overthrown in a coup d’état that marked the beginning of two decades of alternating military and civilian rule.

Ghana experienced four successful coups d’état in a period of fifteen years. Each of the coups – 1966, 1972, 1979, and 1992 – was followed by a period of military rule that ultimately led to a peaceful transition to a Civilian Republic (there was one last failed coup in 1983).

The 1979 coup was led by a group of young officers, including Flight Lt. Jerry John Rawlings. That same year, elections were called and Ghana returned to Constitutional rule. Yet in 1981, once again, Rawlings led another successful coup; the military was not satisfied with the way in which the country was being ruled. Under his mandate, the Constitution of Ghana was suspended and political parties were banned. In 1992, Rawlings funded the NDC, the party currently in power,  the fourth republic was proclaimed, and Ghana celebrated presidential elections. Rawlings himself was elected. He was reelected again in 1996.

This history of coups d’état coexists with the presence of unresolved regional conflicts that are at times exacerbated by political parties. Conflicts are of different nature: chieftaincy, natural resources, land, borders, religious, ethnic, or a combination of any of these, yet chieftaincy-related conflicts, in which the stool is contested, are probably the most prominent ones. Additionally, chiefs are not supposed to align with any party (as law mandates) yet in many instances, they are taking sides. Political parties are sometimes tied to factions that dispute chieftaincy rights. While political parties can gain support by spurring the feuds, it seems that the quarreling groups can also use the parties to settle old disputes.

It is against this historical background that elections take place in Ghana. Elections in Ghana are also strongly influenced by the country’s demographics and its political economy.

Ghana’s Political Economy

Ghana is a middle-income country of about 28 million inhabitants. Highly heterogeneous in ethnolinguistic terms, Ghana’s growth strategy was partially based in the primary-export-led model[1] (currently, the top exports of Ghana are Crude Petroleum, Gold, Cocoa Beans, Cocoa Paste  and Cocoa Butter).[2] Its top imports are Refined Petroleum, Crude Petroleum, Gold, Rice, and Packaged Medicaments and the most recent exports are led by crude petroleum which represent 26 percent of the total exports of Ghana.[3]

Ghana’s economy grows steadily although according to Bloomberg markets, growth has slowed. Inequality levels remain extremely high, with an estimated Gini coefficient of 42,77 that keeps rising. So does unemployment. Precise data on unemployment does not exist due to the size of the informal economy, albeit it is uncontested that large swathes of youth remain unemployed (even regardless of educational achievements).

[More on Ghana’s political economy here.]

Ghana’s Contemporary Politics

Ghana is a multiparty democracy but there are two main parties that can realistically win the elections. The National Democratic Council is currently in power, with John Mahama Dramani as president. Nana Akuffo-Ado, of the National Patriotic Front, is his main opponent.

The NPP was in power from 2001 to 2008. Nana Akufo-Addo was the NPP’s runner up in the 2008 election and he run again in 2012. John Dramani Mahama took office in July 2012 following the death of his predecessor and he was elected to office shortly after, in the December 2012 elections. The NPP contested the results of the 2012 election before the Supreme Court. The appeal created tensions but in the end Nana Akkufo-Ado made a statement accepting the Court’s ruling in favor of Mahama and congratulated the president.

Now, in 2016, the same two men contest the election. Looming over this election is a sense of “a president’s right to a second term.” Over the course of the fourth republic, all presidents have been reelected and it appears that Mahama feels entitled to the same. That notion is strongly influencing this election as well, but people are also tired of the pervasive corruption and the palpable inequality.

How different are both parties and their policies? Reality is that they are both center-right parties with rather vague and sometimes unrealistic policies. One of the parties has promised “one district, one dam.” The manifestos include provisions such as “manage the economy competently” and they are rife of attacks against the other major political party and the respective leaders.

The elections are very tight and so far it is impossible to predict who will win. In the next few days, we will know the results. The conduct of the elections is relevant first and foremost to Ghanaians, but also to the rest of the continent and the world. In light of the events in Gabon, expectation over results in Ghana is even higher. Fortunately, the most recent election in the continent, that of Gambia, resulted in the incumbent admitting defeat and conceding the election. Whatever occurs in Ghana, the country has the advantage of having strong institutions and devoted citizens who are committing themselves to a peaceful election. The National Peace Council, the West African Network for Peace, the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center, among others, are just a few examples.


[1] Attah K. Boame, “Primary-Export-Led Growth: The Evidence of Ghana,” Journal of Economic Development (1998), 175.

[2] The discovery of oil in commercial quantitites, however, did not take place until 2007. For more on Ghana’s oil management see Ransford Edward Van Gyampo, “Saving Ghana from Its Oil: A Critical Assessment of Preparations Made so Far,” Africa Today 57 (2011), 49-69 and Kwamina Panford, “The Academy and The Successful Management of Ghana’s Petroleum Resources,” Africa Today 61 (2014), 79-107.

[3] Ibid.

Other readings:

Clementina Amankwaah. “Election-Related Violence: The Case of Ghana.” Current African Issues 56 (2013).


Africa is a Country. “All you need to know about Ghana’s December 7, 2016 elections.”

Report of the Commonwealth Observer Group. “Ghana Presidential and Parliamentary Elecitions.” (2012).

Anything by historians Adu Boahene and Naomi Chazan

Black, Feminist, Queer, Transgender, Gender non-conforming

“The revolution is black, female, queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming”

– Lhola Amira

Accra is evolving at a fast-pace. Recently named Africa’s capital of cool by the New York Times, the unremitting music (and radio) is joined by a bursting art scene. What characterizes the art scene in this city, however, is its markedly political character. Art is imagined to elicit discussion and it does so in different forms. At Chale Wote – an art festival that should not be missed – artists displayed paintings that called for respect for people with disabilities or screamed #blacklivesmatter (literally). The Accra Theater Workshop put together a play – An African Walks into a Voting Booth – in which artists performed six sketches that satirized Ghanaian elections. The sketches were followed by a debate on the political situation in the country and the director, Efua Sutherland, encouraged both the elder and the youth present in the room to exchange opinions and ideas.

Most recently, Lhola Amira, in collaboration with The Studio Accra, presented “Looking for Ghana & The Red Suitcase.” The performance took place in a white room decorated with underwear hanging from the ceiling, a table in which the artist had her computer, wine, a cutting board with onions, and her notebooks. Amira, who calls herself an utopianist despite a world that remains anti-black and anti-women, read excerpts that were her own as well as texts from others who had resonated with her, yet most of the evening consisted of debate, discussions in which the public expressed their views on what Africa is and what is in it.

Afropolitanism, Afrofuturism, the decolonization agenda, formalized versus honorary people’s knowledge, and the role of education, among many other issues, were discussed. To some, being African was presented as contrary to being Westernized and recovering traditional, “authentic” practices (what is authentic, however, remains unclear); to others, “my Africa is not the Africa in which you must eat fufu and wear kente.” It meant pushing to create local products and stories, “taking pride in what we have,” changing perceptions, and taking back the narrative.

“The idea of these underwear is that you take one and write your heart’s desire. One day, I’ll wear them and give birth to them. I will give birth to your dreams”


To manifest Revolutionary LOVE | A continental working class movement | To truly not give a fuck about nonsense

Across the different artistic expressions that I have witnessed, some themes reoccur with persistence. Firstly, the need to take the narrative back, to construct a system in African terms (sometimes, pan-African terms). Tied to these theme, is the notion of self-pride and self-worth. As Amira put it, currently there is no space to exist as radical self-loving beings.

The third and less obvious theme is the notion of art as “a class thing.” Albeit this is a concern brought up during Amira’s performance, it was less evident but still obvious in the rest. Art has the potential to contribute greatly to social justice – it can be a means to increase self-worth, trigger needed conversations, expose injustices, and advance great causes – but how to do this in a way that reaches all layers of society (or has an impact for all of them) and not just the highly educated elites?

Most of the questions posed remain unanswered and many of the opinions were rapidly contested or build on, yet the fact that these spaces exist demonstrates the wealth in Accra, Ghana, the continent. I am not speaking in terms of material wealth; the wealth resides in the willingness of the youth to engage in dialogue, use art to contest the status quo, and work hard to extend their conversations beyond their own milieu. The revolution will be intergenerational, interclass, feminist, and may I add, for people with different abilities.

“We need to find ways to deconstruct the system and come in plurals. Collaborate.”



This is Priscilla. She is 17 years old, she has just finished high school, and she comes from the north – the poorest region in Ghana – where her mother lives. She now lives with her father in Accra. I was on a run in Legon when she stopped me. She asked me, “do you want to be my friend? The reason why I called you is because I dreamt that I had a white human friend.” Race is a construct, “not an indubitable feature of the world” in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates. But it is one hell of a construct with palpable and far-reaching implications. In this case, as often is, “white” is full of meaning and connotations. I am the white. The privileged one who works (and runs) at possibly one of the most expensive universities on the continent. She is the northern Ghanaian, who doesn’t know what she’ll do now that she has finished high school.

Language, in its full performative function, is revealing. Her use of the word white unmasks the powerful discursive system that evinces the reality of the hegemony of one type of person over the other. That is why I found the juxtaposition with the word human instead of woman, girlfriend, or Oburoni – other structuring categorizations that I was expecting – so fascinating. We are all humans but we are not yet all equal #blacklivesmatter #girlsmatter #Accra#ghana #race #africa